Fredric March was born 120 years old today, an actor whose final Broadway appearance was in 1962’s Gideon, by Paddy Chayefsky. Having once been a theatre mainstay, there are not many around anymore who can recall the sterling work March performed in a career that spanned thirty-eight years on the New York stage. But due to his work in more than eighty films between 1929 and 1973, his legacy is secure as one of the most indelible actors of the twentieth century. I was first exposed to him as a kid when I was obsessed with the1960 film version of the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee stage play Inherit the Wind, which I would watch as often as I could on my parents' old black and white TV. I didn't know who March was, but I was instantly taken with an actor who went toe to toe with the grand old man, Spencer Tracy, easily my favorite movie star back in the day.
Spencer Tracy, Harry Morgan (as the Judge) and Fredric March in Inherit the Wind (1960).
Over the years, I expanded my March madness and fell in love with the Wisconsin born actor, who seemingly never turned down a challenge. Except for musicals, nothing was off limits. He excelled at light comedy in such films as Nothing Sacred and I Married a Witch, opposite Carole Lombard and Veronica Lake (respectively). He effortlessly channeled John Barrymore and Errol Flynn in the films The Royal Family and The Buccaneer, swaggering and swashbuckling in as romantic and charismatic a fashion as either of them. He portrayed noteworthy literary characters in adaptations of classic novels like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, opposite the Javert of none other than Charles Laughton, and Count Vronsky to Greta Garbo's Anna Karenina. And, in addition to Inherit the Wind, starred in the film versions of plays as varied as Noël Coward's Design for Living; Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. But his crowning achievement was his Oscar winning performance in 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, as a returning World War II vet. Considered by many as one of the finest movies ever made, William Wyler's direction and Robert E. Sherwood's screenplay helped craft a film for the ages. At its center is March, whose performance brings together all the things that made him such a fine actor: a marvelous listener, commanding when necessary, fiercely comical (his drunk work in the film is better than excellent) and even shyness and vulnerability. His scene with Myrna Loy where he doesn't know how to begin to reconnect sexually with a wife he loves with all his heart and soul, is a killer.
Myrna Loy and Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
As a young man starting out, his good looks took him far quickly, but he transcended being just another pretty face relatively early in his film career, when at age thirty-four, he took on the title roles in the first talking version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (for which he won the first two of his Academy Awards). The makeup devised for his Mr. Hyde so terrified me as a child, that to this day I have never watched the film. My father told me that as a small boy (age seven when the film came out), he hid under the seat in his local Brooklyn movie house, which I'm sure added to my general terror. I mean, if my father couldn't take it, how was I supposed to manage? Judge for yourself. It's not a pretty picture.
March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), makeup designed by Wally Westmore and Norman A Myles.
March was the recipient of the very first Tony for Best Actor in a Play in 1947, sharing the award with Jose Ferrer for his Cyrano de Bergerac (with no nominees in the first few years, it was not uncommon for there to be more than one winner). This first Tony was for March's performance in the actress-playwright Ruth Gordon's autobiographical play Years Ago. March then took home a second Tony in 1957, when he created the role of James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's epic Long Day's Journey into Night. In fact, March is the only actor to have won both the Academy Award and the Tony Award twice.
Playing Mary Tyrone to his James, was Florence Eldridge, March's own wife of many years. Having performed in numerous plays and films together, including the original production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, the O'Neill play was a tremendous challenge for the Marches, ultimately providing career triumphs for them both.
Fredric March and Florence Eldridge in Long Day's Journey into Night (1956).
March worked hard at his chosen profession (or did it choose him?). He liked to tell the story of one of his earliest acting teachers at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Madame Eva Alberti, who told him, "Son, if you don't come off the stage feeling you want to go right back on again and do it better, there's something wrong." His having spent so many years working in the theatre, I found this interesting quote from March, that goes against how the majority of actors feel about sustaining a long run (he did Long Day's Journey for two years -- and it's a loooong play): "There are advantages in being in a long run," he said. "You should see plays after they've been around for a while if you want to see the best performances ... The actors are more relaxed in their parts."
March as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (1935) and with Clara Bow in The Wild Party (1929).
His final film was again a chance to lock in a great stage character for posterity. His Harry Hope in John Frankenheimer's 1973 film of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh wound up as one of his best. "What did you do to the booze, Hickey?" cries Hope, confused and tormented by Theodore Hickman, his one-time friend who demands out of the blue that he and all the denizens of Hope's seedy waterfront salon look past their pipe dreams and open their eyes to reality: one that is sadly not within their grasp. March finds ways in the role to be clownish, frightened, proud, dim-witted and shrewd on yet another grueling long day's journey, provided once again by O'Neill.
At the end of the road in The Iceman Cometh (1973). Both March and Robert Ryan gave career best performances in what were their final appearances in a film.
In 1975, Fredric March died at age seventy-seven from prostate cancer. His wife survived him, and when Florence Eldridge died thirteen years later in 1988, she was interred next to him on the grounds of an estate they owned in New Milford, Connecticut. Nearby stands the Merryall Arts Center, which in 1952, was purchased by the Marches (along with a group of other homeowners) on the land where an old farm had once stood. They converted the barn into a performing arts center which is still in operation today, where concerts are given bringing arts and culture to this once sleepy rural community.
So on the occasion of his 120th birthday, thanks to Fredric March for not only the legacy of the great performances he left behind, but for helping provide a home for new artists to practice their craft that carries on in his memory.
The Merryall Arts Center, New Milford, Connecticut (2017).
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon.com. I invite any and all comments at Ron@ronfassler.org