Saturday, August 30, 2008
Centennial Tributes: Fred MacMurray
By Josh R
For the first decade of his career, Fred MacMurray was a model of gentlemanly comportment. Pleasant in manner and appearance, he provided a strong shoulder for Hollywood’s top female stars to lean and occasionally weep on in a series of films in which his function was clearly secondary. Not that MacMurray seemed to register any of the supposed indignity of playing second fiddle; he understood that his job was to show up promptly and well-pressed, corsage in hand, and execute the duties of a conscientious escort without diverting too much attention from his leading lady.
In film after film from the mid-'30s to the early '40s, MacMurray was attractive without being conspicuously so, charmingly low-key, and dutifully observant of the Boy Scout’s honor code as pertaining to relations with the opposite sex. Consider that painful dinner party sequence in Alice Adams — just one of a series of humiliations Katharine Hepburn must endure throughout the course of that film — in which, as the guest of honor, MacMurray spares the heroine’s feelings by pretending not to notice that the soup is cold, the room is sweltering and the company is decidedly bourgeois. If there had been a merit badge for chivalry, he would have won it several times over.
You can earn medals for good behavior in certain walks of life, but not many prizes are awarded for being a good team player in the film business. While a very fine actor, MacMurray may never have been a distinctive enough presence to grab the spotlight for himself. His masculinity was of the casual, nonthreatening variety; he was good-looking, without being exactly handsome; he could be very funny, but not in such a way as to give the great comic clowns of the age any reason for concern. His seeming averageness consigned him to leading man duties in light comedies and tearjerkers, the kind of films frequently referred to as “women’s pictures.” The ladies were the main attraction, and good boy scout that he was, MacMurray graciously allowed himself to be consistently upstaged by Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard and gallery of others. Perhaps all that modesty and nobility — being a nice guy in a woman’s world — began to wear on him after a while, eroding his confidence and breeding a sense of dissatisfaction. For if MacMurray’s early outings never betrayed a whiff of danger — he had trained his preternaturally deep, gruff voice to speak in the hush, dulcet tones of a sympathetic Boy Friday, while his features remained frozen in a perpetual mask of wholesome credulity while comforting all those chiffon-swathed damsels in distress — he did manage to veer off course on a few occasions, forsaking the straight and narrow path just long enough to create room for doubt as to whether all that clean conduct may have little more than a put-on.
The dominant-submissive dynamic in most of his early pictures — which really made notably few demands of him as an actor — probably made him impatient for something more challenging, less emasculating. Consider Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff, a character defined very much by a spirit of restlessness. A moral weakling who falls prey to the machinations of yet another dominant female (in this case, a genuine sociopath with metal anklets that cut into her reptilian skin without drawing blood), what makes Walter so eminently corruptible is how bored he’s become in playing by the rules. He goes from a passive observer to an active participant, and effect is just intoxicating enough to give him the false illusion of being the one in charge. The fear of getting caught becomes as much of a turn-on as the breaking of the social compact, and murder becomes the ultimate sexual act — if planning a murder may be the ultimate form of foreplay, enacting it is the ultimate form of release. Once again, a woman is really the one calling the shots — only this time, the man finally gets disgusted enough to do something about it.
The shifty anxiety and bitter fatalism MacMurray brought to his performance in the Billy Wilder film were astonishing, and not the least by virtue of their coming from such an unexpected source. It was a role he had been reticent to play, but ultimately the one in which he seemed the most thoroughly at home. Double Indemnity was the first film to show the darker side of MacMurray — happily, it wouldn’t be the last. Pushover, The Caine Mutiny, and especially The Apartment — as the embodiment of smooth-talking corporate disingenuousness — showed how effortlessly he could peel back the layers of surface geniality to reveal cowardice, ruthlessness or just plain rottenness. Occasional forays into villainy may have given the chance to stretch, but niceness remained his stock in trade. For MacMurray, the 1960s meant paydirt. My Three Sons stayed on the air so long they started filming it in color, while a series of films for Disney established him as favorite of family audiences. He seemed to enjoy himself in his outings for Disney — most notably as the sane-mad-scientist who whips up an electro-magnetically charged form of silly putty in The Absent-Minded Professor — but his most popular successes didn’t really represent his best work. MacMurray was a whiz at doing comfort food, but his meatiest roles — especially the two for Billy Wilder — were ultimately his most satisfying. The actor wisely decided to retire after The Swarm…so many bees packing so much less sting than Stanwyck in a blonde wig and trashy heels. It is tempting to consider his a minor career — tempting, that is, until one considers that unforgettable moment when love and hate converge with the firing of a gun, the final showdown between partners in crime bound together in deed and consequence “straight down the line”. It’s a testament to the power and clarity of MacMurray’s performance the pulling of that trigger seems not so much a sordid crime of passion as the ultimate act of self-loathing punishment. As Walter Neff ruefully recounts in his recorded confession, “I didn’t get the money…and I didn’t get the woman.” MacMurray never really got the rewards, nor the recognition of the type usually accorded a major star…but then, MacMurray was the type of actor who seemingly always gave more than he got. His co-stars, directors and audiences were the chief beneficiaries.