Beauty, Vitality and Truth
By Ed Garea and J Michael Kenyon
Aline MacMahon began as one of the great feisty, wisecracking dames in the Warner Brothers repertoire company, but the length of her career proved the depth of her talent – both on stage and the screen. Her forte was playing the ”character lead,” and this exceptional versatility allowed her to cross the boundaries from drama to comedy and back again with almost no effort, making herself believable and noticeable in whatever she undertook. She had what we call “intellectual beauty.” in that one could see the intelligence behind the beauty of the face. Though her looks were considered outside the Hollywood ideal, these same striking and melancholy looks caught the eye of both sculptor Isamu Noguchi and photographer Cecil Beaton, who immortalized them, respectively, in marble (“Beauty and Vitality and Truth”) and photography.
She appeared with the best Warner Brothers had to offer in the ‘30s, and when time demanded she move to lower-billed supporting parts in films, she responded with solid performances, one of which, in Dragon Seed (1944) earned her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. When not on the screen, she went back to Broadway, where she first made her reputation.
She was born Aline Laveen MacMahon on May 3, 1899, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Of Irish/English/Russian ancestry, her father, William Marcus MacMahon, was the editor of Munsey’s Magazine, a pulp fiction monthly that eventually merged with Argosy Magazine in 1929. Her mother, Jennie Simon MacMahon, was content to be a homemaker until the age of 53, when she ventured into acting, reportedly at her daughter’s urging. After the family moved to Brooklyn (probably after MacMahon became editor of Munsey’s), Aline attended Erasmus Hall and graduated from Barnard in 1920, afterward training at the The Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan. She made her formal bow on Broadway in 1921, appearing in The Mirage. Her Broadway career then took off, first, as a comedienne specializing in impersonations, notably The Grand Street Follies (1922, described as “A Low-Brow Show for High-Grade Morons”), and Artists and Models (1925).
By 1926, she moved to dramatic roles, impressing as Ruth Atkins in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1926). Her performance attracted the attention of both Alexander Woolcott and Noel Coward. Woolcott said she acted “with extraordinary beauty and vitality and truth,” while Coward found her “astonishing, moving and beautiful.”
She married architect Clarence S. Stein in 1928, after a long courtship. Stein was a proponent of the “garden city” concept of urban planning, using “greenbelts” to break up congestion in city neighborhoods. Along with colleague and friend Lewis Mumford, Stein spearheaded the movement for more livable cities, was credited with planning Radburn (now part of Fair Lawn), New Jersey, and with helping to design Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, New York.
Aline answered Hollywood’s siren call and arrived in Los Angeles in 1931. Universal had acquired the rights to Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s satirical play, Once in a Lifetime. It was about the effects talking pictures were having on the entertainment industry. Hired to play the role of wisecracking diction teacher May Daniels, she found that delays were plaguing the film. To fill in the idle time, MacMahon played the role of Daniels in a 1931 Los Angeles stage production.
Talent scouts for Warner Brothers spotted her, and she was signed for the film Five Star Final, one of the darkest movies ever made about newspaper life. She made a good impression as editor Edward G. Robinson’s secretary and was rewarded in typical Warners’ style with the terrible The Heart of New York (1932), about a hapless inventor; The Mouthpiece (1932), where she plays shyster Warren William’s secretary, and as loser Roscoe Karns’ wife in the wild comedy Week-End Marriage (1932).
Things did begin to get better that year, as she received good notices for her performance as compassionate nurse Miss Bowers in Life Begins, a con artist whose performance steals the Kleenex-heavy William Powell-Kay Francis starrer, One Way Passage, and her sympathetic portrayal as the put-upon first wife of mogul Robinson in Silver Dollar. Yes, she finally was able to bring the role of May Daniels to the screen as Universal finally filmed Once in a Lifetime. However, the film died quickly at the box office.
Part of the reason things may have improved was because she stood her ground, adamantly, against the studio. This came about as a result of her refusal, pre-Code, to participate in a bedroom scene with William and a couple of other girls. The scene made it into the picture – but not with MacMahon in it. Warners sued her for $25,000, largely, it was thought, to send a warning to other actors who might consider similar "disobedience." But when MacMahon stood her ground, Warners chose not to follow through with the litigation.
Screen audiences next saw Aline as chorus girl Trixie Lorraine in Gold Diggers of 1933. In it, she shares an apartment with fellow chorines Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, with the ladies on the lookout for casting calls and rich older men. Joan and Aline eventually hone in on the gullible Guy Kibbee and William, pompous bankers trying to save William’s brother (Dick Powell) from backing a show and marrying Keeler. Aline had the best lines in the movie: upon awakening, she tells roommates Joan and Ruby to “excuse me while I fix up the old sex appeal. The way I feel this morning I’ll need a steam shovel.” Later, when Powell threatens to walk out on the show, Aline tells him forthrightly his walking out would mean the show’s closing and a lot of girls would be forced to do things that, frankly, she “wouldn’t want on my conscience.”
