Movie Stars and Gossip
With movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat killing it at the box offices and Tina Fey’s memoirs topping the bestseller lists, it seems that the boy’s club of comedy has finally dropped their “no girls allowed” rule. But as a handful of funny women get their time in the limelight, a whole host of comediennes seem to languish under the surface, like an iceberg. An iceberg of women. (It’s a weird metaphor, but roll with me here.)
It’s time to dig beyond the frigid peak of Amy Poehler to find the icy hidden treasures of female comedy. Which is good, because this iceberg metaphor isn’t really going to hold much longer.
“Who the hell is Margaret Dumont?” you’re probably thinking. That’s fair, this is an article about the unsung heroines of comedy, after all. Margaret Dumont was the woman who was the straight man (woman?) to all of the Marx Brothers’ antics, on stage and on screen.
On the other hand, if you’re now wondering, “Who the hell were the Marx Brothers?” you’re reading the wrong article.
Dumont, after an earlier career in opera and stage, ultimately became the Marx Brothers’ go-to straight woman. While the stories altered slightly, invariably she was a wealthy dowager who had the money which Groucho so desperately needed. Dumont appeared totally naive and oblivious to Groucho’s double entendres and backhanded compliments, not only in stage musicals and movies, but in real life. For years critics and film historians assumed Dumont was as clueless as her characters.
In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. That period of time before she got with the brothers Marx? She had starred in several comedy musicals of her own, developing her chops and becoming quite good at it. Dumont knew from funny. She just had the composure to act like she didn’t. So central was she to the brothers’ success that Groucho mentioned her in a short list of thanks (alongside Chico, Harpo, his mother, and his secretary/girlfriend) when he was awarded an honorary Oscar; he even referred to her as “the fifth Marx brother” on more than one occasion. Without a straight woman as capable as Dumont, the Marx Brothers could never have been the comedy legends they are today, yet no young wisecrackers ever did a take on Margaret Dumont to get a laugh.
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