The discovery of new artists and the rediscovery of established ones are key components of curatorial work. An exhilarating part of curatorial work is the ability to be something of a cultural archeologist and bring to the fore an artist whose work has been consigned to the past due to changing critical taste, shifts in technology, and the demands of motion picture economics. As a longtime Fox Films contract director, Hamilton MacFadden (American, 1901–1977) is indeed worthy of thoughtful rediscovery.
Hamilton MacFadden was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1901, just a few years after the birth of motion pictures in the U.S. His entry into the world of performance came as an actor on Broadway in 1923, in the American adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s drama Floriani’s Wife. MacFadden continued to act through 1925, when he performed his final role in George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s comic Beggar on Horseback. The play was a hit in the Broadway drama season of 1925, and was later made into a Paramount Pictures film of the same name, directed by James Cruze and starring the jocular Edward Everett Horton. (Interestingly, Beggar on Horseback examined the intersection of art and commerce and what artists need to do in order to feed their aesthetic passions as well as their bellies!)
Stepping from the front of house to behind the curtain, MacFadden took on the pivotal titles of producer, director, and stage designer from 1925 through 1929, assuming key production roles in The Carolinian (1925), Gods of the Lightning (1928), One Way Street (1928), La Gringa (1928) and Buckaroo (1929). As he said adieu to the Broadway stage, MacFadden’s curriculum vitae was packed with the foremost names in American theater, Maxwell Anderson and Tom Cushing among them.
Upon his arrival in Hollywood, MacFadden married actress Violet Dunn and soon was put under contract to Fox Films. Work as a contract director basically meant that you went to the studio every day, received a directorial assignment that hopefully played to your strengths, and completed the picture. This was not ignoble work, and some directors broke out to become notable on their own, but for the hundreds and hundreds of films made in the heyday of the studios, the contract director kept the pipeline full of new releases. MacFadden’s work might not be as well known as such Fox kinsmen as John Ford, Frank Borzage, or Raoul Walsh, but his films were popular with audiences and critics alike.
One of MacFadden’s earliest assignments at Fox was Charlie Chan Carries On (1931), starring Warner Oland as the legendary detective. MacFadden went on to direct two other Charlie Chan films, The Black Camel (1931) and Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933), both of which also starred Oland, a Swedish American actor, as Chan—a role that may now be perceived as politically incorrect. MacFadden’s profile at Fox rose considerably when he was given the plum task of directing Stand Up and Cheer!, a feel-good movie produced to provide joyful diversion for filmgoers trapped in the Great Depression. The narrative of Stand Up and Cheer! was timely: President Roosevelt appoints a Secretary of Amusement to foment nationwide merriment. This was one of the seven feature films Shirley Temple made at Fox in 1934, and is cited as the key performance leading to the awarding of the first Juvenile Oscar, in 1935.
When Fox Films merged with 20th Century Productions, MacFadden’s contract was not renewed. By the late 1930s he was working for Republic Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Columbia Pictures, and he directed and wrote his last feature, Youth for the Kingdom (1945), for the Lutheran Laymen’s League.
Okay, I concede—MacFadden’s career did not rise to the extraordinary level of his colleague John Ford. But I do think MacFadden had a particular eye and ear for absurdity, irony, and the kind of comedy we now associate with door-slamming British farces. Take As Husbands Go (1933), based on a play by Rachel Crowthers, wherein two women from the Midwest go to Europe to find romantic excitement. One, Emmie Sykes (Catherine Doucet) is a wealthy widow who attracts the oddly named Hippolitus Lomi (Warner Oland), while her very married friend Lucille Lingard (Helen Vinson) falls madly and inconveniently in love with Ronald Derbyshire (G. P. Huntley, Jr.). When the ladies return to Iowa, foolishness ensues when Hippy follows Emmie and Ronald tags along. Lucille is perfectly happy with her husband Charles (Warner Baxter) and the comfortable, traditional life they lead. Is she willing to let it all go for Ronald?
Perhaps my favorite MacFadden film is the 1933 ghostly adventure Trick for Trick. Ralph Morgan (younger brother to Frank Morgan, the titular wizard in The Wizard of Oz) is a turban-wearing magician named Azrah. On a gloomy, windswept night, Azrah invites a coterie of interested parties to his gargantuan home on the Palisades, where he invokes the spirit world to aid in his quest to find out who killed his girl assistant. Azrah’s former partner, LaTour, has pinned the murder on him, and he must declare his innocence. Throughout Trick for Trick the doorbell rings, secret passages are discovered, bookcase panels turn and reveal hiding places—all enhanced by early but fabulously rendered special effects by William Cameron Menzies. MoMA has had a 35mm nitrate print of this film in the collection since 1975; in the 1990s, the film was preserved by making a new 35mm safety negative and a 35mm viewing copy.
The 1933 New York Times review notes that Trick for Trick, “in its amiable way, is good fun. It mystifies and it amuses.” This concise statement could also be aptly applied to Hamilton MacFadden’s career as a film director. MacFadden died in Queens, New York, in 1977.