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Top 10 Fredric March Films

Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.

Fredric March is an award-winning actor. Here are his ten best films.

Fredric March is an award-winning actor. Here are his ten best films.

Who Was Fredric March?

Fredric March is not a name the average person is likely to know. However, he was one of the most well-respected and versatile actors of Hollywood’s studio era. If March doesn’t enjoy the same name recognition as some of his peers, it might be because of his incredible ability to disappear into numerous roles. With a career that spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s, March moved seamlessly from romantic leading man to older character actor. And unlike most stars of the era, he avoided signing long-term contracts with the studios. This gave him the freedom to appear in a wide variety of films at various studios throughout his long career.

Fredric March found equal success in Hollywood and on Broadway, splitting his time between the two for most of his career. He won his first Lead Actor Tony Award in 1947 for the play Years Ago, written by Ruth Gordon (Maude in Harold in Maude). He won his second Lead Actor Tony in 1957 for the original Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. He also racked up five Best Actor Oscar nominations in his career, winning the coveted statue twice: the first in 1932 (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and the second in 1947 (The Best Years of Our Lives). To this day, Fredric March remains the only actor to have won two Oscars and two Tonys (all in performance categories). So, if you have yet to see this great actor at work, you may want to keep reading.

A Note on This List's Order

I chose the order of these top 10 films by considering their importance in Fredric’s overall career, as well as the size/importance of his role in them. I also took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top 10). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes.

Top 10 Fredric March Films

  1. A Star Is Born
  2. Inherit The Wind
  3. The Best Years Of Our Lives
  4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  5. Design For Living
  6. Nothing Sacred
  7. Les Miserables
  8. Hombre
  9. The Desperate Hours
  10. Death Of A Salesman

1. A Star is Born (1937)

The film that spawned three successful remakes, including the critically-praised 2018 version directed by Bradley Cooper. The original A Star Is Born stands alone as the only version to center around the dream of becoming a dramatic actress, rather than a singer. The aspiring actress in question is Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), who leaves her hometown in North Dakota to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a Hollywood star. She soon discovers that it’s harder to break into the movie business than she expected.

That all changes when she meets movie star Norman Maine (Fredric) while working as a waitress at a Hollywood party. Instantly smitten with her, he takes Esther under his wing and gets her a screen test at one of the major studios. After her screen test is successful, Esther is given a new name (Vicki Lester), a studio contract, and the female lead in Norman’s latest movie. When the film is released, Esther (now Vicki) is an overnight sensation. Meanwhile, Norman's career takes a turn for the worse. A longtime alcoholic, he's been on a downward trajectory, and now he might be beyond help.

A Star Is Born offers a fascinating look at 1930s Hollywood and gives Fredric March an opportunity to showcase both his comedic and dramatic talents in one film. Although far from being the first Technicolor film, A Star Is Born is notable for being the very first full-color movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It didn't win Best Picture, but the movie took home Oscars for Best Writing and the film’s cinematographer, W. Howard Green, was given an honorary Oscar for his groundbreaking color photography.

2. Inherit the Wind (1960)

Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (the playwright, not the Confederate general), Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized account of the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” that took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. In the film, Dick York plays the role of Bertram Cates, a young school teacher in a small Southern town who is arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. The media gets wind of the story and it immediately becomes national news. Renowned lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) is brought in to defend Cates, while the equally well-respected statesman Matthew Harrison Brady (March) offers to help the prosecution.

Naturally, since Inherit the Wind is based on actual events, most of the major characters have a real-world equivalent. Drummond is based on lawyer Clarence Darrow, Brady is based on politician William Jennings Bryan, reporter E.K. Hornbeck (played by Gene Kelly in a rare dramatic role) is based on Baltimore Sun reporter H.L. Mencken, and of course, Bertram Cates is based on teacher John Scopes. Fact and fiction collide even further as Fredric March’s actual wife, Florence Eldridge, makes her final film appearance playing her husband's onscreen wife, Sarah Brady.

Despite being based on historical events, Inherit the Wind is a fictionalized retelling of the Scopes Monkey Trial, not a documentary. In fact, the play was originally written as an allegory of McCarthyism and its chilling effect on free speech. For those who may be wondering, the film’s title is a reference to the Book of Proverbs (11:29): “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

3. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Based on MacKinlay Kantor's novella, Glory For Me, this landmark film was one of the very first to focus on the struggles of World War II soldiers readjusting to civilian life. It's also the movie that won Fredric March the second of his two Best Actor Oscars. The Best Years of Our Lives stars March alongside Dana Andrews and real-life veteran (and double amputee) Harold Russell as three soldiers returning home after World War II.

