Aline MacMahon in Heat Lightning

Publicity portrait of Aline MacMahon in the 1930s.

Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies.   Continue reading

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From Tenement to Penthouse: A Pre-Code Affair

Warren William and Marian Marsh in the Pre-Code drama, Under Eighteen (1931), directed by Archie Mayo.

Warren William and Marian Marsh in the Pre-Code drama, Under Eighteen (1931), directed by Archie Mayo.

One of several Pre-Code dramas helmed by Warner Bros. contract director Archie Mayo in 1931, Under Eighteen is a cautionary tale for the working girl that was lost in the shuffle of too many similar programmers released that same year. Seen today, it provides a unique window into the past when studios like Warner Bros. catered to Depression Era-audiences, particularly women, with movie plots that mirrored situations and circumstances in the lives of their audience.    Continue reading

Kay Francis as the Notorious ‘Spot White’

Kay Francis has that come-hither look in Mandalay (1934), an often overlooked Pre-Code drama

Kay Francis has that come-hither look in Mandalay (1934), an often overlooked Pre-Code drama

Today her place in film history rates little more than a footnote in the ascendancy of Warner Bros. as a major Hollywood studio, but Kay Francis was their first major female star whom they had lured away from Paramount in 1931. During her peak years for the studio between 1932 and 1935, she specialized in melodramas, soap operas and lightweight comedies which accented her elegance and chic fashion sense but also stereotyped her in increasingly inferior films.

She was dethroned by Bette Davis as Warners’ top star in 1936 and, by 1938, she was labeled “box office poison” in an article by The Hollywood Reporter. Still, there are several essential must-see titles among the more than sixty-five movies that she made (Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise [1932], Jewel Robbery [1932], Wonder Bar [1934], for example) and Mandalay (1934) is one of her best dramatic showcases as well as an enormously entertaining, eyebrow-raising Pre-Code wonder. (It was made before the Code was officially enforced but released after the fact.)    Continue reading