Sunday, 20 October 2013

Fredric March: A Consummate Actor - An Interview with author Charles Tranberg

With over 70 screen appearances and countless stage and television performances, Fredric March one of Hollywood’s classic heavyweights. Add to the list of achievements two Academy Award wins and three nominations, one Golden Globe and a handful of other accolades to his long list of successes. However, even with a career that spanned from the silent era, to the talkies, the golden studio age and the coming of television, he is often forgotten compared to his contemporaries, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper. For over fifty years he was a stable and enduring part of Hollywood’s A-list and for the most part a massive hit at the box office. Below is an interview I conducted with author and film historian, Charles Tranberg on his newly published biography, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor and the life of March both in front and behind the camera.

EMMA: Where did your interest in classic Hollywood come from and why did you choose Fredric March as a focus for a biography?

CHARLES: I grew up in the Los Angeles area and there were local TV stations that would show old black and white movies--I one was called The Million Dollar Movie and so as a kid I got exposed to a lot of older films and classic movie stars.  That led to an interest in reading about these movies and those stars of yesteryear. 

I chose Fredric March as a subject because I believe that he is an unjustly forgotten actor of that era.  I was amazed when a few years ago the American Film Institute chose the fifty acting legends and the name Fredric March wasnt among them.  If that same poll had been taken in 1955, Fredric March would have been among the top names listed.  It was amazing to me how far his star had fallen.  I feel he deserves to be rediscovered and so I decided to do a book. 

EMMA: You have written books on Robert Taylor, Fred MacMurray, Agnes Moorehead and even the Thin Man series, what attracted you to these topics? Which did you enjoy researching and writing the most?  

CHARLES: I got started quite by accident.  I always wanted to write a book but I had no idea of what to do or if I could even do it.  I now live in Madison, Wisconsin and one day I went to the Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives just to look around.  I was going thru the list of collections they had and discovered that they housed 159 boxes of Agnes Moorehead material.  I was interested because I knew of her not only as Endora on Bewitched but also as an Oscar nominated character actress and one of the great voices of old time radio.  So I go thru some of these boxes and see scrapbooks, scripts with notes in her own hand, letters, cards--you name it--and I was hooked.  I decided then and there that I was going to use this material as the foundation for a book because there had never been a full length biography of Moorehead written before and I was determined to write it and did so.  Luckily it was also published!

I think with Fred MacMurray I felt he was an unjustly overlooked classic age star.  He was remembered for his TV series My Three Sons and all those Disney movies--kind of a national father figure.  But here was a guy who had been around since the mid 30s acting opposite the most delicious actresses of his time:  Colbert, Lombard, Hepburn, Stanwyck, Arthur--the list goes on and on--without being overshadowed by them.  He was a wonderful romantic leading man--and very adept at light comedy--and when necessary could handle a meaty dramatic role.  He dominates Billy Wilders Double Indemnity, for instance.  Stanwyck is fantastic in it--but its really MacMurrays film--Actually I should say its MacMurray and Robinsons film--that is the real love story of the film.   Neither was nominated for an Oscar for that film and they deserved to be.

I put Robert Taylor along with MacMurray--unjustly overlooked, but in Bob Taylors case a lot of people think he was a light-weight pretty boy.  I think, however, he grew as an actor.  He also worked opposite some of the great actresses of Hollywood and married one of them--Barbara Stanwyck.  He gave some excellent performances in some wonderful films:  Waterloo Bridge couldnt be better than it was with Vivien Leigh and Bob Taylor.  Leigh wanted Olivier to be cast opposite her, but the studio wanted Taylor and he was perfect.  Later on Leigh admitted that it was her favorite film of those she made including Gone With the Wind.  I think he out acts Hepburn in a wonderful little psychological drama called Undercurrent; He does a superb job in a nifty little noir titled High Wall; plays an American Indian who fights in the Civil War and becomes a hero but is treated with bigotry when he returns from the war in Devils Doorway; and is truly an obsessive evil man in The Last Hunt.  There were more dimensions to Robert Taylor and I wanted to explore those. 

March and Clara Bow in The Wild Party (1929)

EMMA: March began his film career as an extra, what qualities or events turned him from part of the crowd to a leading man?

CHARLES: 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.  This gave him a little extra money, but then he found out that he could get even more money working as an extra in films at the Paramount-Astoria Studio--as much as $8.00 per day or $40 per week which was some real money back in those days.  But in actuality he only did a few movies and in every one of them he is an extra.  He returned to the stage which was really his true love and between occasional parts on Broadway he toured the country and did summer stock.  It was while performing in summer stock at Elitch Garden in Colorado that he met Florence Eldridge who would become his second wife.  Shortly after they married they made a lengthy tour of the country for the Theatre Guild and while in the midst of this tour he was offered the role of Tony Cavendish (really John Barrymore in disguise) in The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.  He had to turn it down because he was committed to this Theatre Guild tour.  Later, when he was free, he was invited play the part in a national tour of the production. 

