I first saw Executive Suite in an unlikely setting: a broadcast management class at Indiana University in 1978. I don’t remember how the film pertained to the class (or if the professor just wanted to take a break from lecturing). But the film, an engrossing look at corporate politics, stuck with me over the years. I didn’t see it again until I discovered a copy at a local video store in the 1990s. This second viewing surprised me—Executive Suite was far better than I remembered.
One of the great treats for us, as fans of movies from any era, is when a great ensemble cast is brought together. We would pay good money for a great movie with two or three big names in it, but when the number of stars cruises past the half-dozen mark, it’s like were getting our entertainment wholesale.
“Some things a man doesn’t like to tell about himself unless he gets beyond the grave as they say. But now I can tell the truth, the whole truth. Well, that is, within limits. You see truth is a very valuable thing, and I believe we should be a little economical with it.” –Fredric March as Mark Twain in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944)
The Adventures of Mark Twain takes the story of Twain’s actual life, more or less wraps it all up into a ball and then explodes these facts across the screen so as to make them fit the movie in the most entertaining way believed possible.
Over the course of his rather prolific career, Fredric March racked up five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, ultimately winning the prize twice. The majority of these nominated roles came from his work in dramas (save his first nomination for 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway). Indeed, March excels as a dramatic performer, brilliantly bringing to life such iconic characters as Dr. Henry Jekyll (and his murderous counterpart, Mr. Hyde), Jean Valjean, Norman Maine (the 1937 version of A Star is Born), hapless salesman Willy Loman, and even the personification of Death himself (1934’s Death Takes a Holiday).
“A Star Is Born is a Hollywood story of, by, and for its people. It has the usual preface, attesting to the fictional quality of the characters and incidents depicted, but it is nonetheless the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that isHollywood. That, in itself, guarantees its dramatic interest, for there is no place on this twentieth-century earth more fascinating—not even that enchanting make-believe republic which James Hilton called Shangri-La.”
Thus read The New York Times April, 1937 review of William Wellman’s drama A STAR IS BORN, and Frank Nugent’s words could scarcely be more on target.
A little over twenty years ago, I was speaking with an acquaintance about acting. Both of us were involved in theatre and the conversation turned to those actors we most admired. I mentioned several but only one elicited a response that took me aback: Fredric March. The mention of his name evoked the response, “Who’s Fredric March?” This was a fellow actor and I couldn’t believe he didn’t know March but he didn’t and twenty years later probably do fewer still. Somehow, I don’t think that would have bothered March.
Fredric March was an Oscar winner and a newly minted Hollywoodstar when he co-starred with Miriam Hopkins and Gary Cooper in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of the Noel Coward play Design for Living. In 1929, when all the major studios were scouring the Broadway stage for photogenic leading men with trained and mellifluous voices, March had been recruited and signed by Paramount Pictures.
He received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his 1930 portrayal of ‘Tony Cavendish’ in The Royal Family of Broadway, but it was his split-personality tour-de-force as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 that brought Fredric March his first Academy Award and movie stardom.
Playwright/actor Noel Coward wrote Design for Living, a comedy in three acts,in 1932; it debuted on Broadway in 1933 at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre starring legends of the stage Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Coward himself. Because of its censoriously risqué plot, the play was not produced in London, Coward’s home ground, until 1939. His story of Gilda, Otto and Leo, a sophisticated trio involved in a romantic triangle(not to say threesome), was inspired by the personal lives and relationships of Lunt and Fontanne who were his close friends; Noel Coward would remark that Design for Living was about three people who love each other very much and that, though the play was a solid hit when it opened, no one loved it more than its three leading actors.
When Ernst Lubitsch set out to film Coward’s play, he had a particular cast and screenwriter in mind. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred for him in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Trouble in Paradise (1932), was his first choice for the female lead. He was interested in Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard for the two male leads, but couldn’t afford Colman or persuade Howard. He next turned to Paramount leading man Fredric March for the role that was Coward’s Leo but became Lubitsch’s Tom, and approached Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to portray the character that had been called Otto but would soon be George. But Fairbanks came down with pneumonia and the director eventually settled on popular Paramount matinee idol Gary Cooper. Of the three leads, Hopkins had the least experience on-screen, but the most experience with Lubitsch. She had also co-starred with March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and her film associations with both men helped advance her career.
