Fred MacMurray: Under or Over?

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Fred MacMurray: Under or Over?

Post by jdb1 »

There's lots of material on the TCM site about Fred MacMurray, all of it very interesting. Moira's blog interview there is especially enlightening.

However, I'd prefer to discuss MacMurray here. Who's a fan? Who is not? Do you think, as TCM seems to, that he is an underrated actor? Or perhaps he's overrated through the rose-colored glasses of retrospect?

I don't dislike him, but I never liked him, and here's why: to me, there was always something tense, aloof, disengaged, uncomfortable ... fill in some other similar adjectives ... about MacMurray. For example, take a look at the photo on the bottom right of TCM's home page -- a typical pose of Fred with his pipe. Look at the face. To me it looks tense and full of discomfiture; almost aggressive.

I never really cared for MacMurray in comedies, and I find him wooden in most dramas, even Double Indemnity. However, in a movie like that, the portrayal fits, because I think Walter Neff is supposed to be a man who has been living discontentedly on only the surface of his life. I also like MacMurray's cool distance in The Caine Mutiny, which I think is also appropriate for the invidious, amoral and ultimately treacherous character he plays.

But on the whole, my impression of MacMurray on the screen is of a man who is not giving his whole attention to his work and who looks as though maybe he is conscious of his size and feels awkward about it. He does not strike me as a natural actor in any sense of the phrase. That is, he is not a "natural" in front of the camera, and he rarely digs very deep into characterization. There is a way to play a character as though you are simply tossing it off (like a Cary Grant, say), but with MacMurray, I feel he isn't really serious about the whole exercise; it's as though he's just along for the ride, and he's not involving me, the audience, in what he is doing.

That said, I reiterate that I don't dislike MacMurray, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch him, so I think I'll skip his special night on TCM.
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Post by movieman1957 »

I liked MacMurray in some of his early things like "The Gilded Lily." I agree with you that he was well suited for the two roles you mentioned. Frankly, the older he got the less I enjoyed his work.

I am of an age where my intro to Fred was "My Three Sons" and Disney movies. He was personable but I found him sort of weak. So when I discovered "Double Indemnity" and "Lily" and some of the "B" westerns in the early 50s it was quite a surprise. I found him tougher, smarter and more interesting.

I don't go out looking for his films but I do more often than not enjoy them.

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Post by vallo »

I guess feel the same way as Fred as I do Hugh Beaumont. They were both good in their TV roles. Used better in supporting roles rather than leads. I never considered him a leading man. In films like "Double Indemnity" it is was a Stanwyck film not so much a MacMurray film. The same can be said about "The Egg and I"( Claudette Colbert) and "The Rains of Ranchipur" (Lana Turner) I do like the Disney's films. One of the first movies I remember seeing at Radio City Music Hall in N.Y. was "Follow Me, Boys!" with MacMurray and Vera Miles, way back in 1966. Like the permise of the film, I was a Cub Scout at the time.

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Post by knitwit45 »

Judith, I actually met Fred MacMurray. I was only 12 at the time, but I remember looking way, way up to see him. He was dressed as a lumberjack, and was leaving the commissary at Universal when my dad (never a shy guy) stopped him and asked him for his autograph...for me...yeah, right...
Anyway, Fred bent down and talked to me, asked me my name, how old, what grade, etc. He acted like it made a difference to know. He was like a gentle giant, and I was enchanted!
I always preferred his tv roles, and the movie,"Follow Me, Boys".
I get the giggles when I see him in the "baby" scenes with Barbara Stanwyck of Double Indemnity
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Post by jdb1 »

I have not doubt that he was a nice guy. Certainly the material at TCM supports that notion.

However, I think what you all have said here is what I'm feeling as well: although attractive and strapping, he came across as an essentially weak character, and was better at being the best friend or enemy than at carrying the heroic lead. Think, for example, of an actor like Vincent Price who, in many of his early films, played spoiled, weak-willed, morally ambiguous characters. Yet he had authority, and was maybe even sympathetic at times. Or consider Stewart, Fonda or Cooper in their boy ingenue days - no comparison, to my mind. MacMurray was the wimp of the litter there.

I find his later Westerns somewhat painful to watch -- he really doesn't look like he means any of it, and he doesn't wear the gear very well. In fact, that's what I think of him in almost all his movies: no matter what he's wearing, he looks like he's wearing a costume, something that doesn't really fit him and that he wishes he weren't wearing. When I watched My Three Sons on TV (and I didn't like that show much), I always had the impression that was addressing a blank wall and had one foot out the door at all times and, indeed, he did -- filming all his scenes at once and having all the other actors shoot around him so that he could put in as little time as possible. An ironic turn of events; the disengaged actor finally gets his wish.
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Post by Dewey1960 »

Some time ago someone (Moira, I think) created a thread about actors thought to be "squares." Among the names bandied about was Fred MacMurray. I made a knee-jerk post underscoring my belief that ol' Fred was the King of the Squares (well, maybe the Vice King under Ralph Bellamy) until further discussion revealed this assertion to be anything but accurate.

