WEIRDLAND: Fred MacMurray: Nice Guy On & Off Screen

Friday, August 09, 2013

Fred MacMurray: Nice Guy On & Off Screen

Fred MacMurray was born on August 30, 1908, in Kankakee, Illinois. Both of Fred's parents had ties to the small Middle Western town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Frederick MacMurray was the son of the Rev. T.J. MacMurray, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Beaver Dam. Fred's mother was Maleta Martin, whose father was the president of the Beaver Dam Telephone Company. Jacob Martin was a self-made man (having received his education in the public schools). When he took on his job of manager of the local telephone company, the exchange consisted of only a single subscriber, but through his energetic efforts, within a few years it had over 1500 members. Maleta and Frederick eloped to Chicago and were married on June 20, 1904. The pressures of the road finally got to be too much for Maleta, who eventually left her husband and returned full time to Beaver Dam with little Fred. Years later Fred and his second wife, June Haver, would be sitting in their living room listening to a concert on television. At one point in the concert there is a violin solo and June looked over to Fred and noticed tears in his eyes. She realized he was thinking of the father that he barely remembered. It is perhaps ironic that Fred MacMurray, the ultimate TV dad, grew up basically with no father.

Despite George Murphy's assertion that everybody loved Fred, there is some evidence that Bob Hope felt some jealousy toward the younger and better-looking man. "Hope began stepping on toes right from the first. Jealous of Fred MacMurray's good looks, Hope patronized him as a green kid and former saxophone tootler who couldn't put over comedy," Fred kind of hesitated when asked about Hope and said: "He was a pain in the ass." -Lawrence J. Quirk in his biography of Bob Hope "The Road Well-Traveled".

The showgirls in the Broadway play 'Roberta' did find Fred attractive but only one caught his eye, a statuesque brunette who appeared during the 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' number as one of the models in the background. "I saw a girl named Lillian Lamonte," Fred later recalled, "and smoke got in my eyes." For the rest of their lives together the song 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' would be considered their song. They met when the show was in rehearsals in New York in August 1933. Fred found the courage to ask her out and she accepted. Because both were limited of funds, they had a romantic but inexpensive courtship. It was love at first sight and very soon afterwards Fred was telling Lillian (whom he called Lily) that he loved her and wanted to marry her (they got married in Las Vegas in 1936 and went to Hawaii on honeymoon).

According to magazine writer Jerry Asher "He was a romantic and idealistic when it came to women, under all that rakishly casual exterior of his. Of course he was so sexy that women conceived elaborate strategies to get him in bed." Fred's chaste reputation even became the butt of a private joke attributed to Jack Benny, but Laurence Quirk thinks it is more likely to have been originated by Bob Hope: "Bob made passes at every woman in the show, according to MacMurray (a man who, despite of his come-on sexiness looks-wise was actually a chivalrous Puritan with women). Reportedly, Jack Benny once made a crude crack about MacMurray that he must have masturbated a lot to relieve sexual tension. This crack sounds like something Hope, who never liked MacMurray, might have dreamed up."

"Claudette and MacMurray were a natural fit. The warmth the two of them generated as they sat on a stone bench at the New York Public Library, eating popcorn, filtered into the audience, who thought of them as the ideal couple, until Gray arrived on the scene. Milland’s Prince Charming was so at odds with MacMurray’s common man that audiences hoped Marilyn would make the right choice." -"Claudette Colbert: She Walked In Beauty" (2008) by Bernard F. Dick

Hollywood writer Ruth Waterbury wrote that Fred "was perfect in 'Alice Adams' as the aristocratic suitor of shy Katharine Hepburn's underprivileged nice girl. You felt his honest sympathy and concern for the girl. I always saw Fred as a nice boy, nicely brought up, and he saved any itches he had in his pants for marriage. Many people in Hollywood admired and looked up to him for that."

'Hands Across the Table' opened in November 1935. Variety called the film 'first rate entertainment.' The New Republic reviewed: "Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray make an all-time copybook example of how to play a movie for what it is worth -with subtlety, and the sustained kind of charm that can be projected through the shadows of a mile of celluloid."

