Showing posts with label Aline MacMahon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aline MacMahon. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Interview with John Stangeland, author of Aline MacMahon: Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting

I'm thrilled to be joined by writer and biographer John Stangeland. We chatted over a decade ago about his Warren William biography (review here and interview here). Now he is back with an excellent new biography on the much-beloved character actress Aline MacMahon, out now from the University Press of Kentucky. I was honored to have contributed this blurb for the book's publication:

“Stangeland shines a much needed spotlight on one of the great actresses of stage and screen whose talent and versatility was admired by many. ... Absorbing and highly readable, this biography will rescue MacMahon from obscurity and give her the recognition she so greatly deserves.”— Raquel Stecher, film historian and critic

Now onto the interview!

Raquel Stecher: Congratulations on your new book! In 2010 you published your book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. How did you chose Aline MacMahon as the subject of your next biography?

John Stangeland: I had been aware of Aline for quite a while. I probably saw Five Star Final—her first film—when I was about 12 or 13. I started looking closer at her while I was writing the Warren William book, since they share two films together. That was when I first noticed how different her acting style was in comparison to the other actors of the period. I mean very obviously different—almost as if she was pulled from the modern era and placed among that earlier style of acting. That intrigued me, so I started digging into her story.

Raquel: Aline MacMahon was best known for her work as a character actress but many don’t realize that she was one of the original Method actors. Can you tell us a bit about her approach to her craft?

John: Well, this is one of the things that made this project a book instead of an article. I discovered that in America the Method goes back much further than most people know, and that Aline is not just a devotee, but is the first popular actor to use the technique on both stage and screen here in the West. Aline's initial training dates all the way back to 1923—nearly 30 years before Marlon Brando made the Method a household word. This explained to me why in 1931 she looked so naturalistic in comparison to everyone else on screen. She was applying the method technique before anyone else: using emotional recall, creating a character history, dredging internal motivation. Her most succinct description about the effect of the Method on her technique was that the lessons "taught me how to concentrate."

Aline as a Marseille prostitute in the Broadway production of Maya (1928).
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: In your book you discuss Aline MacMahon’s rich inner life, her social conscience and activism. How did her politics affect her career?

John: Aline's maternal aunt Sophie Irene Loeb was a well-known activist and writer in New York City just after the turn of the century. Before Aline was even a teenager, Sophie would take her on inspection tours of the NYC slums so she could experience the dark side of poverty and immigrant life. From that seed Aline became a progressive liberal who believed in charity and government programs for the poor. Eventually that developed into a benign interest in Communism and issues of social justice. Unfortunately, the late 1940s and '50s was a dangerous time to be a Communist, or even Communist-curious. When the hysteria of McCarthyism spread out across America, Aline found herself blacklisted as a Communist (although she never joined the party) and largely unable to work on TV, films or stage for the greater part of a decade. Simultaneously, both she and her husband spent fifteen years under covert surveillance by the FBI. Fortunately Aline was philosophical about the situation, but as her exile lengthened she finally hit a wall. "Some dimming of the luck is to be expected," she said. "But by God, have we been condemned to purgatory forever? Life is for laughing, too...."   

Raquel: In your biography you said that even though Aline McMahon wasn’t a big star it didn’t mean that her life story wasn’t interesting. What are some other facts that readers might not be aware of that may pique their interest in learning more about her?

John: There are quite a few doors into Aline's story. In the early 1920's she became a member of the Neighborhood Playhouse, where she developed close friendships within NYC's then-underground gay and trans subculture. She had a fascinating love affair of equals; in 1928 she married Clarence Stein, a New York based architect and city planner. Clarence, well-known and highly respected in his field (there are more than a few books about him), supported all of her endeavors, including liberal politics, and her career, which took her away from New York for six months a year. They both loved exotic travel, and during the era of the steamship they went to places rarely visited by polite Americans, including India, Siam (Thailand), Bali, Iran, and, in 1937 an around-the-world cruise where they lived for three months in China. The Steins also counted as their friends a who's-who of some of the 20th Century's great figures in the arts: Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, Eugene O'Neill, Moss Hart, George Kaufman, E.E. Cummings, Thomas Wolfe, Aline Bernstein and many others. The Steins also endured some Dickensian setbacks which always reminded them how fortunate they really were. They never took their success for granted and always tried to help people who did not have as much as they did.

Aline shooting a scene from Kind Lady (1935) with Basil Rathbone.
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: What kind of research did you do for the book? Did you encounter anything surprising or revelatory that changed the course of your writing?

