Small Town Boy Makes Good

SMALL TOWN BOY MAKES GOOD. That line could easily be the appropriate headline for any account of actor Fred MacMurray‘s seemingly charmed life. Born one hundred years ago this month in 1908 in Kankakee, IL, Fred grew up in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Long overlooked as an actor, in recent years, Fred’s professional reputation has gained a bit in stature. This may be in part because of baby boomers growing misty-eyed at the thought of a Disneyfied Fred stumbling onto the discovery of flubber, his genial patriarch on tv’s My Three Sons series, his affable charm and under-rated comedic work in films of the ’30s and ’40s, and his extraordinary, double-edged work in a few key films, such as Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment.

As part of our first blogathon here on the Movie Morlocks site, TCM has chosen to celebrate this year’s Summer Under the Stars month with a 24 hour broadcast of Fred MacMurray‘s movies on Saturday, August 9th. As part of that celebration, I’m delighted to welcome Charles Tranberg, the author of the only full-fledged biography of the actor, Fred MacMurray: A Biography (BearManor Media, 2007). Mr. Tranberg has also penned two other well written books on classic performers, I Love the Illusion: Agnes Moorehead, and Not So Dumb: The Life and Career of Marie Wilson.

Moira: Welcome, Charles, and thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for Fred MacMurray with us. In your book, I notice that you mention that, unlike his contemporaries, Henry Fonda and James Stewart, the cinematic work of Fred MacMurray hasn’t received as much attention as it might have over the past few decades. Why do you think that has happened?

Charles Tranberg: Fred, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda all came to Hollywood at roughly the same time, in 1934, and roughly the same ages—upper twenties. Fred actually became a star faster than either Stewart or Fonda, but, of course today Fonda and particularly Stewart are recalled as film legends. This isn’t exactly how it is with Fred. I would say the primary reason is that Stewart and Fonda made more acknowledged classics of the American cinema than Fred and worked, probably with more great directors, or those considered great directors—the Capra’s, Hitchcock’s and Ford’s. Not that Fred didn’t work with terrific directors. For instance, Mitchell Leisen was considered in his day to be one of the best and it’s a shame his reputation today isn’t what it once was. And of course it’s generally acknowledged that Billy Wilder was the best director Fred worked with and gave two of his all-time greatest performances for Wilder.

M.: I also wonder if some of his films have languished for too long unseen by audiences who only remember Fred from his late career Disney films and television work. It seems that only now, in part because of a renewed interest in issuing DVDs of his raffish work from the ’30s and ’40s, that audiences might be catching on to the fact that MacMurray’s work had a charming bite even before a Billy Wilder tapped into his talent.

M.: How did you first become interested in digging deeper into MacMurray‘s life?
C.T.: I’m interested in people who have never had a biography done of their lives before in book form. Fred certainly qualified. He had an amazingly durable career and yet he is so underrated. I thought somebody should explore why this nice guy was able to sustain such an amazing career for so long. He also was from Wisconsin and so am I.

M.: Many of us may associate MacMurray with an idyllic notion of American life, yet his own early years did not fit the stereotype. Fred MacMurray, who was the son of a concert violinist who returned to his hometown of Beaver Dam WI just long enough to marry Maleta Martin, “the most popular girl in town”, grew up in a less than perfect, but loving environment in this small town set in the lake country in a rural part of the state, (as seen below in the view of the sunset over nearby Horicon Marsh near Beaver Dam, a town of around 15,000 people). Here, Fred developed what would be lifelong interests in the outdoors as well as a strong artistic streak. Without playing amateur psychologist, your biography reflects on the mark this may have left on the man as a boy. His parents were divorced, and despite attempts by father and son to stay in touch, the elder MacMurray‘s peripatetic musical career kept the two from spending long periods together. As you point out, Fred MacMurray, “the ultimate TV dad, grew up basically with no father and in a household dominated by females.” The extended family who cared for him consisted of his mother, grandmother Lena and his aunt Hazel. Do you think his performing career happened because of his background or despite it?

C.T.: I think despite it. Fred often said he would have been the same person had he gone into the shoe business or worked in a hardware store. And I think he was right about that. He was at heart the small town boy who made good. The values of honesty, loyalty, and working for what you get that he grew up with stayed with him for all of his life. Yet he obviously wanted more out of life and became a musician and a fine one at it. And all of that eventually led to New York, Broadway and Hollywood. Yet he was the same person he always was. You know I think the film which sums Fred MacMurray up the most, and may be the most autobiographical in some respects is his 1966 Disney film, Follow Me Boys!

M: One constant in Fred’s life seems to have been a love of the natural world. Could you explain how this may have developed? In several of his films, such as The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Forest Rangers (1942), Smoky (1946), and several Westerns, MacMurray appears to be quite at home in rough-hewn settings. I must admit that I’m particularly fond of At Gunpoint (1955) and Good Day for a Hanging (1959), (the latter film airs at 5:00 pm on TCM on Aug. 9th). Despite his effective playing in this type of film, you mention that he did not regard the Western as his favorite genre. Why was this so? Did he have a favorite of this type of film?

C.T.: Fred loved the out-of-doors. He was in his element. He loved his ranch. And growing up in a small town near the woods and a beautiful lake he was out doors quite a bit. It’s something that stayed with him all of his life. Yet, he didn’t particularly enjoy westerns, but he was, in my opinion, as good as Gary Cooper or any of those guys as a western actor. He complained about getting “saddle sore” from doing so many in a row in the late fifties when his career was in somewhat of a decline. I think he just kind of tired of them. But they were his mainstay as an actor during those years. His favorite type of film and he said this many times, was comedy. He loved working in comedy, though he himself acknowledged that his best film was not a comedy—it was Double Indemnity.

Early Life and Career Influences:

M.: As you describe it, when he was little, Fred played the violin like his father, (though he did not enjoy the experience), emulating his absent parent. In later life, when Fred was famous, he reportedly wondered why his father never contacted him, and despite the lack of example in his everyday life, MacMurray went on to create two loving families, notable for their genuine warmth in an often phony world of Hollywood. You mention in your biography that Fred became a musician in 1926 while still in college, eventually learning to play many instruments, and eventually appeared with a group known as the College Collegians. Though always modest about his abilities, he remained best known as a saxophonist throughout his career. This helped to lead him to acting on stage, and Broadway, where the shy, curly-haired 6’3″ youth was chosen to appear alone onstage opposite the sultry Libby Holman in the 1930 musical revue, Three’s a Crowd as she sang “Something to Remember You By” to him. Having survived that “baptism of fire” Fred was later noticed in the cast of the Jerome Kern musical “Roberta”, and eventually signed by Paramount with a standard movie contract. Not surprisingly, Fred convincingly played a bit of a musician in a few of his movies, such as the splendid Swing Low, Swing High (1937), in which he appeared as a convincing jazz trumpeter, (though it was dubbed) and the delightful Sing, You Sinners (1938) . Do you think that the musicianship he acquired through his family, in bands, and on Broadway helped his acting to appear more natural?

C.T.: Oh yes, definitely. Acting in many ways is about timing and a musician needs to have good timing and rhythm and Fred had both as a musician and as an actor. It’s the same thing with singers as I think that Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby proved. I think looking at music and knowing how to phrase a lyric was good training for all of them and helped them become better actors.

M. : After his initial appearance in the movies in a featured role (he had appeared as an extra in a few films prior to this contract), Fred was third billed as Mary Carlisle‘s sweetheart in RKO’s Grand Old Girl,(on TCM at 6AM on Aug. 9th), a film that was headlined by veteran character actress May Robson.

According to MacMurray’s own account, despite his highly successful appearance opposite his soon-to-be frequent co-star Claudette Colbert in The Gilded Lily (1935), his third appearance in movies as a leading actor, opposite Carole Lombard in Hands Across the Table (1935) was when he began to learn to act. (Hands Across the Table is scheduled to be on TCM on Oct. 6th at 9:45PM) One of the qualities that you highlighted in your biography was his exceptionally good working relationship with a range of ladies, all of whom profited from the fact that they seemed much more sophisticated than Fred, the “diamond in the rough” suitor: Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, and Barbara Stanwyck, to name some of the best. Why do you think he had such a rapport with his female costars?

