Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door (Wombat Productions, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running for Charles and I one of those vest-pocket documentaries on movie stars that used to fill out the schedule of the TNT (Turner Network Television) channel back when it was Ted Turner’s basic movie channel — they showed a lot of the same stuff they show now on TCM, only with commercial interruptions (I recorded the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon on VHS, editing out the commercials as I went, and this remained my basic library version of that movie until the far more famous 1941 version came out on DVD and included the two earlier ones as bonus items) — in this case it was Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door, and it focused on how MacMurray had a long career based on his sheer ordinariness: he didn’t “go Hollywood,” he didn’t put on any movie-star airs, he married twice but that was only because his first wife died tragically young (and his second wife, the actress June Haver, was interviewed for this show, along with one of their two adopted daughters), and with two major exceptions all the roles he played were basically decent “guy next door” types with whom the audience could identify. The two exceptions were his two films for director Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity (1943) and The Apartment (1960), both of which he got into virtually by accident. Wilder, interviewed for this program, said he’d had no trouble finding the female lead for Double Indemnity — he wanted Barbara Stanwyck from the get-go and once she read the script she said yes immediately — but a lot of actors turned down the male lead because they didn’t want to play murderers on screen. Wilder finally worked his way down the Hollywood food chain to George Raft, at liberty because Jack Warner had just fired him, only Raft said he’d play the part only if the script were rewritten to make him an undercover FBI agent out to entrap the Stanwyck character in a murder rap.

So in desperation Wilder asked his studio, Paramount, for a list of the actors they had under contract who hadn’t won the right to refuse a role — and when he saw the list he lighted on MacMurray’s name. The more he thought about it, the more Wilder decided that he could tweak MacMurray’s image so he could be believable as a murderer and the audience would be shocked when nice-guy Fred turned out to be a money- and lust-motivated killer. (Wilder also had trouble getting the man he wanted for the second lead, Edward G. Robinson; he sent the script to Robinson’s agent, heard nothing back, and by accident ran into Robinson at a party and told him he wanted him for Double Indemnity but hadn’t heard back from him. This was the first time Robinson himself had ever heard of the project, and when he called his agent the next day the agent said, “We didn’t send you that script because you’d only be billed third in it.” Robinson demanded to see the script, read it overnight, and the next day he called his agent and said, “I don’t care if I’m billed tenth. The next time you get a script that good for me, I want to see it!”) MacMurray also got into The Apartment by accident — the part of the lascivious boss who’s having an adulterous affair with the elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) and treating her so shabbily she attempts suicide had originally been intended for Paul Douglas, but Douglas had a heart attack and died four days before shooting was to start — and with no time to waste Wilder called MacMurray and MacMurray came. (I think he was better in the part than Douglas would have been — Douglas would have just made the character an asshole but MacMurray vividly brought the strain of self-righteousness the part required; here as in Double Indemnity, MacMurray’s years of playing unambiguous good guys added depth as well as surprise to his portrayal of a villain.) The show did a whirlwind tour through MacMurray’s early years, in which he started as a band musician (his dad had tried to teach him violin, but MacMurray — whose original first name, unmentioned here, was “Loren” — was enough of a youth rebel and a jazz-age baby that he preferred to play saxophone, and some of Albert Haim’s WBIX Internet radio shows have featured bands MacMurray was in), got his break on Broadway when he graduated from the pit band of Three’s a Crowd (1930) and Roberta (1933) to the actual stage, then to a Paramount contract where he was mainly a foil for comedy queens like Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard. (MacMurray remembered Lombard as his most creative co-star and said she actually improvised a lot of the dialogue in their films together.)

The show also mentioned MacMurray’s marriages, his drift down the showbiz ladder to Western roles like the silly Quantez for Universal-International, and the revival of his career playing in Walt Disney’s film The Absent-Minded Professor (the narration of this film said that Disney had seen a scientist lecture and was so taken with the real-life professor’s absent-mindedness he decided to make a film based on him — though elsewhere I’ve read that MacMurray’s character in The Absent-Minded Professor was really based on Disney’s own father, inveterate tinkerer and would-be inventor Elias P. Disney) and the TV show My Three Sons. MacMurray’s daughter also told the story of why he backed away from edgy roles like his one in The Apartment; one day he took his daughters to Disneyland and a woman approached him. Thinking she was going to ask for an autograph, MacMurray got ready to sign — only it turned out she was there to chew him out and take a poke at him for the horrible way he’d treated Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. MacMurray got the message never again to take a bad-guy role that would undermine his “guy next door” image! There’s also a fascinating vest-pocket interview with Beverly Garland, who played MacMurray’s wife on the last (of nine) season of My Three Sons, and originally wanted to play her with a certain degree of feistiness and independence the way Mary Tyler Moore was doing on The Dick Van Dyke Show at the time — only after her first day on the job, she was lectured by no fewer than five “suits” at CBS telling her that she needed to be demure, unquestioning, obedient, the loving helpmate of the “togetherness model” books on marriage that were being shoved down women’s throats back then and contributed to what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name” and ultimately the (welcome) rebirth of American feminism.