John: The research went from Los Angeles to New York and a bunch of places in between! It is always fun to visit the Warner Bros. archives in L.A., and the Shubert archives in New York—but the BIG revelation came when I visited Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Aline donated some of her papers there, and her husband's papers went there after he died in 1975. Looking through her papers was wonderful, but limited. Many of her other effects were in New York and the archive there had some nice things but nothing noteworthy. However, when I got to the Clarence Stein papers I was shocked to find thousands of letters between Aline and Clarence, beginning the DAY she first left for Hollywood (January 1st, 1931) and stretching for decades. THAT was exciting, and a little daunting. It took months to go through those letters.

Raquel: Can you talk a bit about what those letters were like and what they revealed about her career?

John: On one hand they were a daily diary of her time in Hollywood, with unfiltered thoughts about her directors and co-stars. (Warren William? "A ham." Edward G. Robinson? "He's getting a big head." Paul Muni? "So warm and nice." Michael Curtiz? "A violent fool who never made a good picture." Mervyn LeRoy? "My dear Svengali.") More importantly, the letters give real insight into her character. Even in her private moments she was very thoughtful about social issues and usually worried about others more than herself. She didn't dwell on bad things, and even in the worst of times—her husband's mental breakdowns and her own blacklisting—she maintained a sense of perspective. The letters reveal a remarkably intelligent woman—she was one of the few college educated women of the old Hollywood—and a compassionate one as well.    

Raquel: Do you have a favorite Aline MacMahon performance?

John: My favorite is probably Heat Lightning (1934), which was also her first starring role. For me it is a hidden gem of the pre-Code and a scorching proto-Noir. On the comedy side, she's hilarious as Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933 and as May Daniels in Once in a Lifetime (1932), a role that she originated for the Broadway production. Lifetime is very rarely shown—I don't remember ever seeing it on TCM —but worth seeking out if you can find a better print than they have on YouTube!

Aline during the readings of the Sean O'Casey memoir Pictures in the Hallway (1956).
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: MacMahon worked as an actress for 55 years. What do you think drove her to work for as long as she did despite the difficulties she faced with the studio system and the blacklist?

John: Aline didn't just love acting, she once said "I must act to live." When she had a great role and was operating at the top edge of her capabilities, she felt completely fulfilled. It did not equate to money or fame—one of her favorite things she did was a series staged readings of the memoirs of Sean O'Casey, for which she was paid something like $5 a performance. If it was challenging and of high quality it made her feel alive. I think she was always chasing that next opportunity to feel satisfied in her art—to work with a Eugene O'Neill, or to be in the cast of Hamlet at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, which she did in 1948. 

Raquel: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

John: Of course I want the reader to be entertained, and hopefully learn something new about the movies, or about creative character. But ultimately I want people to get to know Aline MacMahon as more than just someone who entertains them on screen. I have developed a real soft spot for her; so intelligent, talented, thoughtful, curious, loyal and compassionate. A wonderful person to know.

Raquel: What are you working on next? Where can readers find you online?

John: The next project looks like it will be a novel. It begins in 1912 when a young man arrives in Chicago from Kansas looking to join the film industry and finds work at Essanay studios. From there we follow his path through the history of Hollywood into the early 1980s, during which he will encounter recurring characters in Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery, Karl Brown, George Spoor, Sam Zarkoff and others. It's early in the planning stages, but will be a bildungsroman combined with a peculiar history of the film industry.

I'm not super involved on social media, but on instagram you will find me at: #studioerahollywood and (for you comic book fans out there) #atlascomicschi. On Facebook the page is Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood, which doubles as an Aline MacMahon / old Hollywood page.


Aline MacMahon
Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting 
by John Stangeland
University Press of Kentucky
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813196060
416 pages
November 2022

A big thank you to John Stangeland and the University Press of Kentucky for this opportunity!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Guy Kibbee Triple Feature

Guy Kibbee
Guy Kibbee. Photo source: Getty Images

Guy Kibbee is a beloved silver screen figure among many contemporary classic film fans, myself included. Just hearing his name brings me joy. I know whenever Guy Kibbee appears in the credits of a movie that I'm in for a real treat. Kibbee was a Warner Bros. contract player in the 1930s and 1940s. He played a variety of roles where he showcased his talents as a character actor. He's known for memorable characters in some of my favorite films including Union Depot (1931), The Crowd Roars (1931), 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He held his own in smaller roles but had the chops and on screen charisma for leading roles too.