C.T.: He grew up in a household of women—strong women. His father left him at an early age. His mother, grandmother and Aunt were pivotal figures in his life and in helping to form him, and yet he grew up as the All-American red blooded boy who loved sports and the out-doors without having a strong male influence. But they also helped form his creative side as a musician. His wives were also two strong and intelligent women. He enjoyed and liked smart and independent women, It I think. And this comes through in his film work and relationships with his female co-stars. He loved Carole Lombard despite the fact that she swore like a sailor. He delighted in her bawdy sense of humor. Yet at her core she was very feminine.

M.: Fred, who loved to describe how Lombard would coax, wheedle and inveigh him to relax, (or else!), got him to appear more natural and confident on screen, helping him, along with director Mitchell Leisen, to find a natural rhythm in their cross talking dialogue exchanges. As Fred later mentioned, he felt that he “owed Carole so much of that performance [in Hands Across the Table] and in my subsequent career. The first scene we shot had me playing hopscotch on the linoleum of the hotel as Carole walks by. Now that’s something I would never do myself in a million years, but Carole coached me and somehow I got through it.” To see some lovely examples of the rapport the two actors developed, you might enjoy this compilation of some of their finest moments onscreen together:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zftJ-tho9zY]

MITCHELL LEISEN, DIRECTOR

When Fred had the opportunity to play a sophisticated comedic part, as he did in Hands Across the Table or the comic drama of Swing High, Swing Low (on TCM on Oct 13th at 1:00AM) opposite someone as skilled as Carole Lombard, (who is the scheduled TCM star of the month in October, ), he is poised and playful, qualities that were brought out by Lombard, and a now neglected Hollywood figure who was the director, the underrated Mitchell Leisen . Did either of these colleagues have much impact on his career? What was his attitude toward them?

C.T.: Lombard was his favorite actress. Actors usually try to keep that to themselves because they don’t want to alienate their other leading ladies, but privately and maybe on one or two occasions publicly Fred mentioned this fact. He delighted in her unpredictable personality.

LOMBARD TEACHING FRED THE ROPES

She gave him career advice and urged him early on when he scored a couple of big hits to demand more money the money he was worth by that time and he took her advice and Paramount eventually renegotiated his contract.

Leisen (seen above on the right), was one of the biggest directors on the Paramount lot at the time. Though writers like Wilder and Preston Sturges didn’t appreciate him because they felt he toned down their work. But yet the films he directed that they wrote were excellent and it’s doubtful that Wilder or Sturges could have done better. Remember the Night (1941) was written by Sturges and directed by Leisen and I think it’s one of the most beautiful films that Fred ever made and one of the best films-period. Leisen had a big impact on Fred’s career and directed him seven times. He was the one we can thank, I think, in many ways, along with the equally underrated Wesley Ruggles for forming Fred’s early film career—his early flip diamond in the rough persona.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT, A FORGOTTEN GEM

M.: While some classic film observers, such as Andre Soares and David Kehr , feel that Fred was too boring a figure in film, others have noted that Fred MacMurray had a certain laid back passivity and quiet appeal that made him a likely candidate for the role reversals that were rife in the romantic comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. While there was a gentle, latent strength in many of his characters, even when they were being objectified by the leading lady, an astute colleague such as Billy Wilder perceived that Fred looked like “Everybody’s nice fellow [who] gives people the feeling that he’s kind to dogs, children, mothers and widows.” This demeanor, of course, led the darkly humorous writer-director to cast Fred as morally weak characters. Mitchell Leisen, reflecting on MacMurray‘s first forays into comedy once said, “Light comedy is a state of mind. You can’t really direct it, the actors just have to feel it. Fred had a natural flair for comedy, but he was terribly shy in those days and was afraid to try anything. We really had to draw it out of him, and Carole [Lombard] was a great help there…Fred had been a sax player with some band–where he got all this talent from I have no idea, but sooner or later, he came through on everything…Fred knew instinctively how scenes should be played and once he was sure of himself, he started to suggest things. Other co-workers, such as Arlene Dahl, mentioned in your book that “he was a fine actor and tall! Most actresses were 5’7″ or more and wanted a tall leading man rather than one who had to stand on a box or something and beside that Fred gave as good as he got. Acting is like tennis, you want a good rally.” Dahl, who felt that MacMurray might have been a good director, also claimed that Fred had a meticulous instinct for creating bits of acting business that were natural and often very funny.

I’ve been intrigued by Fred‘s exceptional gift for playing a naturally intelligent guy who’s bright enough to cut the mustard in the big city, but one who yearns for a small town life, as he did so deftly in Remember the Night and The Egg and I (1947). The Egg and I with Claudette ColbertWhile he lived in Chicago (where he also attended the Chicago Art Institute), New York, (where he appeared in the theatre) and Los Angeles as an adult in a high-powered industry, those small town roots often show up in his film characters. Did this reflect part of his own personality or his experiences in real life?

CT: I think a little of both. Fred loved small towns and grew up for the most part in one. Yet he also lived in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles—as comfortably and as essentially the same person he was anywhere. Of course he eventually bought a ranch in Northern California where he would spend a great deal of his time away from the hustle and bustle of “the industry” getting back to his roots by planting gardens, cooking, riding horses and spending time with his family.

M.: Did MacMurray maintain his ties to Wisconsin and his home town of Beaver Dam? One of the seldom broadcast films being featured on TCM at 2PM on Aug. 9th is Pardon My Past (1945), which features many references to Fred’s actual home town of Beaver Dam, WI. Telling a comedic tale of a returning G.I. whose peculiar postwar dream involves starting a mink ranch near the town, and it features a doppelgänger figure, gangsters, and a great supporting cast led by William Demarest, Akim Tamiroff and Harry Davenport. It is the only movie Fred produced himself, shortly after leaving Paramount. Could you please fill us in on some of the background of this movie, which Variety praised at the time of its original release as “a deftly handled…topnotch comedy…featuring an ace performance from Fred [and] packing plenty of fun for all types of audiences”?

C.T.: Yes he did maintain his ties with Beaver Dam. He had family there and friends. His best friend [Randall McKinstry] lived in Beaver Dam. He came to visit several times and occasionally spent more than a few days. Some visits were known to the locals and others weren’t. He also kept in touch with friends when he wasn’t able to be in Beaver Dam through the mail and telephone. Pardon My Past was the first film that Fred produced and he was the one who wanted his character to be from Beaver Dam and to be traveling back to Beaver Dam from the war. He was loyal to Beaver Dam and his character, in My Three Sons, Steve Douglas, was also from Beaver Dam and they had an episode which reflected that as well.

M.: What prompted him to produce Pardon My Past? Were any of the scenes in the film actually filmed in Beaver Dam, WI?

C.T.: He had just left Paramount and believed that it would be a good way to make some real money rather than just being a hired hand and so he and his friend director Leslie Fenton went into business together and produced the picture. It did reasonably well at the box office—not a huge hit, but it made money. No, none of the scenes were actually filmed in Beaver Dam.

M.: How did he cope with the often risqué world of Hollywood?

CT: By being himself. For example, when during the making of The Lady Is Willing (1942), Marlene Dietrich literally threw herself at him (she had affairs with several of her leading men and felt it was good for their on-screen chemistry) Fred was one of the few who rebuffed her. The director, Mitchell Leisen, told Marlene, “Hand’s off he’s a happily married man.” And he was.

M: The movie, The Lady Is Willing, (on TCM 8/9@ 10:15 PM) was made with Marlene Dietrich when the lady needed a hit. While Fred, seems to have brought out the predator in Dietrich, did Fred enjoy working with this “living legend”?

