Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Not the Dummy

My dears, I have reached the pinnacle of my theatrical career. In October, I shall tread the local boards in the footsteps of the most beautiful, most elegant, most self-possessed woman ever to grace stage or screen. I give you my comedic hero, the finest straight woman in the history of straight women:

Margaret Dumont. Doesn't the name alone make your heart thrill? She was born Daisy Baker in Brooklyn, trained in theater and opera, and toured in America and in Europe. In 1910, at age 28, she married a sugar millionaire and retired from the stage.

Eight years later her husband died in the flu pandemic after World War I, and Dumont, childless, returned to the stage to play a new persona, the dowager.

After working on stage with the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, she went on to make seven movies with the crew. Groucho, who was simply unable to turn it off in real life, played up the image of Dumont as being able to keep a straight face because she didn't get the jokes. Dumont, however, was a seasoned veteran, and knew exactly what she was doing when the gags were flying at her head. She explained her technique thusly:
"Scriptwriters build up to a laugh, but they don't allow any pause for it. That's where I come in. I ad lib—it doesn't matter what I say—just to kill a few seconds so you can enjoy the gag. I have to sense when the big laughs will come and fill in, or the audience will drown out the next gag with its own laughter... I'm not a stooge, I'm a straight lady. There's an art to playing straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him."
And even Groucho, Jerk-In-Chief, hailed Dumont as "the fifth Marx Brother".

If you're in Central Ohio in October, come see Animal Crackers. Various Darwins will be representing: Eleanor as Zeppo, Julia as Mary, the sweet young thing, and moi as Mrs. Rittenhouse. But I'll really be playing Margaret Dumont.

On Dumont in Duck Soup:
Dumont was indeed formidable. The comedic duo of wise guy vs straight woman is almost necessarily imbalanced, the straight woman (or man) getting less attention than the jokester. But Dumont subtly upset that power balance with her generous acting style. She may have been the slightly more glamorous cousin of the battleaxe archetype, but she was also warm, charming, delightful, befuddled, naive and, most of all, humane. She feeds the Brothers straight lines, reacts to every syllable, sputters and sings and plays the fool, no questions asked, while still commanding attention and respect, affection, even desire — no mean feat for the only woman in a group of hyperactive manchildren willing to do anything for attention. She appeared in half of the Marx Bros. films, and in the other half, her absence always resulted in hundreds of letters to studios asking why she had been left out.

1 comment:

CMinor said...

Here hee! Wish I could see this!