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OBITUARY: Esther Muir

In A Day at the Races (1937), the villains seek to discredit Dr Hugo Z. Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) in the eyes of his adoring patroness Mrs Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) by arranging for her to discover him in the arms of another woman. The siren chosen for this entrapment is a statuesque blonde called Flo Marlowe (Esther Muir), who coolly assures the head villain, "Don't worry, Toots - when you knock on the door, I'll have that moth- eaten Romeo playing the balcony scene!"

Flo's confidence is misplaced; by the end of her tryst, she's been verbally abused by Groucho ("Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!" "Well, it's early yet"), physically abused by Harpo and Chico, stuffed into a couch and sat on, had face-powder blown all over her, and wallpaper slapped on to her retreating posterior.

Although Races is the film for which Esther Muir is best remembered, she made over 70 features and comedy two-reelers during her 11-year Hollywood career, appearing with such stars as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor, Lionel and John Barrymore, William Powell, Melvyn Douglas, Wallace Beery, George Raft, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

With no training other than in high-school plays, Esther Muir was cast in the Broadway revue The Greenwich Village Follies of 1922, her performance leading to roles in the musical comedies Battling Butler (1923), Queen High, Honeymoon Lane (both 1926) and Lady Fingers (1929). After a triumph in the play My Girl Friday (1929), she returned to the musical theatre in Lew Leslie's International Revue (1930), which ran for only 95 performances, despite such co-artists as Gertrude Lawrence, Harry Richman and Anton Dolin, and such Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh songs as "Exactly Like You" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street".

Contributing dances to the International Revue was the choreographer Busby Berkeley. He and Muir were married and went to Hollywood after he was signed to direct the musical numbers in Samuel Goldwyn's Whoopee (1930). The marriage was short-lived and she turned to the screen to support herself, making her film debut in the Buster Keaton comedy Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1932). She also played comic foil to Fannie Brice in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), to Wheeler and Woolsey in So This is Africa (1933) and On Again - Off Again (1937) and to Andy Clyde in a series of two-reelers (1932- 33).

Because she eschewed long-term studio contracts, Muir made far more films as a freelance than most players. Generally, she played leading roles in such "B" features as Western Jamboree (1938), Misbehaving Husbands (1940) and Stolen Paradise (1941), whereas the size of her roles in the "A" features The Gilded Lily, Fury (both 1936) and Honky Tonk (1941) can be guessed by the credit titles, which tell us she played respectively: "Divorcee", "Girl in Nightclub" and "Blonde on Train".

By the end of the 1930s, her career began to lose much of its momentum; she had become increasingly disenchanted after losing the role of Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind (1939) to Ona Munson. In 1943, after the birth of her daughter Jaqualine, she retired from the screen. Five years later, her 15-year marriage to the songwriter Sam Coslow ended, and in 1952 she contracted polio. After an intensive period of therapy, she made such a dramatic recovery that she was able to begin a new career - in real estate. Until her retirement in the 1970s, Esther Muir supervised the construction of hundreds of new homes.

Dick Vosburgh

Esther Muir, actress: born Andes, New York 11 March 1903; married 1930 Busby Berkeley (marriage dissolved 1931), 1933 Sam Coslow (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1948); died Mount Kisco, New York 1 August 1995.