Cinema Station

Fred MacMurray: A Man for all genres

November 10, 2010

Fred Mac Murray was to me, one of the most accomplished and underrated actors in the entire history of American film. His range seemed to encompass nearly all the genres. Light comedies (The Gilded Lily-1935), literary drama (Alice Adams-1935), Musicals (Sing You Sinners-1938), Military/war films (Dive Bomber-1941), Film Noir (Borderline-1950),family comedy (The Egg and I1947),Romantic Melodrama (Singapore-1947), Westerns (Gun for a Coward-1957), Slapstick comedy (The Shaggy Dog-1959), Crime drama (Pushover-1954),Action/Adventure (Fair Wind to Java-1953), and even Science Fiction (The Swarm-1978). It seems that the only genre he missed was horror. But that is a list that is unmatched by any other leading actor in his time or now. And I’m only citing one film in each genre but he made considerably more. It should be remembered that he made over 100 theatrical films.

Granted he came along and worked during the Studio system period when most leading actors were required to try every kind of style until it was found where they fitted most comfortably. But after their round of genres most usually settled into one that both the audience and the studio determined for them. So some became gangsters, others cowboys, others musical stars or romantic leads, action stars, etc. Errol Flynn was the adventurer, Cagney the tough guy, Bogart the gangster, Hepburn the society girl, Monroe the sexpot and so on. MacMurray was cast this way too. He was the light comedy guy. But then just as it seemed that his screen image was settled he surprised and confounded the critics as well as the audience with an outdoor film like Far Horizons (1955) where he played explorer Capt. Meriwether Lewis to Charleton Hestons’ Lt. William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expeditions. Later he would venture into westerns with a run of small budgeted but well acted titles including; At Gunpoint(1955), Quantez (1957),Day of the Bad Man (1958),A Good Day for a Hanging (1959) and  Face of a Fugitive (1959). No comedies here. In fact MacMurray acted and succeeded in so many genres that he came to be considered cinema’s “Man for all genres”. Covering a period from around 1938 to 1960 no other leading actor matched this record. The only other names that come quickly to mind are Henry Fonda, James Stewart and another shamefully underappreciated actor Joel McCrea. But none had the common touch that MacMurray brought to his characterizations. Fonda always seemed somewhat aristocratic even when he played outlaws, Stewart too home spun and folksy, and McCrea too upper middle class. MacMurray’s “common touch” was so popular that in his heyday (between 1940 to 45) that he was among the highest paid actors in Hollywood. And in 1943 he was actually the highest paid actor in the world.

Fred Mac Murray was the son of musicians and was a musician himself. He played the saxophone and sang with various bands. Later he appeared on Broadway with Sidney Greenstreet and Bob Hope… Late in his career he became well known for his TV series My Three Sons which ran for 12 years on two different networks. But today to fans and film buffs he is best known for his performances in three particular films in which he played the complete opposite  of his decent nice guys  or the absent minded professors or tough guy cowboys and farmers. In The Caine Mutiny (1954) he played Lt. Keefer whom one character called “The true architect of the mutiny”. MacMurray’s performance in the role is by turns sincere, sly, cunning,  bold faced and shameless as befitted the character. It is a terrific performance in a film that boasts several terrific performances especially Bogart as Captain Queeg. So MacMurray’s got overlooked and forgotten… Another terrific performance that he doesn’t get enough credit for is a role he stepped into after the originally cast actor Paul Douglas died just before shooting began. That film is Billy Wilder’s multiple award winning The Apartment (1960)in which he plays the duplicitous boss Jeff Sheldrake. His performance though overlooked and often forgotten is peerless…Then of course his greatest and most memorable is as Walter Neff the smart ass, wise cracking insurance salesman who travels down a tunnel of no return with the adulterous Phyllis Dietrichson smashingly played by Barbara Stanwyck in the film that has to be considered possibly the apex of the film noir genre, Double Indemnity(1944). That  film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards ,Stanywck was nominated as Best Actress but MacMurray was never mentioned. This happened to Mac Murray throughout his career. My assessment is because he played all of his characters so close to the skin that as they often said about Spencer Tracy “you could never catch him acting”. Now Double Indemnity had been remade 3 times. Twice officially and once unofficially as Body Heat (1981). Okay, I can’t honestly call that a remake but in terms of characterizations and plot structure it is awfully close. And good as the other actors were ( especially William Hurt) in what is essentially the Walter Neff role none comes close to what MacMurray did in the part. He was so good that he created a prototype of this kind of sexy/amoral protagonist that we now see so many times in crime stories that it has almost become a cliché.

In motion pictures today  we don’t have that kind of generalist anymore. We do have some wonderful actors now but like physicians everyone is a specialist. The era of the generalists has passed. But Fred MacMurray was a great one and his contributions should not only be remembered but properly appreciated as well. He is here.