March TCM Star of the Month
TCM went a little cutesy on us this month, and named Fredric March Star of the Month for March. March Madness indeed!
Star of the Month
Ok, I am going to be up front here and say Fredric March has never been a favorite star of mine. I have never found myself saying, “Gee, I sure could go for a Fredric March movie right now.” In fact, when I found out he was SOTM, I was pretty sure I had never seen a film of his. Then I took a look at his filmography and realized that I actually have seen quite a few of his films—I just didn’t remember he was in them! So…obviously Mr. March has not made a lasting impression on me. But, maybe this will be the month to change all that!
Charles Tranberg’s 2015 book, “Fredric March: A Consummate Actor,” seems to be the definitive reading material if you are a fan of Mr. March. Maybe by the end of the month, after watching a few of his films—and being aware that he is in them—I will be intrigued enough to read the book. But at this moment, I’m just not there! Here is a brief outline of his life, and some interesting facts about Fredric March I found through my research.
Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel
He was born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel on August 31, 1897 in Racine, Wisconsin. March studied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a young man. While at university, he was a member of “an interfraternity society composed of leading students ‘formed at the college in 1919 named Ku Klux Klan.’”
According to the University of Wisconsin, however; this club March was a part of during his university days “appears to have had no connection with the national Klan organization, but…the choice of name signals an identification—or at the very least, no meaningful discomfort—with the widely known violent actions of the Reconstruction-era Klan…”
Hmmmm…if Tranberg’s book sheds more light on this aspect of March’s college years it is certainly worth a read. I was unable to find any other information about this, but thought it was a rather shocking bit of March’s college years to come across. Klan affiliation or not, March’s membership in this university club led to his name being removed from a theater at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh branch in 2018. The theater had previously been his namesake since 1971.
After university, March served one year as an artillery lieutenant in the United States Army during World War I before beginning a banking career in New York City at the First National City Bank (what is now Citibank). His banking days were short-lived. After an emergency appendectomy, Fredric felt his destiny was to become an actor. Inspired by stories his landlady recounted to him during his convalescence about her days as a theater actress, he decided to try his hand at acting.
The model known as Fredric March
March modeled at the start of his acting career to help make ends meet. He even posed for such legends as Charles Dana Gibson and Howard Chandler. Pretty cool! He also realized not long into his new profession that “Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel” was not a name for the marquees. He came up with “Fredric March” by using his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, “Marcher.” He shortened the spelling of “Frederick” to “Fredric” and “Marcher” to “March” because 12 was his lucky number. “Fredric March” would bring his name down to a lucky 12 letters.
The name must have brought him luck! Fredric began playing bit parts in films made in New York City in the 1920s. (Believe it or not, NYC is where the film industry began! It was transplanted to Hollywood partly because filmmakers discovered how much money could be saved filming in coastal, Southern California, where there are no seasons to affect filming schedules.)
The Marches Go to Hollywood
March also acted in stage productions, and in the summer of 1926, he met Florence Eldridge, an actress also trying to make a name for herself. The two were married in 1927 (March’s second marriage after a brief first marriage to Ellis Baker).
The Marches eventually found themselves in Hollywood, and that is where March made his first film to attain classic status, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in 1931. His turn as the split- personality title character also garnered March his second Academy Award nomination, and first win! Interesting side note, apparently the make-up March wore for the Hyde personality was so intense, he was hospitalized for three weeks after filming. His co-star Rose Hobart said he could very well have been disfigured, and was “lucky he wasn’t ruined for life.” Can you imagine? Talk about dedication to your craft!
A Clark Gable?
The 1930s marked the beginning of Fredric March’s great popularity as a film actor with audiences of the time. Believe it or not, in his heyday, March was thought to be right up there with the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, and Spencer Tracy in handsomeness. (Sorry, I just don’t see it! March was a talented guy, but in my opinion, he is just not on par in the looks department with any of those guys but Tracy.)
In the 1930s and 40s, March co-starred with such film legends as Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Veronica Lake, and Myrna Loy. Talk about cream of the crop! Maybe that is why I forgot I had seen so many of his films? I mean, when you are co-starring with the likes of these fantastic ladies, it is quite easy to be overshadowed!
I found little hints and tidbits through my research on Mr. March that, despite his 48-year marriage to second wife Florence, he was not the most loyal husband. And it seems that there were several of his leading ladies who did not want or ask for his attentions. But because of his immense talent as an actor, nobody ever really publicized his bad behavior or brought it to light. So so sad. I would be interested to find out the facts substantiating or refuting these claims. (A subject that reviewers say Tranberg’s book discuses, but not in too much depth. I don’t want to know the details, I just want to know if March was a decent guy or not!)
Returning to the stage
Throughout his film career, March would take breaks to star in theater productions, sometimes with his wife, and sometimes without success. In fact, 1938’s “Yr. Obedient Husband” failed so miserably that the Marches made a public apology, buying advertising space in New York newspapers, showing a cartoon depicting a trapeze artist failing to catch his partner with a caption reading, “Oops! Sorry!” The play must have been pretty bad! Good for the Marches for their tongue in check reaction and sportsmanship!
March was nominated three more times for the Best Actor Oscar, for A Star is Born (1938), The Best Years of Our Lives (1947), and Death of a Salesman (1952). (He won a second Oscar for Years of Our Lives.) Playwright Arthur Miller is said to have written the play “Death of a Salesman” with March in mind for the Willy Loman character. However, when Fredric read the script, he turned the role down flat, stating that the play was “too grim.” The role went to Lee J. Cobb, and as we all know, Salesman was a huge success on Broadway. “Boy, I sure blew that one,” March later said. Luckily he still got his chance at the role on film, if not on stage.
From the late 1950s on, Fredric worked predominantly on the stage to great acclaim in such classics as Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. But some of his best-film performances were yet to come, most notably in Inherit the Wind (1960) and The Iceman Cometh (1973). In fact, Iceman director John Frankenheimer called March “…the best actor I ever worked with.” The film was released a mere two years before Fredric’s death from prostate cancer in 1975. He was revered for his skill as an actor quite literally to the end of his life.
Perhaps his jumping between film and stage contributed to Fredric March not acquiring the “legend” status that many of his contemporaries did. (We can’t all be Henry Fonda, you know!) Whatever the reasons for his talent and film contributions being lesser-known today, let’s enjoy watching Fredric March this month on TCM!
Don’t miss him next week in:
Anna Karenina (1935) on March 13that 1:30am ET
Mary of Scotland (1936) on March 13th at 3:15am ET
Anthony Adverse (1936) on March 13th at 5:30am ET
The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) on March 13th at 8:00am ET
Christopher Columbus (1949) on March 13th at 10:15am ET
It’s a Big Country (1952) on March 13th at 12:00pm ET
****And, if you don’t already know this, if you miss a movie that TCM plays, you can watch it ONLINE! Yes! If you have dish or cable, you can log in on the TCM website through your dish or cable provider, and watch films that you missed live on TCM for up to a week after their air date. It is so awesome. I really wanted to watch Design for Living on Tuesday, but with the busy-ness of the day, it just did not happen. That is most likely the Fredric March film I will review next week, and TCM makes it possible because of their awesome website. Seriously, take advantage of all the classic films they generously put at our disposal!! (: