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Fredric March: The Eyes Have It

by Bobby Rivers

“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.

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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.

The Eagle and the Hawk

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.

March feeling guilty for grounding Grant’s character: The start of a rocky relationship
March feeling guilty for grounding Grant’s character: The start of a rocky relationship
 The Eagle & the Hawk is about Royal Air Force WWI pilots that discover the harsh realities of war. Early US war films are always rather interesting for me to watch because they contrast so much with later war films once we hit WWII. In 1933 when this movie was made, the US was still decidedly anti-war and it shows in every way in this film. In fact if there is another movie with a similar theme I can compare this one to it would be All Quiet on the Western Front, with both movies truly showing the futility of war.

As for our two protagonists, I listed March’s name first on purpose and not just because this blog event is dedicated to him. March is decidedly the star of the film. Cary Grant was known (in large part because of his distinctive voice) but he had not made it big quite yet and is the supporting player here. March on the other hand had already won an Oscar. March shows that Oscar was deserved and gives a richly layered performance in this film as the lead character Jerry Young. Young is an American pilot who fights for the RAF. He is excited for the chance to go to France to fight heroically for his country. However, this excitement quickly turns to disillusionment as Young realizes the only thing he is fighting for is to see the next young pilot killed. Young flies the RAF planes into enemy territory while an observer takes note of the enemies’ base and guns down any enemy planes. Unfortunately these partnerships are quickly dissolved as one after one the gunners are shot down. C’est la guerre to the other seasoned soldiers on the base. In one early scene in the film a man’s bed sheets are rolled up shortly after he dies, his name erased off the board, like he was never there. March however takes the deaths much harder. Fighting for a cause you believe in is one thing but watching men die is something else.

 I’m a chauffeur for a graveyard, driving men to their deaths day after day.

March first becoming aware of what war really is about
March first becoming aware of what war really is about
Young is named a hero in the film because of his constant successes. He gets medals for his bravery and is told to make speeches to inspire the young recruits.  He is the character the younger soldiers (many of them just boys) look up to. This slowly kills Young inside as he realizes as a “hero” he is only inspiring these soldiers to their deaths.

The way March’s character changes and unravels in the film is a testament to his astounding acting skill.  The script tells us that Young is cracking but it is the subtle changes in March’s voice and facial expressions that really show us. There are only two scenes where I feel the subtlety breaks down: a nightmare scene & March’s final speech in the film where we can see what the war has truly done to his character.

Another interesting thing about this movie is Grant’s role is not a rival lover. While there is a brief romance in the film (with a young Carole Lombard) the film instead focuses more on the war itself and the relationship of the pilots. I found the fact that romance was such a small after thought in The Eagle and the Hawk to be a nice treat, especially for films of the time.

a publicity photo, Lombard only has a very small part in the film
a publicity photo, Lombard only has a very small part in the film

The relationship between Grant & March’s characters is actually the heart of the film. Grant plays Henry Crocker, the tough one in the group, who isn’t disillusioned about the war at all. He is not above shooting down the enemy even when his is escaping on a parachute. For Crocker there are no rules in war, just survival. Crocker is a character you would never get to see Grant play later on in his career.

Of course Crocker and Young’s ideals are very different and they clash throughout the film. Although Crocker and Young are not on the best of terms, the two are forced to work together because they are both the best at what they do and in such a dangerous job being the best is crucial. However as the film goes on you can see that Crocker’s character is the only person in the film that truly understands what Young is going through. He sees things the others cannot because he doesn’t see Young as a hero but as a man. This leads to a fantastic ending scene between the two characters that I will not spoil here.

Another thing that makes the relationship between Young & Crocker work so well for me is the chemistry between March & Grant was spot on. I would have loved to see them team up again later in their career when Grant was a more established actor but sadly it wasn’t meant to be. I guess I should be happy that two of my favorite actors got to star together at least once & the film itself focused on the relationship between their two characters.

Eagle and the Hawk was directed by Stuart Walker & also stars Jack Oakie who provides the few lighter moments of the movie. Besides the occasional airing on TCM it is also available in the Cary Grant: The Early Years DVD box set.

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Kim is an occasional contributor to Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. Make sure to check out her other posts here at the site.