The Longevity of Aline MacMahon

Earlier in my cinema education I had an idea that Aline MacMahon (1899-1991) was strictly an actress of the Pre-Code era, for I’d seen her in things like The Mouthpiece (1932) with Warren William; Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime (1932), and above all Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she plays the tall wise-cracking Trixie, the one who takes the “comic parts” in the musicals, and the role for which she is probably best remembered today.

But, later I caught her in two westerns by Anthony Mann from two decades later, The Man from Laramie (1955) and Cimmaron (1960), and in the bizarre spectacle that is The Eddie Cantor Story (1953). This was a very different MacMahon, but instantly recognizable. Her film career lasted over 30 years. Due to her striking but unusual looks she was always cast in character parts; towards the end she was known for playing mother and grandmother figures.

I first considered doing a post on MacMahon at a time when I was strictly writing about vaudevillians, but that wasn’t her background at all (despite the fact that she does such a convincing job in Gold Diggers). MacMahon was strictly “legit”. Her father William MacMahon was editor of Munsey’s Magazine. Through her mother, Jennie Simon, Aline was a first cousin of film director S. Sylvan Simon. She graduated from Barnard College, then immediately got a role on Broadway in The Madras House (1921). She was to appear in over two dozen plays on Broadway over the years. Notable stuff in the ’20s included the revues the Grand Street Follies (1922 and 1924) and Artists and Models (1925), and a critically acclaimed revival of O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1926-27). In 1928 she married architect and city planner Clarence Stein, founder of the Regonal Planning Association.

An interesting digression here. After MacMahon’s father died in 1930, she encouraged her mother, then in her 50s, to take up acting. She did. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Under the screen name “Jennie Mac” she appeared in several of her nephew S. Sylvan Simon’s comedies, including Whistling in the Dark (1941) with Red Skelton; Rio Rita (1942) with Abbott and Costello; Tish (1942) with Marjorie Main, Zasu Pitts, and MacMahon; and Salute to the Marines (1943).

MacMahon’s first film role was a small part in Five Star Final (1931) with Edward G. Robinson. Other notable pictures MacMahon appeared in included Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1934); O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1934); Dragon Seed (1944, for which she was nominated for an Oscar); The Flame and the Arrow (1950) with Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo; and Diamond Head (1963) with Charlton Heston.

In 1960, she starred in All the Way Home (1960), the Broadway adaptation of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. The screen version (1963) was her final film role. She then made Broadway her focus, appearing in nine plays over the next dozen years including revivals of Galileo (1967), Cyrano de Bergerac (1968), Mary Stuart (1971), The Crucible (1972), and Trelawney of the Wells (1975). She also appeared occasionally on television; her last small screen part was in a tv movie directed by Lee Grant called For the Use of the Hall (1975). Stein died in 1975, no doubt a factor in the timing of MacMahon’s retirement from performing.

MacMahon was 92 years old when she passed away in 1991. That might seem old, until you read that Jennie Mac was 107 when she finally gave up the ghost in 1984.