Is Fredric March really one of the finest actors of the classic film era, and of all time? Yes. Yes, he is. In his own time, March was heralded as one of the masters of his craft and was in many famous and celebrated films and plays equally, a rarity in its time. Even during the method actor craze, March was still recognized as one of the, if not the, best actors in movies. His screen and stage presence inspired other greats like Marlon Brando and William Holden, who he would later beat out in a 1955 poll of the finest screen actor. Even today, classic film buffs of all ages and backgrounds still agree that he was one of the best of the bunch. You can say that he easily deserved the two Oscars he won and the long list of remarkable films to his credit, but were they all worthy of such a name? Were his characters, both comedic and dramatic, ones that we are glad such a triumphant actor got to play? In short, it depends on the era in March’s career.
While March’s performances and films were always above average, there is a clear decline in quality at the very beginning of his career and activity during his time being viewed unfavorably by HUAC for his liberal political beliefs. At the beginning of March’s filmography at Paramount, March was more of a leading man at first to their score of leading ladies under contract to the studio. His roles could have been played by any actor assigned to them, though not as competently. For instance, his work with Clara Bow in some of her vehicles obviously favored her still popular appeal, even though he had some stage work to back him up as a solid actor. The main instance of the interesting variety of roles March was getting at the beginning of his career can be tracked down to The Studio Murder Mystery (1929) where he has the more interesting caddish role in the film but is the murder victim of the mystery and hardly on screen. An enjoyable movie and role to be sure, but not one that you would give to the great Fredric March.
It luckily didn’t take Paramount long to realize the full-fledged talent of their contract player when he was nominated for his most delightful John Barrymore spoof in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930) and won the award for the dual role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), one of the few actors to win for a horror performance. While there were quickies and programmers assigned to March like any other actor, no matter how great, March’s list of films began to improve with such memorable assignments as the WWI ace flyer suffering from PTSD in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), Death turned to life and experiencing it for the first time in Death Takes a Holiday (1934), the romantic poet who comes to Elizabeth Barrett’s rescue in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and the man who comes up in the world in Anthony Adverse (1936), to spotlight a few. No matter what film March was given, he proved to be exceptional and was believable in any role he was handed, even as a man of Ancient Rome in The Sign of the Cross (1932), a (believe it or not) has-been actor in A Star Is Born (1937), and a fast-talking reporter in Nothing Sacred (1937).
While going between the stage and the screen is certainly difficult, with it being hard to be still bankable in either after a hiatus of going to another, March proved that it could be done more than any other actor of his time. Around the time he was in hit after hit on the screen, he also dazzled audiences in such plays as “The Skin of Our Teeth”, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, and “Gideon”. He won two Tony Awards for his stage career, the same number of Oscars he earned. Into the ‘40s, March’s parts got more sporadic, but were much showier for his overall talents. The best of the bunch included being the charming small town pastor in One Foot in Heaven (1941), the confused politician in love with a disguised witch in I Married a Witch (1942), the whimsical real-life character in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), and his second-Oscar win as a returned veteran trying to readjust to life in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), where he and his all-star cast members made true screen magic.
Despite growing noticeably older, leading roles were still easy to come by at a time when they were hardly available for actors of an older age who weren’t being passed off as a strapping younger man, but a man his actual age. He gave some of his most reserved yet powerful performances in such winners as An Act of Murder (1948) and Death of a Salesman (1951), where he was still the star. He also eased into character roles much better than most actors of his stature and still remained an over-the-title star and stole his scenes in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and The Young Doctors (1961). Even reaching the age of sixty, he was still able to be leading man material in such fine contributors to ‘50s films as The Desperate Hours (1955) and Inherit the Wind (1961), both films had him holding his own with other critical darlings as Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. March was smart in deciding or playing his movies, he could make a forgettable film suddenly memorable by being in it and giving it his all and he made wonderful films bona fide classics by making them their most effective. What’s there is much more good than bad, allowing him to live up to his reputation as a star and a damn fine actor.
