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MacMurray, Fred (1908-1991)

MacMurray, Fred (1908-1991)

Though never a first string actor, Fred MacMurray had a long and successful career, stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s, encompassing both film and television roles. MacMurray made his name playing a particular type of male lead—amiable, upbeat, and anxious to please—that was easily adapted, in later life, to playing father figures on television and in children's films. On a number of occasions, however, MacMurray was furnished with roles that allowed a questioning and undermining of his more familiar persona.

Likeable and pleasant looking, MacMurray appeared regularly in the 1930s and 1940s romantic comedies (working nine different occasions for Mitchell Leisen, one of the most expert directors of light farce), playing the affable leading man opposite Hollywood's top actresses. It is perhaps a mark of his percolation into the American consciousness as an exemplification of the ordinary, wholesome American male that made him the perfect physical model for a new comic book hero of the period: Captain Marvel. However, despite this and his constant film work throughout the war, he never rose to star status, appearing in comedies, adventures and routine melodramas whose caliber increasingly suggested the decline of his drawing power. Yet it was also in this period of decline that MacMurray sporadically played some of his best roles, markedly against his previous wholesome type. Billy Wilder had already shown the possibilities of this in Double Indemnity (1944), a film in which MacMurray plays a salesman giving in to love and greed. The morally inadequate naval lieutenant of The Caine Mutiny (1954), the corrupt policemen of Pushover (1954) and the serial adulterer of The Apartment (1960) also provided MacMurray with interesting roles, which gave him the opportunity to stretch as an actor. Nevertheless, MacMurray's career fell into decline until rescued by a series of films for Disney—the best remembered being The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)—and the TV series My Three Sons —one of television's longest-lasting sitcoms, running from 1960 until 1972—both of which depended on MacMurray's unthreatening bemusement and fatherly trustworthiness.

Through the majority of his films, MacMurray created the persona of a gentle, likeable, wholesome, All-American guy who is anxious to please and to make something of his life and who, despite suffering some setbacks, always succeeds. This is a role he carried off perfectly well in light comedy (whether a 1930s Leisen farce or a 1960s Disney kid's film), and it is in this role he became a familiar face (if not a familiar name) in Hollywood film and then on television. However, in more dramatic roles he was less convincing, particularly if called upon to be a tough guy or to show moral fiber. A good example of this can be found in the thriller Above Suspicion (1943), in which the persona he had mastered appears too fragile in a harsher, less sympathetic world. However, it is exactly this fragility that director Billy Wilder was able to bring out of MacMurray, guiding the veteran actor to his best performances. As an insurance salesman in Double Indemnity and as an advertising executive in The Apartment, MacMurray's characters simultaneously believe in and use the good guy persona to sell themselves. However, what seemed upstanding and trustworthy at first becomes shifty and rather seedy, and that which was marked by sincerity and integrity reveals itself as mere veneer without moral backbone. Ultimately, it is because MacMurray so successfully made his name playing the charming young salesman or the admirable father figure that, in a tougher environment, he made such an apt fraudster, murderer, and adulterer.

MacMurray made about two films a year for forty years and the majority of these were light fare celebrating romance, the status quo, and the will to succeed in the American male. From callow youth to absent-minded professor, from kindly romantic lead to archetypal dad, MacMurray typified a comfortable and undemanding view of American manhood. Yet, on occasion, and exactly because of his familiarity, he gave disturbing performances that questioned the moral depth of his own brand of pre-packaged wholesome, All-American sincerity.

—Kyle Smith

Further Reading:

Parish, James, and John Stanke. The All-Americans. New York, Arlington House, 1977.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars. London, MacDonald, 1989.

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