MacMurray brought an odd edge to most of his memorable roles. Yes, he was stuffy and stiff, but so are a lot of people in real life, the types of characters actors don't necessarily become famous for portraying. Even in some of his better comedies of the 30s (HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE (35), SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (37); both for the incredibly under-rappreciated Mitchell Leisen and William K. Howard's THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS (36)) he managed to inject his characters with a crusty sense of---well, you said it in your post--aloofness and detachment, marking them as wholly unique, at least for their time.

The fact that MacMurray was also able to so successfully transition himself in the mid-1940s from affable good guy roles into something like Walter Neff in Billy Wilder's 1944 noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY speaks volumes about his intuitive nature.

Admittedly, my appreciation for MacMurray is limited to a relatively small handful of films. He was brilliant as the DA assigned to prosecute shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck in Leisen's 1940 comedy-drama REMEMBER THE NIGHT--only to fall hopelessly (and believably) in love with her by the second reel; excellent as a good cop gone bad in Richard Quine's 1954 taut noir PUSHOVER and poignantly real as a man facing a mid-life crisis in Douglas Sirk's sadly overlooked 1956 film THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW (his third and final team-up with Stanwyck) and, perhaps his most courageous characterization of the callous and insensitive executive in Wilder's 1960 film THE APARTMENT---courageous because it came near the beginning of his amazingly popular run as Steve Douglas, America's favorite dad in the TV series MY THREE SONS.

Virtually everything he did after 1960 (especially the junk for Disney) is pretty dull and uninvolving. But such is life sometimes.

Post by jdb1 »

Ah, see? This is why I come here. Everyone's intelligent comments are a pleasure to read, and help my own thoughts to coalesce.

Dewey, I just don't see any edge at all to MacMurray's work, which is probably why I don't care for him. I think there are a lot of actors who do stuffy a lot better, Ralph Bellamy being one of them, as you said. I'd never describe MacMurray as stuffy; ill at ease, or bland in extremis, maybe. A stuffy performance would have been a lot more interesting. What comes across most strikingly for me in MacMurray's work is, I suppose, a lack of focus. To me he's neither terrible nor wonderful, and his better performances come out of the better material he had to work with, not out of any particular skill on his part.

Plus, he gets zero on my Sex Appeal Scale. He does nothing for me, so I don't even have that to fall back on and enjoy when he's on the screen. At the least, I don't find him objectionable or hateful. He's just there.
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Post by Dewey1960 »

To me he's neither terrible nor wonderful...
Yes, yes, yes; that is precisely it! He captures (effortlessly, I believe) that sadly grey area between here and there, an area populated by a huge number of people in real life. Stuffy, stiff, ill-at-ease, bland; semantics, really when you come right down to it. In truth he resembles us, we the (male) members of the audience, in ways that other iconographic Hollywood everymen (Stewart, Cooper, et al) did as well.
Yeah, edgy, too. I know you've seen DOUBLE INDEMNITY as often as the next person, but check him out in PUSHOVER. For me, there's not too much edgier than a once decent person falling helplessly into a trap of one's own making. MacMurray accomplishes this to the Nth degree in both pictures.

And as the proper and straight-laced DA in Leisen's magnificent REMEMBER THE NIGHT he is faced with a most difficult predicament at the film's conclusion, one that belies the overtly comedic nature of the film. Here, he demonstrates an interesting range of emotions, making his predicament that much...edgier. And don't you just cringe every time he comes onscreen in THE APARTMENT?

Post by feaito »

I had a similar idea about MacMurray than Judith, but after seeing him perform opposite Carole Lombard, Madeleine Carroll and Claudette Colbert, in such comedies as "No Time For Love", "Hands Across the Table", "The Princess Comes Across", "Honeymoon in Bali" and "The Gilded Lily", among others I "discovered" a new Fred.

In my opinion he's very good in the Romantic Comedy Genre. It suits him fine.

I also think that he's very good in "Remember the Night" (1940).

I admit that in such films as "Alice Adams", an excellent movie, but which absolutely belongs to Kate Hepburn, he's not as good.