Fred MacMurray and Joan Bennett in 'Thirteen Hours by Air' (1936) directed by Mitchell Leisen. Leisen got another excellent performance out of Fred, this time extenuating his masculinity, and he enjoyed working with Bennett, too, who Leisen called a 'doll.'

Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937) directed by Mitchell Leisen

In her autobiography, Dorothy Lamour pays tribute to Carole Lombard: "Not only a great star, Carole was a beautiful woman inside and out and a great humanitarian. From the lowest to the highest paid, everybody at Paramount loved her". During 'Swing High, Swing Low' Lombard took Lamour under her wing in much the same way she had Fred in 'Hands Across the Table." Lamour and Fred also got along well, remaining friends for the remainder of his life and making one more film together several years later: "Star Spangled Rhythm" (1942).

Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in "True Confession" (1937) directed by Wesley Ruggles

Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray in "Café Society" (1939) directed by Edward H. Griffith

Carroll was a cool English beauty who excelled at playing one of Hitchcock's blonde heroines. She made a fine counter balance to Fred's all-American diamond-in-the rough masculinity. Their first film together was 'Café Society' (1939). Fred ended the decade by appearing in three comedies opposite two leading ladies -Madeleine Carroll and Irene Dunne.

Movie still photographer John Engstead once told the story of why Fred was less than enamoured by Carroll: "I said, 'Madeleine, Fred's coming in especially,' and she said, 'That doesn't matter. I'm not going to do it (some photo stills).' And this poor guy had come in especially on his off time, while her filming had finished early. And this is just being a bitch."

Fred and Lily were living in a modest, by Hollywood standards, home in Brentwood, twelve miles west of Hollywood. The house was described as 'a small, early-American affair whose sole Hollywood feature is a swimming pool." The house was at one time the home of Margaret Sullavan and her then-husband, agent extraordinaire Leland Hayward. On the property was a red barn which the Haywards had built as a place to house their children, which Fred converted back to a barn also used as a workshop. Joan Crawford would recall that they "had one of the few happy and well-adjusted marriages in Hollywood." Fred and Lilly often socialized with Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. So close did Lillian and Lombard became that Carole would later refer to Lillian as "really the most decent person I've met in Hollywood." For some years the MacMurrays had wanted children, but couldn't conceive, possibly because of the fragile nature of Lily's health. In 1940 they adopted a newborn blonde and blue-eyed baby girl, Susan.

Fred MacMurray, Mitchell Leisen and Marlene Dietrich in "The Lady is Willing" (1942)

Marlene Dietrich was used to her leading men falling in love with her, so she was apparently displeased when Fred, who she did find attractive, didn't respond properly to her allure. Film publicist Sid Bloomberg said: "Marlene hit on everybody. She believed it helped a film's chemistry if she slept with her leading men. Fred was an exception and she never forgave him for it. He was too devoted to Lillian -it truly annoyed Marlene." Leisen would later say that Fred was 'embarrassed' by Marlene and her transparent attempts to get him in the sack.

Fred considered 'Double Indemnity' his best film. "I enjoy comedy more than anything, I guess, but I honestly have to come back to Double Indemnity and say, that's my best role."

Due to pregnancy, Lynn Bari's only 1945 release was the Eddie Rickenbacker biography 'Captain Eddie' starring Fred MacMurray. He had sole star billing and Lynn, as nice Mrs. Eddie, was back under the title again. When MacMurray signed with Fox to do the film, he specifically asked for Lynn as his leading lady. MacMurray was six feet three so Lynn didn’t need to “scrunch down until I look like a question mark” as she did to play scenes with shorter actors. “I can wear my highest heels and my broadest shoulders and he’ll still make me look tiny.” -"Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames" (2004) by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner

Darryl Hickman acted in 'Captain Eddie' portraying Rickenbacker as a boy. "I remember Fred as being one of the shyest men I've ever met. He was just very quiet and laid back," Hickman recalls. "Fred would come in with his newspaper and sit down away from anybody else. I would walk by and suddenly hear 'Hello, Darryl', and it was Fred with his face hidden behind his newspaper. Everyone liked him and recognized that he was just basically a shy man." Hickman contrasted Fred's behavior with that of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, who he recalled loving being the center of attention in the MGM commissary. Fred and Lilly added to their family a year-and-a-half-year-old blond-haired blue-eyed little boy, naming him Robert, in 1945.

