The great film critic and historian David Shipman described actress Aline MacMahon as “not really suitable star material. She was too tall, a little ungainly; her features – her mouth, her eyes – were too big for classical beauty.” Nevertheless, Hollywood has its own set of judgements as to what is beautiful, and this immigrant daughter of Irish and Russian stock could have been a movie star if it interested her. It didn’t; good acting in good roles was all she cared about, and she carved out a successful career as a dependable supporting player.
She was born in Pennsylvania in 1899. Her mother, Jennie was from Russia and her father, William Marcus was an Irish-American whose people came from Monaghan. Her mother was a stage actress and her father became editor of Munsey’s Magazine. Aline was probably destined for some sort of fame: she was educated at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, which has produced notable alumni Barbara Stanwyck, Barbra Streisand, Mae West, Neil Diamond and Bobby Fischer. She took up acting at Barnard College, and after graduating worked on Broadway.
For several years she got steady work and good notices . In 1930 Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the leading satirists of Broadway, wrote a comedy, “Once in a Lifetime”, about havoc that the coming of talkies was wreaking on the careers of silent stars of the silver screen. MacMahon played a jaded actress who has to teach silent stars good diction. For some this was no laughing matter: many silent movie actors couldn’t find work after the arrival of sound, either because their speaking voices were too grating or simply unintelligible (an awful lot of silent stars were Europeans who could barely speak English).
“Once in a Lifetime” was eventually made into a film in 1933 with MacMahon repeating her stage-role. Her performance was hailed by one critic as “the best acting of the picture – a customary occurrence in the films in which Miss MacMahon appears.” By then she was a Hollywood veteran; she had appeared with the likes of Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson and Warren William. Handed supporting roles in melodramas and comedies (wisecracking secretaries, long-suffering wives) she would have no doubt become a bigger star if she had chosen to stay in Hollywood full-time. But her husband, architect Clarence S. Stein, worked in New York, and she restricted the number of films she made each year to be with him in Manhattan.
Most studios would have given the heave-ho to a starlet who turned down an offer of stardom, but Warner Bros. – and later MGM – were more than happy to accommodate her (she was popular with audiences). She was the best thing in the Busby Berkeley backstage musical Gold Diggers of 1933 and received high praise for her starring role in Heat Lightning. It’s about two sisters running a gas station in the desert who long for excitement and who get more than they bargained for when they tangle with bank robbers on the run. If that sounds ridiculous to you, you haven’t seen enough thirties melodramas.
In Gold Diggers of 1933 she nabs Guy Kibbee. She made five more films with him, usually as his wife, including Babbitt (from the Sinclair Lewis novel).
She loved acting with Kibbee but got tired of playing essentially the same role. She left Warners and moved to MGM, where she had the thrill – or hell, according to some – of working with Joan Crawford. She followed that with turns opposite beefy salt of the earth Wallace Beery and snide villain Basil Rathbone. MGM considered her for The Good Earth; when she didn’t get the part, she decided to visit China, where she saw the reality that Hollywood could only create on a back lot with white actors in ‘slant eye’ makeup.
For the next few years she appeared on stage more and more, and in movies less and less. She was back to playing wives and secretaries again, and now that she was older, mothers and spinster aunts. Having missed out on playing a Chinese in one Pearl S. Buck adaptation, in 1944 she played one in another, Dragon Seed. Perhaps her experience in China helped her performance because she was nominated for an Oscar.
Then in 1948 she appeared with Montgomery Clift in The Search, directed by Fred Zinneman, about an American soldier who looks after an orphan in post-war Germany.
Shot in a vivid documentary style, the film stands out as one of the best of the 1940s (it rarely shows up on TV for some reason), and MacMahon’s performance as the weary director of a centre for refugees got her the best reviews of her career. Pauline Kael, who seldom praised anything without a catch, simply hailed her “radiating motherly warmth”. Sight and Sound praised her for her nobility and “native sagacity”. Audiences loved it.
After that, MacMahon’s continued to act on stage, but her film roles were few and far between, and not very memorable. She plays Eddie Cantor’s grandmother in his life-story. She appeared in small roles in the excellent The Man from Laramie and the rather awful Cimarron.
She did well with a small part as Judy Garland’s dresser in I Could Go On Singing, a film recommended for Garland-completists only; Kael described it simply as “dreadful, but fascinating…the sort of movie that is usually made about a performer long after the events, and with someone else playing the lead.”
MacMahon continued to act on stage and in television. Her final role was a taped stage production of For the Use of the Hall in 1975. She died in 1991 at age 92.