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Fredric plays the role of Al Stephenson, an Army sergeant returning to his civilian job as a banker, as well as reuniting with his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and their two children. Andrews plays Fred Derry, an Air Force pilot returning home to his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married only a month before he was shipped out. Fred worked at the local soda fountain as a civilian, but he’s hoping to find better opportunities now that the war is over. And finally, Harold Russell plays the role of Homer Parrish, a Navy petty officer who lost both his hands when his battleship was torpedoed.

Although Homer has adapted very well to using his hook prosthetics, this will be the first time his family (and his girlfriend, Wilma) will see firsthand his injury. Along with Fredric’s award for Best Actor, The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for William Wyler. Harold Russell not only won Best Supporting Actor, he was also given an Honorary Oscar “for providing inspiration for his fellow veterans through his performance.” The Academy gave Russell the honorary award because they wished to honor him for his performance but didn’t believe he would actually win in the competitive Supporting Actor category against more established professional actors. They were wrong, making Russell the only actor to ever be given two Oscars for the same performance!

4. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

The film that earned Fredric March his first Best Actor Oscar, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde marked a turning point in Fredric’s career, proving he was an actor truly capable of playing anything. Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this film version was the very first sound adaptation of the novella—and is still widely considered to be the best.

Set in Victorian London, Fredric plays the role of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a well-respected and well-liked doctor. Recently, Jekyll has become fascinated with the idea that every man has the propensity for both good and evil. A large part of his fascination stems from the fact that even though Jekyll is known for his kind nature, he has found himself secretly tortured by his own immoral impulses. He comes to believe that if he can find a way to separate the good and evil sides of his personality, it would free him from both guilt and responsibility. So, secretly, Jekyll develops a formula to separate his two sides, resulting in his transformation into the animalistic and violent Mr. Edward Hyde.

Originally, John Barrymore was going to play the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde since he had already played the roles to great acclaim in the 1920 silent film version. However, Barrymore’s contract with MGM prohibited him from accepting, opening the door for the lesser-known March to take on the role of a lifetime. Some said at the time that it was his Barrymore-like performance in the 1930 film The Royal Family of Broadway that allowed Fredric to be considered for the role.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is known for its groundbreaking transformation scenes and the ingenious process was not revealed until decades later. The surprisingly simple technique involved making up Fredric's face in contrasting colors, and then using matching colored filters on the camera lens so the makeup didn't register on the black-and-white film stock. As the scene went on, filters were removed, and the makeup slowly revealed itself to the camera, giving the illusion of a real-time transformation.

5. Design for Living (1933)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and loosely based on the play by Noel Coward, this Pre-Code sex comedy is probably best described as an American version of Coward’s very English play. Design For Living stars Fredric opposite Gary Cooper as Thomas Chambers and George Curtis, respectively, two American expatriates living in Paris.

One day, while traveling back to the city by train, the two men meet fellow American Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) and the trio immediately hits it off. They quickly discover that, not only are they all American, but they also, all work in the arts: Tom is a playwright, George is a painter, and Gilda is a commercial artist. The three keep in touch and it’s not long before both George and Tom realize that they have fallen for the vivacious Gilda.

Unfortunately, Gilda can’t decide between the two. So, she proposes an unusual alternative. They will make “a gentleman’s agreement” that she will live with them as a roommate, friend, and muse, but sex is completely off the table. The question is, how long can these three roommates actually maintain such an agreement?

One of the main differences between the film version of Design For Living and the original play is that the movie’s lead characters are lighthearted and optimistic American Bohemians rather than Noel Coward's sophisticated and cynical Brits. Interestingly, Lubitsch originally wanted English film stars, Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman, for the lead roles. However, when both of them declined, Lubitsch looked at American actors instead.

Although the play, Design For Living, was a big hit on Broadway, its controversial “menage-a-trois” theme kept it from being performed on the West End in London until 1939. Similarly, when the Production Code became more widely enforced in 1934, the film’s more blatant discussions about sex prevented it from being re-released in theaters for years afterwards.

6. Nothing Sacred (1937)

Reuniting Fredric March with A Star Is Born director William Wellman, this Technicolor screwball comedy pairs Fredric with the lovably zany Carole Lombard. Originally, Nothing Sacred was going to pair Fredric with his A Star Is Born co-lead, Janet Gaynor. But, when Wellman met Carole Lombard, he knew she was the perfect choice. March stars as Wally Cook, a New York City newspaper reporter whose reputation is instantly ruined when his story about a visiting African sultan results in scandal. The “sultan” is publicly revealed to be, in fact, an opportunistic bootblack from Harlem named Ernest Walker. His reputation now in tatters, Wally is relegated to writing the obituary column in the newspaper’s crowded records room.