Lubitsch, a writer himself, had hoped to collaborate once again with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, The Shop Around the Corner) on Design for Living. But Raphaelson was not interested in working on “another damned sophisticated triangle” (referring to The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise) or in rewriting Noel Coward, and declined. Ben Hecht, an esteemed screenwriter and script doctor (Nothing Sacred, Wuthering Heights, Notorious) with a cynical view of the status quo, was Lubitsch’s next choice. But it was not an easy partnership. Lubitsch, who commented that the two “weren’t used to each other,” was most at home working closely with his writers and Hecht was comfortable writing on his own. But they managed.
In the end, the plot was re-engineered while the triangular situation at the heart of Coward’s play was retained.
As Leo became Tom and Otto became George, all three characters became struggling American creative types rather than the play’s free-spirited British socialites. And the situation between the three was toned down; at the beginning of the play Gilda was living with Otto and had just resumed an affair with ex-beau Leo. Lubitsch’s film would follow the amorous adventures of three young, attractive Americans inParis,LondonandNew York: playwright Tom Chambers (March), painter George Curtis (Cooper) and commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Hopkins). Tom and George are buddy/roommates who meet and fall in love with Gilda.
Miriam Hopkins is in her element as passionate, independent Gilda (pronounced ‘Jilda’). She commands the screen – and her co-stars – with easy charm and confidence. Hopkinswas at the height of her delectable pre-Code heyday in 1933; the steamy and controversial The Story of Temple Drake was released just months before Design for Living.
In his early films, Gary Cooper is always handsome and appealing, but he does not always convince as an actor. Cast against type in Design for Living he seems awkward spouting Hecht’s snappy dialogue at times and it isn’t hard to understand why Lubitsch had first turned to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But the director was satisfied with Cooper’s performance and believed movie-goers and would “…be happy to see that he is an accomplished light comedian.”
Fredric March, experienced in talky roles like this one, is a better fit. In a departure from the more somber roles he was better known for, he shines as dapper, jovial Tom, a character partially informed by Ben Hecht’s own background as a playwright.
Had it been released just six months later, in 1934 when the Production Code was in force, Design for Living would not have gotten past the censors. Not only do Tom and George love Gilda – but Gilda loves Tom and George. She cannot and will not choose between them, and so the three decide to live together platonically – for a while…
Gilda is able to take what was then considered the entirely male prerogative without having to pay the on-screen price – usually death – that would soon be ordained by the Code:
Gilda: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men…a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but…”
Tom: “That’s very fine, but which chapeau do you want, madam?”
The Lady Eve is the editor of the fabulous classic film blogThe Lady Eve’s Reel Life. She recently hosted the outstanding blog event A Month of Vertigo and is currently featuring essays on the popular television show Mad Men.
“Some of you seem to think this is a course in anatomy.” ~Fredric March in The Wild Party as the anthropology professor in a women’s university.
In that 1929 talkie directed by Dorothy Arzner, he also teaches feminism to his flirtiest student, Stella, played by Clara Bow. The professor literally saves that babe in the woods from possible rape after she hit a roadhouse for some hot cha cha. He educates her on the college’s founder: “She braved the ridicule of her friends and the abuse of her contemporaries to bring a true freedom to women.” Prof. Gilmore falls for Stella but she must embrace “work, scholarship and achievement” and stop being a party girl. This movie made Fredric March a star. We can see why. The camera loved his face. Early March had matinee idol looks and serious actor skills. His tone here — in vocal quality and performance — still feel modern. Certainly more modern than Bow’s. Her Betty Boop faces were more suited for a silent film. She does too much. March seems to have hit Hollywood cameras with a natural sense that less would be more in the new sound era. He stars in another film directed by Dorothy Arzner, Sarah and Son. With this 1930 film, Arzner became the first woman to direct another woman to a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Oscar nominee Ruth Chatterton (much better and memorable as the restless wife of Dodsworth) played the German Sarah. Bow’s physical excess is matched by Chatterton’s vocal excess. Her accent sounds a little to the left of Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (“I vant you should get up und get out und get some money. Or you don’t see me again…mebbe.”) She’s the hoofer/singer who married a lazy American. He gives their baby away and then dies. March stars as the respectful lawyer who helps the hard-working single mother reclaim her son. Again, he’s natural. Every time Chatterton opens her mouth, lederhosen pops out.
The Eagle and the Hawk. I wish this World War I film was as popular as 1930′s All Quiet On The Western Front. The star quality felt about March in his first Arzner film has been confirmed by the time he stars in this 1933 drama. And he’d been recognized by Hollywood with the first of his two Best Actor Oscars, winning for 1931-32′s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His second Oscar® came for William Wyler’s 1946 classic about World War II veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives. Only about 70 minutes long, The Eagle and the Hawk packs quite a punch and contains one of my favorite March performances. The movie is visually handsome, with the 1930s pearly Paramount sheen plus a gorgeous use of darkness and shadow in its black and white cinematography. The aerial sequences are exciting. March and jovial Jack Oakie were both in The Wild Party but didn’t have scenes together. They do in this WWI picture. They’re best friends. Cary Grant plays the bad-ass. “This is a war. I’m hired to kill the enemy,” Grant’s airman says. We see each pilot’s character in the opening credits. Jerry (March) is the upper class good sportsman. Mike (Oakie) is the happy-go-lucky slug. Crocker (Grant) is the unsympathetic roughneck. Here, March is in peak form. His internal work is masterful. He mentally breaks down from a likable guy who sees war as sport to a haunted shell of a war-hating hero by the end. He drinks, as several March characters do. We feel the rage building in Jerry’s soul. He’s at war with himself every time he gets more medals for shooting down the enemy. “I got these for killing kids!” It’s all there in March’s eyes. And in his stillness. He was one of those actors who realized early on that to be still, to let the audience come to and into your character was very powerful.
A commanding officer asks Jerry to give the new fresh-faced recruits a pep talk with tales of his latest victory. We see the self-loathing and irony in his eyes as he tells them “…you’re fighting for humanity and for the preservation of civilization.” In March’s most stirring scene, Jerry has a nightmare about combat. He’s dreaming but his eyes are open. For that’s what war has made his life — a nightmare with his eyes open. A much-needed breather from the horrors of war is supplied by Carole Lombard as The Beautiful Lady at a London party. Her serious role as an elegant woman who comforts Jerry for a night on leave is practically a cameo. Four years later, March and Lombard co-star for lively loopiness in the screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred.
My first professional broadcast job was doing news on 93 QFM, a radio station in Milwaukee. During that gig, I got to meet and spend time with Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Martha Raye when they toured in a 1970s stage revue that played Milwaukee for a week. One night after the show, we went out to a barbecue rib joint for dinner and they started telling show biz stories. Martha, who was under contract to Paramount in the 1930s, piped up with what a flirt Fredric March was. Not only that, but he was endowed with more than just a great acting talent. Rosemary and Margaret practically did the Danny Thomas Spit Take with their beverages. I said “Fredric March?” She said, “Why do you think he wore that cape in Death Takes A Holiday? He needed something long enough to cover it up.” What a marvelous night that was with Martha Raye, who later added “Lombard knew how to handle him.” Rosemary Clooney and Margaret Whiting were tired and wanted to go back to the hotel after we finished dinner. Martha turned to me and said, “Let’s get a nightcap.” Over vodka tonics in downtown Milwaukee, I asked her if the celebrated actor was really that much of a Casanova. Martha Raye’s answer: “Honey, if he saw a crack in the wall, he’d make a pass at it.” I miss Old Hollywood. Fredric March. He was gifted.
Bobby Rivers is a veteran network TV host & entertainment reporter. He had his own VH1 celebrity talk show, reviewed movies for ABC News/Lifetime TV & Premiere Radio and hosted “Metro Movies with Bobby Rivers,” a weekly local show highlighting the NYC film scene. He’s acted in TV commercials and played clueless “Prof. Haige” in satirical news features for The Onion.
You know what is one of the best film discoveries? When you realize two of your favorite actors starred in a film together that you have never seen.
In the case of The Eagle & the Hawk it would be Fredric March & Cary Grant. Of course with big names like this you expect the film to not be very good because why else did you not hear about it before? I’ve only been a fan of Fredric March for two years or so but I’ve been a fan of Grant for years so I thought I at least knew most of what he was in. Thus when I first watched The Eagle and the Hawk a little over a year ago, I wasn’t expecting much. However, I ended up being pleasantly surprised; it turned out to be a pretty decent war drama. That’s one of the best things about being a film fan realizing there are always new films to discover and it doesn’t have to be a well known film either. Sometimes a great film is one that you have not even heard of before.
Merrily We Go to Hell opens with a deceptively jovial score – if your eyes were closed, you’d bet money that you were about to take in a zany Marx Brothers feature or, at the very least, a film containing an overabundance of carnival scenes. But although this film contains the word “merrily” in the title, and while has its share of lightweight, comedic touches, there’s really nothing merry about it.