The Best Years of His Life by matthew c. hoffman

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[NOTE: The following article originally appeared in the Winter 2004 Nostalgia Digest. Chuck Schaden’s Those Were the Days radio show dedicated an entire afternoon to Fredric March, which included his performances on Theatre Guild On the Air, Suspense, and Academy Award.]

      There’s a scene in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) where the Al Stephenson character has returned to the banking business he knew before the war. A customer comes to him with the expectation of receiving a G.I. loan. This somewhat naive soldier wants to buy a farm but has no collateral. Stephenson, himself a veteran, has to explain to the man what collateral is. The younger vet, unfortunately, has very little to put down. The problem weighs on Al’s conscience, but he reaches a decision. To his way of thinking, an ex-G.I. is a good risk. The loan will be processed, but Al will receive, in due course, a mild reprimand from his superior over the matter.

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      Fredric March portrayed Al Stephenson in this, his most famous film, for which he won his second Oscar. It’s a performance that continually amazes. His character in this scene is a regular Joe who, perhaps guilty over his own economic well-being in post-war America, just wanted to give a fellow G.I. a break. One never sensed any movie star egotism on the screen. Here was a down-to-earth, understanding human being. These qualities of decency and intelligence were exemplified by Fredric March throughout his long and diverse career on stage and on screen.

      Like Ronald Colman and Ray Milland, Fredric March’s name is rarely if at all mentioned these days. His omission from the American Film Institute’s “50 Greatest Actors” was particularly egregious since March was once considered the finest actor of his generation. Unlike some of the more popular (and less talented) actors who were contemporaries of his, March was first and foremost an actor, not a personality. His handsome looks were classical; his voice, distinct and resonating. His acting style often had him underplaying a role, making the performance stand the test of time. With his dramatic roots firmly entrenched in the stage, he could adapt to any film genre, any challenging role.

      He appeared in screwball comedies such as Nothing Sacred (1937) with Carole Lombard. He turned up in literary classics, playing the convict Jean Valjean who is hounded by policeman Charles Laughton in Les Miserables (1935), as well as Count Vronsky opposite Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935). He was adept in contemporary roles as well as historical dramas such as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and The Buccaneer (1938)– both for Cecil B. DeMille. He worked with some of the greatest directors from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Lubitsch, Wyler, Cukor, Leisen, Mamoulian, Wellman, Hawks, and Ford. He played everything from Mark Twain to Christopher Columbus to the President of the United States.

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      In his later years he portrayed Willy Loman to great effect in Death of a Salesman (1951) and was the William Jennings Bryan-inspired character in Inherit the Wind (1960). Never an onscreen loner or rebel, March often played conservative, middle-class men, such as the husband whose family is held hostage by criminal Humphrey Bogart in The Desperate Hours (1955).

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      Perhaps because he was never associated with being an “anti-hero,” modern audiences might prefer to have his performances– and the ideals the films represented– remain in the film cans of movie vaults. Their loss, for pop culture predilections and passing tastes can never take away from the artistry March demonstrated in over 70 films and countless plays. The values of humanity are preserved in these performances.

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      Fredric March made his entrance into the world on August 31st, 1897. Born Frederick McIntyre Bickel, of English and German stock, he grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, in a relatively happy middle-class household. In his childhood he had a knack for dramatic readings and was a good student. In 1915 he attended the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in finance and economics. But his college years were interrupted by the First World War. Duty called him away. He enlisted and became a lieutenant in the Army.

      After the war he returned to school where he became class president, managed the football team, and even starred on the track team. When he graduated he took a banking job in New York, but the position didn’t have the lure or the promise he wanted out of life. He needed something that would appeal to his artistic sensibilities. It was during this time in his life when he was bitten by the Broadway bug.

      After an appendicitis surgery, Bickel gave up banking altogether and began to tread the boards in touring companies and in stock. In 1924, on the advice of friend and future Hollywood director John Cromwell, he changed his name to Fredric March– a shortened version of his mother’s maiden name “Marcher.” (Evidently, Cromwell thought “Bickel” sounded too much like the inelegant “pickle.”)

