Monday, September 15, 2014

Pre-Code Parade and After: the domestication of Aline MacMahon

You're going to see two newspaper ads here, one giving Ann Dvorak top billing in Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning, the other featuring Guy Kibbee as the title character of William Keighley's Big Hearted Herbert. The actual star of both pictures is Aline MacMahon, who during 1934, the year of Code Enforcement, underwent a kind of metamorphosis. Heat Lightning appeared in March and is still a Pre-Code picture ... boy, is it Pre-Code. In it, MacMahon is a woman disappointed in love who has set up a motor park and garage in the middle of the desert to get away from men, and has dragged her kid sister (Dvorak) with her. As Olga, MacMahon parades around in mechanic's overalls and is all business while Dvorak as Myra years to have a good time with a boy in the city, despite Olga's warnings. All sorts of interesting people pass through: a henpecked Edgar Kennedy with Jane Darwell for a wife; an elderly sugar daddy with two of Warner Bros.' most blatantly predatory gold diggers hovering over him, but not really caring to get too close; successful gold diggers Ruth Donnelly and Glenda Farrell returning from Reno with Frank McHugh as their chauffeur and, apparently, Farrell's lover; Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot as fugitive bank robbers. Turns out that Foster's character is Olga's old flame, and despite all of Olga's disdain for men and romance, and all her unheeded warnings to Myra, the flame rekindles, or so it seems. Just as Myra returns from her first tryst, just as disappointed and heartbroken as Olga predicted, Olga overhears Foster telling Talbot that he'd seduced her just to give Talbot time to crack the safe where Farrell and Donnelly have kept their jewels overnight, with their car in the shop. So of course she kills him, and then life goes on. The story, based on a play, seems like a draft version of Petrified Forest in some respects, and LeRoy's film is an ambitious production. He seems to have built a detailed set on location in the desert, then reproduced it on a soundstage so he could do the heat-lightning effects in night scenes. The sets allow him to do fairly lengthy tracking shots as characters walk around the grounds, as well as interesting point-of-view shots, e.g. from MacMahon's grease-monkey pit underneath a car. Heat Lightning is one of the climactic Pre-Code films and one of the sleaziest without being salacious like the Warners' gold-digger comedies. MacMahon grounds it with her understated performance as a frustrated, repressive, mature woman (aged 35) whose last chance for love has lethal consequences.

Big Hearted Herbert was released on the other side of the historic dividing line, in October 1934. In another adaptation of a play, MacMahon is the wife of Guy Kibbee (aged 52). The actors first met on-screen in Gold Diggers of 1933, but were teamed formally beginning with May 1934's The Merry Frinks, a dysfunctional-family comedy. After Herbert, they teamed up three more times over the next year, including an adaptation of Sinclar Lewis's Babbitt in which Kibbee played the archetypal bourgeois "boob" of the 1920s. For comparison's sake, Preston Foster was one year MacMahon's junior. As for Kibbee, Herbert arguably marks his domestication as well as MacMahon's. He could be a satyr in Pre-Code comedies, all the more transgressive for his age and sometimes-repulsive manner. But in Herbert both actors are thoroughly desexualized, and the film plays more like a TV sitcom. MacMahon does have top billing on-screen but Kibbee understandably dominates the film as the sort of reactionary who might be more recognizable today than his and Lewis's Babbitt is. Herbert Kalniss is a self-made man who rose from humble plumber to self-consciously humble bath and sink manufacturer, the sort who boasts incessantly and ad nauseum of being a "plain man" while spewing contempt for alleged elitists of all sorts: collegians, lawyers and other professional men. In short, the title is ironic if not sarcastic. MacMahon is the long-suffering wife, a more intelligent Edith Bunker who turns the tables on her husband after he humiliates his potential in-laws -- his daughter has returned from college with a fiance as a fait accompli -- with his tirades and arrogant crudities. For revenge, or simply to teach a lesson, she embarrasses Herbert in front of his business cronies by dressing down (with her kids) and behaving like a complete rube. That's the payoff -- well, she does threaten to leave him before he finally repents in characteristically grudging fashion -- and it just seems childish, sitcom-ish. Of course, you can't say a film like this wouldn't exist in the Pre-Code era, but Big Hearted Herbert seems like what the powers behind Code Enforcement wanted movies to be. It's a mildly entertaining movie entirely on the strength of Kibbee's stormcloud of a performance, but I'd understand if people find Herbert hateful rather than funny. The sad thing about it, especially if you happened to watch Heat Lightning first, as I did, is how diminished, desexualized and domesticated Aline MacMahon is, as if the actress of Herbert is the MacMahon Code Enforcement wanted, for reasons lost to time. What a waste.

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