Paramount asked Fred to return in 1946 to team up with Paulette Goddard in the passable Mitchell Leisen comedy 'Suddenly It´s Spring'.

In 'Singapore' Fred was cast as Matt Gordon, one of the many anti-heroes who populated the screen during the late '40s. When he returns to his favorite hotel after serving five years during World War II, he can't help but reminisce about his pre-war life and the woman he loved and was engaged to be married, Linda (Ava Gardner). The filming went relatively smoothly until the day that Fred and Gardner shot a fire sequence which got out of hand when part of the burning ceiling caved in just narrowly missing Gardner but setting Fred's tropical suit on fire.

The two stars got along fine but didn't forge any long lasting attachments (Ava referred to Fred as 'great'.) Gardner assigned coded nicknames for other stars so that she could gossip on the set with other friends. Barbara Stanwyck was called 'short lips,' Deborah Kerr was 'Miss Continuation', and Fred had the rather innocuous coded name of 'Mr. Gordon.' As for Gardner, director John Brahm would later say, "She didn't have a brain in her head." The film didn't go anywhere at the box office despite its NY opening, where the first one hundred women were given a string of pearls.

Fred read the script of 'Sunset Blvd' and despite previously saying he would do 'anything' that Wilder offered him, he turned the part down finding the Gillis character too 'morally repellent' to do. It's puzzling that Fred (after having played a murderer in 'Double Indemnity') found Gillis -a desperate man, but not really a bad guy- repulsive. William Holden, ten years younger than Fred, gleefully accepted the role and finally cemented his stardom. He even won an Academy Award nomination for his work. Like 'The Best Years of Our Lives,' it was another lost opportunity for Fred.

Fred had a reputation in the industry of being parsimonious and dozens of stories have emerged through the years, real or imagined, of his frugality. Fred de Cordova, who directed Fred on 'My Three Sons', tells in his autobiography that 'nobody in the industry was as generous to charitable causes as Fred and June MacMurray.' And despite Fred's cheap reputation he never pulled anything like Cary Grant later did -charging 25 cents for autographs. Fred's cousin Lester Martin Jr. recalled that Fred was 'always nice to the public. He never turned down anybody who asked for his autograph."

Film publicist Sid Bloomberg recalls 'Fair Wind to Java' as the only time he ever saw Fred blow up at one of his leading ladies on a film set. "I saw Fred blow up only once. The leading lady was Vera Ralston, the mistress and then wife of the studio head (Herbert Yates, president of Republic), and she was basically an ice skater, not an actress. Vera kept blowing scene after scene and Fred wasn't used to it. He was used to working with professionals like Colbert and Goddard, and Ralston was not in their league and he almost walked." Claude Jarman recalls a scene where Fred and Vera Ralston were supposed to enact a 'passionate' love scene. When the scene was completed, Fred turned to a bunch of the guys on the set and said "I have to be nuts to be in this film." Jarman added, "He pretty much summed up how most of us felt."

Unfortunately, Lily would not live long enough to see the realization of one of Fred's finest screen performances: 'The Caine Mutiny'. In early June 1953 Lily was admitted to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, following a heart seizure. Her kidney problems further complicated her recovery and according to her physician Dr. Robert J. Kositcheck, Lily was in grave condition. Fred was at her side all through the final days and was often observed holding Lily's hand. On June 20, while in the hospital, Lily and Fred celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary. She died two days later with Fred at her side. Lily was only 45. Lester Martin maintains that it was Lillian's bulimia which caused the serious side effects which affected her kidneys and heart and kept her in poor health for much of her marriage to Fred.

Fred said that his marriage was 'so perfect' and 'we had a wonderful life.' Perhaps forgetting that Fred had just lost his beloved wife of 17 years, Stanley Kramer ('The Caine Mutiny' producer) wrote: "Fred MacMurray was a spectator in the scene of life, both in his work and in personal relations. He seemed strangely to have retired within himself." The New York Times called Fred's performance in 'The Caine Mutiny' excellent. There was also some talk that Fred would be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but Fred typically downplayed such talk. In the end, the only actors nominated were Bogart and the veteran Tom Tully.

