Any cinephile will scoff at designating Fredric March an “alternate super star.” After all, he won two Academy Awards for Best Actor and was ranked the equal of his unofficial rival, Spencer Tracy, who also won two Oscars. Both had the chance to spar with one another in Inherit the Wind (1960). However, because there is no The Films of Fredric March, I summarize his sterling career here.
March was born in Racine, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During World War I he was an artillery lieutenant in the army. After the war he became a banker but by 1920 was a movie “extra” in New York City-based films. This was followed by a contract with Paramount Pictures.
March won his first Best Actor Academy Award for director Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). In Hollywood in the Thirties, author John Baxter wrote, “Mamoulian’s inventions for the scenes showing Fredric March’s change from Jekyll to Hyde would alone have made this film memorable. Determined to engineer the transformations without resorting to cuts or opticals, Mamoulian conceived on the spur of the moment a system in which specially toned makeup, coloured lights and coloured filters were used to change the look of March’s face.” There was more to it than that. Makeup turned him into a veritable ape-man in tux and cape.
In the following year’s World War I film, The Eagle and the Hawk, March gave another superb performance. According to Thomas Doherty in Projections of War, March was “extraordinary…as the burnt-out pilot (with what was not then called the thousand-yard stare).”
Like Cary Grant, March never tied himself to a long-term studio contract, which necessitated taking any role you were given or else be suspended. Also like Grant, he was adept at screwball comedy and successfully traded bon mots with Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937). Nor did he seem out of place in historical epics, playing Marcus Superbus (!) in The Sign of the Cross (1932). Fantasy was also up his alley, and he played the title character in the still amusing Death Takes a Holiday (1934). He did very well in large-scale films based on huge historical novels. Think Garbo’s Anna Karenina (1935), as Jean Valjean in the estimable 1935 production of Les Miserables, and Anthony Adverse (1936). He was the doomed Norman Maine opposite Janet Gaynor in the first version of A Star is Born (1937). High-octane films were inter-mixed with prestigious stage roles in The Skin of Our Teeth, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and An Enemy of the People.
In 1946 he was the lead in The Best Years of Our Lives, the Best Picture Academy Award winner for which he won his second Oscar. A movie that never fails to touch viewers’ heartstrings, especially those who participated in World War II or whose parents did, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die called it “one of the best American movies about returning soldiers ever made—certainly the most moving and deeply felt. It bears witness to its times and contemporaries like few other Hollywood features, and Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography is incredible.” The Essentials called it “A deeply beloved American film from the moment it opened in December 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives spoke to a generation affected by World War II on the battlefield and on the home front.”
In the 1950s March played his age: Willy Loman in the 1951 film version of Death of a Salesman, furniture manufacturer controller in Executive Suite (1954), admiral in The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), television network president in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), widowed clothing manufacturer conducting an affair with a young receptionist (Kim Novak) in Middle of the Night (1959).
Like Henry Fonda, in the 1960s March had the maturity and gravitas to play the President of the U.S. Curiously, both had that opportunity in 1964: Fonda in Fail-Safe, March in Seven Days in May.
To summarize, Fredric March’s career was second to none. He chose his roles wisely and deserves to be ranked among the “great stars.”
Arnold, Jeremy. The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter. 2016.
Baxter, John. Hollywood in the Thirties. 1970, c1968.
Doherty, Thomas. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. 1993.
Schneider, Steven Jay, ed. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 2019.