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      After a brief and unsuccessful first marriage, March found his perfect leading lady, the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. The year was 1926. Her name, Florence Eldridge. After a season of summer stock together in Colorado, they would be married. Florence, too, was a talented star on the stage, and she would in time appear in many of his movies as well as co-star with him in several radio dramas. Fredric’s professional turning point soon followed in 1928 when he played the role of Tony Cavendish in “The Royal Family”– later turned into a film in 1930. This parody of the famous Barrymore family caught the eye of the motion picture industry, since the play debuted in Los Angeles.

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      He was soon signed to a five-year contract by Paramount. Many of his early roles in this period were forgettable through no fault of his own. He needed better scripts, but he did not have long to wait. In 1931 he starred in the definitive version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which he played the tortured doctor torn between the bestial and the spiritual qualities of man. To classic horror enthusiasts, no Best Actor Oscar shines more brightly than the one he won for this film.

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      In the years that followed he appeared in some misses, but most were hits, such as his role of Death in Mitchell Leisen’s beautiful and elegant Death Takes a Holiday (1934). When his contract expired at Paramount, March turned to freelance work at other studios such as 20th Century Fox and MGM.

      Off the set, March contributed greatly to the community at large. During the war years he traveled with the USO and did a great deal of fundraising for the war effort. After a successful comeback to Broadway with Florence in the play “The American Way,” Fredric did radio work to support Democracy over the airwaves. Until his death is 1975, March remained an unquestionable patriot, representing the best in America. Even into the 1960s his country called on him to perform dramatic readings for patriotic events.

      During the decades after the war, March would win two Tony Awards– the second of which came in 1956 for what is considered his greatest success on the stage: Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” This, coupled with the fact that he won a couple of Oscars, makes one wonder how the name Fredric March could be so obscure.

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      Though his stage performances are lost in eternity, seen only by those who were in attendance, his movies will live on through the centuries thanks to film revivals and home entertainment alternatives such as DVD. His film credits read like a registry of great performances. For those unfamiliar with him, one needs only to track down a title like 1937’s A Star Is Born, where he superbly played the washed-up, alcoholic actor Norman Maine. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the role of the Reverend William Spence in the inspirational One Foot In Heaven (1941), one of his finest films of the 1940s. It was fitting that he would play a minister because at one time his parents had the expectation that he would become a clergyman.

      When a viewer looks back on his career and discovers these performances, the things that will stand out are his versatility and the earnestness with which he undertook every role. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future he will again be recognized as one of America’s most gifted actors.

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5 Responses to “The Best Years of His Life by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Jim Lether Says:

    Matthew-
    You and I share very similar screen actor enthusiasms, being equally excited by the underappreciated talents of Ronald Colman and Ray Milland as well as the great Frederic March. As with Colman, I hope to tackle an appropriate portrait of March because of your inspiring research and website. Keep up the good work. Regards, JIM

  2. So glad that I came across your web site. It’s very well done and being a big fan of Fredric March, I was delighted to see his childhood home. Having recently finished Deborah Peterson’s book, I wish that there were more sources of information about him out there. I know that he has a daughter and I think a niece, wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of them would write a book. Since there were two books released on Fred Astaire recently, I think that there would be interest in one. After all, Astaire’s life was very quietly lived and the focus was on his career. Anyway, thanks so much for your site. It’s a great tribute to a singular actor.

  3. Ted Jones Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your comments about my favorite actor. As a high school English teacher, I have taught “The Best Years of Our Lives” to Seniors who are about to graduate for a number of years. It never ceases to amaze me how my I-pod, cell-phone, Nintendo driven students watch this film and become a part of some brilliant discussions about what it means to be an American, a veteran, and what indeed provides the ‘best years’ of our own lives. They also ask questions about the cast and William Wyler. Fredric March made acting look easy – as we all know, nothing could be further from the truth.
    Again, a delight to find your site.

  4. How wonderful it is that you have created this source of reference and inspiration about the greatest actor to ever come out of the American school.

  5. emilyteagarden Says:

    11/20/16 Having found your wonderful site, I feel like its Christmas!
    Thank you so much for creating & sharing this wonderful compilation of thee – – Amazing Fredric March!
    I live 30 miles west of Chicago, but would have loved to have been in the audience at your screenings and lectures.
    Are you doing anything at the present that would interest us?
    All the best to you, Matthew!
    Nell Teegarden

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