C.T.: Fred, I think admired Dietrich as a pro. She hurt her back while making the film and had to work in real pain and yet she never complained and never was late. That kind of professionalism is something that Fred really liked because he was the same way. I think once Fred made clear that he was not interested in any romance off the set with her they settled down and amiably and professionally got through the production, but afterward they certainly didn’t stay in touch.

Fred MacMurray’s Emerging Acting Style:

WITH KATHARINE HEPBURN IN "ALICE ADAMS" (1935)

M.: Fred does seem to be among the most natural, relaxed presences on screen. Even in an early role, such as his surprisingly sensitive small town guy in George Stevens‘ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1935), (airing Saturday, August 9,2008 at 12:00 AM), his quiet performance opposite Katharine Hepburn helps to make the film particularly memorable. Yet, when a role called for it, he could be frantic, harried and very funny, particularly in such a farce as the unjustly obscure Murder, He Says (1945) and the later Disney movies, The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. Once, when Billy Wilder was first pressing him to make Double Indemnity, Fred is reported to have said “I’m a saxophone player. I do little comedies with Carole Lombard.” The canny Wilder approached him the way that a football coach might, urging him “to take this big step.” Fortunately, out of respect for his co-star Barbara Stanwyck and the script that Wilder offered, he took that leap of faith, (as my fellow Morlock Suzidoll described here ) Do you think that Fred MacMurray knew how good he was? Did he make it look too easy?

C.T.: I think he knew he was effective in such parts, yes. I don’t think he ever gave it a lot of thought though. He enjoyed doing comedy and those films were to him, the most fun to do. I think as a screen light comedian that Fred is every bit as good as Cary Grant, and that means he is very good. He also probably worked with more diverse leading ladies than Grant.

M.: As a contract player at Paramount Studios, and as an actor in several Universal films and independent productions, it seems that many of Fred MacMurray‘s films have languished unfairly in obscurity, being broadcast far less than others. Do you know if any movies, especially the beautifully done three-strip technicolor feature, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) and the very dark but hilarious Murder, He Says(1945) about a poll taker among some deadly hillbillies, might be headed for DVD release in the future?

C.T.: There is talk of Murder, He Says receiving a DVD release. I hope so, I think that film is a real gem. I think it’s better than the similarly themed Arsenic and Old Lace. Now I just got done saying that Fred is as good as Cary Grant in screen comedy—high praise. But if you look at Murder and Arsenic, Fred is better than Grant in his film. Grant is just a little too manic in Arsenic. Fred is just right. Cary Grant felt so too, because he always despised his performance in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Private Life and Friendships in a Public Business:

M.: Despite living in the Hollywood fishbowl for decades, Fred seems to have had a fairly normal, truly private life. Joan Crawford, Fred’s co-star in the wartime drama, Above Suspicion (1943) appears to have been among the actor and his first wife, Lily‘s sincerest admirers. She was outspoken in her support of Fred. Why do you think that she admired Fred and his marriage so much?

C.T.: I think that Joan Crawford admired Fred and Lily’s marriage because they had a marriage she envied. She had already been married two or three times, unhappily and she saw with Fred and Lily the kind of relationship she wanted.

M.: Fred comes across in your book as a private man, but a realistic one. As all of us must, during his life, he had to cope with some tragic circumstances, particularly the long illness and early death of his first wife Lillian Lamont MacMurray. One source close to the family, indicated that the first Mrs. MacMurray‘s demise may have been precipitated by what would be diagnosed today as possible bulimia. Did you find any evidence to confirm this assertion? How do you think that Lily influenced his career? Did the loss of his beloved wife affect his career?


C.T.: He was devoted to Lily, his first wife. She had been a dancer in Roberta, the Broadway show he did and where they met. Fred’s cousin Lester told me that she battled Bulimia for many years and it affected, as it often does, her overall health. As a dancer she may have wanted to keep thin and may have began binging to do so, but she was ill for much of their lives together. Lily, I believe, gave him a push in pursuing other things. I think he may have been content being a musician and when he had a chance to go to Hollywood to pursue screen test, he wasn’t really sure, but she was—and encouraged him and built up his self confidence.

When she died in 1953 he was devastated, but he had committed just a short time earlier to do The Caine Mutiny which Lily had urged him to do, and so it helped that he was able to throw himself into work and in such an important film at that time.

M.: What impact do you think that his very happy second marriage to actress June Haver had on Fred? Several of his co-workers seem to believe that he became more relaxed during his time with Ms. Haver.

C.T.: I think he was as shocked as anybody that just over a year later he married June Haver, but they had both gone to a New Years Eve party they really didn’t want to go to. Fred was mending his heart over Lily and she had just come out of the convent she went to after her fiancée died. They spent much of that night talking and found they had a great deal in common. Both lonely people who found each other. It was another very happy marriage.

M.: In addition to his work and family life, Charles Tranberg describes how, during Fred and Lily‘s marriage, they raised two adopted children, Robert and Susan. During his second marriage, June and Fred were able to adopt two red-haired twin girls, Laurie and Katie. It seems that Fred was not seen on the Hollywood social circuit much, in part because he never cared about such things. He also tended to spend much of his time during his first marriage caring for Lily during her long illness and being with the children. On occasion, he also quietly pursued private interests such as his hobbies, (golf, painting, and leatherwork, as my fellow Morlock, RHSmith has described here.) . Later, Fred, June and the children also got away from LA to their isolated, working cattle ranch in Northern California. While a reserved person, from all reports, Fred does appear to have formed some close friendships in Hollywood too. In addition to Carole Lombard and Mitchell Leisen, two deep collaborative friendships MacMurray formed were with Claude Binyon, a writer, director and producer with whom Fred worked on 14 separate projects between 1935 and 1964 and the director, Wesley Ruggles (seen below with his small son in 1939, Wesley was, unfortunately , the little known younger brother of character actor, Charlie Ruggles ).

C.T.: Claude Binyon thought that Fred was the ideal American actor because he could project masculinity and yet be comfortable in a formal setting. They loved working together. They met on The Gilded Lily(1935)and hit it off and then of course worked together 13 other times. They became good friends off the set too and were frequent hunting and fishing companions. They were both tall men, but Fred was thin while Binyon was rotund. Fred thought that Binyon wrote the type of character he excelled at better than anybody. I think they continued to be collaborators not only because of their friendship but for many years, like Fred, Binyon was under contract to Paramount and so was assigned to many of his pictures along with another un-sung director that Fred worked with many times, Wesley Ruggles, in fact, Ruggles and Binyon were somewhat of a director-writer team because they collaborated together in several films at Paramount during the 30’s including many with Fred. The Bride Comes Home, The Gilded Lily, True Confession, Sing You Sinners, Invitation to Happiness and Too Many Husbands were all films directed by Ruggles and written by Binyon which starred Fred. Binyon was actually a newspaper man before turning to screenwriting. He also wrote for the bible of show business, “Variety”, allegedly he’s the guy who wrote the famous Variety headline about the stock market crash: “WALL STREET LAYS AN EGG”. He was a very well regarded screenwriter who, in addition to the wonderful films he wrote that starred Fred, also wrote the screenplay to one of the most highly regarded musicals that Paramount ever made and very popular to this day particularly during Christmas, Holiday Inn. He also did screenplays for My Blue Heaven with Betty Grable; Incendiary Blonde with Betty Hutton; North to Alaska with John Wayne. And in the late forties and early fifties he was able to direct several of his screenplays including Family Dreamboat, a funny satire of silent films with Clifton Webb and Ginger Rogers; and The Saxon Charm which starred Robert Montgomery.

M.: Whew! It sounds as though Fred MacMurray‘s talented, neglected Hollywood friends deserve a bit more attention as well! The film Dive Bomber (1941), (on TCM on 8/10 @1:45am) was directed by the protean Michael Curtiz. This film was made just a few months prior to the entry of America into the war. Did Fred like working with that rascal, Errol Flynn? Could you please comment on how Fred dealt with the notoriously short tempered Curtiz?

