An overdue thing on Fredric March (Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel, 1897-1975), a topic so Brobdingnagian and daunting I’ve deferred it for years, choosing to write around it in various posts which we’ll link to here.
March was the actor’s favorite actor, admired by giants like Marlon Brando and William Holden, but also widely praised for his example as a human being, not just as a professional but as a “right guy”. I find it fascinating that he hailed from Wisconsin, a state which gave us Orson Welles and Spencer Tracy around the same, because March is a kind of combination of the techniques of both actors: the chameleon-like proclivities of the former, and the simple, solid directness of the latter (Welles was from Kenosha, Tracy was from Milwaukee, March was from Racine. What was in the water?) I find it interesting to read that in 1938 he came in second in a poll as to who should play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Because, rather unlike, Clark Gable, and many other movie stars of that generation you could name, March’s fame has not much survived outside the hardcore cult of serious film and theatre buffs. Not only was he the sort of actor who disappeared into roles, but he had a quiet, uneventful private life without a lot of womanizing, serial marriages (just the two, not many by Hollywood standards), fisticuffs, partying and such-like that has traditionally contributed to the “legends” of many Hollywood figures. And, of course, March was as much a creature of Broadway as he was of Hollywood.
One thing that set March apart from the majority of showfolk was that he was so NORMAL. His father was the President of the Racine Hardware Manufacturing Company; his mother, of English birth, was a teacher. March was an extremely well-liked guy is his youth, and what we call a “joiner”. He was president of his classes in grammar school, high school and college, managed his college football team (University of Wisconsin), participated in track, Greek life, and drama club (his only real theatrical training and experience before becoming a professional). (Unfortunately, March’s fondness for joining clubs may have risen to bite his legacy in the ass, as we shall see at the conclusion of this post.) March took a break from college for a year to serve in World War One as a lieutenant in the U.S. army artillery. He’d worked as a bank teller since high school, and this is the job that sustained him in his early adulthood, straight through his early time in New York. March initially planned for a future in banking, but a near death experience (ruptured appendix) convinced him to do the thing he loved the most, and that was acting. So, we see one thing that set March apart in show biz. He was in no sense a malcontent or a misfit. He’d lived a bit of the kind of life many people did. (This reminds me a little of the early life of Douglas Fairbanks, who’d worked on Wall Street for a time).
March worked as a silent movie extra starting in 1921 and as male model for advertising illustrations for time, for such well known artists as Charles Dana Gibson and Howard Chandler Christy. He got his first Broadway part in 1924, in a show called The Melody Man with Lew Fields and Puck and White. His stage name is a shortening of his mother’s maiden name (Marcher), with the first name shortened as well, so the full name would have 12 letters, 12 being his lucky number, hence the unique spelling. Several other plays followed, climaxing with Devil in the Cheese (1926-27) with Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. In 1927 he divorced his first wife and married fellow actor Florence Eldridge, his stage and screen partner in many productions.
March’s first proper screen role was in The Dummy (1929) opposite Ruth Chatterton. This was followed by The Wild Party (1929), Clara Bow’s first talkie. The camera loved March’s dark good looks; the mic loved his pleasant, melodious voice. He was in a dozen films in 1929 and 1930, culminating in his first truly star-making turn as the John Barrymore character in the Kaufman-Ferber comedy The Royal Family of Broadway. (I’m going to go out on a limb and I.D. the still at the top of this post as being from that production. He’s looking a little Profiley there, with a bit of matinee idol pomp to his hair.) March was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Given this Barrymore connection, I love that his next classic film was the title role in the 1931 version of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Barrymore had famously starred in the silent version a decade before. (And Tracy would star in yet another version a decade later!) I wrote about all the versions here. March won an Oscar for this chilling and true performance. It’s certainly the first of March’s films I ever knew about, when I was kid exploring classic horror, back when that was a thing a lot of kids did, much as they nowadays explore Star Wars, Harry Potter, MCU, or what have you.