Desperate to salvage his career, Wally discovers a possible human interest story about a woman in Vermont dying of radium poisoning and begs his editor to let him pursue it. So, Wally is sent to Vermont to find the girl with radium poisoning, Hazel Flagg (Lombard). Unbeknownst to Wally, Hazel has just been given a clean bill of health from her doctor. It turns out the radium poisoning was a misdiagnosis. But, when Wally shows up and gives Hazel the hard sell—offering to fly her to NYC to spend her “last days” in luxury—this sheltered small town girl can’t find it in her heart to tell him the truth.

The original script for Nothing Sacred was adapted from a short story in Cosmopolitan called “Letter to the Editor” by James H. Street. Screenwriter Ben Hecht apparently wrote the screenplay in two weeks while traveling by train, with the intention that his friend, John Barrymore, would star. However, the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, refused to cast Barrymore due to his severe alcoholism. Hecht was so angry about this that he left the film, necessitating multiple writers to create the film’s final draft.

7. Les Miserables (1935)

Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables was the last movie made by Twentieth Century Pictures before it merged with the Fox Film Corporation (thus creating 20th Century Fox). Set in the 1800s, the film stars Fredric as Jean Valjean, a poor Frenchman who is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread and sent to the galleys for 10 years as punishment. Even when Valjean is released, he finds himself ostracized everywhere he goes and has to check in frequently with his parole officer.

When desperation drives him to make a mistake that could send him back to prison, Valjean experiences the selfless kindness of a bishop named Bienvenue, who offers him a second chance to do things right. Moved by the bishop’s words and gesture, Valjean chooses to be a better man from now on. But, to do so, he starts from scratch, giving himself a new name and skipping out on his parole. Many years later, after building himself a successful new life, Valjean finds himself face-to-face with Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton), a man blindly devoted to the law. He is determined to return Valjean to the galleys for good.

Naturally, Fredric gives a layered and likable performance as Jean Valjean, but he also makes an appearance in the small role of Champmathieu, a poor vagrant the police mistake for Valjean. His performance in this secondary role is incredible to behold, as you will fully believe it is being played by an entirely different actor.

Originally made to compete with MGM’s successful adaptations of Little Women and David Copperfield, this beautiful film features quite a few changes from the novel—including a slightly more optimistic ending—but the basic story is the same. Those familiar with the original novel or the immensely popular stage musical should definitely check this one out.

8. Hombre (1967)

Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, Hombre is a rare Western in the career of Fredric March. He actually plays a supporting role, with Paul Newman taking the lead. Set in Arizona in the late 1800s, the film tells the story of John Russell (Newman), a man of European descent who was captured by Apache Indians as a small child. He subsequently grew up within the Apache culture and feels most at home with his adopted people. When he discovers that he has inherited a boardinghouse, he comes into town to look it over and decides to trade the property for a herd of horses.

To complete the transaction, he makes plans to leave on the next stagecoach, a specially chartered trip set up by Dr. Alexander Favor (Fredric) and his wife, Audra. Favor is an Indian agent on the local reservation and a corrupt one at that. It turns out the reason he's in a hurry to leave town is because he's embezzling money from the government—money meant for the reservation. Unfortunately for Favor (and everyone else on board his stagecoach), some men are aware of the missing money and they're not planning to let him keep it.

Filmed primarily on location in Arizona, Hombre was one of Fredric's very last roles. This cynical Western features fantastic performances from March and Paul Newman, as well as the rest of the supporting cast. Hombre ends with the photo of a pale boy surrounded by Apache children that is implied to be John Russell. The picture is actually an 1886 photo of Jimmy “Santiago” McKinn, who (similar to the fictional Russell) was captured when he was 11-years-old and fully assimilated into Geronimo’s Apache band

9. The Desperate Hours (1955)

Directed by William Wyler, The Desperate Hours is based on the novel (and play) of the same name by Joseph Hayes. Fredric plays the role of Daniel Hilliard, an average family man with a loving wife and two children. The Hilliard’s peaceful suburban lives are suddenly upended when three escaped convicts invade their home.