It was while The Royal Family was playing in Los Angeles that Paramount movie executives saw him and were impressed not only by his good looks and acting ability but also by his voice.  Silent films were going out and talkies were coming in and the studios wanted actors who had stage trained voices.  Paramount felt he would be perfect supporting some of their silent leading ladies as they made the transition to talking pictures.  Over next few years he supported Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Mary Astor, Nancy Carroll, Mary Brian and others as they made the transition from silent to talkies.   Eventually he did the film version of The Royal Family of Broadway (1930) and stole the movie with his flamboyant performance and was nominated for the first time for an Academy Award as Best Actor.  I would say that was his real breakthrough as a movie actor and it eventually led to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), which was a real tour-de-force and one of the gems of pre-code Hollywood. 

EMMA: His first Oscar win was a notorious tie with Wallace Beery, what was the circumstances surrounding this decision and what was Marchs reaction to it?

CHARLES: Back in those days if there was a one-vote difference between the top two nominees it was called a tie.  March had one more vote than Beery, so under the Academy rules of the day it was called a tie.  So March got his first Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Beery got his Oscar for The Champ.  March made a very witty acceptance speech.  He and Beery had both recently adopted a child and March said something to the effect that it was a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.  Very funny and witty--March really did have a good sense of humor.  It brought down the house.  March had no adverse reaction to sharing the award with Beery--after all they both got their own statuette and didnt have to share custody of one trophy.

March in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)
EMMA: During the mid-1930s March always seemed to receive strong, dramatic A-film roles, such as, Anna Katerina (1935), Les Misérables (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936) and A Star is Born (1937). Was he an incredibly ambitious man or did other factors like the studio system or luck play a part?
CHARLES: In 1934, Marchs contract with Paramount was up and he did a very unique thing for that day--he decided to freelance.  He didnt tie himself to any one studio.  He did sign a two-picture deal with Fox which allowed him to do outside pictures.  Now remember most actors of the studio era were under contract to a studio as March was originally with Paramount.  But he didnt like being tied to one studio which dictated what pictures he would make, he wanted to have the say in what films he would make and negotiate the best terms he could.  So he went to MGM for Anna Karenina, Goldwyn for The Dark Angel, Fox for Les Miserables, Warners 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.  He liked having the variety of scripts that he was offered which he never would have gotten had he just tied himself to one studio.  As usual luck was on his side because it was by no means clear that an actor could succeed freelancing in those days but March had the talent to succeed and as it turned out nearly every studio in town wanted his services during the 30s. 

EMMA: His acting career spanned almost 50 years from the silent era to talking pictures to television, through it all remaining popular and relevant. What do you think contributed to his longevity, was it pure talent or the ability to reinvent himself that made March enduring?

CHARLES: I think what made him an enduring star during his lifetime was the fact that he did such a variety of pictures and so many of them became classics.  He could play in costume pictures, romantic love stories, comedies, war pictures, adventures, and serious drama--many different genres without being typed.  Its not all together true that his popularity didnt wane.  After The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) for which he justly received a second Oscar--his film career kind of fizzled for several years.  In part it was due to his name being among those accused of being a Communist sympathizer during the blacklist period.  He wasnt--He was a dedicated liberal democrat--never a Communist.  He fought back, too, and won a retraction from a vial publication called The Red Channels.  Unlike some of those accused he didnt sit back and take it--he fought back and without naming names.  But for a few years he didnt get the top offers from Hollywood that you would expect.  He did some good minor films such as Another Part of the Forest (1948) and An Act of Murder (1949) that failed at the box office.  He then returned to the stage for a few years.  Even Death of a Salesman (1951) didnt perform well at the box office.  Eventually he did come back in popular esteem by the mid 50s. 

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 Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Bogart).  He didnt 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: March also continued doing stage appearances regularly over his career; which medium do you think he preferred?

CHARLES: For much of his career he said he preferred the stage and he certainly did have his share of considerable successes including The Skin of Our Teeth (1942-1943) and especially Long Days Journey Into Night (1956-1958).  He was awarded two Tony Awards--including the very first one ever awarded to an actor (for the 1947 play Years Ago).  But near the end of his career and life he finally said that he preferred the screen.  Perhaps it was age--working in the theatre can take a lot out of a person, but finally it seems it was because film lives on while a stage performance is just a memory.

EMMA: March did some of his best performances during the 1950s and 1960s when he himself was well into his 50s, such as, Death of a Salesman (1951), The Desperate Hours (1955), Inherit the Wind (1960) and Seven Days in May (1964). Do any of these films stand out to you? Was this period just a continuation of his previous successes in the 1930s or like a second career?