She was top-billed in 1934’s Babbitt as Myra Babbitt, the long-suffering wife of George (Kibbee) and MGM’s Kind Lady (1935), but as the decade went on, the starring roles gave way to supporting characters, and only in the Bs would she be given star status. It was said that Warners built her career as a “character leading lady” and studio publicity insisted MacMahon preferred her supporting parts. Perhaps the studio mistook her professionalism for docility; no actor or actress would prefer a supporting part to stardom, no matter what the vehicle, and in an interview in the ‘70s, MacMahon confirmed that very point.
Though her roles in the ‘40s continued the trend of supporting roles, she was nominated for her performance as the Chinese mother of Katharine Hepburn’s Jade Tan in Dragon Seed. What was interesting was that MacMahon had sought to play the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth, a role that ultimately went to Luise Rainer. Her other notable role was as Mrs. Murray, the careworn, compassionate volunteer in The Search, who, with Montgomery Clift, tries to help Czech youngster Ivan Jandl find his mother in post-war Berlin. Her performance was matter-of-fact, economical (no unnecessary gestures or stage business) and precise. She hints at, rather than shows, the well of emotion hidden beneath the surface as she helps Clift, Jandl and the mother, Jarmila Novotna, in their quests. It’s a performance one can overlook at first, as the scenes between Clift with the boy and his mother are the centerpieces of the film, but as time goes on, her performance begins to stand out on its own. It so stuck with me (Ed) after I had seen it in college that when I noticed it was being shown on TCM years ago, I stayed up to catch it (my VCR was broken) and I was not disappointed in my memory.
Aline also stood out in Anthony Mann’s 1955 Western, The Man From Laramie, plot of which is the battle between Cavalry captain James Stewart with rancher Donald Crisp and his psycho son, Alex Nichol, over illegal sales of guns to the Apaches. As Kate Canaday, a rancher formerly engaged to rancher Alec Waggoman (Crisp), but now at odds with him, she gives Kate’s character real depth, noted by a review in Variety as “a socko portrayal of a tough old rancher.”
But after these triumphs, Aline and husband found themselves in trouble with the thought police of Congress and found themselves on something called a “graylist.” To be sure, the graylist was not the blacklist, which prohibited the hiring of the people listed on it. People were graylisted, largely, for supporting people who were either blacklisted or targets of HUAC. What precipitated this move for Aline and Clarence to the graylist is unclear, but to quote Gore Vidal: “Not only do our governors always know what’s best for us, they never let up.” Whatever, Aline found she was no longer employable in anything but B films, and from 1955 to 1960, when the prohibitions were finally lifted, there was no movie work to be had. Fortunately, she had her Broadway experience and also took on live television work, where the restrictions weren’t as strictly enforced. She finally returned to the big screen in 1960 in Anthony Mann’s Cimarron, with 12th billing as Mrs. Mavis Pegler. Critics then singled out her work as Aunt Hannah in Paramount’s 1963 drama All the Way Home for praise.
It would be her last Hollywood movie. She performed as a guest on various television shows and in a TV movie, For the Use of the Hall, a filmed adaptation of Oliver Hailey’s play, for the Broadway Theater Archive. She also worked for New York’s Lincoln Repertory Theatre and appeared in several distinguished productions until completely retiring in 1975. Her remaining years saw her devoted to various theatrical charities. In 1991, having survived her husband by 17 years and her mother by only six years, MacMahon succumbed to pneumonia, age 92. We should count ourselves fortunate that at least we have a considerable record of this amazing actress preserved on celluloid.
A Little Trivia: Aline’s mother, Jennie Simon, began her acting career at the age of 53 after the death of her husband. Encouraged by her daughter, Jennie worked mostly on stage, but performed in four unbilled parts for MGM, one (Tish, 1942) starring Aline. All four films were directed by S. Sylvan Simon, Jennie’s nephew and Aline’s cousin.
The Essential Aline MacMahon:
Five Star Final (WB, 1931), Gold Diggers of 1933 (WB, 1933), Heroes For Sale (WB, 1933), The Life of Jimmy Dolan (WB, 1933), Heat Lightning (WB, 1934), Babbitt (WB, 1934), Kind Lady (MGM, 1935), Dragon Seed (MGM, 1944), The Search (MGM, 1948), The Flame and the Arrow (WB, 1950), The Man From Laramie (Columbia, 1955), Cimarron (MGM, 1960), All The Way Home (Paramount, 1963), For The Use of The Hall (PBS, 1975).