I first laid eyes on Aline MacMahon seventy years ago, when I was five and my parents took me to Brooklyn’s Marboro Theatre to see Alfred E. Green’s schmaltzy 1953 musical biopic The Eddie Cantor Story. MacMahon, who was then fifty-four but looked far older, played little Eddie’s Grandma Esther, a kindly ur-Yiddishe bubbe who rescues the Lower East Side bar mitzvah boy turned pickpocket from a life of crime by sending him to summer camp. There he discovers his talent to amuse, and the rest is showbiz history at its most predictable. I can still recall the exact moment when MacMahon first materialized on-screen and a warm, appreciative murmur rippled through the audience: “It’s her.”
Although MacMahon never became a household name or ascended to the upper ranks of Hollywood stardom, many in that movie house doubtlessly had seen a number of her films. There were forty-three in all, beginning with Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final (1931). In it she portrayed the love-smitten, self-sacrificing secretary of a hard-driving, cigar-chomping newspaper editor played by Edward G. Robinson, and from then on she was typecast as the shrewd, sensible, but unglamorous sidekick to the star.
What impeded MacMahon’s success in the motion picture industry? First, there was her age. In 1931—when LeRoy saw her in a well-received Los Angeles staging of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s satirical comedy Once in a Lifetime, which led to a contract at Warner Brothers—she was thirty-two. That was already too old for the romantic ingenue parts that at Hollywood studios went to women in their early twenties or even late teens, because camera close-ups were not as forgiving as illusionistic stagecraft that kept viewers at a distance. For example, Bette Davis, who made her screen debut the same year as MacMahon, was nine years her junior. (One notable exception was Mary Pickford, whose silent-movie success in juvenile roles led her to play the twelve-year-old title character in William Beaudine’s 1925 box office smash Little Annie Rooney when she was thirty-three.)
Then there were MacMahon’s unconventional looks, which she got from her Irish Catholic/Jewish father and Russian Jewish mother, to whom she was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1899. She was five feet, eight inches tall—beyond the height that ensured actresses wouldn’t tower over their male colleagues at a time when the average American man was also five eight. Her long oval face, with its cleft chin, high-set heavy-lidded eyes, and full arched brows, was undeniably arresting. As an unsigned 1933 Vanity Fair blurb titled “Brooklyn Duse” observed, “More astute critics see in her a potential tragedienne, and in the stern, strange bone structure of her face, a haunting and repressed beauty.” Visual evidence indicates that she beguiled numerous artists who made striking portraits of her, including Cecil Beaton, Isamu Noguchi, Edward Steichen, and Carl Van Vechten.
Two decades after my childhood epiphany I finally met her, and thus began one of the most memorable relationships of my life. In 1975, as the editor of an architecture book imprint at McGraw-Hill, I organized a collection of essays by Lewis Mumford to mark his eightieth birthday. When Mumford traveled to New York City from his Dutchess County home that fall for our publication luncheon, I was deputized to collect him and his wife, Sophia, at the Central Park West penthouse of Aline MacMahon Stein, the widow of his old friend Clarence Stein, the architect, town planner, and a fellow housing reformer. She was already familiar to me through TV reruns of her old movies—especially LeRoy’s giddy Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she was cast as Trixie Lorraine, a wisecracking Broadway comedienne—and screenings at the Thalia and the New Yorker revival houses. Thanks to my familiarity with both the Steins’ careers, she and I hit it off instantly when I arrived to pick up her houseguests.
Multiple congruities helped us to bond rapidly. We were both only children and spent our earliest years in Brooklyn; she went to Barnard, I to Columbia; and we shared an outraged conviction that all the wrong people ran the world. Most of all, we had both been recently bereaved. Clarence Stein died in February 1975 at ninety-two. My marvelous maternal grandmother, Mollie Pell, with whom I had been very close and who was just two years older than MacMahon, died two months later. I now see that I was unconsciously seeking a surrogate to fill that emotional void.
Mrs. Stein, as she preferred styling herself (though she soon asked me to call her Aline), was eager to memorialize her husband, whose critical reputation had dimmed. She hoped that my enthusiasm for Stein’s socially conscious work would prevent his being forgotten, and made sure that I met the few surviving members of the Regional Planning Association of America, the pioneering advocacy group for holistic land use that he founded a century ago this year, particularly Albert Mayer, the master planner of the Indian city of Chandigarh.
From then on we met countless times until her death in 1991. I’d often stop off to see her on my way home from work, but I eventually realized that despite her being so sympathetic toward me, she was fundamentally unmaternal. The Steins were childless, and well into old age Aline remained her mother’s daughter, as Jennie Simon MacMahon, who’d played bit parts in several Hollywood movies, lived until three weeks before her 107th birthday. (Aline’s adored father, William Marcus MacMahon, the editor in chief of Munsey’s Magazine, had died more than fifty years earlier.) But she understood my needs, and whenever she offered some sage advice that I seemed to resist she would remonstrate, “Now Martin, listen to your grandmother!”
Because of my personal interest in the subject, the publication of the first biography of her, Aline MacMahon: Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting—part of the University Press of Kentucky’s Screen Classics series, which now numbers upwards of eighty titles—is an event I had long hoped for but scarcely expected. Solidly researched, psychologically insightful, and gracefully written, it is the work of John Stangeland, a film historian and author of a book about an even less remembered Hollywood actor of MacMahon’s generation, Warren William (with whom she appeared in Gold Diggers of 1933).
More surprising to me was the subtitle, which at first I thought must be a marketing ploy. I was unaware that MacMahon had been a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, let alone a practitioner of Method acting, at least in its post–World War II incarnation as most people today know it. To be sure, she detested the actressy mannerisms of reigning queens of the American stage such as Lynn Fontanne, whose hoity-toity intonations and scene-stealing shtick she imitated to my delight, like “Lynnie” flicking up a brightly lined pocket flap to divert attention from another performer’s laugh line.
She also recollected the electrifying effect that the 1924 English translation of My Life in Art by the Russian stage director Konstantin Stanislavski—cofounder of the Moscow Art Theatre and the father of what was first called the Moscow technique or the System, and in its later American adaptation became known as the Method—had on ambitious young performers like herself who wanted to act in a naturalistic modern style. The year before the Moscow Art Theatre first toured America, MacMahon was one of ten actors chosen to study Stanislavski’s principles under his disciple Richard Boleslavsky at a summer workshop in Westchester County.
Among Boleslavsky’s later students were Stella Adler, who went on to teach that innovative methodology at New York’s New School for Social Research, and Lee Strasberg, the other leading American exponent of a rather different version of it, who in 1950 became the director of the hugely influential Actors Studio. But as Simon Callow has pointed out in these pages, distinctions must be made among the several manifestations of this gradually unfolding dramaturgic development.1 However much I loved her, it seems a considerable stretch for Stangeland to posit MacMahon as the mother of Method acting in America.
As for the rest of the biography’s subtitle, Aline never told me, perhaps because she was eager to put that galling episode behind her, that she’d been smeared in a scurrilous paperback titled Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Television and Radio, published in 1950 by Counterattack, an anti-Communist newsletter founded three years earlier by three former FBI agents and funded by a rich New York backer of the pro-Nationalist China Lobby. It targeted her as a council member of Actors’ Equity, the theatrical labor union founded in 1913, which right-wing zealots suspected of being a Communist plot, as they did all organized labor.
That booklet cited her ties to seven allegedly subversive organizations, including a committee supporting the presidential nomination in 1948 of Henry Wallace, FDR’s penultimate vice-president. She was also identified as an honorary vice-president of the League of Women Shoppers, a group described as “Communist-inspired and therefore Communist-dominated and controlled,” and as intended “to create mass feminine support in labor disputes.” (MacMahon insisted that she was simply a member.)
