Know Your Character Actor – Aline MacMahon


October 22, 2014 by smumcounty

AlineMacMahonAline MacMahon was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania in 1899 of an Irish father and a Russian mother. The family soon moved to Brooklyn and she was educated at Barnard College, the progressive college for women. After college she studied acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse which, at the time, was an off-Broadway theater and not the acting school it is today. Aline first appeared on Broadway in 1921 in “The Mirage”. More significant Broadway roles quickly followed. In 1925, she appeared in the Shubert musical “Artists and Models” and in 1926 she appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s “Beyond the Horizon”. It was on the strength of these Broadway performances that Alexander Woolcott, critic and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, claimed Aline “acted with extraordinary beauty and vitality and youth” and Noel Coward called her “astonishing, moving, and beautiful.”


with Edward G. Robinson in “Five Star Final”

Aline made her way to Hollywood in 1931 when Universal asked her to reprise her role of a former vaudevillian teaching the silent stars to speak in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 satire “Once in a Lifetime”. This production was delayed until 1932, however, so Aline kept busy in Los Angeles waiting for the cameras to roll by playing the part in a local stage production. It was in this play that a talent scout from Warner Brothers caught sight of Aline and Warners chose to cast her opposite Edward G. Robinson in “Five Star Final” (1931). This film did very well and at the Academy Awards that year it garnered a nomination for Outstanding Production (what we know today as Best Picture). Warner Brothers put Aline under contract on the strength of her performance in “Five Star Final” and quickly put her to work. Warner Brothers never let their contract players sit idle for long and Aline made seven films in 1932 alone.

AlineMacMahonHairIn her day, Aline was considered by some to be a great beauty. She inspired photographer Cecil Beaton to ask her to sit for him and sculptor Isamu Noguchi created a bust of her entitled “Beauty and Vitality and Truth”. However her overly large and dramatic features were not those of the typical Hollywood starlet of the day such as Jean Harlow or Bette Davis. As such, she was cast in character roles and not as the leading lady. These were often character leads but never the romantic lead. In “Five Star Final”, she played the secretary with a fine moral compass to Robinson’s editor of a tabloid newspaper. Though being plainly enamored of her boss, Aline’s character is disapproving of Robinson as he boosts circulation by dredging up the twenty year old story of a woman who got away with murder. “I think you can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman,” her character laments at one point. Warners then cast Aline opposite Warren Williams in “The Mouthpiece” (1932). Here again, Aline plays a whip-smart secretary, this time to William’s lawyer who specializes in defending the mob.


with Guy Kibbee in “Gold Diggers of 1933”

with Preston Foster in "Heat Lightning"

with Preston Foster in “Heat Lightning”

In 1933, Aline got a chance to play a character with a little sex appeal as one of the titular gold diggers in “Gold Diggers of 1933”. Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler serve as the eye candy here while Aline plays the world weary Broadway chorus girl who’s ready to hitch her wagon to a fat millionaire and ride out the remainder of The Great Depression. Aline’s Trixie is definitely the most mischievous of the three and she sets her sights on her millionaire for a good soaking but in the end you get the feeling she really cares for the dope. The millionaire in question here is played by Guy Kibbee who Warners teamed with Aline a total of ten times. Kibbee was older than Aline and this may be one reason Aline seemed to be typecast playing characters older than herself, mothers and wives, for much of the decade.

Aline got the chance to play the dramatic lead the next year in “Heat Lightning” (1934). Here Aline plays a woman who, having been burnt by love, has chosen to operate an isolated gas station and lunch counter in the desert. Her sister takes care of the lunch counter while Aline pumps gas and acts as mechanic. There’s nothing feminine about Aline in her overalls and long hair tied up in a bandana. It’s as though having had her heart broken she’s decided to withdraw from the world and has given up the trappings of femininity to prevent her being hurt again. That is until an old love shows up on her doorstep. This film was one of the last to be released before the Hollywood production code was rigorously enforced and its a good thing it was able to squeak by. Two months after its release it was condemned by the Catholic League of Decency. Other significant films of this period include “Silver Dollar” (1932) where she plays opposite Edward G. Robinson again and “Babbitt” (1934) a film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ famous novel where she was once again teamed with Guy Kibbee.

with Montgomery Clift in "The Search"

with Montgomery Clift in “The Search”


in “Dragon Seed”

Her dramatic output slowed as she moved into the 40’s, acting in one or fewer films a year rather than the five or six of the early 30’s. In 1944, she finally achieved a modicum of recognition from The Academy when she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award for her role in “Dragon Seed” where she played the aunt of lead Katherine Hepburn. Other significant films of the 40’s include Fred Zinneman’s “The Search” (1948) in which she plays a worker at a camp for displaced children helping Montgomery Clift find the parents of a Czech concentration camp survivor.

In the 50’s, Aline’s acting career was greatly curtailed by the Hollywood Graylist, reserved not for those who were officially censored by the McCarthy hearings but for those who might be suspected of having sympathies for others who were. She had strong supporting roles in “The Flame and the Arrow” (1950) and “The Man from Laramie” (1955) but her days of a movie every two months were long gone. Not one to be left on the sidelines, Aline found work by returning to the stage and appearing in the live television productions of the 50’s that were more lenient concerning the blacklist. Aline’s last film appearance was in “Cimmaron” (1960). After this she joined New York’s Lincoln Repertory troupe appearing in several productions there until 1975 when she officially retired. Aline died in 1991 from pneumonia in New York City. She was 92 years old.

“Week-End Marriage” (1932)

“The Merry Frinks” (1934)

Trailer for “Gold Diggers of 1933”


2 thoughts on “Know Your Character Actor – Aline MacMahon

  1. JS says:

    Thanks for a nice recollection of Aline MacMahon. She never made it to full fledged stardom, but it was not from lack of talent, rather Hollywood’s (or maybe audiences) lack of imagination. She is a bright spot in every film where she appears. Viva Aline!

    • Bo Nichols says:

      I love Aline MacMahon, I believe if i could go back to her time i would of “snagged” her for myself. There’s just something about her that is sooo catching & captivating to me, she is like a previous writer noted “she is a bright spot in every film where she appears. Viva Aline”. I loved her from the 1st film i saw her in: “Heat Lightning” 1934. I would love to have a collection of all her films. Thank You for this AWESOME recollection of one of my favorite actresses.

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