In 'Pushover' (1954) Fred is back in 'Double Indemnity' mode once again. A pillar of the community, a career cop who goes bad over a dame. And not just any dame. Fred's a cop in his 40s and Novak, the femme fatale, more than twenty years younger. She needs a sucker, a 'pushover,' and, as always when Fred plays a heavy, he is confident on the outside but a marshmallow on the inside, easily manipulated by a woman he thinks he is one up on, but in actuality she is always one step ahead of him.

"MacMurray coldly kills the boyfriend and steals the money to provide a future for himself and Novak, but in film noir, things never work out that neatly. After mudering another cop who witnessed the earlier killing, MacMurray is gunned down tring to get away. As he lies in the street, seriously wounded as a result of turning crooked, he asks Novak the rhetorical question, "We really didn't need the money, did we?" No noir characters really need the money; they just want it, often for reasons they themselves do not understand. Even if they do understand, their choices are inexorably ruled by their own flaws and compulsions and by events in the world around them, ensuring their own destruction. "'Noir has a timeless appeal," says Eugenio Zaretti, art director for the modern film noir 'Slamdance' (1987), "because a noir hero has no exit, no options, and is constrained to do what destiny bids. People respond to noir because it is an element of daily life. We are all constrained,  because of conditioning, to do things we'd prefer not to do." -"Death On The Cheap: The Lost B Movies" (2000) by Arthur Lyons

Lauren Bacall and Fred MacMurray in "Woman's World" (1954) directed by Jean Negulesco

Arlene Dahl recalls Negulesco as 'an authetic flirtatious Hungarian' who would 'flirt with each of us [Dahl, Bacall and Allyson] and take us out to lunch, separately.' Dahl believes that June Haver helped bring Fred 'out of his shell.' She recalls the courting couple as being 'very affectionate and sweet to one another, just very loving.' Dahl also observed that Fred, basically a shy man, would blush, especially in the presence of women. After Lily's death, Fred told a reporter he wasn't sure he would ever marry again. By the holidays of 1953 the loneliness he felt over the loss of Lily was as acute as ever. John Wayne was having a 'Gay Nineties' party a few days before Christmas and invited Fred to come.

Singer and dancer June Haver was also invited to the party and was also hesitant about attending. Haver, the 'pocket Grable' at Fox, was the daughter of a strong-willed stage mother whose own hopes for a show business career never panned out. Haver was 'as sweet a human being as I met, a delightful woman,' according to Darryl Hickman. Actress Sybil Jason recalls Haver as being 'cute as a button and very warm and hospitable.' At the party June would recall being asked to dance by British film actor Laurence Harvey. June would later state that she knew right away she could fall in love with Fred. After all, this was the same man she worked with a decade earlier who impressed her as the kind of man she would want to marry. "He was kind of a challenge. I wanted to know what Fred was really like." They spent the rest of the time at the party locked in conversation together, pretty much ignoring everybody else. He took her home that night, but always a gentleman he didn't stay for the night. But the next day, Sunday, he came by June's apartment with his tools and fixed the plumbing in her bath room where the pipes had been leaking. June said, 'there he was, lying on his back on the bathroom floor, working on those pipes."

By late January 1954, while Fred was filming 'Pushover' with Kim Novak, Sheilah Graham was asking Fred in her syndicated column about rumors linking him to Ann Sothern, Eleanor Parker and June Haver. Graham ended her column by writing: "when he does decide to marry again, you can envy the girl. He has millions, he's attractive, considerate and about the best husband this town ever had." By May 1954 June felt it was time to ask Fred the big question, 'When are we going to get married?' Fred just grinned and said, 'Oh, we are? Well, I guess I'd better get you a ring.' She suggested 'something simple, a little pearl would be fine, that's my birthstone.' But Fred didn't want just a simple ring for June, he wanted her to have a diamond and even had one in mind, 'Red Skelton's good luck ring, the one he wore on his pinky.' When Red heard that Fred admired his diamond pinky ring he told Boo Roos that he would willingly let Fred have the diamond. Fred wouldn't hear of it and arranged to buy it and then have the diamond made into a ring.