During World War II, when the USSR became America’s ally against Hitler, every major Hollywood studio except Paramount released a pro-Soviet film. In 1943 MacMahon was featured in one, Sergei Eisenstein and Hans Burger’s Seeds of Freedom, which reused footage from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Her small role, as a citizen of Odesa, was enough for her to be denounced as a Communist by Louis Budenz, a notorious ex-party member turned informer who wrecked the lives of many innocent people through his frequent testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
From an early age MacMahon had been imbued with the humanitarian values of her maternal aunt Sophie Simon Loeb, a progressive author, editor, and advocate of family welfare issues. The Steins’ politics were definitely leftist, and in 1933 MacMahon declared, “I am a Communist if Communism means a chance for everyone to justify himself to himself,” a naive miscomprehension of the movement. A year later she was so impatient with the nation’s slow recovery from the Depression that she wrote to Clarence:
Roosevelt is out to protect Capital…[and] will go down in history as the greatest enemy to progress America has had…. I will start working on my Russian—and we will emigrate there one of these days.
Yet these privately expressed opinions were merely parlor-pink twaddle, not, for example, the full-throated public endorsement of Stalin’s Soviet Union—“this land of hope”—made by Bernard Shaw after his delusional 1931 visit there. MacMahon voted for Roosevelt in 1936, while her husband supported FDR’s Socialist rival, Norman Thomas. But card-carrying Communists? Never. Regardless, as Ed Garea and J. Michael Kenyon wrote in a 2013 blog about the movie industry during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition:
Aline and [her] 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…. 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.
Other vexing consequences ensued for MacMahon following an FBI background investigation in 1950. Thereafter her US passport had to be renewed annually and was restricted to Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, and Italy, plus any necessary countries en route—harassment that persisted until 1964. But by the mid-1950s the graylist that kept her from getting more work perhaps had as much to do with her hair color as her politics.
Then as now, there were many fewer roles for women older than fifty than for men that age. To emend an old Hollywood joke, her career went from “Get me Aline MacMahon!” to “Get me an Aline MacMahon type!” to “You mean Aline MacMahon is still alive?” In middle age she ran into her old boss Jack Warner, a legendary vulgarian, who, she indignantly reported to me, chided her for having gotten fat. But she had indeed gained weight after her svelte heyday. She then added an uncharacteristic boast about her looks and described a gold lamé bias-cut Vionnet evening dress with a plunging V back and short train that she wore to a 1930s Beverly Hills house party. The director Rouben Mamoulian watched as she entered the front door ahead of him and later that night told her, “You are Hollywood glamour.”
A natural-born mimic, MacMahon first garnered critical praise for her send-up of the British musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence in The Grand Street Follies (1924). It won her a five-year Broadway contract from the Shubert Organization, though she asked to be released from it a year later, after only being offered roles in comedies and musical revues rather than the dramas she craved. Thereafter she got rave notices for her performance in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1926) and during her triumphant Broadway decade appeared in thirteen shows. Yet Hollywood never quite figured out what to do with her. More to the point, she lacked the youthful sex appeal deemed essential for cinematic leading ladies.
What kept her at Warner’s despite her disdain for the unfulfilling parts she routinely received was her $75,000 annual salary—about $1.6 million today. Although not a huge amount by current Hollywood standards, that was a fortune during the Great Depression. Her tailor-made contract entailed four pictures over two three-month stretches per year—each took about three weeks to shoot under the studio’s factory production system—which allowed her to return east to Clarence for three months between them. Without her financial support his faltering architectural practice would likely have gone under, as did so many others during that dire decade.
Nevertheless, she had several noteworthy assignments at Warner’s. Among her most underrated early pictures is LeRoy’s Heat Lightning (1934), an astringent pre-Code melodrama in which she portrays a lesbian-adjacent auto mechanic who runs a Mojave Desert gas station. She winds up murdering her larcenous ex-boyfriend (Preston Foster), who suddenly resurfaces and sleeps with her again in order to rob two rich women stranded at her garage. The movie’s lurid theatrical poster depicts a disheveled MacMahon holding a smoking gun over his corpse and blares her confession: “I just killed a rat!”
Mostly, though, she cranked out a repetitive series of ten increasingly weak comedies with the bald, jovial Guy Kibbee, her opposite number in the far superior Gold Diggers of 1933. In that romp he played her sugar daddy—believable because he was seventeen years her senior—but in their later pairings they were cast as an old married couple, which further diminished her romantic allure. These trifles palled with audiences, and one disgruntled theater owner complained, “Isn’t the public becoming a wee bit soured on seeing these same players in every other Warner’s film?”
In an attempt to escape that rut, MacMahon begged out of her contract and went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she felt better treated. A highlight of Clarence Brown’s screen version of Ah, Wilderness! (1935), Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, is her nostalgically detailed evocation of the skittish spinster Aunt Lily. She attributed her credibility to the authentic Edwardian undergarments beneath her turn-of-the-century costumes, which, as she explained, forced her into period postures that allowed her to fully inhabit the role, as much of a Method interpretation as I ever heard her admit to.
At MGM that same year MacMahon starred in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady, a thriller in which she, as a rich older woman, is deceived by a suave con man (Basil Rathbone) whose accomplices hold her hostage in her London townhouse until she is rescued by a suspicious nephew. Stangeland rightly credits MGM’s peerless costuming and make-up departments, which expertly highlighted her radiant mien in the film’s early scenes: “We can see her genuine beauty, and it again reminds us that there was a potential middle ground between sex symbol and matron if someone had cared to exploit it.” But because MacMahon’s character was drugged and thus absent throughout much of the plot, the picture did nothing to enhance her star power, and she never again got top billing in a movie.
After that she was irrevocably defined as a character actress, although she was no one-note player like such contemporaries as the crotchety Marjorie Main or the dithery ZaSu Pitts. (They teamed up as a trio of meddlesome old maids in the hectic 1942 MGM dramedy Tish, directed by MacMahon’s younger cousin S. Sylvan Simon, who had gotten his start at Warner’s after she left the studio, and without her help.) Her finest Hollywood work came in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948), with her compassionate characterization of a dedicated United Nations displaced-persons officer in postwar Europe who reunites a young Auschwitz survivor with his mother.
MacMahon’s biggest professional regret was losing the coveted starring role of O-Lan in Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth (1937), based on Pearl S. Buck’s blockbuster novel of peasant life in China, which inexplicably earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature. The part went to the German émigré Luise Rainer, who notwithstanding her thick accent and dubious theatrics had won the Best Actress Oscar for The Great Ziegfeld the previous year. Her much-parodied telephone scene (“Hello, Flo?”) clinched that honor, which she would receive again for The Good Earth.
In what some might see as karmic recompense, MacMahon was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her depiction of the long-suffering wife of a Chinese farmer (Walter Huston) in Dragon Seed (1944), Jack Conway and Harold S. Bucquet’s adaptation of a later Buck novel. Set in a rural village during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, that film has aged poorly, not least because all but one of the principal actors, including Katharine Hepburn as MacMahon and Huston’s headstrong daughter-in-law, were Caucasians heavily made up to look fully Chinese.
Long fascinated by China, where she’d never been, MacMahon yearned for the Good Earth assignment because, unusually for Hollywood movies at the time, it was shot partly on foreign location. Stein’s architectural prospects were similarly thwarted, so in 1935 the discouraged couple decided to take a five-month around-the-world sabbatical. (The trip was indubitably more fun than The Good Earth, which Graham Greene panned in The Spectator for its “banality and ennui.”)
Their journey culminated in Beijing, where in early 1936 they lived in a luxurious hutong among such distinguished expatriates as the British aesthete Harold Acton and birds of passage including Charlie Chaplin and his inamorata Paulette Goddard, whom he had directed and costarred with in Modern Times, which wrapped the preceding August. Asked by MacMahon what they were doing in Beijing, Goddard breathlessly replied, “We just floated in on the tide,” as Aline recounted to me with an eye roll.