C.T.: Fred did that one on loan-out to Warner Brothers. Paramount wanted Olivia de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn, and she was a Warner Brothers contract player, and so they loaned out Fred for Dive Bomber in return for Warner Brothers loaning out Olivia. I think they got on well, but they certainly were not buddies, Flynn and Fred.

Flynn was a hard drinker and womanizer and Fred wasn’t. Flynn loved the sea and his yacht and Fred hated the ocean due to almost drowning as a young man when he first came to California and going into the ocean. Curtiz could be trying to any actor but the location scenes were shot on in San Diego and on an actual Navy ship and so Curtiz had to watch his temper a bit. But there is a funny story of Fred doing a scene with Regis Toomey where they were supposed to be experiencing motion sickness and Curtiz didn’t think they were showing enough of the effects and he tried to put what he wanted to say into words but with his fractured English he just couldn’t so he finally said, “Sweat more!”

M.: Among the directors we’ve touched on, a couple of the best brought out MacMurray‘s untapped talents were two outstanding craftsmen who were also émigrés. There is first, the gifted writer-director, Billy Wilder, who directed Fred in what are arguably his best movies, Double Indemnity and The Apartment, (on TCM on 8/9 at 8pm).

Less well known is Fred’s work with Douglas Sirk.. who evoked one of the least known but most haunting performances in There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), Fred worked with Douglas Sirk. The Sirk film is the story of a man whose loneliness in marriage to middle class mother Joan Bennett leads to a possible escape in the form of an old acquaintance, Barbara Stanwyck . Why do you think that Fred–perhaps one of the most emphatically American of actors–brought out the best qualities in these director’s talents?

C.T.: Well Wilder brought out everybody’s talents a little bit better than most directors, so Fred is in good company there when you think of it. For instance, William Holden was never used as well until he worked with Wilder in Sunset Boulevard. Jack Lemmon certainly came into his own as a leading man working with Wilder. I think that these actors, Fred included, truly respected Wilder as a writer and that his scripts were so marvelous and that as a director he wasn’t bombastic in the way that Curtiz was and yet he wasn’t elusive with actors the way Hitchcock could be.

DOUGLAS SIRK

Thank you for mentioning There’s Always Tomorrow which I consider one of Fred’s unsung films. I think he gives a brilliant performance as a man who truly is treated like a non-entity in his own home by his own family and finally believes he can break loose with this old flame played by Barbara Stanwyck, in their fourth and final film together. Sirk, I think with this film was looking for an actor who audiences could relate to and see as a basically good man who could be tempted and he was very complimentary towards Fred and Stanwyck for their work ethic and chemistry together. I also feel that he certainly had seen Double Indemnity and understood how well they worked together and once again Fred is willing to consider a radical change in his life when he encounters Stanwyck. Of course this isn’t as dark as DI and doesn’t include murder but it does include Fred feeling passion for a woman he hadn’t felt for a long time and willing to sacrifice all he had worked for to have her.

Fred MacMurrray: Big Spender

M.: I understand from your book that Fred often liked to put off interviewers by describing himself as dull and uninteresting, though privately he may have been simply a reserved man, with a wide variety of interests, not least of which was a good head for business.

C.T.: Yes, Fred was very self-deprecating which used to annoy his wife and children, but that was his nature. He was actually quite a talented man with all of those interests you mention and did well at. I don’t think it was false modesty either, he just wasn’t the type of guy who liked to blow his own horn.

M.: While Fred had a reputation for being tight with a buck, was this true? In a biography of Mitchell Leisen, he describes a man who was “careful” with his money, to the point that Fred lived so frugally when he first came to Los Angeles, that he did not cash his paychecks when he first came to Paramount. The front office was so concerned they had the director Leisen ask him to please counsel his friend about this quirk. As Leisen learned, unlike many not so wary actors who found themselves beholden to debtors and their studios by living high on the hog after “going Hollywood”, he was worried that his good fortune, along with his relatively meager wages, could all too easily disappear overnight. Apparently, this tendency to conserve paid off, since there were some reports that Fred’s estate may have approached many millions of dollars.

C.T.: Fred was tight with a buck but on a lot of personal matters like he didn’t spend extravagant amounts for his wardrobe. He liked to keep cost down by not utilizing every room in his house. He could live on a budget for himself that his business manager put him on of—get this–$35 per week. Of course his wife also had a budget for household upkeep and things like that. His cousin Lester (Lester Martin, Jr.) said he was not cheap but he also didn’t foolishly throw his money away. That also says something about his small town upbringing I think. But on the other hand Fred gave of his time and money to many charities. He and June have a foundation that still supports various charities to this day.

M.: At one time, you mention that Fred MacMurray was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Do you think that he may have priced himself out of working with some of the more imaginative directors in Hollywood during his most productive years?

C.T.: No, I don’t believe that Fred priced himself out of working with better directors. Fred was one of the highest paid actors during the war years and one year the highest paid. The fact is, and he said this himself, he was one of the highest paid during those years because he was one of the few long standing leading men still working in Hollywood because so many went to war. Like I said earlier he did work with some very fine directors like Leisen, who in his day was considered one of the best and Wilder. But he also worked with people like William Wellman, Henry King, King Vidor, Henry Hathaway, and Sam Wood—highly thought of directors, but usually only in one film and not always one of the ones they are best remembered for. Fred worked most frequently with skilled and competent directors like Wesley Ruggles and George Marshall who are not usually considered to be among the greats, but they did provide superb entertainment nonetheless.

Some Career Perspective:

M.: You make it pretty clear that MacMurray was not driven to become an actor, but tried to treat it as a business first, and an artistic pursuit second. Fred seems to have been the worst offender when it came to underestimating his own abilities. His considerable skill as a light and breezy comedic leading man seemed to belie his real talent at times. What was his attitude toward writer-director Billy Wilder, who gave him some of his best roles, in Double Indemnity and later in The Apartment (on TCM at 8pm on Aug. 9th). In The Apartment, Fred creates a quietly devastating portrait of Jeff Sheldrake, a seemingly respectable and successful executive, who, though he is a married man, carries on an affair with a hapless elevator operator, (Shirley MacLaine), corrupts his ambitious underling, Jack Lemmon, and of course, deceives his wife and family–at Christmas, yet. Though Fred was always ambivalent about these roles, he seems to have recognized the quality of the writing, direction and the opportunity given him by such parts. One of the amusing incidents you mention about the dramatic side of Fred’s talent was the headline that appeared in one newspaper tribute after his death: “Fred MacMurray: When He Was Good, He Was Bland, But When He Was Bad, He Was Really Good” . While it’s refreshing to read about an actor who was truly modest, why do you think he had such ambivalence about some of his darker roles?

C.T.: I think he really did believe that playing such a dark character in Double Indemnity would destroy his career. Many actors of his day were offered the part and many turned it down for the same reason that Fred initially wanted to because of what their fans would consider of them if they played such a terrible person. A murderer. Yet I think that Fred was the perfect choice for that film. I think Walter Neff was actually a sympathetic portrait in Fred’s hands. By the end he realizes what he has done and how bad or “rotten to the core” he and Stanwyck were. He never regretted his eventual decision to do Double Indemnity. He came to revere Billy Wilder as his greatest director. But he did think that Wilder’s protagonists were quite dark and when Monty Clift dropped out of Sunset Blvd. and Wilder pursued Fred to play that part he declined the role—a real mistake, and Bill Holden got it. And then he was reluctant to do The Apartment because he was starting a new phase of his career with the Disney films, but Wilder did his magic and talked Fred into doing it—Thankfully—because it’s one of Fred’s best roles and that character had to be attractive enough to be desirable to a girl like Shirley MacLaine—and yet project a rat. Fred did this.

The Disney Years:

Fred MacMurray seemed to take delight in his work for Walt Disney, which began when Disney, looking to develop the family comedy vein for his studio in the late fifties, cast Fred, who had been in a series of low budget Westerns just prior to this turn of events, in The Shaggy Dog (1959) followed by The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963), all of which will be broadcast on TCM on Aug. 9th.Why do you think that MacMurray liked working for Disney so much and what was there about My Three Sons that appealed to American audiences so much?

