Old movies: the films of Fredric March

Fredric March in Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde
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In this week’s old movies column, we take a look back at the career of silent and classical film actor Fredric March. 

When people think of the Golden Era of Hollywood, there are many names that come to mind. Cary Grant, Clarke Gable, Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, and others are at the forefront. Even when you dive into the era I love – Pre-Code – then most will reminisce on Gary Cooper, Boris Karloff, Jean Harlow and more as the defining stars.

It may take some time before folk get to Fredric March.

Now if you’ve been an avid reader of my column then you would’ve seen that name crop up a few times. He is, after all, my favourite actor, and one of the few whose entire (available) filmography I have watched. It’s surprising, then, that I haven’t brought him fully into focus yet, and as it’s the season (March), there seems to be no better time than to guide you through one of Pre-Code’s most dashing and daring performers.


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Fredric March, born 1897 in Wisconsin, started his career as an extra in silent movies in 1921 such as The Devil, The Education of Elizabeth, and Paying the Piper. Towards the end of the 1920s, March had signed a contract with Paramount that would elevate him into stardom.

It’s often cited that director superstar Dorothy Arzner was the first to give March his big break when she cast him as the male lead opposite Clara Bow in The Wild Party (1929). The film, which sees March play a lecturer who falls for his rambunctious student Bow, propelled him forward as a leading man in Pre-Code films. He would work with Arzner three more times – in Sarah and Son (1930,) the brilliant Merrily We Go To Hell (1932), and one of my favourites, Honor Among Lovers (1931).

From Broadway darlings to Victorian monsters, Fredric March’s filmography is teeming with excellent roles. Highlights include romantic comedy Laughter (1930,) Cecil B DeMille’s biblical epic The Sign of the Cross (1930,) Ernst Lubitsch’s polyamorous comedy Design for Living (1931) and war drama The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) which also stared Cary Grant. I also don’t talk about this enough, but March also appeared as Death in Death Takes a Holiday (1934) – a meditative and gothic romp which inspired Meet Joe Black (1998).

Coming out of the Pre-Code era, March would lead a number of biopics and historical dramas. Before Alfie Bow and Hugh Jackman, the actor was Jean Valjean in a non-musical adaptation of Les Miserables (1935) playing opposite the tremendous Charles Loughton. The pair would also butt heads on screen again in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) with March playing poet Robert Browning. He would also play the hot-headed Count Vronksy in the 1935 version of Anna Karenina opposite Greta Garbo, and Bothwell in Katharine Hepburn-led historical drama Mary of Scotland (1936).

He’d also score an Oscar nomination for starring in the first film version of A Star is Born in 1937 (okay, second if you include What Price Hollywood? in 1932) with Janet Gaynor as Norman Maine. That was truly one of his greatest roles as a star clinging to booze and desperation. Romantic comedy There Goes My Heart (1938) in which March plays a reporter hunting down a wealthy heiress (Virginia Bruce) is also a highlight, especially the utterly charming ice-skating sequence.

Fredric March in A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born (1937)

Throughout the later years of his career, Fredric March would continue to electrify and gift us with some tremendous performances. The best of these include 1953’s Man on a Tightrope, which sees March as a circus leader who risks it all to save his troupe, 1960’s Inherit The Wind, as he turns villainous opposite Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, and Dick York, and 1959’s Middle of the Night, which is a meditative drama with Kim Novak.

As with most actors, there’s a fair share of duds in March’s filmography such as historical drama Anthony Adverse (1936) and utterly boring Christopher Columbus (1949). There are also a number of his films entirely lost to us which include Jealousy (1929), The Dummy (1929) and, the one that annoys me the most because it’s a musical (which I love), Footlights & Fools (1929).

Fredric March is one of two actors who has won an Academy and Tony Award twice (the other is Helen Hayes). His first Oscar win is for the stupendous Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931) which I wrote about at length here. His second was for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – a war drama about three men returning and struggling to assimilate back to their old lives. On the stage, he won accolades in 1947 for play Years Ago and in 1957 for Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Funnily enough O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh was made into a four-hour long film in 1973. It would be Fredric march’s last film appearance after developing cancer in 1970. He died in 1975.

There are some sketchy moments in his life that are worth discussing. There were tumultuous relationships with fellow actors, most predominantly Veronica Lake in I Married A Witch (1942). Also, at university, despite changing the name of the group, and the student fraternal organisation having no ties to the infamous racist group, he did join the Ku Klux Klan. But also, Fredric March was an outspoken proponent of the civil rights movement and worked closely with the NAACP. He also formed the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League with the likes of Fritz Lang and Dorothy Parker.

With such a rich cinematic history and filmography, Fredric March is a consummate actor. There’s a fluidity to his performances which is unparalleled by any of his peers. He glides into scenes and, at times, he can also chew the scenery. There are also insightful and intriguing performances. From the light-hearted romances to the desperate dramas,  and dipping into horror on occasion, March is astonishing to watch. He has a particular talent also for portraying alcoholics or men on the verge of a nervous breakdown, delivering anguish exceptionally well.

Plus, he has oodles of chemistry with nearly every woman he starred opposite – including Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, Sylvia Sidney, Carol Lombard, and most importantly, his wife Florence Eldridge. They starred in seven films together, including the brilliant An Act of Murder (1948).

There are over 70 films available in Fredric March’s repertoire and I would love to talk about them all. If you have a favourite, I would love to know! So, whilst the month is upon us, why not dive into a Fredric March film and fall madly in love with Pre-Code’s most accomplished and inspired star?

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