The very first Fredric March performance I saw was actually during the “William Holden phase” of my classic film self-education. The film was the 1954 corporate boardroom drama Executive Suite. March has a supporting role as Loren Shaw, the company’s fiscally conservative Controller. Shaw is difficult, obnoxious, and just downright infuriating. He’s simply unlikable. I hate to admit this, but I have a bad habit of disliking an actor if I hate a character they have portrayed. After watching Loren Shaw weasel his way to the top of the executive food chain, all while attempting to discredit the beloved William Holden, I took it personally. “No one hurts my William Holden and gets away with it”, I thought. I’m ashamed to say it, but at that moment, Fredric March was added to my shit list.
In all honesty, it is a testament to his acting prowess.
A few years later, TCM featured March during their annual Summer Under the Stars festival in August. I don’t know what possessed me to sit down and watch this actor I thought I loathed, but it doesn’t matter. What I do know is how I felt watching a master of his craft: simply awestruck. I watched every film TCM aired that day, with little reliance on my DVR. I immediately began searching for all of his films and slowly amassed a majority of his filmography. One thing I quickly realized about Fredric March is that he is largely forgotten today, despite his two Academy Awards (plus many nominations), two Tony Awards for best actor (he and José Ferrer tied for the first ever Best Actor Tony in 1947), and a career that spanned half a century.
Although March is not remembered in mainstream pop culture like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or even Fred Astaire (remember when he and Stanley Donen choreographed that famous “vacuuming on the ceiling” number?), he is remembered by the classic film community. Not only remembered, but respected and adored. I discovered this through interactions with fellow film bloggers and communities on social media sites. Although so many cinephiles admire his work, a lot of his filmography is still under-seen. One reason for this is that many of March’s films from early in his Paramount days are either caught up in rights disputes, or reside in the depths of Universal’s library (Universal obtained much of Paramount’s catalog from the 1930s-1940s).
Today the Retro Set is celebrating March’s life and career on what would’ve been his 117th birthday–August 31st (still lookin’ good, Freddie). We’ve put together a list of essential Fredric March performances, featuring some of his lesser-known films. We hope this encourages discussion and most importantly, inspires those who are not familiar with his work to give him a chance. March once said:
Stardom is just an uneasy seat on top of a tricky toboggan. Being a star is merely perching at the head of the downgrade. A competent featured player can last a lifetime. A star, a year or two. There’s all that agony of finding suitable stories, keeping in character, maintaining illusion. Then the undignified position of hanging on while your popularity is declining.
He may have not held much stock in stardom, but for me and all the wonderful people who admire his work (and those who have yet to discover him), Fredric March’s star still shines bright.
Essential (under-seen) Fredric March
1) The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), dir. George Cukor and Cyril Gardner
When Fredric March made The Royal Family of Broadway, he had already been in over a dozen films (not including his uncredited extra work in the early 20s), with six of them filmed in 1930 alone. He had the matinee idol looks, and showed great aptitude for his craft, but lacked the influence to fight for choice roles. He was a strong leading man for his leading women (like Ruth Chatterton, Clara Bow, Mary Brian, Mary Astor), but many of the films didn’t have significant, sink-your-teeth-into roles for men. It wasn’t until March made Broadway that he finally managed to win his first challenging role. March had first portrayed the character of Tony Cavendish in a Los Angeles production of The Royal Family, the original source material for the film adaptation. The Cavendish clan was a parody, with a hint of homage, to the Barrymores–John, Lionel, and Ethel–with the role of Tony being awfully similar to that of John (a.k.a “The Great Profile”). March reprised his role as Tony in the film adaptation in 1930 to rave reviews. Although the part is a supporting one, March delightfully steals scenes with a wave of his hand. It was this performance that earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and caught the attention of audiences and studio executives alike.
2) Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), dir. Dorothy Arzner
Fredric March made four films at Paramount under the direction of the great Dorothy Arzner, not including the vaudeville-style cavalcade of stars Paramount on Parade in 1930. Probably the greatest film March made under Arzner was the pre-code drama Merrily We Go to Hell, co-starring the great Sylvia Sidney. March already had an Academy Award under his belt for his starring role in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and had shown audiences he was equally adept at drama as well as comedy. It is his role as Jerry Corbett in Arzner’s film that he got to explore another corner of his dramatic abilities: the alcoholic. Although not perfected until his turn as Norman Maine in William Wellman’s A Star is Born, March’s drunkard is rarely topped.
3) Death Takes a Holiday (1933), dir. Mitchell Leisen
March is great in dual roles. After all, he helped give the horror genre legitimacy with his performance as the tormented Dr. Henry Jekyll and his sex-crazed, barbaric alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. In Death Takes a Holiday, the dual roles of Death and Prince Sirki may not be as demanding or intense as Jekyll and Hyde, but March still manages to give each one individuality and mystique. Also, unlike a lot of the films March was contractually forced to crank out during his time at Paramount, Holiday is really damn good. The story, supporting cast, and especially his leading lady Evelyn Venable–all exceptional.
4) Les Misérables (1935), dir. Richard Boleslawski
It’s always surprising to hear fans of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables say they’ve never seen the 1935 adaptation. Although it’s not entirely faithful to the novel, it is probably the best of many attempts to cover the long, difficult journey of protagonist Jean Valjean (March) and his charge Cosette (Rochelle Hudson), while they continually escape the pursuit of the despicable Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton). The greatest thing about this film are the exchanges between March and Laughton. The two actors had already worked together in Cecil B. Demille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Sidney Franklin’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street (previously covered on the Retro Set here). Although there is some indication (in interviews and anecdotes) that March and Laughton didn’t particularly get along, there’s absolutely no inkling of that in their performances together.
Note: The 1935 version of Les Misérables is currently streaming on Netflix.
5) Middle of the Night (1959), dir. Delbert Mann
In the 1930s and on into the early 1940s, Fredric March played the part of handsome leading man very well. This changed after his Academy Award winning role in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Like he said in the aforementioned quote, March knew his time at the peak of Hollywood stardom was coming to a close. He made the decision to adapt to smaller, yet no less significant roles. He was in several ensemble films, like Executive Suite (also written about here) and It’s a Big Country, and graciously played support to the newer talents such as Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and William Holden in The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954). In 1959, March tackled a romantic lead, albeit an unconventional one, in Middle of the Night, a film adapted from a play by the great Paddy Chayefsky. His leading lady? The beautiful and wildly popular Kim Novak. The result is a gut-wrenchingly honest and real portrayal of new love and romance found late in life. This is perhaps March’s finest role.
This is only a small sampling of Fredric March’s exceptional career. If this list was made again, there would probably be five completely different films deemed “essential.”
He was that good, folks.