A new DVD release from the Warner Archive Collection showcases three Guy Kibbee movies in which the beloved character actor shines in leading roles. Each film is 60-70 minutes long making it easy to binge watch all three in a row.

The Big Noise (1936)

Guy Kibbee The Big Noise (1936)

The Big Noise (1936) stars Guy Kibbee as textile manufacturing president Julius Trent. Quality work and a good reputation over profits: that's what Julius believes in. Unfortunately he's in the minority and has been voted out as president. With too much time on his hands and a wife fussing over his health, he secretly buys 50% of a local laundry shop under the guise Tom Douglas. The joint comes with a new partner, the handsome and bright Ken (Warren Hull) who is enthusiastic for business and has a degree in chemistry. Not knowing Tom's true identity, he happens to fall in love with Julius' daughter Betty (Alma Lloyd).  The business also comes with air-headed assistant Daisy (Marie Wilson) and a talkative parrot. Little do Tom/Julius and Ken know but the previous owner owes money to the mob syndicate that terrorizes the laundry shops in the neighborhood. Tom/Julius must find a way to extricate them from the mob and save the business.

Directed by Frank McDonald and based on a story by Edward Hartman, is a light comedy with a darker side. I was surprised the turn the story took when the protagonist comes up with a plan to save the business. Kibbee is endearing as the business tycoon who refuses to take it easy. Henry O'Neill has a terribly small part as Tom/Julius' friend and former colleague. Warren Hull was absolutely charming as Ken but it was a bit unbelievable that a handsome, intelligent and business savvy man like him would want to own a small laundry shop.

Going Highbrow (1935)

Guy Kibbee in Going Highbrow (1935)

Going Highbrow (1935) stars Guy Kibbee and Zasu Pitts as Matt and Cora Upshaws. These Kansas millionaires don't know what to do with their new-found wealth. They come to New York City after a trip to Europe, and as soon as Cora Upshaw steps off the ship she sets out to become the renowned socialite she believes herself to be. Cora is awkward yet eager and Matt just wants a simple life dining on ham and eggs instead of caviar and champagne. Members of New York society Augie (Edward Everett Horton) and Harley (Ross Alexander) set to drain the Upshaws of some of their money by hosting a soiree in their honor. Matt Upshaw hires his favorite waitress Sandy (June Martel) to play his socialite daughter and hilarity inevitably ensues.

Directed by Robert Florey, Going Highbrow based on the story Social Pirates by Ralph Spence. The film showcases the comedic talents of Kibbee, Pitts and Horton, three of the most. This is one of three films Pitts and Kibbee made together. They were well suited to their roles and a joy to watch on screen. Ross Alexander overdoes it in his role and it loses it's intended comedic effect. I was delighted by June Martel who is new to me. Pitts and Martels wear beautiful gowns designed by Orry-Kelly. Pitts steals the show a bit from Kibbee but he manages to hold his own as the lovable Matt Upshaw.

Mary Jane's Pa (1935)

Guy Kibbee in Mary Jane's Pa (1935)

They saved the best for last...

Mary Jane's Pa (1935) stars Aline MacMahon as Ellen Preston. Her husband Sam (Guy Kibbee), a newspaper publisher, has abandoned the family and the business when the urge to travel becomes too strong for him to deny. His wanderlust takes him away for 10 years and Ellen must make a new life for herself with their two daughters Mary Jane (Betty Jean Hainey) and Lucille (Nan Grey). Ellen has taken over the newspaper business and moved the family away. Sam travels with a carnival as Jonah Barker, hoping to find his family along the way. At one stop, hevmeets Mary Jane and soon discovers she's his daughter. Sam/Jonah tries to get back in with Ellen who is having none of it. He takes a job as the Preston family housekeeper and helps bring to light a secret scandal involving a major election. Can Sam earn back the love of his family?

Directed by William Keighley, Mary Jane's Pa was based on the play of the same name by Edith Ellis Furness. This film stood out of the three not only because it was the only drama in a set with two comedies but because of the quality of the story telling and the connection I felt with the characters. Fathers abandoned families, this is a harsh truth of the era and also happens today. I was interested to see how it played out in this story. Aline MacMahon and Kibbee appeared in 10 films together and they have great chemistry. John Arledge has a small but charming role as Linc, Ellen's gossip columnist. Tom Brown, who I recognized from Anne of Green Gables (1934), plays Lucille's boyfriend King. Out of the three movies, Kibbee's role in Mary Jane's Pa had the most depth and was by far the most interesting.