More serious relationships evolved with the Harvard sinologist John King Fairbank and his wife, Wilma, an art and architectural historian, who became the Steins’ lifelong friends. So did Liang Sicheng, the master builder and historian considered the father of modern Chinese architecture, and his wife, Lin Huiyin, China’s first female architect (and an aunt of Maya Lin). When I quizzed Aline about their sojourn, which the Steins considered a highpoint of their marriage, she had the Gotham Book Mart send me Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen: Sketches of Life in China, which she said captured the country’s atmospheric mystique exactly as they’d experienced it.
Back home, Stein found himself without work in his Depression-depleted office. At a time when the federal government was America’s foremost—and indeed only major—architecture patron, he was not given responsibility for New Deal planning and housing schemes that could have expanded upon his experience working with the most important collaborator of his career, the Kansas-born Quaker Henry Wright, at Sunnyside, Queens (1924–1928), and the “New Town for the Motor Age” of Radburn, New Jersey (1929–1930), now admired as landmarks of humane planning.2 Stein’s constitution, always termed “delicate,” collapsed in 1936 with the unexpected death of Wright, his temperamental and cultural opposite but intellectual twin, with whom he had parted ways when the unfinished Radburn project came to an abrupt halt because of the Depression, though he had hoped they might still reunite.
His complete mental breakdown began a vicious cycle that cost him commissions because he was immobilized by depression during a sequence of bipolar episodes that continued until the 1950s. On several occasions he required institutionalization and was subjected to the then-new treatment of electroconvulsive therapy. This was the main reason why MacMahon accepted fewer movie offers and stayed close to home. She was acclaimed for her Broadway performances in Maxwell Anderson’s The Eve of St. Mark (1942), T. S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk (1954), and Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home (1960).
As Stein became housebound in his mid-eighties and further diminished by dementia in his early nineties, MacMahon was coaxed out of virtual retirement by her friend Jules Irving, director of the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s Repertory Company at Lincoln Center, a short walk from the couple’s apartment. Irving convinced her that she could work nearby and still tend to Clarence. Thus between 1966 and 1975 she did nine plays there, among them Jonson’s The Alchemist, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, García Lorca’s Yerma, and Brecht’s Galileo, the kind of meaty material she’d been starved of in Hollywood.
Her last outing came in the Beaumont revival of Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 comedy Trelawny of the “Wells” (in which she had starred at Barnard). It also introduced the twenty-five-year-old Meryl Streep in her New York debut after she graduated from the Yale School of Drama. As Aline told me at the time, Streep confided in her about her romance with an aspiring Yale architect and asked, apropos her much older castmate’s long marriage to Stein, if their careers were compatible. MacMahon responded that actors and architects have so much in common—having to audition for each new job, the constant rejection, the restrictive typecasting—that the two cruel callings are ideal for spousal commiseration and support.
That precariousness also made her tolerate actors’ many superstitions. When I disparaged the magical thinking of theater people I knew in college—some of whom belonged to the same Barnard amateur troupe from which she vaulted to early stardom—Aline shot back, “But you have no idea what we have to go through.”
To me her great flaw was a stubborn insistence that her husband’s work was more meaningful than hers, a self-abnegating tendency among women of her generation, even highly educated and successful ones. During her later years she gave numerous interviews about her experiences during the Golden Age of Hollywood but repeatedly maintained that none of her accomplishments approached Stein’s efforts to guarantee better housing for all. Her astute biographer and I think otherwise.
John Stangeland’s well-deserved reconsideration of this regrettably underappreciated figure closes a lacuna in the literature of film culture that has always disturbed me, given the surfeit of books about actors of lesser merit. When I voiced frustration about some youthful career setback of mine, Aline would encourage me: “Never mind—the cream always rises to the top!” This thought-provoking life-and-works reconfirms her quaint old adage.