Fredric March has never been a favorite star of mine.
When I found out Fredric was the TCM Star of the Month, I was sure I’d never seen a film of his. Then I took a look at Fredric’s filmography and realized I’ve actually seen quite a few of his films. I just didn’t notice he was in them…
Obviously, Fredric March hasn’t made a lasting impression on me. Maybe this will be the month to change all that.
As TCM plays his films, here are a few things about Fredric March you didn’t know:
Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel
He was born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel on August 31, 1897 in Racine, Wisconsin. March studied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a young man. While at university, March was a member of an interfraternity society, formed at the college in 1919, named the Ku Klux Klan.
According to a 2018 report by University of Wisconsin professors Stephen Kantrowitz and Dr. Floyd Rose:
“There is no evidence that this group was ever affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan…Still, its choice of name signals an identification—or at the very least, no meaningful discomfort—with the widely known violent actions of the Reconstruction-era Klan as it was remembered, celebrated, and given new cultural and institutional life in the early twentieth century.”
Klan affiliation or not, March’s membership in this campus club led to his name being removed from theaters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 2018 and 2020. The Oshkosh theater had previously been March’s namesake since 1971.
For more about the controversy surrounding the removal of March’s name from the theaters, read the full report of Professor Kantrowitz and Dr. Floyd.
Also take a look at a detailed article in the Bright Lights film journal by historian George Gonis.
Fredric March Decides to Act
After university, March served one year as an artillery lieutenant in the United States Army during World War I. He then began a banking career in New York City at the First National City Bank, what is now known as Citibank.
But his banking days were short-lived.
After an emergency appendectomy, Fredric felt his destiny was to become an actor. Inspired by stories his landlady recounted during his convalescence about her days as a theater actress, Fredric decided to try his hand at acting.
The Model Known as Fredric March
March modeled at the start of his acting career to help make ends meet, even posing for such legends as Charles Dana Gibson and Howard Chandler.
Not long into his new profession, Fredric realized that “Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel” wasn’t a name for the marquees. He came up with “Fredric March” by using his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, “Marcher.” He shortened the spelling of “Frederick” to “Fredric” and “Marcher” to “March” because 12 was his lucky number. “Fredric March” brought his name down to a lucky 12 letters.
The name must have brought him luck. Fredric began playing bit parts in east coast films during the 1920s, before the film industry transplanted to Southern California.
The Marches Go to Hollywood
March also acted in stage productions. In the summer of 1926, he met Florence Eldridge, an actress also trying to make a name for herself. The two married in 1927. This was Fredric’s second marriage, after a brief first marriage to Ellis Baker.
The Marches eventually found themselves in Hollywood, where March made his first film to attain classic status, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His turn as the split- personality title character garnered Fredric his second Academy Award nomination, and first win.
To underscore Fredric’s dedication to his craft, the make-up he wore for the Hyde personality was so intense, he was hospitalized for three weeks after filming. Fredric’s co-star, Rose Hobart, said he could very well have been disfigured, and was:
“lucky he wasn’t ruined for life.”
Fredric March: Another Clark Gable?
The 1930s marked the beginning of Fredric March’s great popularity with film audiences.
In the 1930s and 40s, March co-starred with such film legends as Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Veronica Lake, and Myrna Loy, a clear sign of his popularity and prestige in Hollywood.
An Eye for the Ladies
Unfortunately, despite his 48-year marriage to second wife Florence, it seems Fredric March was not a loyal husband.
Furthermore, he pressed his attentions on several of his leading ladies who never asked for them. Whether it was the protection of the studio system or out of reverence for his gifts as an actor, March’s bad behavior was never really publicized at the time.
Perhaps Veronica Lake’s reaction to Fredric March says it all.
While working with him on 1942’s I Married a Witch, Lake called Fredric a “pompous poseur,” and hid a weight under her dress to make herself heavier for each scene that March carried her in.
Fredric March Returns to the Stage
Throughout his film career, March took breaks to star in theater productions, sometimes with his wife, and sometimes without success.
1938’s “Yr. Obedient Husband” failed so miserably that the Marches made a public apology, buying advertising space in New York newspapers to show a cartoon depicting a trapeze artist failing to catch his partner with a caption that read:
March was nominated three more times for the Best Actor Oscar, for A Star is Born (1938), The Best Years of Our Lives (1947), and Death of a Salesman (1952), winning his second Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives.
Playwright Arthur Miller is said to have written the play Death of a Salesman with March in mind for the Willy Loman character. However, when Fredric read the script, he turned the role down flat, stating that the play was “too grim.” The role instead went to Lee J. Cobb.
“Boy, I sure blew that one,”
March later said. Luckily he still got his chance at the role on film, if not on stage.
The Last Years of Fredric March
From the late 1950s on, Fredric worked predominantly on the stage, winning great acclaim in such classics as Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. But some of his best film performances were yet to come, most notably in Inherit the Wind (1960) and The Iceman Cometh (1973). Iceman director John Frankenheimer even called March:
“…the best actor I ever worked with.”
The film was released two years before Fredric’s death from prostate cancer in 1975. Quite literally to the end of his life, Fredric March was revered for his skill as an actor.