Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fred MacMurray: An Interview with His Biographer

SMALL TOWN BOY MAKES GOOD. That line could easily be the appropriate headline for any account of actor Fred MacMurray's seemingly charmed life. Born one hundred years ago this month in 1908 in Kankakee, IL, Fred grew up in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. Long overlooked as an actor, in recent years, Fred's professional reputation has gained a bit in stature. This may be in part because of baby boomers growing misty-eyed at the thought of a Disneyfied Fred stumbling onto the discovery of flubber, his genial patriarch on tv's My Three Sons series, his affable charm and under-rated comedic work in films of the '30s and '40s, and his extraordinary, double-edged work in a few key films, such as Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment.

As part of our first blogathon on the Movie Morlocks site, TCM has chosen to celebrate this year's Summer Under the Stars month with a 24 hour broadcast of Fred MacMurray's movies on Saturday, August 9th. To celebrate, I'm delighted to welcome Charles Tranberg, the author of the only full-fledged biography of the actor, Fred MacMurray: A Biography (BearManor Media, 2007). Mr. Tranberg has also penned two other well written books on classic performers, I Love the Illusion: Agnes Moorehead, and Not So Dumb: The Life and Career of Marie Wilson.

Moira: Welcome, Charles, and thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for Fred MacMurray with us. In your book, I notice that you mention that, unlike his contemporaries, Henry Fonda and James Stewart, the cinematic work of Fred MacMurray hasn't received as much attention as it might have over the past few decades. Why do you think that has happened?

Charles Tranberg:
Fred, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda all came to Hollywood at roughly the same time, in 1934, and were roughly the same ages—in their upper twenties. Fred actually became a star faster than either Stewart or Fonda, but, of course today Fonda and particularly Stewart are recalled as film legends. This isn’t exactly how it is with Fred. I would say the primary reason is that Stewart and Fonda made more acknowledged classics of the American cinema than Fred and worked, probably with more great directors, or those considered great directors—the Capra’s, Hitchcock’s and Ford’s. Not that Fred didn’t work with terrific directors.

For instance, Mitchell Leisen was considered in his day to be one of the best and it’s a shame his reputation today isn’t what it once was. And of course it’s generally acknowledged that Billy Wilder was the best director Fred worked with and gave two of his all-time greatest performances for Wilder.

M.: I also wonder if some of his films have languished for too long unseen by audiences who only remember Fred from his late career Disney films and television work. It seems that only now, in part because of a renewed interest in issuing DVDs of his raffish work from the '30s and '40s, that audiences might be catching on to the fact that MacMurray's work had a charming bite even before a Billy Wilder tapped into his talent...more on the Movie Morlocks at TCM


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