If I told you that there was an actor who was Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor all rolled into one, with a pinch of Paul Muni thrown in for good measure you'd probably think I'm nuts. But such an actor did exist, and his name was Fredric March.
Like Tracy and Muni, March was a real actor with a capital A. In films like A Star is Born, Inherit the Wind and The Best Years of Our Lives, March gives the kinds of performances that make you forget that he is an actor playing a role-- you're only seeing the character. And March went a step further than Tracy, often choosing roles that didn't mesh with his offscreen views if it got the point across. For instance, in real life March actually agreed with the Clarence Darrow side of the Inherit the Wind argument. But he played the role of Matthew Brady with conviction and a fire in his belly so that you believed that he believed the lines he was saying.
Like Gable and Taylor, March could also play a romantic lead. I mean, it was totally believable that Greta Garbo would leave her husband and son to spend her life in sin with Fredric March in Anna Karenina. In Design for Living, you can completely understand why Miriam Hopkins can't decide between Gary Cooper and Fredric March.
Speaking of Design for Living, this is the film that officially got me hooked on Fredric March. I never, in all my movie watching years, would have thought this particular word would describe him, but... he is so .... adorable. If you wouldn't mind the slight inconvenience of fast-forwarding a little through a YouTube video, you will get to see my favorite March moment out of all his films.
A little background first. In Design for Living, March plays an unpublished playwright who is being artistically challenged by Miriam Hopkins, his and friend Gary Cooper's shared paramour. In my favorite scene, he has finally finished Act I of his play, "Goodnight Bassington: a comedy in about three acts with a tragic ending." March reads the ending aloud to Gary Cooper. I'll be brutally honest-- I was giggling uncontrollably when I watched this scene for the first time.
Just fast forward to 1:30 (or watch the 1:30, that's funny too but mainly Gary Cooper) and hopefully you will see what amuses me so much.
I think it's a shame that Fredric March isn't remembered today with the same iconic status that Spencer Tracy has acquired. I believe that he could match, if not top, Tracy's acting ability when faced with any role. I don't even have to hypothesize about this because they actually did play the same role. In 1931, Fredric March played the infamous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a whole ten years before Spencer Tracy re-created the role in 1941. While both actors bring something different to the role, I've always liked the March version ten times more. He really blends into his character, merges with the role in a way that Tracy could never quite manage... you always still see that good natured, honest Spencer Tracy peeking through whichever character he played.
Not to knock Spencer Tracy again, but really... which would you prefer? Spencer Tracy? OR...Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Robert Taylor all rolled into one with a pinch of Paul Muni thrown in for good measure?