Fred and June held their civil ceremony in Ojai, California, on June 28, 1954. The ceremony took place at the Ojai Valley Inn, in the room of Dr. and Mrs. Don Burger, the owners of the hotel. Fred slipped a circle of diamonds on June's finger while she gave Fred a plain gold band. Fred was 45 and June was 27. June was the perfect complement to Fred, where he was shy and withdrawn she was an extravert and outgoing. Lester Martin contrasted June with Fred's first wife: "Where Lillian was reserved and straightforward, very princess like, June was just the reverse, but they were both wonderful ladies and Fred was devoted to them both. He often commented to me on how lucky he was to be blessed with two happy marriages." Just before they got married Fred bought a new home for himself, June and the kids. He couldn't bear to live in the same house that he and Lily had shared and bought a ten-room colonial mansion in Brentwood from singer Nelson Eddy.

"June was one of the kindest women you'd ever want to meet, but the mother superior at her former convent would definitely not have approved one of her stories. 'Fred & I used to have a really big farm with a great big oakie tree on it. Do you remember that tree honey?' she asked as the color drained from Fred's face. He knew what was coming next, but by now June was unstoppable. 'Fred used to take me up there under that big oak and fuck the shit out of me, didn't you, honey? And he's hung like a horse.' She picked up the champagne bottle and, waving it around to emphasize the point, said: 'It´s as big as this, isn´t it, honey?' Then, probably to Fred's relief, she passed out." -"Moon River and Me: A Memoir" (2009) by Andy Williams

June had also determined not to return to work. Fred also didn't make any bones that he preferred to be the sole breadwinner of the family, but he wouldn't pressure June, it had to be her decision. She was tempted only once when she was offered a role in the film version of 'Guys and Dolls', but ultimately she turned it down: 'I had ten good years in the movies', she said. June found that even though she had come to love both Sue and Bobby, she had a natural desire to want children of her own. But she discovered that she could not conceive, which naturally disappointed her but rebounded quickly. June approached Fred to discuss adopting a baby. At St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, June found two red-headed baby girls who had been born prematurely. When Fred arrived, according to June, he telephoned their friends Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, who had also recently had twin girls, and asked Jimmy: 'What do we do? They're twins!" to which Stewart replied 'Buy two of everything.'

They named the girls Laurie and Katie. June said: 'you should have seen Fred. He worked like a frenzied boy putting up the bassinets, the bathinettes. He even helped with the night feedings, he was just marvelous.' His friends thought they had never seen Fred so happy. His pal Claude Binyon would later say 'Ever since those little girls arrived, Mr. Nice Guy has become even nicer.'

"Fred was always nice and very polite, but not an easy man to get to know. He towered over me like one of those monuments to big business on Wilshire Blvd. I felt inconsequential standing in his shadow. All I was looking for was a nod of acceptance, and I finally got it the day Fred took out his sax and I accompanied him on piano. I remember the twinkle in his eye and the connection I felt. Music bridged the unspoken gap between us, and a deep friendship began. Fred often spoke to me about Rob. It bothered him deeply that he couldn’t connect with his only son. Gradually I came to see Fred as a man who was longing to have the same relationship with Rob, as Steve Douglas had with his sons. Through his TV sons, Fred found the chance to express his love for his son. Through Fred, I found the chance to experience a father-son relationship, which I eventually had with my real dad. He loved me like a father, I loved him like a son… and I’ll never forget him. How much of that is miraculous? I suppose it depends on where you are in life, and how much of a miracle you need. For me, Fred MacMurray was the miracle I needed." -Don Grady's Foreword.

Two days following Fred's death, the Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote an appreciation: "The movie camera, with its undeniable capacity to see past the characterization to the player's soul, saw the nice guy that MacMurray really was. The miracle of Hollywood in its early days was that it kept finding the men and women who could help to define the movies' possibilities. Fred MacMurray was one of the men." In 1986 Fred, in his own understated and humble way, summed up his career this way: "Well, I've done pretty good for a guy who plays saxophone." Two years later, on his 80th birthday, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, he replied, "Fondly." He got his wish. -"Fred MacMurray: A Biography" (2007) by Charles Tranberg

In addition, please revisit my previous post: Memories of Fred MacMurray

No comments :