For most of the ’30s March was a straight-up top of the line movie star, establishing his association with several types of films that would characterize his career straight to the end: prestige Hollywood blockbusters; adaptations of stage hits; adaptations of novels; and biographical portrayals. Examples of all these from the ’30s: the Hollywood blockbusters included Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) and The Buccaneer (1938) and the original version of A Star is Born (1937) in which he created the role of Norman Maine. Stage adaptations included Jane Cowl’s Smilin’ Through (1932), Noel Coward’s Design for Living (1933) with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins, and Death Takes a Holiday (1934). Roles from novels included Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (1935), Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1935, opposite Garbo), and the title role in Anthony Adverse (1936). As for historical characters, he played the title role in The Affairs of Cellini (1934), Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and Bothwell in Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland (1936), directed by John Ford, with Katharine Hepburn in the title role.
In the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s March periodically returned to Broadway, for reasons we’ll get into below. Among those productions were Kaufman and Hart’s The American Way (1939), the original production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth (1942-43) and A Bell for Adona (1944-45). He unthinkably turned down the role of Willy Loman in the original 1949 stage production of Death of a Salesman, but played the role in the 1951 screen version after witnessing Lee J. Cobb’s triumph.
March’s films of the ’40s included the comedies Susan and God (1940) with Joan Crawford and I Married a Witch (1942) with Veronica Lake; William Wyler’s post-war drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), for which he won his second Oscar; the title roles in the bio-pics The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) and Christopher Columbus (1949), and the screen adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest (1948). In the ’50s he starred in Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope (1953), Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Robert Wise’s all-star melodrama Executive Suite (1954), William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours (1955) opposite Humphrey Bogart, Alexander the Great (1956) with Richard Burton, and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) with Gregory Peck. He then created the role of James Tyrone in the original Broadway stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which ran from 1956 through 1958. On top of that, from 1954 through 1959, he starred as Ebeneezer Scrooge in numerous television adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Around the turn of the next decade, March worked a bit with Paddy Chayefsky, appearing in the screen adaptation of Middle of the Night (1959) and the Broadway premier of Gideon (1961-62), directed by Tyrone Guthrie, which was March’s last appearance on a New York stage. In the early ’60s he starred in a couple of high profile liberal showcases that reflected his own politics: Inherit the Wind (1960) opposite Spencer Tracy (certainly one the first movies I ever saw him in, though he’s fairly disguised in a fat suit and a bald wig); and Seven Days in May (1964) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, in which he plays a dovish U.S. President on the receiving end of an attempted right-wing coup. He played a racist professor in Martin Ritt’s western Hombre (1967), adapted from an Elmore Leonard story and starring Paul Newman.
March returned to O’Neill for his final screen appearance, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 adaptation of The Iceman Cometh. I don’t know if I’ll EVER be able to watch this one, as it features Lee Marvin, an actor I can’t stand, as Hickey, a role that BELONGED to Jason Robards. And has lots of other cheesy people in the cast as well. But it’s also the last film of Robert Ryan. Perhaps the best way to watch this film would be drunk on well whiskey, just like the characters.
Now, as we have mentioned, March was an outspoken, committed liberal. He was one of the founders of the Hollywood Anti-Lazi League in 1936, five years before the rest of the industry became outspokenly anti-Fascist. He was investigated by HUAC as a Communist sympathizer throughout the late ’30s and early ’40s, probably one of the reasons he returned to the stage for a time. He worked with the NAACP, and was an advocate for Civil Rights. His penultimate film was the progressive Jim Brown picture tick…tick…tick…(1970). But unfortunately, when March was about 19 years old, he had briefly been a member of a club called “the honorary Ku Klux Klan” which was not affiliated in any way with the actual Ku Klux Klan and had nothing to with its beliefs or activities. As a result, in 2018 his alma mater caved in to student pressure to remove his name from theatres and other facilities that were named after him. There is a very good article about this here in Bright Lights Film Journal. Rest assured, if March had been a member of the ACTUAL Klan…if he HADN’T been a proponent of Civil Rights and worked with the NAACP, I’d be right there with the students. But this one isn’t even grey. The man actively worked for the rights of people of color at a time when most white people didn’t care (even more than now). But if you find yourself getting indignant on his behalf (as I did), it might be well to imagine what his own attitude to the affair might be, given what we know of his character and personality: “Ah, the kids are right. That was thoughtless of me. Shouldn’t have done it. Let ’em name it after somebody else.”