Right, Said Fred

Championing the lost persona of birthday boy Fred MacMurray

Right, Said Fred

Happy Fred MacMurray Day! The actor was born 114 years ago on August 30, 1908, and it’s a minor tragedy that 99 percent of my generation know him only as Steve Douglas, the pipe-smoking patriarch of “My Three Sons,” which ran on CBS from the end of the Eisenhower era to the beginning of the Me Decade. On that show and in his run of genially toothless Disney hits – “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961), “Son of Flubber” (1963), “The Happiest Millionaire” (1967) – MacMurray projected a benignly neutered family-man masculinity, forever reading the newspaper in the den but ready to offer Robbie or Chip or Ernie the wisdom of a suburban Solomon. (And what was the deal with William Demarest’s Uncle Charley, with his Bowery pugnaciousness and frilly aprons? Were these two a couple or what?)

It doesn’t take much looking around to recognize that MacMurray was capable of more – that Disney and “My Three Sons” were a profitable retirement plan after a busy and varied career (in movies and in business: At one point MacMurray was the fourth highest-paid person in the country). You know that MacMurray was especially adept at playing rat bastards if you’ve seen him as the traitorous Lieut. Keefer in “The Caine Mutiny” (1954):

or the casually soulless boss in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” (1960):

The distracted air that gave Steve Douglas his charm on “My Three Sons” could signal spineless amorality elsewhere. And MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) is the model for all the dumb, horny, cocksure saps of classic film noir and its modern iterations, equally aroused by Barbara Stanwyck’s sleazy Phyllis Dietrichson and the prospect of getting away with murder. (William Hurt’s character in “Body Heat” wouldn’t exist without Walter.)

I like critic David Thomson’s summation of MacMurray in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film” (a tome no movie-lover’s bathroom or bedside table should be without):

“The ingredients of the MacMurray man are paradoxical but consistent: brittle cheerfulness; an anxious smile that subsides into slyness; a voice that tries to be jocular and easygoing but comes out fraudulent; the semblance of a masculine carriage that turns insubstantial and shifty. In other words, MacMurray is a romantic lead built on quicksand, a hero compelled to betray, a lover likely to desert.”

All that said – and in defiance of Thomson – my favorite Fred MacMurray is the one least remembered by modern audiences, the confidently sassy hero of romantic comedies made for Paramount in the 1930s and 1940s. Two excellent films bookend this period: “Alice Adams” (1935), his fifth film as a new studio contractee, cast the actor as an impossibly gentle beau to Katharine Hepburn’s social-climbing title character —

and “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956) is an incisive Douglas Sirk melodrama that reunites MacMurray with Stanwyck for a doomed middle-aged romance. (Typically subversive Sirk, the movie’s stance is firmly pro-adultery.)

In between those two, MacMurray made over 60 movies in a gamut of genres, most of them for Paramount, a lot of them forgettable. The ones to look for are the nine he made with Mitchell Leisen, a director of terrifically breezy romantic comedies – snappy and sexy and wise – who never quite escaped the shadow of the studio’s marquee talents, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. (In fact, Wilder never forgave Leisen for cutting a scene from his script for 1941’s “Hold Back the Dawn” and bad-mouthed him for the rest of his days.) The bummer is that almost all of the Leisen-MacMurray films are unavailable on VOD – only 1937’s “Swing High, Swing Low,” which is more of a romantic drama and casts Fred as a shiftless trumpet player opposite Carole Lombard – is widely available (it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, Paramount+, and DirectTV, and can be had for a $2 rental on Amazon or — shhh — for free on YouTube).

“The Lady Is Willing” (1942), a delightful bit of froth pairing MacMurray and Marlene Dietrich (!), is also on YouTube in a nice, clean print.

But take your chances with second-rate YouTube dubs of “Hands Across the Table” (1935), “Remember the Night” (1940, and perhaps the best of the bunch), “Take a Letter, Darling” (1942), and “Suddenly It’s Spring” (1947). And if you ever have a chance to catch 1945’s “Murder He Says,” an unexpectedly hilarious black comedy about a homicidal family of hicks, pounce (as the old New York Times TV listings used to say). All of these show up on Turner Classics from time to time, and all of them showcase a MacMurray that would have Uncle Charley doing a double take.

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