C.T.: I think Fred truly liked Walt Disney as a man and as an artist. Walt saw in Fred a bit of himself—another small town guy made good and one who is essentially decent and not overly taken with celebrity. Disney resurrected Fred’s big screen career and gave him another decade of movie stardom. Fred and Disney did socialize on occasion and go out to dinner with their wives, but I wouldn’t say they were bosom friends, but cordial and respectful employer-employee is how I might describe them.

Disney felt that Fred was the “best there is” at comedy and of course Fred like most people did admire Disney for his creativity and what he’d accomplished not only as a producer but as an entrepreneur. One thing Fred did want is to have a piece of the action—or a percentage of his Disney films because they were so popular at the box office. But Disney never did percentage deals with actors, but Fred really didn’t mind he said, “better being seen in a big popular film than getting a percentage in a bad film which doesn’t do anything at the box office.”

M.: I thought that it was quite touching that, as you described, Fred spent much of his time in his declining years after My Three Sons went off the air, attending such events as an AFI tribute to Henry Fonda and a Lincoln Center celebration of Claudette Colbert‘s work–yet, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to offer him a tribute while he was still with us. How did he feel about this lack of recognition? Do you think that this is changing?

C.T.: Fred joked about it saying he got an award from the Popcorn industry because they sold more popcorn during the showing of his films! What he really appreciated is that until the end he continued to get a great deal of mail from fans that always were there for him and always appreciated his work. He did get a few honors in the last years. His home state of Wisconsin honored him and then the Disney organization gave him their first Disney Legends Award—an honor he certainly deserved because throughout the 60’s he was the face that many people associated with the Disney Studios. I Thank goodness for TCM which is honoring Fred with a day devoted to his work. I think that will remind a great many viewers of what a really fine actor he was in so many different types of films. He really belonged to the Cooper, Stewart and Fonda school because each of these fine actors could work in so many different genres. Though Fred in some ways was even better. Fred could play people like Neff in Double Indemnity, Sheldrake in The Apartment and that opportunist Lt. Keefer in The Caine Mutiny. I honestly can’t see Cooper or even Stewart in those parts—as good as they were. My hope now that Fred has gotten his day on TCM that one day he will be the TCM “Star of the Month.”

M: One of the things that I’ve always responded to in Fred MacMurray is a quality that underlies his central characters fairly consistently. He seems to be a guy who doesn’t have all the answers, but has found a wa to present himself to the world to appear as though he does have a handle on life. In his best films, such as Remember the Night or Swing High, Swing Low, and even Double Indemnity, learning about his abilities and limitations throughout the course of the movie’s story. There are seldom simplistic Hollywood happy endings in many of these films, but mirroring the experience of many audience members, the endings are instead hopeful–with Fred acknowledging a bit more, sometimes painful self-knowledge, and–if he’s lucky, with his co-star, facing an uncertain future that is not always certain, but might be better. Do you think I’m reading something into Fred‘s screen persona or have you detected this as well?

C.T.: I think you have really seen something that many people have missed and I certainly didn’t explore in my book. Yes, behind Fred’s seemingly self confidence in many of the films is somebody who really doesn’t know all the answers and can be easily manipulated, usually by one of his leading ladies. So unlike many films where it’s the leading lady who is brought down a peg or two (think Kate Hepburn in the films she did with Spencer Tracy, particularly Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib or with Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story) it’s Fred’s character who is brought down a peg or two or seemingly grows because of realization during the course of his films. This may be, of course, because he worked with so many giant female stars and so he had to react to their situations or be used by them in some way. I don’t think this takes anything away from Fred, it actually enhances him because he still isn’t diminished in a film the way, say George Brent, would be by a strong leading lady and is in every way still their equal.

M. : Charles, thanks so much for sharing so much of your time and detailed knowledge about Fred MacMurray and his contributions to classic movies. After reading your revelatory book and sharing this interview, I feel as though I’ve learned so much about an unsung figure in American movies of the studio era. Could you please tell us if you’ll be writing anything new in the future?

C.T.: Yes, I’m currently working on a biography of Robert Taylor which hopefully will be out in 2010.

M. : That’s great! I’ll look for a copy then and hope that you’ll pop into Movie Morlocks blog site this Saturday, Aug. 9th, to share your thoughts on the 24 hours of Fred as we all comment on them as his movies unspool on Turner Classic Movies.

Sources:


Chierichetti, David, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director, Photoventures Press, 1995.
The Fred MacMurray Museum, Beaver Dam, WI.
Hare, James, Annakin, Ken, Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style, McFarland, 2003.
Harvey, James, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges, Da Capo Press, 1998.
Tranberg, Charles, Fred MacMurray: A Biography, BearManor Media, 2007.

38 Responses Small Town Boy Makes Good
Posted By Suzi Doll : August 6, 2008 11:11 pm

A wonderful overview of Fred MacMurray’s career. I am going to look for a copy of Charles’s book. I am so happy that you mentioned MURDER, HE SAYS. Despite being bowled over by DOUBLE INDEMNITY, I have to admit that MURDER is my favorite MacMurray film. Yet, hardly anyone remembers it.

Posted By Suzi Doll : August 6, 2008 11:11 pm

A wonderful overview of Fred MacMurray’s career. I am going to look for a copy of Charles’s book. I am so happy that you mentioned MURDER, HE SAYS. Despite being bowled over by DOUBLE INDEMNITY, I have to admit that MURDER is my favorite MacMurray film. Yet, hardly anyone remembers it.

Posted By Don Malcolm : August 6, 2008 11:55 pm

A terrific interview, Moira. After having read it, I agree with Charles that Fred MacMurray really needs a “Star of the Month” slot, since so many of the wonderful films (especially those with Mitchell Leisen) are sadly not part of the August 9th tribute. It would be wonderful if all four of his films with Stanwyck could play on a single night–what an array of cinematic diversity! (Even their fourth film, The Moonlighter–while not up to the level of the other three–is worth a look.)

And PLEASE try to unearth Thirteen Hours By Air for us!!

Posted By Don Malcolm : August 6, 2008 11:55 pm

A terrific interview, Moira. After having read it, I agree with Charles that Fred MacMurray really needs a “Star of the Month” slot, since so many of the wonderful films (especially those with Mitchell Leisen) are sadly not part of the August 9th tribute. It would be wonderful if all four of his films with Stanwyck could play on a single night–what an array of cinematic diversity! (Even their fourth film, The Moonlighter–while not up to the level of the other three–is worth a look.)

And PLEASE try to unearth Thirteen Hours By Air for us!!

Posted By RHS : August 7, 2008 10:59 am

Well, the blog-a-thon is over. Moira has used all the pictures of Fred MacMurray and it’s only Thursday.

Posted By RHS : August 7, 2008 10:59 am

Well, the blog-a-thon is over. Moira has used all the pictures of Fred MacMurray and it’s only Thursday.

Posted By Al Lowe : August 7, 2008 12:34 pm

Good job. I’ve seen most of MacMurray’s movies – Murder He Says, Remember the Night, Swing High Swing Low, etc.
I missed There’s Always Tomorrow. I saw True Confession, with Lombard and the wonderful John Barrymore, 30 years ago and would like to see it again.
Those are all fine pictures and Fred is every bit as good as you said. But there have been disappointments. Texas Rangers, directed by the amazing King Vidor, is routine and Where Do We Go From Here is terrible.
Why don’t you ask the author about William Demarest? They were teamed on My Three Sons but they also co-starred in many films together. There had to be a reason. They had to get along.

