Apparently, she and Groucho conspired to spread the myth that she didn’t get the jokes. It was considerably more accurate to say that she was so talented an actress that she was able to project an image of not getting the joke, which is more impressive. She was a large, stately presence in the movies, and they almost certainly wouldn’t have worked without her. Groucho himself was the one who referred to her as practically the fifth Marx Brother. (Gummo, the fourth-born of the five who lived to adulthood, was part of the act until he was drafted into World War I and isn’t considered part of the act by most people.) She called him Julie, because his birth name was Julius.
She had started on the stage as a teenager, both as an opera singer and a music hall performer. In 1910, at age 28, she married sugar heir John Moller Jr. and planned to retire from the stage—except a minor performance as an aristocrat in the silent 1917 A Tale of Two Cities, her first film role. Unfortunately, he died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. She had no children, and possibly she needed the money (Wikipedia doesn’t say), and she returned to acting. Her first performance with the Brothers was in the 1925 stage version of The Cocoanuts, and her career was made.
People cite Groucho’s own words about her as not getting the jokes as proof that she didn’t, but I’m not sure why he should necessarily be considered reliable in that department. She herself only gave one interview where she said she got the jokes, but she was quite clear about it at the time. “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.” Further, there is an episode of the variety show The Hollywood Palace wherein she is on film laughing at Groucho’s jokes, which seems pretty definitive to me.
Part of the issue, I suppose, is that bit from the Simpsons episode wherein Krusty insists that the essence of humour is sticking it to the dignity of someone. If Margaret Dumont didn’t get the jokes, it’s not just roles written for characters. It’s not Mr. Hammer and Mrs. Potter. It’s not Mrs. Teasdale and Rufus T. Firefly. It really is Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx, and to some people, that’s just funnier. It isn’t to me, but some people think it is. So whatever.
If it is true that she got the jokes, and I think the evidence suggests that it is, she’s possibly one of the best actresses in film history. Not laughing when you want to laugh? That’s hard, and she was remarkably good at it. I suppose it’s possible that she just rehearsed enough to wear the laughs out of herself, but who knows? It’s still a lot of work, and it’s still an impressive performance on her part. One that gets underrated by the idea that she just didn’t get the jokes.
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