By John Stangeland

University Press of Kentucky. 340 pages. $40. ISBN 978-0-8131-9606-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There are actors whose names may not mean a great deal unless one is a particularly dedicated follower of Hollywood history. But when seen on screen they are instantly recognisable. Aline MacMahon is one such example of someone with a distinctive face who never achieved star status. Her career saw her mostly restricted to supporting roles, despite her acting ability often being far superior to that of her co-stars. But Hollywood didn’t consider her beautiful, and she unfortunately only started in films when she had turned thirty, and that alone may have been a key factor in her largely being limited to parts as a character actor.

She was born in 1899 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Her father was from an Irish-American-Jewish background, and her mother was Russian-Jewish. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1902. Aline’s mother, a frustrated actress, seems to have been determined to groom her daughter for the stage, and arranged for her to have elocution lessons and to take part in public speaking shows where Aline recited poetry and other material. Her father had connections to the arts as a writer and editor at  the popular magazine, Munsey’s Weekly. There was also an aunt, Sophie Loeb, who was active in social reform and opened Aline’s eyes to the plight of the less fortunate in society by taking her on visits to the slums.

Aline enrolled at Barnard College in 1916 and took part in student drama productions where she attracted enough attention to be offered a job with the Provincetown Company. She turned it down and instead visited Europe. When she returned she was involved with the American Laboratory Theatre, which had links to the Moscow Arts Theatre and the ideas of Stanislavski. It was her first encounter with what became known as the “Method” school of acting. The leading light of the American Laboratory Theatre was Richard Boleslavsky, a devotee of Stanislavski’s approach to acting with its realism and encouragement to the actors to identify with the characters they were portraying. Aline thought she was lucky to have been taught by Boleslavsky and considered herself something of a pioneer in bringing elements of Method acting to the American stage.

She generally received excellent reviews for her stage work, though she expressed some discontent with the fact that a contract she signed with the Shubert Theatrical Agency meant that she had to take on roles that she felt didn’t give her the opportunity to exercise her full potential as an actress. It was a situation that she was to experience again when she moved to Hollywood and had a contract with the Warner Brothers studio. However, while working in the theatre, she did achieve some successes. One of them was in the Eugene O’Neill play, Beyond the Horizon, and John Stangeland says that she “became the uncontested dramatic sensation of the New York theatre world”. One critic remarked, “She it was who largely made the production a delight to see”. And Alexander Woolcott wrote that she “played a bitter, tragic role with extraordinary beauty, vitality and truth”. The New Yorker enthused about her, and Noel Coward said, “The performance of a comparatively young actress Aline MacMahon, remained in my mind as something astonishing, moving and beautiful”.

I’ve moved quickly through Aline’s experiences in New York and Stangeland provides a much more detailed account that gives a fascinating picture of the ups and downs of working in the theatre and the effects felt by actors and others as the 1929 stock market crash began to savage the economy and cause mass unemployment and bank closures. Nonetheless Aline and her husband, the architect Clarence Stein, decided they were financially secure enough to make a trip to India. Stangeland thinks that the couple were “gingerly exploring socialist ideas, class and income inequality foremost among them”. And that they were curious about Mahatma Gandhi’s “non-violent struggle against the British Empire’s colonial rule over the country”. They were away for four months.

Aline moved to the West Coast at the beginning of 1931. Hollywood was busy while the rest of the country struggled to keep the wheels of industry rolling. It was where money didn’t seem to be a problem, and an established actor could be assured of a healthy salary. It was also still in the early days of talkies and not every star of the silent era had been able to make the transition to the new medium. Once characters on film could be heard talking there was little need for them to indulge in exaggerated expressions and gestures to make a point. Aline, with her clear diction and experience of projecting on stage, was ideally suited to acting in films. Her training in the Method style likewise allowed her to emphasise feelings through facial variations and bodily positions. Stangeland outlines the major shift in acting in this way: “As the production of talking pictures was codified, a new kind of actor and personality was coming into popular consciousness. This style, which was to become the dominant form for nearly twenty years, was primarily declarative. The sub-text of thought and interior life that had necessarily developed in the best of silent films was – unfortunately – deemed redundant in a cinema where characters could now simply say what they felt”.