Posted By Al Lowe : August 7, 2008 12:34 pm

Good job. I’ve seen most of MacMurray’s movies – Murder He Says, Remember the Night, Swing High Swing Low, etc.
I missed There’s Always Tomorrow. I saw True Confession, with Lombard and the wonderful John Barrymore, 30 years ago and would like to see it again.
Those are all fine pictures and Fred is every bit as good as you said. But there have been disappointments. Texas Rangers, directed by the amazing King Vidor, is routine and Where Do We Go From Here is terrible.
Why don’t you ask the author about William Demarest? They were teamed on My Three Sons but they also co-starred in many films together. There had to be a reason. They had to get along.

Posted By Jeff : August 7, 2008 2:53 pm

Moira did use a bunch of great Fred photos but I’ve still got a few great ones up my sleeve to use Saturday unless somebody trumps me tomorrow.

Posted By Jeff : August 7, 2008 2:53 pm

Moira did use a bunch of great Fred photos but I’ve still got a few great ones up my sleeve to use Saturday unless somebody trumps me tomorrow.

Posted By RHS : August 7, 2008 5:33 pm

Actually, that pic of Fred dancing cheek to cheek has me wondering… did he wear a piece?

Posted By RHS : August 7, 2008 5:33 pm

Actually, that pic of Fred dancing cheek to cheek has me wondering… did he wear a piece?

Posted By Chuck Tranberg : August 7, 2008 7:04 pm

Hi RHS: Yes he did wear a piece.

Posted By Chuck Tranberg : August 7, 2008 7:04 pm

Hi RHS: Yes he did wear a piece.

Posted By Medusa : August 7, 2008 8:58 pm

When I was programming KTLA in Los Angeles (and this would be early-mid ’80s), we had a terrific mostly classic movie franchise called “Family Film Festival” which was hosted by Tom Hatten and frequently featured then very-much-alive Hollywood stars in guest interviews. We had a great library of films and I very much remember Tom interviewing Fred MacMurray when we ran “Murder He Says” which was of course amazing. (Family Film Festival had a wonderful advantage in that we were in Hollywood and could get stars to stop on by for a short appearances if we were lucky. Not surprisingly, the franchise stopped shortly after I left the station in 1988. If you don’t have somebody fighting for classic movies, they tend to disappear off schedules!) Wish I could see that footage now!

Posted By Medusa : August 7, 2008 8:58 pm

When I was programming KTLA in Los Angeles (and this would be early-mid ’80s), we had a terrific mostly classic movie franchise called “Family Film Festival” which was hosted by Tom Hatten and frequently featured then very-much-alive Hollywood stars in guest interviews. We had a great library of films and I very much remember Tom interviewing Fred MacMurray when we ran “Murder He Says” which was of course amazing. (Family Film Festival had a wonderful advantage in that we were in Hollywood and could get stars to stop on by for a short appearances if we were lucky. Not surprisingly, the franchise stopped shortly after I left the station in 1988. If you don’t have somebody fighting for classic movies, they tend to disappear off schedules!) Wish I could see that footage now!

Posted By moirafinnie : August 8, 2008 12:17 pm

“Well, the blog-a-thon is over. Moira has used all the pictures of Fred MacMurray and it’s only Thursday.~RHS”

RHS,
Are you kidding? You should see how many images I had to edit out. Not to mention a kajillion bits of Fred MacMurray factoids that never made it into the blog.

As to Fred wearing a toupee, in the photo looking so happy as he dances with his wife June Haver, he never wore the hair piece off screen, and apparently didn’t appear to care if anyone saw him without it. He apparently regarded it as simply part of his actor’s toolkit–necessary for the job. His younger children would laugh uproariously when they spotted him on television in an old movie with hair.

Al,
I completely agree that in a film career of several decades there were duds as well as a few real gems in MacMurray‘s career. I feel that any time Fred put on a tri-cornered hat or knee britches in a movie, it was all over. While I don’t think he was very credible in costume pictures, he could be very good at being very American (20th century version), and, in a pinch, in a Western such as At Gunpoint, he could be very good, as long as he wasn’t asked to enact any tough guy false bravado. Sure, he could make you believe a small town professor might invent something as outlandish as flubber, but as a colonial soldier or an explorer, hmmm, no, ‘fraid not, Fred.

At the end of his career, Fred ‘s presence in family friendly movies and the long-running series “My Three Sons” made him a familiar–perhaps an overly familiar and rather staid presence to the generations that came after his best movies.

One of the reasons that I was enthusiastic about this article and Chuck Tranberg‘s well researched book, was due to the light it cast on Fred‘s earlier, nowadays often unnoticed movies, such as those deft romantic comedies and dramas he made opposite Lombard, Colbert, Stanwyck and Dunne . There are surprisingly large numbers of people who have no familiarity with these beautifully crafted entertainments. Maybe this will help to draw people to these worthwhile films.

Why don’t you ask the author about William Demarest? They were teamed on My Three Sons but they also co-starred in many films together. There had to be a reason. They had to get along. ~Al Lowe

Re: William Demarest and William Frawley
Everything Chuck Tranberg and I touched on in our interview didn’t make it into the piece above, which I tried to keep brief, (believe it or not!). Here’s a bit of what we talked about vis a vis Demarest & Frawley:

Moira: Interestingly, William Frawley was later cast in similar roles in the series, My Three Sons. Fred was a guest on the “This is Your Life” program in the ’50s honoring Frawley, and Fred MacMurray popped up on a Lucy-Desi special as well, with Frawley playing his classic Fred Mertz character. Were the two friends?

Charles Tranberg: I don’t believe they were friends who palled around a good deal, but Fred certainly admired Frawley’s talent and thought he was perfect for Bub on MY THREE SONS. I do know during the course of that show they did occasionally go to a fight or ball game together and Fred did worry about Frawley’s increasingly bad health and ability to memorize his lines. He once asked director Gene Reynolds if he thought that Frawley had suffered a mild stroke. They kept Frawley on the show as long as they could because he was so good, but finally unable to get insurance because he was a total wreck from years of hard drinking they had to let him go.

Moira: I’d like to add that the affection of all the cast members young and old for William Frawley, from MacMurray to one of the youngest, Barry Livingston (Ernie) comes across very well in Chuck’s book. Frawley‘s ability to create a vividly realized character, his mischievous eye for a cute young woman around the set, his kindness to the younger members of the cast, and his occasional difficulties bring the rascally character actor to life.

M.: Frawley and Fred had appeared in The Princess Comes Across and Car 99 together in the ’30s on film and Fred had joined in the early ’50s tv celebration of the character actor’s life on This Is Your Life as well. Frawley, in the book, “Meet the Mertzes” by Rob Edelman & Audrey Kupferberg, is quoted as saying, from the heart, “There isn’t a nicer guy in show business than Fred MacMurray.” MacMurray, who was genuinely saddened by the not unexpected demise of his co-worker, was pall bearer at his funeral.

Re: William Demarest
C.T.: Character actor William Demarest was also a contract player at Paramount during Fred‘s time there, and the two made six previous appearances in feature films prior to the casting of Demarest as Frawley‘s replacement on My Three Sons. Though friendly collaborators, [they were] not friends off the set in that they didn’t spend time doing things together, but certainly Fred admired and enjoyed working with Bill Demarest. I think he had a big say in who would come onto My Three Sons to take over for Frawley and I’m sure that Fredsuggested Demarest.

M.:After Frawley had to leave the program due to his health, it was, according to Chuck’s book, “decided that Frawley was too beloved in the role of Bub for another actor to take over the part. So, instead, they wrote a story where Bub goes off to visit his mother(!) in Ireland, and while he is gone, his, another salty, gruff character with a heart of mush takes his place, Uncle Charley O’Casey, an ex-merchant marine.” My favorite moment described in the Tranberg book is when My Three Sons began to be broadcast in color. “Demarest made light of it…[saying]… ‘We’ll be in color next season. They think I look so young they may change the title to ‘My Four Sons.’”

Fred MacMurray had appeared in several films with Demarest when they were both contract players at Paramount and later, including Hands Across the Table (1935), Pardon My Past* (1945), The Far Horizons(1955), Never a Dull Moment* (1950), On Our Merry Way (1948), and Son of Flubber* (1963).

