Born in Racine, Wisconsin, 120 years ago today, Fred Bickel – professional name Fredric March (1897-1975) – “is a good instance of the durable leading man, much relied upon by major studios, but never a star who dominated audiences. The bulk of his work is nonassertive: he was content to give thoughtful sensitive performances in support of either a real star or the plot of the film” (David Shipman). The winner of pairs of Academy Awards® for film work and Tony Awards® for Broadway turns reportedly referred to himself as “just a ham,” but without that touch of the showoff in his nature, would we have a half-century legacy that includes such great screen creations as Jekyll/Hyde, Jean Valjean, Norman Maine, Mark Twain, Al Stephenson, Willy Loman, President Jordan Lyman, Harry Hope and several others? Though during his 1930s and ’40s leading-man prime, he played handily in romantic comedies as well as topical dramas, an older-but-wiser performer’s gift for embodying authority figures with destructive character flaws is the common thread of three shrewdly crafted roles offered on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays. For writer-producer-director Robert Rossen, March is the proudly defiant King Philip of Macedonia, father of Richard Burton in the title role of the well-appointed historical saga Alexander the Great (1956). In his review of this “thoughtful and spectacular entertainment” about larger-than-life conquerors, The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther considered that “Mr. March is a tough, bearded, designing warrior consumed by lusts, preoccupied by wars and harried by suspicions. And he is hindered by jealousy of his son and hatred of his estranged wife [Danielle Darrieux], who, he feels, is pitting his brilliant son against him. Mr. March gives him natural attributes and imperfections.”
While Rossen’s epic was rolling out in theaters in Spring 1956, the acclaimed Broadway run of the Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee 1925 Scopes Trial-inspired Inherit the Wind was continuing, winning Tonys® for its two stars Paul Muni and Ed Begley as, respectively, courtroom antagonists Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady. Four years later, producer-director Stanley Kramer’s impassioned 1960 screen adaptation tapped two other top-tier actors to play the Clarence Darrow-modeled Drummond and the William Jennings Bryan-styled opponents, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. (Though the two titans had not worked together before, they were already connected by a signature role. March had won his first Tony® in 1947 originating the role of the skeptical but loving father of a would-be thespian in Ruth Gordon’s autobiographical play Years Ago, to be later assumed in its George Cukor-directed screen adaptation The Actress (1953) by Tracy, who scored a Best Actor Golden Globe® Award.) Crowther would prove equally appreciative of March’s evocation of the real-life antecedent in his Brady characterization, citing “Mr. March's extraordinary makeup and assumption of the mannerisms of Bryan. His fine simulation of a bald dome, a fringe of flowing hair, and a way of tightening his lips and making gestures and nervous flutters with a palm-leaf fan are vividly recollective of the ‘silver-tongued orator’ who made the air ring with his phrases in support of the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible at the Dayton trial. But the accuracy of the resemblance is mainly a dividend for those who remember what Bryan looked like. The artistic virtue of it is that it gives a stunning comprehension of a proud, pompous, demagogic man, full of dogmatic assertion and theatrical flourishes, who stands serenely encircled by ignorance until the locks of his own mind are forced.” (Though Tracy would earn an Oscar® nomination, March won the Silver Bear Award as Best Actor at the 1960 Berlin International Film Festival.)
Seven years hence, second-billed to newly iconic stellar attraction Paul Newman, then 69-year-old March was wickedly on point and quite memorable as the jaded, openly racist Indian agent “Doc” Favor, whose thievery endangers the survival of a stagecoach’s travelers in the expertly cast ensemble of director Martin Ritt’s edgy Western Hud (1967). “As the Favors,” blogger Jake Hinson wrote in a 2012 CriminalElement.com essay, “Fredric March and Barbara Rush create a fascinating portrait of a marriage between two essentially rotten people.” Though he told biographer Lawrence J. Quirk that he found the experience tough-going and “didn’t enjoy the scenes where he had to trek across the desert in the blazing sun after Hombre tossed him out of the party,” March commended the professionalism of Newman, then as big a star as March had been in bygone days, whom he remembered as “courteous and understanding and ‘very respectful of my past performances, which I thought most kind on his part.’” If March here represented the “old guard” of character acting in this Irving Ravetch/Harriet Frank Jr. adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, then it could be said that the torch was passed to a “new guard” of fellow players that included Richard Boone, Martin Balsam, Diane Cilento, Cameron Mitchell and Frank Silvera, who delivered with the grit and professionalism that March regularly offered in the previous four decades on both stage and screen. TT’s discs of Alexander the Great, Hombre and Inherit the Wind (offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28399/INHERIT-THE-WIND-1960/) form a top-notch trio through which one can recapture and celebrate the reliable excellence of the invaluable Fredric March.