4/22/20: Favorite Foils

by Fred Muenz

On stage and in films, a foil is a character whose physical appearance, mannerisms or attitude contrasts or compliments another character; Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Abbot to Costello, Laurel to Hardy, Martin to Lewis and, of course, Sig Ruman and Margaret Dumont to The Marx Brothers.

A wonderfully talented actor, capable of playing any role from the comedic to the dramatic, Siegfried Carl Alban Rumann, aka Sig Ruman, was born in Hamburg, Germany in October, 1884. Although he studied electrical engineering in college, he returned to Hamburg after graduation to become an actor. Over the next decade, he appeared in scores of stage roles, working his way up from bit parts to leading roles. After World War I service with the Imperial German Army, he returned to the stage, but found that conditions in Germany were desperate. Finally, in 1924, he emigrated to the U.S., settling in New York, where he found work appearing in German-language stage plays. He soon became friendly with playwright George S. Kaufman and critic Alexander Woolcott. These friendships led to many high-quality Broadway roles. With the coming of talkies, he made the transition to films and soon became a favorite foil of The Marx Brothers, being victimized by them in such classics as A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935), A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) and A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA (1937). During World War II, his accent and large stature kept him busy playing sinister Nazi characters. Although he appeared in over 100 films and scores of TV shows, he is perhaps best remembered for his role as the seemingly good-natured, but really two-faced POW guard, Sgt. Schultz, in Billy Wilder’s classic film STALAG 17 (1953). In declining health for the last two decades of his life, he continued to work until suffering a fatal heart attack in February, 1967, at age 82.

Referred to by Groucho Marx as “practically the fifth Marx Brother”, Daisy Juliette Baker, aka Margaret Dumont, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in October, 1882. As a child, she lived in the South, where she was raised by her godfather, Joel Chandler Harris, writer and folklorist best known for his Uncle Remus stories. Trained as an actress and opera singer while still in her teens, she made her first stage appearance as part of a vaudeville act in Philadelphia, in 1902. Over the following years, she became well-known as an outstanding musical comedy talent. In 1910, Margaret married millionaire industrialist and sugar heir, John Moller Jr., and left show business to become the wealthy high-society matron she later portrayed so successfully on film. After her husband’s sudden death during the influenza pandemic of 1918, she returned to the stage, this time to Broadway, where she was soon noticed by George S. Kaufman, who hired her to play alongside The Marx Brothers in the stage versions of THE COCOANUTS (1925) and later AMIMAL CRACKERS (1928). In 1929, she was signed to a Paramount Pictures contract to reprise her role when THE COCOANUTS became the first true talking picture. While Margaret Dumont always considered herself a serious actress, she is best remembered as the butt of endless jokes and gags through seven Marx Brothers films, as well as playing the foil for W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton, Jack Benny and even Gabby Hayes. Margaret Dumont died of a heart attack in March, 1965, just eight days after a TV appearance with her dear friend, Groucho Marx. She was 82.

NEXT WEEK, ANOTHER STORY FROM SILVER SCREEN MEMORIES.

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