____________
*These films are on TCM on August 9th.

Posted By moirafinnie : August 8, 2008 12:17 pm

“Well, the blog-a-thon is over. Moira has used all the pictures of Fred MacMurray and it’s only Thursday.~RHS”

RHS,
Are you kidding? You should see how many images I had to edit out. Not to mention a kajillion bits of Fred MacMurray factoids that never made it into the blog.

As to Fred wearing a toupee, in the photo looking so happy as he dances with his wife June Haver, he never wore the hair piece off screen, and apparently didn’t appear to care if anyone saw him without it. He apparently regarded it as simply part of his actor’s toolkit–necessary for the job. His younger children would laugh uproariously when they spotted him on television in an old movie with hair.

Al,
I completely agree that in a film career of several decades there were duds as well as a few real gems in MacMurray‘s career. I feel that any time Fred put on a tri-cornered hat or knee britches in a movie, it was all over. While I don’t think he was very credible in costume pictures, he could be very good at being very American (20th century version), and, in a pinch, in a Western such as At Gunpoint, he could be very good, as long as he wasn’t asked to enact any tough guy false bravado. Sure, he could make you believe a small town professor might invent something as outlandish as flubber, but as a colonial soldier or an explorer, hmmm, no, ‘fraid not, Fred.

At the end of his career, Fred ‘s presence in family friendly movies and the long-running series “My Three Sons” made him a familiar–perhaps an overly familiar and rather staid presence to the generations that came after his best movies.

One of the reasons that I was enthusiastic about this article and Chuck Tranberg‘s well researched book, was due to the light it cast on Fred‘s earlier, nowadays often unnoticed movies, such as those deft romantic comedies and dramas he made opposite Lombard, Colbert, Stanwyck and Dunne . There are surprisingly large numbers of people who have no familiarity with these beautifully crafted entertainments. Maybe this will help to draw people to these worthwhile films.

Why don’t you ask the author about William Demarest? They were teamed on My Three Sons but they also co-starred in many films together. There had to be a reason. They had to get along. ~Al Lowe

Re: William Demarest and William Frawley
Everything Chuck Tranberg and I touched on in our interview didn’t make it into the piece above, which I tried to keep brief, (believe it or not!). Here’s a bit of what we talked about vis a vis Demarest & Frawley:

Moira: Interestingly, William Frawley was later cast in similar roles in the series, My Three Sons. Fred was a guest on the “This is Your Life” program in the ’50s honoring Frawley, and Fred MacMurray popped up on a Lucy-Desi special as well, with Frawley playing his classic Fred Mertz character. Were the two friends?

Charles Tranberg: I don’t believe they were friends who palled around a good deal, but Fred certainly admired Frawley’s talent and thought he was perfect for Bub on MY THREE SONS. I do know during the course of that show they did occasionally go to a fight or ball game together and Fred did worry about Frawley’s increasingly bad health and ability to memorize his lines. He once asked director Gene Reynolds if he thought that Frawley had suffered a mild stroke. They kept Frawley on the show as long as they could because he was so good, but finally unable to get insurance because he was a total wreck from years of hard drinking they had to let him go.

Moira: I’d like to add that the affection of all the cast members young and old for William Frawley, from MacMurray to one of the youngest, Barry Livingston (Ernie) comes across very well in Chuck’s book. Frawley‘s ability to create a vividly realized character, his mischievous eye for a cute young woman around the set, his kindness to the younger members of the cast, and his occasional difficulties bring the rascally character actor to life.

M.: Frawley and Fred had appeared in The Princess Comes Across and Car 99 together in the ’30s on film and Fred had joined in the early ’50s tv celebration of the character actor’s life on This Is Your Life as well. Frawley, in the book, “Meet the Mertzes” by Rob Edelman & Audrey Kupferberg, is quoted as saying, from the heart, “There isn’t a nicer guy in show business than Fred MacMurray.” MacMurray, who was genuinely saddened by the not unexpected demise of his co-worker, was pall bearer at his funeral.

Re: William Demarest
C.T.: Character actor William Demarest was also a contract player at Paramount during Fred‘s time there, and the two made six previous appearances in feature films prior to the casting of Demarest as Frawley‘s replacement on My Three Sons. Though friendly collaborators, [they were] not friends off the set in that they didn’t spend time doing things together, but certainly Fred admired and enjoyed working with Bill Demarest. I think he had a big say in who would come onto My Three Sons to take over for Frawley and I’m sure that Fredsuggested Demarest.

M.:After Frawley had to leave the program due to his health, it was, according to Chuck’s book, “decided that Frawley was too beloved in the role of Bub for another actor to take over the part. So, instead, they wrote a story where Bub goes off to visit his mother(!) in Ireland, and while he is gone, his, another salty, gruff character with a heart of mush takes his place, Uncle Charley O’Casey, an ex-merchant marine.” My favorite moment described in the Tranberg book is when My Three Sons began to be broadcast in color. “Demarest made light of it…[saying]… ‘We’ll be in color next season. They think I look so young they may change the title to ‘My Four Sons.’”

Fred MacMurray had appeared in several films with Demarest when they were both contract players at Paramount and later, including Hands Across the Table (1935), Pardon My Past* (1945), The Far Horizons(1955), Never a Dull Moment* (1950), On Our Merry Way (1948), and Son of Flubber* (1963).

____________
*These films are on TCM on August 9th.

Posted By moirafinnie : August 8, 2008 12:51 pm

Suzidoll & Medusa,
Thanks so much for your comments–especially since you mentioned the joyously anarchic Murder, He Says (1945). Perhaps it will finally receive a dvd release, since there are some of us who laughed till it hurt when watching this forgotten funny picture.

Also, as a friend of mine described it, Fred suffers from the “Raymond Burr Syndrome.” Due to his overwhelming success in television, neither Burr nor MacMurray have received their due as film actors, perhaps in part due to the lingering memories of tv audiences. It is a bit of a shock to Perry Mason fans to see the re-emergence of Burr‘s early films, especially those great film noirs, such as Raw Deal(1948) and Pitfall(1948)–not to mention Borderline (1950) (made with MacMurray & Claire Trevor). Perhaps now it is Fred’s turn for a re-discovery?

Posted By moirafinnie : August 8, 2008 12:51 pm

Suzidoll & Medusa,
Thanks so much for your comments–especially since you mentioned the joyously anarchic Murder, He Says (1945). Perhaps it will finally receive a dvd release, since there are some of us who laughed till it hurt when watching this forgotten funny picture.

Also, as a friend of mine described it, Fred suffers from the “Raymond Burr Syndrome.” Due to his overwhelming success in television, neither Burr nor MacMurray have received their due as film actors, perhaps in part due to the lingering memories of tv audiences. It is a bit of a shock to Perry Mason fans to see the re-emergence of Burr‘s early films, especially those great film noirs, such as Raw Deal(1948) and Pitfall(1948)–not to mention Borderline (1950) (made with MacMurray & Claire Trevor). Perhaps now it is Fred’s turn for a re-discovery?

Posted By Chuck Tranberg : August 8, 2008 3:24 pm

Moira,
Thank you for the great questions you asked regarding Fred and his life and career as well as the additonal insight you offered in this piece. You surely did justice to Fred MacMurray and his often too neglected film career.
Chuck

Posted By Chuck Tranberg : August 8, 2008 3:24 pm

Moira,
Thank you for the great questions you asked regarding Fred and his life and career as well as the additonal insight you offered in this piece. You surely did justice to Fred MacMurray and his often too neglected film career.
Chuck

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : August 8, 2008 10:03 pm

[...] http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/06/small-town-boy-makes-good/ Fred MacMurray, saxophone maniac [...]

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : August 8, 2008 10:03 pm

[...] http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/06/small-town-boy-makes-good/ Fred MacMurray, saxophone maniac [...]