Guy Kibbee Triple Feature with The Big Noise (1936), Going Highbrow (1935) and Mary Jane's Pa (1935) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive. This set is a must-have for anyone who loves Guy Kibbee. And those people are easy to find. You can buy the DVD at the WB Shop. Using my buy links helps support this site. Thanks!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of the Guy Kibbee Triple Feature to review!

If you've read this far you are in for a special treat! I'm giving away an extra copy of the Guy Kibbee Triple Feature. This contest is exclusive to this post, available for participants ages 18+, US/CAN only.

Follow these instructions carefully: to enter, leave a comment below telling me about your favorite Guy Kibbee movie and use whisper code: "Thanks Warner Archive!" somewhere in your reply. For an extra entry, tweet my article (just click on the link for a pre-populated tweet), grab the tweet's direct URL and include it in your comment.

Contest ends Thursday December 21st at midnight. Winner will be announced on Friday. good luck!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Warner Archive Wednesday ~ Tish (1942)

Tish from Warner Bros.

Where do I begin? How do I even talk about such an odd movie? Oh dear! Well, here goes nothing...

Tish (1942) is an adaptation of the Tish stories by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Tish Carberry (Marjorie Main) is part of a threesome of spinsters which includes Aggie Pilkington (Zasu Pitts) and Lizzie Wilkins (Aline MacMahon). Together they cause all sorts of ruckus in their small New England town. Tish lives in her childhood home, now owned by her nephew Charlie Sands (Lee Bowman), and her friends live in a nearby boarding house along with the orphaned teenager Cora Edwards (Susan Peters). All three ladies practically raise Cora.

Now let's add some romantic entanglements, shall we? Cora is in love with Charlie who is newly engaged to Kit Bowser (Virginia Grey) whose brother Ted (Richard Quine) is in love with Cora. That's quite a mess, no? Tish tries to meddle in the love lives of the young folks by trying to fix Cora up with Charlie. She takes them on a camping trip together (some hilarious moments ensue) but Cora has a change of heart. Charlie marries Kit in a church ceremony and Cora and Ted secretly elope before Ted is sent off to war.

So far this film is a light comedy about three delightful spinsters in a small New England town and the young people in their lives. The romantic entanglement, more of a circle than a triangle, gets settled but then the story takes a bizarre turn for the worst.


Cora becomes pregnant, finds out Ted is lost at sea, faints, has her baby and dies. Yes, dies. What the heck? Tish finds out about the baby and takes him into her care. But realizes that it might be a bit complicated because the baby is not hers nor did she go through the proper channels to legally adopt him. So Tish tells everyone she had the baby. No one believes her because she's too old to have a baby. She is so adamant that everyone starts to think she's crazy. Charlie reluctantly puts her in a mental institution. Eventually things resolve themselves and there is a happy yet somewhat bittersweet surprise at the end but good grief.


What could have been just a light 1940s comedy turned out to be a rather bizarre curio of the time. I haven't read the Tish stories so I'm not sure how much this film stays true to the original tales.

This film is notable because of Susan Peters and she's the main reason I watched the film. Playing Cora in Tish (1942) was Susan Peters' first substantial role at MGM. Studio heads were impressed with her and she went on to do Random Harvest (1942) and several other films. Peters was being groomed to become a leading lady and a starlet all thanks to the film Tish. Also, Susan Peters met her future husband Richard Quine while making this film. Peters and Quine married the following year, adopted a son and later divorced in 1948. Susan Peters became paralyzed as a result of a hunting accident in 1945, continued to have health problems and died in 1952 (it's a complicated story that I won't go into in this post). Researching the life of Susan Peters is a pet project of mine so it was imperative that I watch Tish (1942).

Susan Peters is really delightful in this film as are the other actors. So if you are a fan of anyone in the cast, Tish is worth at least one viewing. I'd like to also point out that Guy Kibbee has a supporting role as Judge Bowser (father of the characters Kit and Ted). Kibbee has some hilarious scenes and his character is often put in embarrassing situations courtesy of the three spinsters. Note that Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee played a couple in Gold Diggers of 1933 so it's nice to see them together again in Tish!

One last note for vintage hair and fashion enthusiasts. Watch this film for the outfits and hairstyles of Susan Peters and Virginia Grey. You'll get lots of ideas because the wardrobe and hair departments took extra effort grooming these two young ladies for the film.

Tish  (1942) is available on DVD MOD from Warner Archive.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. I received Tish (1942) from Warner Archive for review.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook