Paramount Publicity Photo After being discovered by Paramount in New York, Fred was shipped out to Hollywood on the promise that he would costar in a film with Sylvia Sydney. Amazingly, when he got to the studio, he was informed that the script had been lost and that he would soon be reassigned. Fred seemed to have everything the new sound pictures were looking for: Tall, Good Looking, Pleasant Voice (He could even sing a little; after all he had recorded 3 records with big bands.) But could he act? Fred even questioned that. Months had now passed and he had not even had a bit part in a movie. Believing he would end up like so many star struck actors, he did not cash any of his checks saving the money for the trip home to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin where he had already prearranged a job working in the local shoe factory. Then the unthinkable happened, he was loaned out to RKO with third billing in a film called GRAND OLD GIRL. The film told the story of a beloved, elderly, high school teacher who cared deeply about her students. Sort of a Mrs. Chips. Fred played an ex-student who was now driving a delivery truck. His performance was competent but nothing earth shattering. Subsequently, he was relegated to collecting checks expecting anyday to learn his contract would not be picked up. But, one scene in GRAND OLD GIRL would change his life forever...


Gilded Lily Title CardThe famous story goes like this. Claudette Colbert had just started pre-production work on her new Paramount movie called THE GILDED LILY. The plot called for the leads (a newspaper reporter and secretary played by Claudette) to sit on a park bench in New York. While sitting, the two would eat popcorn and comment on life in the big city. The studio was having fits for they could not find a leading man anywhere who appeared comfortable talking and eating popcorn at the same time. They tested everyone on the Paramount lot. The part was in great demand for starring opposite of Claudette Colbert was truly a coveted role. The studio was ready to scrap the film when someone called their attention to a scene in an RKO picture called (you guessed it!) GRAND OLD GIRL. In the scene, Fred and the teacher are in the stands of a football game. Fred is explaining the happenings on the field all the while munching on popcorn. He was immediately called in for a screen test and with the added bonus that he was already under contract to Paramount, he was a cinch for the part. The motion picture catapulted him to instant stardom. The New York Times review glowed:

Then there is a young man named Fred MacMurray who can munch a peanut or take off his shoes like one of the boys. Mr. MacMurray's ability to seem completely natural without abandoning his charm ought to make him one of the most popular of the cinema's glamour men in the next few months.

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard
These words were prophetic. The coupling of Colbert and MacMurray produced one of the greatest love teams in the history of cinema. Over the next 3 decades, the two would team up for a total of seven movies. Fred MacMurray's star would continue to soar. He would star in just over 80 films over the span of 5 decades. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Fred MacMurray would co-star with more of the silver screen's leading ladies than any other actor of his time. His popularity would culminate in 1942 when he became the highest paid actor in Hollywood (the seventh highest salaried person in the nation). He became the most versatile actor in Hollywood performing leads in screwball comedies, melodramas, musicals, westerns, swashbucklers and period pieces. But his most challenging role was yet to come in 1944 when Billy Wilder came a knockin'.


DOUBLE INDEMNITY In 1944, Billy Wilder had secured the rights to a James Cain novel called DOUBLE INDEMNITY. He along with Raymond Chandler had written a smart hard edged screenplay adaptation for the film. The femme fatale was easy to cast. Barbara Stanwyck relished sinking her teeth into the role of the two-timing wife who seduces insurance man Walter Neff into killing her husband. But Wilder could find no one interested in playing a murderer. A star did not portray himself in such a manner. Billy went down the list of Hollywood stars, each said it was a great script but just not a suitable vehicle for him. Finally, Wilder notices that Fred MacMurray is still contracted to do a couple of pictures for Paramount. Fred finds the script compelling but confides to Wilder:
You know, over the years I have been making all these fluffy romantic comedies. And I feel comfortable doing those but this role is not for me. This role requires ACTING.
Billy Wilder, after a great deal of coaxing, convinces Fred to do the role. It would be the benchmark performance of his career. Many feel that he was slighted when overlooked for an Oscar nomination. The film would become a classic recently being named as one of AFI's greatest films of all time. The film spawned a whole new genre of American cinema called FILM NOIRE. It also added one more aspect of the versatility that MacMurray carved out in Hollywood. He could now play the Bad Guy effectively. A style of character he would repeat in three more films: THE CAINE MUTINY, PUSHOVER and THE APARTMENT. Fred MacMurray continued acting steadily through the rest of the 40's and 50's. But like other actors of the era, the screwball comedy roles were becoming scarce and he was relegated to starring in Westerns, the popular genre of the 1950's. His performances were surprisingly good considering the material yet they were certainly not his favorite roles. He always lamented, "The horses never hit their mark." The year 1959 would prove another turning point in Fred MacMurray's career when he became the recipient of what one might call the most fitting typecasting of all time.


THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR [Copyright Walt Disney Productions] In 1959, Fred MacMurray would begin a 14 year relationship with Walt Disney and Disney studios. First cast as the bumbling but lovable father in THE SHAGGY DOG, Fred was now playing a role that better reflected his real life situation. The middle aged, caring paternal role would continue in the subsequent 6 films he appeared in for Disney. The most memorable being The ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR. This instant classic was so popular it begat a sequel two years later titled THE SON OF FLUBBER. Something previously unheard of at Disney Studios. It was this very familial typecasting that lead to the successful twelve year run of Fred MacMurray in MY THREE SONS. (See the link to the TV Star Years below.)

In reflection, Fred MacMurray has been overlooked as one of the truly great leading men of the Golden Era of movies. Time and again, he would reinvent himself to attain a versatility of performance that could not be rivaled by any of his contemporaries including Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. If you have the opportunity to view his early films, you will have the privilege to enjoy an easygoing style that seemed so effortless, the talent in the performance goes sadly unrecognized.

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