HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE: THE GRAMMAR GIRLS

Speaking of distinctive actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age, we turn from glamour girls (in my previous post) to a group of gals who made up in individuality what they lacked in allure. There were perhaps no actresses more unique and unforgettable in any category than the so-called character actors. Bring up such names as Margaret Hamilton, Marjorie Main, and Margaret Dumont (apart from their photos) to any classic film buff, and there’d be no problem matching which name belongs with which (or witch) face; same with their immediately recognizable voices. In a manner of speaking, they were vocal gold.

BTW, I have something in common with That Hamilton Woman. Like my wife, she was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and was once a teacher….but unlike my wife, she was unlike my wife (and vice versa….or is it verse vica).

Character actresses may not be leading ladies, but there’s one who was always the Main attraction :

My last post started with a birthday girl; this post ends with one….and what a one: Margaret Dumont (born Oct. 20, 1882), the gloriously inimitable foil of Groucho in nine of the Marx Brothers’ thirteen films, as typified by the following story.

In a play in which she played Mrs. Rittenhouse (and which was later made into an early Marx Brothers film), the brothers abandoned the script during one performance and began improvising scene after scene….from here, I quote from the book THE MARX BROTHERS AT THE MOVIES:

After some time she decided to take her chances and enter in the middle of it all. At that moment, Chico and Harpo simply walked off the stage, leaving the great dowager face-to-face with Groucho. So Groucho, with his characteristic speed of mind, gestured to a nearby divan. “Ah, Mrs. Rittenhouse,” he proclaimed. “Won’t you…er…lie down?” It had gotten a laugh on Broadway, so the brothers simply took it with them when they traveled to the Astoria studio [to make movies].

There’s a scene in my favorite Marx Brothers movie, DUCK SOUP, in which Dumont’s character addresses Groucho’s character, Rufus T. Firefly, President of Fredonia, as “Your Excellency!”…to which he replies, “You’re not so bad yourself.”
To which I can but add, You Bet Your Life!

A PAST OF CHARACTERS

For some time, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post on one-of-a-kind character actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, most of them long forgotten except to old film buffs like myself. There are familiar exceptions, of course — non-starring actors who appeared in classic films which continue to be shown today, such as Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ) and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (Ugarte/Joel Cairo and the fat man, respectively, in CASABLANCA and THE MALTESE FALCON). But today I want to focus on the rule, not the well-remembered exceptions.

It was while researching April 5th birthdays for notables born on this date (and finding the likes of Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis and Gregory Peck) that I saw among them a long forgotten character actor whose name (Grady Sutton, born 4/5/1906) rang a bell….so I decided to do such a post today and include him among those I pay tribute to. To make it a bit (player) more interesting, I’ll list six names, followed by clips (not in the same order) of scenes in which they separately appear. Can you spot one of the six in each clip?

1. Eric Blore
2. Margaret Dumont
3. James Finlayson
4. Billy Gilbert
5. Hattie McDaniel
6. Grady Sutton

a. 

b.

c.

d.

e.

f.

How many could you identify? Hint: the names match the clips in reverse order; e.g.,
1. Eric Blore is the British valet being “summoned” in “f.” For more on Blore, click here:
Eric Blore: What a Character!

2. Margaret Dumont (clip “e”) should pose no recognition problem for Marx Brothers fans. For those who aren’t Marxists, mark this: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0241669/bio

3. James Finlayson (clip “d”) should pose no recognition problem for Laurel & Hardy fans. When you can’t imagine any other actor in his L & H roles, you know he was truly unique: http://www.wayoutwest.org/finlayson/

4. Billy Gilbert is the man (Pettibone) in the middle in this clip (“c”) from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). Like Finlayson and Dumont, another one-of-a-kinder: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0317970/

5. Hattie McDaniel (clip “b”) plays Aunt Tempy and sings “Sooner or Later” opposite James Baskett (as Uncle Remus) in this scene from Walt Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946). Best known role: Mammy, in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939): http://www.biography.com/people/hattie-mcdaniel-38433

6. Grady Sutton (clip “a”) plays new assistant (Chester) to W.C. Fields in this scene from YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939). He was also a Fields foil in MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935) and THE BANK DICK (1940).

Yes, my friends, there were great character actors in the land of make-believe in those days. If some were but “bit” players, they made their small parts singularly indispensable. We shall not see their like again.

STRAIGHT WOMAN, WITH CHASER

Today marks (or should I say, Marx) the 133rd birthday of my favorite comedic character actress of all time — a woman so well preserved that she doesn’t look a day over 1933, when she appeared as Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, or 1935, as Mrs. Claypool….not to mention 1929 (Mrs. Potter), 1930 (Mrs. Rittenhouse), 1937 (Emily Upjohn), 1939 (Suzanne Dukesberry), or 1941 (Martha Phelps).

Yes, thanks to that most wondrous of preservatives called celluloid, those larger-than-life ladies, played by and fka (forever known as) the wonderful Margaret Dumont, live on in blessed memory in two of the funniest films ever made: DUCK SOUP (1933) and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)….as well as in such other Marx Brothers mayhem as THE COCOANUTS (1929), ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930), A DAY AT THE RACES (1937), AT THE CIRCUS (1939), and THE BIG STORE (1941).

“Who was Margaret Dumont?” asks Roy Blount Jr. in his book HAIL, HAIL EUPHORIA! Presenting THE MARX BROTHERS IN DUCK SOUP, THE GREATEST WAR MOVIE EVER MADE. “From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, I got the impression that she grew up in Atlanta in the home of her godfather, Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories. Even though a descendant of Harris assured me that this wasn’t true, I want to believe it because I like to imagine B’rer Rabbit and Margaret Dumont doing a scene together.”

“But no. Margaret Dumont was born Daisy Baker in Brooklyn, New York, in 1882. Her father was an Irish seaman, her mother a French vocalist. Daisy became a showgirl. In 1915 she married an heir to a sugar fortune. In 1918 he died. She was presumably not left as well off as Mrs. Teasdale [Groucho’s  straight woman in DUCK SOUP] because she went right back to work.”

Which brings us to the reel Margaret Dumont, the indispensable straight woman/comedic foil to Groucho’s lecherous leerings who (quoting Wikipedia) “played wealthy high-society, posh-voiced widows whom Groucho alternately insulted and romanced for their money.” Never has an actress been more perfectly typecast….as evidenced by these scenes:

HAIL, HAIL EUPHORIA is, of course, a play on HAIL, HAIL FREDONIA, Fredonia’s satirical national anthem in DUCK SOUP, with Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly and Margaret as Mrs. Teasdale:

HAIL, HAIL MARGARET DUMONT! RIP.