A also agree with Dewey regarding "Pushover". In it Fred gives a deft performance.
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Post by Mr. Arkadin »

Dewey1960 wrote:He captures (effortlessly, I believe) that sadly grey area between here and there, an area populated by a huge number of people in real life.
Truer words were never spoken. MacMurray might be the most underrated actor in Hollywood. You'll never see a box set come out with his name on it, but perhaps the reason lies in his amazing versatility and his ability to make his co-actors shine instead of overshadowing them. Unlike many stars, MacMurray was a team player who worked for the good of the film (see how he helps first-timer Kim Novak in Pushover). As with Myrna Loy, he is never the main focus, but the glue that holds everything together and underpins the film as a whole. If you underestimate him, it is his intention that you do so.
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Post by myrnaloyisdope »

I'll take the under, Bob.

I haven't seen enough of his work to make a truly accurate judgment, but what I have seen(Double Indemnity, There's Always Tomorrow, The Apartment, and The Absent Minded Professor), makes me think that he was a man of great talent. It's seldom that a mediocrity stumbles into multiple great films, so it would seem unlikely that MacMurray didn't have quite a bit of talent.

I echo Dewey's support of There's Always Tomorrow, it might be my favorite Douglas Sirk film, and MacMurray and Stanwyck is basically an unbeatable combo.

I really need to watch Remember The Night, I mean Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Mitchell Leisen, that can't possibly fail.
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Post by MikeBSG »

Last month, I watched "Dive Bomber" on DVD.

I really enjoyed that movie because both Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray played against type. Flynn played the cool intellectual, and MacMurray played the doomed romantic. That shift in the casting made what was a very predictable film quite interesting.

I too grew up with the "My Three Sons" MacMurray, and it was interesting seeing him as a hell-diving Navy pilot here. I thought he was very believable and right on the money as the guy who always took risks.
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Post by charliechaplinfan »

I was surprised to see Fred McMurray in comedies, my first acquaintance of him was through Double Indemnity and The Apartment. To me he was one of the actors who the studios thought ticked all the boxes but didn't fit in the top league of male heart throbs like Gable, Flynn or Cooper. Nor did he sit with the Tracy's or March's. He was a competent leading man but neither wowed me with his versatility nor did he have that something extra that made him compelling to watch. I'm not trying to be too general or dismissive of him or the other stars of his day, there's plenty of people like him. I suppose he just does'nt do it for me either.
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Post by inglis »

I am a fan of Fred MacMurray.I am from that time of My Threes Sons and the Disney years .There was a movie I saw as a kid called Follow Me Boys,Lillian Gish Vera Miles,Kurt Russell great cast .I always saw him as this Father figure and that was my perception of him as a child . I started seeing more of his work on TCM. I was blown away that he could be so cool and calculated and mean.There is definitely a alot of versatility with him and the different roles he played .He played a mean sax too! 8)

Post by jdb1 »

Well, I looked in at many of the Fred MacMurray movies on offer yesterday, and my opinion of the pleasant but bland Fred hasn't changed much.

Except . . . . did any one see Too Many Husbands in the afternoon? What a very nice surprise -- this movie was a delight, and so was Fred. It has a familiar plot: husband lost at sea, wife remarries, husband reappears. In this case, the movie was based on a play by Somerset Maugham. Actually, a lot of the original dialog seems to have been kept, because it sounded very much like a British drawing comedy. However, the great pro actors involved, Jean Arthur, MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Davenport and Melville Cooper (as the butler) made it work and, in fact the dialog was very, very funny. It reminded me a lot of The Importance of Being Earnest, even to the point that one of the characters is called Cardew (Fred again) which is the name of one of the characters in Oscar Wilde's play.

MacMurray was, I thought, unusually animated and on target, as the immature, selfish jock who wants his wife back. Even the staid Douglas, whose character is supposed to be rather staid, was very light and lively. Arthur, of course, was her usual excellent screwball self. I was laughing out loud at this movie - it was really clever, fast paced without being frantic, and terrifically played.

Two favorite scenes: Fred and Melvyn trying to impress Arthur to choose one of them, competing by jumping over the furniture in the living room. (Arthur never does make up her mind; the court does it for her - I won't reveal the decision.)

Then, at the end, they are all in a fancy nightclub. As they enter and pass the dance floor, everyone there, in formal attire, is doing a ridiculous and complicated kind of Tyrolean hopping dance, complete with finger snapping and knee and chest slapping. Have you ever seen Top Secret! with Val Kilmer? The scene in the hotel in East Germany where all the guests are doing an extremely complicated and silly-looking peasant dance? It looked like that. It was so funny, and yet is was presented as background to the action; everyone on the dance floor in Too Many was performing this absurd dance with totally straight faces, and they all seemed to know all the steps.

The other interesting aspect of this movie is its ending: it concludes with Arthur on the dance floor doing this crazy dance with both of her husbands, with the not so subtle implication that this relationship will continue a trois.

I loved this one - I recommend it.
Last edited by jdb1 on August 13th, 2008, 8:26 am, edited 1 time in total.
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