With a career spanning over 50 years, actor Fredric March was definitely an enduring talent. He witnessed the silent era, the shock of ‘the talkies’, the golden age of studio-controlled moviemaking and the emergence of Hollywood’s greatest threat, television. However, when people talk of stars and classic leading men, names like Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and James Stewart come to mind but not March’s. Even respected film organization the American Film Institute (AFI) snubbed him in their noteworthy 1999 list of the “Top 50 Greatest Screen Legends,” despite the fact he had been the recipient of two Academy Awards and another three nominations. With a body of work consisting of around 70 films and dozens of successful stage and television performances, March’s life and career is not one that deserves to be forgotten.
Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel on August 31, 1897 in Racine, Wisconsin to middle class parents, March entered into the film industry by chance. According to film historian Charles Tranberg, author of the recently published biography Fredric March: A Consummate Actor, March’s career began from a need for a little excitement. “March was living in New York working as a banker when he decided to become an actor. He found banking a bore and was excited by the stage. But he was no overnight success. He got some stage work–but still had to support himself as a model. He did modelling for several top magazines of the day.” The need for a stable income drew him from the lights of New York to a platform of another kind: Hollywood, where he began performing as an extra for Paramount in such films as The Great Adventure and The Education of Elizabeth (both 1921). After these appearances March packed his bags again and returned to New York and the stage. It “was really his true love and between occasional parts on Broadway he toured the country and did summer stock,” said Tranberg. “It was while performing in summer stock at Elitch Garden in Colorado that he met Florence Eldridge who would become his second wife.”
A few years later, while performing in The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, he was noticed by a Paramount executive and offered a contract. The early 1930s brought widespread change to Hollywood’s operation; all-talking, all-sound films were in and stage actors with good looks, personality and perfect diction – like March – were in demand. He was instantly featured alongside the box office’s favorite leading ladies: Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Mary Astor and Nancy Carroll. His big break would come only a few years later with a starring role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), earning March his first Best Actor Academy Award win (in a tie with fellow nominee Wallace Beery, for The Champ). He worked continuously until a shift in American morality brought the beginning of the Hays Code and a restricted type of subject and storytelling. By this time March’s fame was just taking off and he decided to make a gutsy career move. “In 1934, March’s contract with Paramount was up and he did a very unique thing for that day–he decided to freelance. He didn’t tie himself to any one studio,” said Tranberg. “So he went to MGM for Anna Karenina, Goldwyn for The Dark Angel, 20th Century-Fox for Les Miserables, Warner Bros. for Anthony Adverse and Selznick for A Star is Born. By doing so he was able to command top salary and by the late ’30s he was one of the highest paid actors in the industry.”
Even the advent of World War II had little effect March’s film successes, with leading roles in Bedtime Story (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942). A few years later, in 1946, he reached another peak, receiving his second Best Actor Oscar for a moving performance together with Myrna Loy in the post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives. But the closure of the war and the growing communist threat left its mark on March with his reputation and career deeply affected by the accusation that he – as well as many others – was a communist. He fought back, clearing his name and used the setback to move into other arenas, such as television and the stage. March was an extremely versatile actor, according to Tranberg, “[h]e could play in costume pictures, romantic love stories, comedies, war pictures, adventures, and serious drama–many different genres without being typed.”
March moved on from his public and reputation slumps with the 1950’s and ’60s bringing another dynamic and powerful collection of films. These include Death of a Salesman (1951), The Desperate Hours (1955), Inherit the Wind (1960) and Seven Days in May (1964), the last three opposite other legendary leading men ( Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster, respectively). The last of these projects March completed while seriously ill. He appeared in a handful of parts until his last role in The Iceman Cometh (1973), alongside Lee Marvin, in which March remained incredibly professional and focused. He died two years later, aged 77, from cancer in Los Angeles, California. He is remembered today more for his individual films then his entire body of work or media personality like other screen legends. Tranberg commented, “What made him such a great actor–his ability to submerge his true personality into any role he played is also why, I think, he is not as well recalled today (as opposed to contemporaries such as Stewart, Grant and Bogart). He didn’t have a recognizable screen persona that he carried with him from film to film. He was a true creative actor opposed to a personality star.”
Emma Alsop is a classic movie-obsessed university student from Australia. Her current passion is the pre-Code era, and her aim is to make everyone love it as much as she does.