Despite being separated from her husband for long spells – he had to remain in New York to look after his architectural commitments – Aline was determined to make a career in films. And the money was useful at a time when so many other people were struggling to make ends meet, and her husband’s business suffered ups and downs as projects failed to materialise. But she had to face up to the fact that the studio system, especially at Warner Brothers, was close to a factory situation. What sold was what was produced. There were fine films made, often almost in defiance of the realities of the market, and there were writers, directors, and others who were sincerely dedicated to the art (and it could be) of film-making. But there were many more who saw it simply as a job to be completed on time and within its budget, and with little thought of investing what they did with imagination or flair. As someone who has spent a lifetime since the 1940s watching Hollywood films, good, bad and  indifferent, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised at what could be done with few resources, and on the other hand sadly disillusioned by how much money was wasted on lacklustre major productions.

One of Aline’s first films in Hollywood was Once in a Lifetime which had originally been a stage play by Moss Hart and George Kaufman. Described by Stangeland as “a play about the foolishness and vapidity of Hollywood” it had failed when it was first tried out in Atlantic City. Aline had been in it, but by the time it was revised and performed on Broadway she was on the West Coast. She landed a key role in the film, but was initially nervous about how it would go down with the industry’s rulers. Would they see the funny side of a satirical view of their habits and actions, their poses and pretensions? Launched with all the usual film capital ballyhoo it became a surprise hit. Aline was one of the stars of the film, and the Los Angeles Times commented: “The cast are all capable performers, with Miss MacMahon standing out in a feelingful, thoroughly warming portrayal of the patient May Daniels”.

Once in a Lifetime had been produced by Universal, but Warner Brothers were keen to have Aline sign a contract with them. She eventually did, after haggling about how much they would pay her. She settled for $850 per week for a part in Five Star Final in which she played newspaper editor Edward G .Robinson’s secretary. Stangeland is enthusiastic about Aline’s work in this film, limited though her role was, and says she is “playing the character, not pitching to the audience, and in this way she invites attention by not inviting it……she presents a real person, not the creation of a screenwriter - not a construction deigned to impart mere information and surface emotion to a story. Her emotions seem real because she is doing what no other actor of the era is doing – dredging her own past to connect with the feelings of the character”.

The money was good, especially in comparison with what most people were earning, or not earning if they were among the growing army of the unemployed, but Aline was dissatisfied with the roles that Warner Brothers insisted she take. She was usually praised by critics for her performances in films like The Mouthpiece, Weekend Marriage, and Life Begins, but none of them involved a major dramatic leading role. Aline was cast as a kind-hearted café owner who feeds the down-and-outs in Heroes for Sale, and she is effective in this part, but it hardly stretched her acting talents.The main female emphasis was focused on Loretta Young who Warner Brothers were clearly promoting as a rising young star. The film itself is not without interest with its grim portrayal of what life was like for many people during the Depression. There are scenes of bread lines, hobos being moved on by townspeople who, as they say, can’t even take care of their own, and policemen who use threats and violence to deter demonstrators or anyone else they consider “radical”.

Alina did have what might be called a leading role in Kind Lady, where she plays a middle-aged spinster still mourning her fiancé killed in the Great War, who is conned by the smooth-talking Basil Rathbone into allowing him into her house and so enabling him to take over her life. But it’s notable that the studio considered her suitable for appearing on screen as a somewhat repressed, even dowdy woman. She just wasn’t seen as conventionally attractive, though photos in Stangeland’s book indicate that she could be quite striking in appearance. I suspect that Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with her because her looks and her age (she was in her thirties when the films I’ve mentioned were made) eliminated her from consideration as one of the film capital’s glamour girls. She was fated to be seen as a character actor and nearly always in a supporting role. There was one film, Heat Lightning, described by Stangeland as a “deliciously tawdry proto film noir”, which featured her alongside Ann Dvorak and allowed her to develop the part she played as one of two sisters, both yearning for the same man, with a greater degree of conviction.