Three Recommended Underappreciated Films:
There Goes My Heart (1938)
Bedtime Story (1941)
Back in the days of classic Hollywood, when someone asked an actor or actress who was the best actor, a name frequently would come up in just about every answer: Fredric March. It could be helped that few actors dedicated themselves so full-heartedly to both cinema and the stage equally, but it was undeniable that March just was one of the best and remains one of the best. He never had the show stolen from him and he never felt out-of-place in genres ranging from screwball comedies to poignant dramas, from horror movies to historical epics, and from costume pieces to fantasies. March was perfectly fitting just about everything and that was because he was able to adapt to any kind of situation. Many actors would likely state that the best at their craft aren’t the ones that could do one thing really well but the ones that could do many things equally well. As an audience member, I only know that March held the attention on him, and it was hard to pay attention to anyone else when he was on-screen, yet he also was able to comfortably share the screen with his co-stars to the point where he never came across as a ham or a mugger.
While most of March’s first films haven’t aged well, he was at least able to hit the ground running in terms of getting leading roles. His first true standout performance came with an Oscar nomination for doing a spot-on impression of John Barrymore in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930). Much like Barrymore himself would have done, March stole the show. This led to better vehicles such as playing the title roles in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) for which he won his first Oscar. His transformation from respected doctor to lust-driven beast is certainly something to behold and something above other on-screen adaptations of the classic tale. Other great films and roles from the time period came with Smilin’ Through (1932), The Sign of the Cross (1932), The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), and Design for Living (1933).
March kept going up in terms of quality films, but he always delivered a strong performance no matter what type of film he was making. He is excellent as Death in Death Takes a Holiday (1934), he is reliable and ideally cast as Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), and he was a perfect fit for Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (1935). He was able to hold his own against such talented co-stars as Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935), Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935), and Katharine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland (1936). While March always was able to lend a light touch to his serious material such as his performance as Death or in his romantic scenes in Smilin’ Through, he was hardly ever in comedies at this point in his career with such exceptions as The Royal Family of Broadway and Design for Living. March proved he could give a full-out comedic performance in Nothing Sacred (1937) which includes the classic moment of him boxing Carole Lombard leading to him getting knocked out.
One of March’s greatest screen triumphs was as the tragic Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1937). It was the original version of the oft-filmed story although much of its plot was taken from the previous What Price Hollywood (1932). It was the type of role that required hard dramatics as well as lighter, cuter moments to which March was more than apt at handling. If March wasn’t so believable and so good in the role, the dramatic strength of the film would not be there.
When the 1930s were ending and the 1940s were beginning, March made some good but underrated movies but he also made notable movies such as the “Best Picture” nominee One Foot in Heaven (1941) which he was perfectly cast in as well as I Married a Witch (1942) which remains a terrific fantasy-comedy all these years later. By the time the 1940s passed its mid-point, March garnered his second “Best Actor” Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He gives a powerful and entertaining performance in the post-WWII classic. The scene of him coming home after several years is well-regarded as one of the great moments of cinema.
By the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s, March still was a big enough name to carry a film, although he was usually playing older leads to better suit his age. For instance, he played Willy Loman in the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman which seems like dream casting to anyone familiar with the play. He ended up graduating past leading roles and more into strong supporting parts. He was able to be solidly cast in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Desperate Hours (1955) and opposite Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind (1960), but most of his roles were in support. At least the supporting roles were great parts and usually in great films, however.
Fredric March’s film library is filled to the brim with worth-watching films. He hardly made a bad film and most of his bad films came from the start of his career before he had more leeway in Hollywood. Basically, March knew how to pick good films and good films went out-of-their-way to seek March. March was widely considered to be at the top of his field, and he remained loyal to Hollywood while holding his status as being one of Broadway’s best leads at the same time. Even if March’s films themselves weren’t worth seeking out, March would always be worth the price of admission and he probably even makes a few of his movies seem better than they are. Great actors can make you forget the actual quality of the film at hand and instead have you enjoy the what is there just the same. March did this along with the very best of them.
Three Recommended Lesser-Seen Films:
There Goes My Heart (1938)
Trade Winds (1938)
Bedtime Story (1941)