He may have been a leading man but was a character actor at heart. He was equally comfortable on stage as he was in front of a movie camera. He had a natural style, used subtlety to his advantage and often could be the best part of a middling movie – let alone the best part of a terrific film.
If his film roles sometimes veered toward the literate or stately, March most often chose his roles wisely, resulting in an accomplished and impressive body of work.
His enduring marriage to actress Florence Eldridge proved to be a fruitful partnership. Although their film work together was infrequent, they were more likely to appear opposite each other on stage. In fact, instead of taking a honeymoon after their 1927 marriage, they went on tour with the Theatre Guild’s first traveling repertory company. That was their commitment to acting.
It was while playing a parody of John Barrymore in a stage production of “The Royal Family” that March was spotted and signed to Paramount. His first big success was recreating his role for the film version of “The Royal Family of Broadway,” a parody of the Barrymore family. March’s wicked take John Barrymore was a delight and earned the actor his first Oscar nomination.
If Universal Studios owned the horror movie genre during the early 1930s, Paramount at least offered up its own response with a superb version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” with March perfectly embodying the tortured professor (opposite Miriam Hopkins, below). He won an Oscar for this role (famously tying with Wallace Beery), and it was clear March was a man who could slip into any role.
His work was distinguished yet varied and intelligent. He could work with the best material produced on either coast. In 1933 he made a film version of Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” (as rewritten by Ben Hecht) opposite Hopkins and Gary Cooper and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. March had the perfect flair for this kind of sophisticated wit.
In “The Barretts of Wimpole,” he beautifully plays Robert Browning opposite Norma Shearer. He even plays the embodiment of Death in the intriguing and well-done “Death Takes a Holiday,” where Death takes on a human form and falls in love.
What I find fascinating about March is his ability to take a mediocre or two-dimensional role and find something to do with it. The perfect example is “The Dark Angel,” a creaky melodrama with March and Merle Oberon set to marry until he meets tragedy during World War I. While this film was meant to showcase the beautiful Oberon, March’s superb acting at the end finds right emotional balance in the otherwise obvious script. That is tough to do, and I don’t know of many actors who can accomplish this.
He could then switch from this type of melodrama to playing Count Vronsky opposite Greta Garbo in “Anna Karenina” to the title role in “Anthony Adverse.”
But my favorite March roles came in 1937. I adore “Nothing Sacred,” the comedy in which he plays a reporter hyping up a story about a supposedly dying Carole Lombard and her tour of New York City. Their interplay is dynamite. Instead of being manic or mugging it up, March nearly plays it straight and gets the laughs. I love the scene when he needs to turn a healthy Lombard into a convincing invalid. He’ll do anything to make this work – he’s smart, conniving and somehow loving, all the while making us laugh and believing that his crazy methods are worth the trouble.
And then there’s Norman Maine, the drunken, fading movie star in “A Star Is Born” opposite Janet Gaynor (below). He didn’t need to overplay this. In fact, the self-loathing he feels often is conveyed through a facial expression or the manner in which he turns his head. He lets you see why Gaynor would fall for the man, not the actor, and despite his self-destruction, the audience clearly wants to see this man turn his life around. As much as I like Gaynor and James Mason, I often wonder how this film would have worked with 1937 Fredric March and 1954 Judy Garland.
There are more films from this decade that are memorable – the title role in “Anthony Adverse” or opposite Katharine Hepburn in John Ford’s intriguing (if not always successful) “Mary of Scotland.” Fredric March infused every role with an understanding of character and never overplays unless the role calls for it. He’s sensational, and more people should get to know this actor.