Posted By Fernando Silva aka Feaito : August 20, 2008 11:14 pm

Moira,

Congratulations on the amazing, enlightening interview. Fred MacMurray is an actor who certainly has grown on me over the years, and his comedies are among my favorites; especially his pairings with Lombard & Colbert and “Remember the Night” with Stanwyck. He also made many films opposite Madeleine Carroll of which, sadly, I’ve only seen the amusing “Honeymoon in Bali”. They made a handsome couple. “Murder He Says” is certainly an offbeat, unique film.

Posted By Fernando Silva aka Feaito : August 20, 2008 11:14 pm

Moira,

Congratulations on the amazing, enlightening interview. Fred MacMurray is an actor who certainly has grown on me over the years, and his comedies are among my favorites; especially his pairings with Lombard & Colbert and “Remember the Night” with Stanwyck. He also made many films opposite Madeleine Carroll of which, sadly, I’ve only seen the amusing “Honeymoon in Bali”. They made a handsome couple. “Murder He Says” is certainly an offbeat, unique film.

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : December 10, 2008 9:18 pm

[...] his expertise to the Movie Morlocks site back in August, helping us celebrate the centennial of Fred MacMurray . Below is the interview that I conducted with him about Ms. Moorehead’s life and [...]

Posted By TCM’s Movie Blog : December 10, 2008 9:18 pm

[...] his expertise to the Movie Morlocks site back in August, helping us celebrate the centennial of Fred MacMurray . Below is the interview that I conducted with him about Ms. Moorehead’s life and [...]

Posted By Fred MacMurray Friday « Happy Thoughts, Darling : February 4, 2011 2:53 pm

[...] learn more about Fred MacMurray, I recommend checking out this great 2008 interview with his biographer, Charles Tranberg, on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog.  Not only was MacMurray a multi-faceted [...]

Posted By Fred MacMurray Friday « Happy Thoughts, Darling : February 4, 2011 2:53 pm

[...] learn more about Fred MacMurray, I recommend checking out this great 2008 interview with his biographer, Charles Tranberg, on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog.  Not only was MacMurray a multi-faceted [...]

Posted By Dan : February 18, 2011 4:54 pm

I’ve seen a MacMurray movie which does not appear to be listed on IMBD, for instance, nor described anywhere else I can find. This was shown on the Cleveland, Ohio local CBS affiliate in the early 1970′s (“MilkMan Matinee”). I suspect the name of it may have been “My Love Mi Amore.” A friend of mine saw it independently the same night I saw it. The next day we each described to each other how incredibly heartily we had laughed all the way through it, laughing out loud uncontrollably though we each watched alone. I believe most folks would feel the same way today, though I can understand why it might not have seemed terribly funny in its time.

The plot: Opens with Fred as a salesman knocking on a door, the door opens and a family inside includes a beautiful daughter and her serviceman fiance. Fred falls in love at first sight and then spends the first minutes of the movie forthrightly saying so to all present including the fiance. He is soundly rebuked, of course, and leaves.

The bulk of the movie involves Fred learning all he can about the girl and literally stalking her. In each scene he confronts her with his professed love and unwanted gifts (I recall a surprise lunch at a card table with flowers on a sidewalk outside of her place of work), and is told over and over to forget it, that he is crazy. In the end of course, he wins her heart.

The humorous aspect this movie was possibly quite unintended, and stems from the fact that today, or even in 1972 or so when I saw this, a restraining order would have been filed against his character within the first 15 minutes of the movie, and within 30 minutes, his character would have landed in jail without question. But no hint of such a possibility is in the movie.

I’ve seen it said, that there may be dozens of “lost” Fred MacMurray movies. Do you think this is true? If so, perhaps most were unworthy of saving, but this movie is certainly a lost GEM, in my humble opinion!

Is there possibly anyone alive who could identify this movie correctly, find it, save what’s left of it (not dust yet), and make it available again? This would be a worthy endeavor, I’m sure!

Posted By Dan : February 18, 2011 4:54 pm

I’ve seen a MacMurray movie which does not appear to be listed on IMBD, for instance, nor described anywhere else I can find. This was shown on the Cleveland, Ohio local CBS affiliate in the early 1970′s (“MilkMan Matinee”). I suspect the name of it may have been “My Love Mi Amore.” A friend of mine saw it independently the same night I saw it. The next day we each described to each other how incredibly heartily we had laughed all the way through it, laughing out loud uncontrollably though we each watched alone. I believe most folks would feel the same way today, though I can understand why it might not have seemed terribly funny in its time.

The plot: Opens with Fred as a salesman knocking on a door, the door opens and a family inside includes a beautiful daughter and her serviceman fiance. Fred falls in love at first sight and then spends the first minutes of the movie forthrightly saying so to all present including the fiance. He is soundly rebuked, of course, and leaves.

The bulk of the movie involves Fred learning all he can about the girl and literally stalking her. In each scene he confronts her with his professed love and unwanted gifts (I recall a surprise lunch at a card table with flowers on a sidewalk outside of her place of work), and is told over and over to forget it, that he is crazy. In the end of course, he wins her heart.

The humorous aspect this movie was possibly quite unintended, and stems from the fact that today, or even in 1972 or so when I saw this, a restraining order would have been filed against his character within the first 15 minutes of the movie, and within 30 minutes, his character would have landed in jail without question. But no hint of such a possibility is in the movie.

I’ve seen it said, that there may be dozens of “lost” Fred MacMurray movies. Do you think this is true? If so, perhaps most were unworthy of saving, but this movie is certainly a lost GEM, in my humble opinion!

Is there possibly anyone alive who could identify this movie correctly, find it, save what’s left of it (not dust yet), and make it available again? This would be a worthy endeavor, I’m sure!

Posted By Carole & Co. entries, August 2008 « Carole & Co. : December 9, 2011 11:06 am

[...] * “Small Town Boy Makes Good,” featuring a long, illuminating discussion with Charles Tranberg, author of “Fred MacMurray: A Biography” (http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/06/small-town-boy-makes-good/). [...]

Posted By Carole & Co. entries, August 2008 « Carole & Co. : December 9, 2011 11:06 am

[...] * “Small Town Boy Makes Good,” featuring a long, illuminating discussion with Charles Tranberg, author of “Fred MacMurray: A Biography” (http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/08/06/small-town-boy-makes-good/). [...]

Posted By Jane : May 15, 2012 8:17 pm

A “My Three Sons” episode is mentioned about Fred being from Beaver Dam…does anyone know what episode that is? I’m from Beaver Dam and would like to see it.

Posted By Jane : May 15, 2012 8:17 pm

A “My Three Sons” episode is mentioned about Fred being from Beaver Dam…does anyone know what episode that is? I’m from Beaver Dam and would like to see it.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 15, 2012 9:02 pm

He made so many good movies I can hardly say I have just on favorite! He wasn’t really terrible in Westerns,but those with him just aren’t my favorite. I did have a hard time seeing as the Dad on “My Three Sons” and Disney movies and then going back in career and watching him in “Double Indemnity” and “The Caine Mutiny”. I am really looking forward to August,it’s my favorite month. I love TCM and I wait all year for “Summer Under the Stars”. I’ve been watching it for several years now. I tape my favorites especially in that month. I hope to do so this year too. I am really glad TCM played “Murder,He says” awhile back,I taped and Mom and I watched and it was a lot of fun! Thanks TCM! I love this channel.

Posted By Juana Maria : May 15, 2012 9:02 pm

He made so many good movies I can hardly say I have just on favorite! He wasn’t really terrible in Westerns,but those with him just aren’t my favorite. I did have a hard time seeing as the Dad on “My Three Sons” and Disney movies and then going back in career and watching him in “Double Indemnity” and “The Caine Mutiny”. I am really looking forward to August,it’s my favorite month. I love TCM and I wait all year for “Summer Under the Stars”. I’ve been watching it for several years now. I tape my favorites especially in that month. I hope to do so this year too. I am really glad TCM played “Murder,He says” awhile back,I taped and Mom and I watched and it was a lot of fun! Thanks TCM! I love this channel.

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