At the dawn of sound, Hollywood was inundated with East Coast stage actors who were carried west on the strength of their vowels. These were men of illusion, men whose tongues and teeth neither gnashed nor squabbled, men who wrapped their creative egos in cigarette ads and stark white ties, men who would disembowel themselves on Bernhardt’s grave before honking out the broad Bronx squawks of their youth—men consumed by the artifice of their profession and inflamed the inferiority of the screen. Fredric March, in my estimation, was the only one who emerged from the Vitaphone fury of 1929 with his dignity intact and the foundation of his legend laid.
He was a movie star built for the churning of the Thirties. He was trim, wicked, well-read, slick and beautiful and strong. He retained the deathless enthusiasm of the callow Midwestern college boy, circumspect in dress and self-consciously caddish in speech, who, having edged around the flu and the Front, plays at erudition with the bright boyish valor of a Sunday school savior. Art was gravely serious, as was love, and politics, and living, and—this Wisconsin upstart conveyed that devotion with a smile that, should we exhume them today, we would still find carved where the hearts of widows and shopgirls and ministers’ wives once were. In a time of upheaval and shelved ambitions, women—for it was always the women—offered loving bouquets in the pages of Photoplay, strained to catch him in candid footage, hovered over the curious elegant “F” scrawled on the autographed portraits sent courtesy Paramount Studios, far-off, mystical, vividly dreamed Hollywood, California. Why? He was honest. He was forthright. He was in on the joke. There was no one like him, they asserted, because, in the vernacular of the fan magazines, they saw the fog lights of the Hudson and the porch lights of Racine and the accessible intangible magic midnight livewire of the downtown movie marquee gleaming in his eyes—his, and his alone.
Fredric March has been forgotten. In the grand narrative of the movies, of the American screen tradition which he helped forge, he is regarded as little more than a footnote in the champagne days of Depression Hollywood. He lacks the iconic masculinity that shields the legacies of men who were once less renowned than he. It was not until twelve years after his death that the Academy paid tribute to a man whose talent and tenacity enriched the art of film acting for over four decades. When he first appeared, critics hailed him as the brightest of his generation, but by the nothing-but-now Seventies, he was about as chic as a ragged mink stole he might have draped around Norma Shearer’s shoulders at the Trocadero forty years before.
His work is hard to come by. The copyrights have been scattered and his leading ladies are reduced to crossed-out headshots in the production annals of our collective memory. Two thirds of his films have not been made available for home viewing since the heyday of the Laserdisc, and many of them—including the early pictures that made him a star—may never leave the studio vaults. He has no champions, no protectors, amongst the guardians of film history. We do not have much to justify a continued examination of his impact on our culture. But with what we do have, we can reconstruct in our imagination the creative arc of one of the most brilliant craftsmen to ever pose—as I like to think he did—beneath the baking lights of a patched-together sound stage, smoke whirling above him, illuminated in profile, stoic, sophisticated, sacred, only to snap out of the scene with a sudden grin and shout—“Oh, God damn it, I dropped the pipe! Do we have the shot? Or must we do it again?”