Both Aline and her husband held what might be called progressive views about the nature of capitalist society, and she was on record as having spoken favourably in support of left-wing, even communist, ideals. I think there may have been something of a clash between her sympathies and the fact that she could earn relatively good money by acting in mostly mediocre films at a time when there was widespread poverty and discontent. She was aware of her artistic predicament: “If I catch myself retrogressing in my work I will quit and to the Devil with the whole lot of them. But I suppose I’ll go on taking the money, just the same”.

The couple made a trip to China in 1937 and were impressed by what they saw there, though one wonders how far they travelled within the country?  Stangeland describes Aline as “a liberal, Communist-curious citizen”, and says that she attended anti-Fascist meetings and rallies. But her private life and her Hollywood career were affected by her husband’s ill-health. She had to go back to New York to look after him. She did manage to continue some acting activity by working in radio and returning to the stage. She starred with John Garfield in Heavenly Express, a “light fantasy” that unfortunately failed to attract audiences. She worked with him again in Out of the Fog during one of her periodic returns to Hollywood. Garfield was a proponent of Method acting and, like Aline, had links to left-wing organisations. This latter fact was to cause problems for them both.

There were appearances in films in the post-war years. She was with Montgomery Clift, another graduate of the Method school, in The Search, and had a part in the Burt Lancaster film, The Flame and the Arrow. But her liberal/left-wing inclinations were noticed as the anti-communist mood of the late-1940s and early-1950s began to develop. The Chicago Tribune newspaper listed Aline as a communist as early as 1945, and later she would be named by Louis Budenz, a one-time Communist Party member turned informer. She was also included in Red Channels, a publication designed to name anyone with alleged communist affiliations who was employed in films, television, and radio. It was used as a reference book by producers and others who hired actors. Inclusion in it would lead to almost automatically being blacklisted. It certainly affected Aline’s career and Stangeland says that she “managed only two film appearances and five television credits between 1950 and 1960”. One of the films was the 1955 The Man from Laramie, a Western directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, where she played an elderly rancher who befriends Stewart. It would be interesting to know how she managed to evade the blacklist for this film and the 1953 The Eddie Cantor Story. She did obtain work with regional theatre companies in the 1950s, and in the 1960s she was active in New York with the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center. Her husband died in 1975, and Aline in 1991, aged 92.

It’s difficult to comment on her use of the Method technique because of the nature of most of the films she was in. She often had little opportunity to extend her acting beyond the ordinary. It could be that she was more successful in the theatre but, unlike films, few plays leave a permanent visual record. We can only wonder, or rely on written testaments from those who were around at the time, about what great actors were like on stage.

John Stangeland’s book is not only an informative account of Aline MacMahon’s life and career. It additionally provides some valuable insights into how the studio system functioned in the 1930s and 1940s, and what were the problems facing actors who didn’t easily fit into the kind of neat categories that Hollywood liked. It’s enlightening about how actors under contract, or even freelancing as Aline did, had to take what was on offer if they wanted to work regularly. Film-making was a business and the good went with the bad. It wasn’t much different in the theatre, and Stangeland quotes the old-time character actor J.M. Kerrigan who, listening to Aline complaining about the quality of the films she was involved with, said: “To hear actors complain about pictures, you’d think that in the theatre they went from one distinguished success to another. I found damned few decent plays to do in the theatre, I remember”.

The book is well-researched, has a short but useful bibliography, and relevant illustrations, some of which show how attractive Aline MacMahon could be.