The leader of the group is notorious criminal Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart). They hold the innocent family hostage in their own home, while promising they will leave at midnight without incident, so long as the Hilliards do as they’re told. But, things do not go as planned and the longer the criminals are in the Hilliard’s house, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

The very first black-and-white movie to be made using the widescreen VistaVision process, the story of The Desperate Hours was inspired by real events. In 1952, the real-life Hill family were held hostage by escaped convicts for 19 hours inside their home in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania. (Fortunately, they were not treated nearly as roughly as the Hilliard family in The Desperate Hours novel, play, or film.) The Hill family actually sued Life Magazine for publishing an article about the play that falsely described it as a “reenactment” of their experiences.

Originally, Spencer Tracy was intended to play opposite Bogart in the role of Daniel Hilliard. However, when Tracy insisted on top billing and left the film, Fredric took his place. Interestingly enough, it was Paul Newman who originated the role of Glen Griffin on Broadway. But, since Newman had yet to make a name for himself in movies, Humphrey Bogart was given the role instead—making it one of his last film appearances.

10. Death of a Salesman (1951)

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman tells the story of Willy Loman (Fredric), a 60-year-old traveling salesman making the same rounds he’s made for decades. Although Willy has always dreamed of something more for himself and his family, he never reached the level of success that he believed was his destiny.

Willy has also placed high expectations on his two sons, Happy and Biff. But, his dreams have blinded him to his sons’ flaws and limitations, which means that neither of them have become “the leader of men” he told them they would be. When Biff, the eldest, moves back home after leaving his farmhand job in Texas to pursue a “real” job in business, Willy starts to experience flashbacks and hallucinations from when his sons were still young. Plagued by regrets, he wonders what he did wrong to make them all become “failures.” For Willy, pride and perception are everything. Success means wealth and popularity, while the truth is not nearly as important as the story you tell.

With the exception of Fredric, most of the cast of Death of a Salesman had appeared in either the original Broadway production or on the West End. Fredric had actually been offered the role of Willy on Broadway, but turned it down. He regretted that decision, which is why he jumped at the opportunity to play the role in the film version.

Fredric gives a moving, sensitive portrayal of the tragic Willy Loman and the film is a pretty close adaptation of the play with many of the lines taken verbatim from the play’s script. It's been said that Arthur Miller didn't like this adaptation because scenes were shortened. He also felt that Willy had been written as more of a crazy old man than the victim he is intended to be. Personally, I would argue against that, but you’ll have to see the film to decide for yourself.

Honorable Mention: I Married A Witch (1942)

For my honorable mention, I chose one of my favorite Fredric March movies, the adorable I Married a Witch. The film stars Fredric opposite the beautiful Veronica Lake, in their one and only pairing together. Lake plays the role of Jennifer, a witch from Salem who was burned at the stake in 1672 (alongside her father, Daniel), thanks to the accusations of a Puritan named Jonathan Wooley (Fredric).

Although witches cannot be killed quite so easily, the Puritans bury Jennifer's and Daniel’s ashes beneath a tree, which traps the two witches’ spirits. Jennifer also curses the Wooley family line, dooming all Wooley men to be unhappy in love by marrying the wrong women. After many years go by—and generations of Wooley men experience misery in marriage—a fortuitous lightning strike finally releases the spirits of Jennifer and her father.

Immediately after being released, Jennifer tracks down Jonathan Wooley’s latest male descendent, Wallace Wooley (also played by Fredric). Wallace is currently running for governor and is about to be married. True to his legacy, Wally’s fiancee is a shrew, but she has connections that might help his political career. Jennifer decides she’d like to have a little bit more fun with Wally now that she’s free so, with the help of her father, she conjures up a new body to allow her to torment him more. But, Jennifer’s revenge soon goes awry when she accidentally drinks a love potion intended for Wally and falls in love with her intended victim.

This charming romantic fantasy is based on Thorne Smith's novel, The Passionate Witch. Technically, the novel was Smith’s last unfinished work. His friend Norman Matson completed the last quarter of the novel so it could be published posthumously in Smith’s name. I Married A Witch was going to capitalize on the success of Sullivan’s Travels by reuniting Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea. However, McCrea flat-out refused to ever work with Lake again. This opened the door for Fredric to be cast as Wallace. And though he didn’t get along very well with Veronica Lake either, you wouldn't guess that watching the film. The two share a charming chemistry that completely conceals any offscreen animosity.

Further Reading

And if you would like to learn more about the versatile Fredric March, I recommend the book Fredric March: A Consummate Actor (2015) by Charles Tranberg.

© 2019 Lindsay Blenkarn

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