CHARLES: I think in Death of a Salesman he humanized Willy Loman, however, the playwright, Arthur Miller, didnt like his performance at all.  He felt he played Willy as a lunatic.  March later felt he didnt do justice to the part.  Originally Paramount wanted Spencer Tracy for The Desperate Hours, but Tracy decided to pass on it and March was cast.  He made a strong and compelling counterpart to Bogart--yet you could sense the fear he also felt--after all he was just an ordinary man up against this gang that was terrorizing his family.  In this instance the screenwriter was full of praise for his performance and rightly so.  Inherit the Wind is a marvellous film but I think Stanley Kramer occasionally allows March to overact as the Bryan character.  March usually told his directors to tone him down and not allow him to ham it up and at times Kramer didnt rein him in.  I wonder if it was because Tracy was always underplaying?  I think one of his finest pieces of acting is his president of the US standing up against a coup in Seven Days in May.  The confrontation scene between him and Burt Lancaster is a masterpiece of screen acting.  I would also say that Middle of the Night (1959) is another of Marchs late career triumphs. Of course his final film performance, which he made while he was very ill was Iceman Cometh, and he was unbelievably good in that, too—especially considering how ill he was. 

I would say during the 30s he was a true movie star--but by the 50s and 60s he is still a star but more of a character star as opposed to a big name box office star.  His name was often used for prestige as if well if it has Fredric March in it--then it must be an important picture.

March in Seven Days in May (1964)
EMMA: During this period, March also dabbled in television even hosting his own program Tales from Dickens ­­- did his like this new type of entertainment and the different demands it put on actors, for example, the live format and no retakes?

CHARLES: He adapted to television well and did several programs--including playing Scrooge in a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol with Basil Rathbone as Marleys Ghost.  He also played Dodsworth and hosted/narrated several TV documentaries during the 1960s.  He didnt think television was the ideal medium--he felt it was too rushed.  But he also didnt dismiss it as many actors of his day did--he saw that television was here to stay.  He actually made his TV debut in the very early days of the medium in a live production of Twentieth Century in 1949 with Lili Palmer.  He went up on a line and Palmer had to bail him out. 

EMMA: From the surface Marchs private life seems unremarkable and admirable, unlike many of his contemporaries. Was this true and are there any elements of his non-professional life that the public are not aware of? Also, did he have any hobbies or interests outside of acting?

CHARLES: I think that many people didnt know that he had been married prior to Florence Eldridge.  But he did have a short-lived marriage that really was a mistake and he was married when he met Florence and fell in love.  He left his wife and sent his brother to arrange a divorce--not exactly admirable.  He did love Florence and admired her as an actress.  They were married for 47 years.  But he also acquired a reputation in Hollywood as a womanizer.  There is no proof that he had any long-term mistresses or anything like that but he may have had a few one-night stands and he did make kind of adolescent passes on starlets and even established stars--Claudette Colbert told Rex Reed that March had twenty fingers and they were all over my ass.   Elia Kazan said that when Florence was around he was the somewhat staid and obedient husband and then when she was away he turned into this fun-loving guy who loved to tell dirty jokes and loved to get a little on the side.  But for all of that March was also one of the great acting talents of his day, a committed and concerned citizen and a husband who enjoyed working with and being challenged by his wife--somebody he respected and adored--and in his way always looked out for. 

When he and Florence did Long Days Journey Into Night, March was getting most of the accolades and people were coming back stage to tell him how marvellous he was and he would ask them, what did you think of Florence? and they would say, she was wonderful, and he would say, why dont you go and tell her.  His hobby was running his farm in Connecticut where he and the family could just be together away from the grind of Hollywood or New York and enjoy each other’s company.  Later when his daughter had married an Italian businessman he and Florence would spend every other summer with them in Italy.  They did enjoy traveling a great deal as well.

EMMA: This is your seventh book, do you have plans for any other biographies in the future?  

CHARLES: I am currently doing a book on William Conrad who is best known probably as Cannon on the popular 70s TV-series, but he also was one of the great voices of dramatic Old Time Radio and was especially good as Matt Dillon radios Gunsmoke.  He also was a producer and director during the 60s which was an interesting period of his career that probably many people dont know about but which I hope to examine. 

March and his wife Florence Eldridge
This is Charles’s seventh book, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor and others can be found at the Bear Manor Media website and Amazon.        



  1. Thank you for this interview. There is so little known about this wonderful actor and it is amazing that this is only the second book ever written about Fredric March (the other being 1971's The Films of Fredric March).

    Fredric March's work lives on in his films and I'm confident there are people that will continue to discover his movies.

  2. I just saw "Middle of the Night" on tv last night. Wonderful movie, great performances by Fredric March and Kim Novak in a Paddy Chayevsky play-turned-movie. Highly recommend.