Fred MacMurray

Fred MacMurray.

I’ve always been a big fan of Fred MacMurray, one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors in my opinion. Most young folks, if they know MacMurray at all, undoubtedly only know him from his My Three Sons TV show or the Walt Disney comedies of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. If you fall into that category, then you don’t know what you’ve missed. Starting in the ‘30s and continuing for more than five decades, MacMurray was one of the most reliable, versatile actors in the business.

Always interesting to watch, MacMurray had terrific range, playing screwball comedy, romantic comedy, drama, and hard-hitting action roles with equal believability. If you want to get an idea of the man’s acting chops, spend a week-end watching him in Alice Adams, Sing You Sinners, Double Indemnity, The Cain Mutiny, and The Apartment. These five films alone will help erase your image of him as dull dad Steve Douglas on My Three Sons, and The AbsentMinded Professor.

Born on August 30th 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois, MacMurray started out in college wanting to become a musician. In school, MacMurray participated in numerous local bands, playing the saxophone. In 1930, he recorded a tune for the Gus Arnheim Orchestra as a featured vocalist on “All I Want Is Just One Girl” on the Victor label. Eventually he got to Broadway and it was in the 1933 production of Roberta that he was “discovered” and signed by Paramount Studios to a seven-year contract. Incidentally, his co-star in Roberta was also signed by Paramount. His name was Bob Hope.

Throughout the ‘30s he played opposite some of the screen’s most important leading ladies, including Katharine Hepburn in the classic, Alice Adams (1935), and with Carole Lombard in Hands Across the Table (1935), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Princess Comes Across (1936) and True Confession (1937).

The ‘40s gave him an opportunity to broaden his range and work against type in more serious roles. In 1944, he played the role of Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who plots with a greedy wife Barbara Stanwyck to murder her husband in Double Indemnity — indisputably the greatest role of his entire career. The picture was directed by Billy Wilder, who MacMurray often credited as giving him his best roles against type. Another example of that would be his role as a womanizing cad in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960).

Fred was teamed with Claudette Colbert in seven films, beginning with The Gilded Lily (1935). This was only his second picture and the one that truly made him a star. Audiences loved this picture and they loved the on-screen chemistry of MacMurray and Colbert. For years these films were hard to find, but now, just in time for the holidays, as the announcers say, three of these classics are being made available in new DVD transfers.

Turner Classic Movies have put together the three movie set, Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray: the Romantic Comedy Collection at a special price of about $35. The films include The Gilded Lily, The Bride Comes Home, and Family Honeymoon. That leaves four other pictures that hopefully TCM will reissue in another set in the not to distant future. Probably the most famous Colbert/MacMurray pairing would be The Egg and I, the film which launched the long running Ma and Pa Kettle series.

MacMurray’s career got a second wind in 1959 when he was cast as the dog-hating father figure in the first Walt Disney live-action comedy, The Shaggy Dog (1959). The film was an enormous hit and MacMurray went on to star in several more Disney pictures including The AbsentMinded Professor (1961) and in its sequel, Son of Flubber (1963). These hit Disney comedies led to his TV series My Three Sons (1960) debuting in 1960 and remained on the air for 12 seasons (380 episodes). MacMurray continued to work throughout the 60s and 70s both on his long running television show and in movies, mostly for Disney.

As a result of a long battle with leukemia, MacMurray died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-three in Santa Monica on November 5, 1991.

MacMurray was a wonderful actor who was vastly underappreciated in his time. Now with Turner Classic Movies showcasing his work on cable and his pictures being released on DVD his talent and film legacy will speak for itself.

P.S. If you’ve never seen Remember the Night (1940) it’s a really terrific holiday picture and it is now available on DVD. It stars MacMurray with Barbara Stanwyck four years before they did Double Indemnity. Make sure you make some popcorn to go with it – it is a must (you’ll understand what I mean after you watch the film).

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