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Star of the Month: Fredric March
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Fredric March

Fredric March - Tuesdays in March

TCM goes a little mad for our Star of the Month, Fredric March, with an impressive lineup of films spanning the iconic actor's career of 50-plus years. The original Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1937) and the winner of two Academy Awards, March established himself as a romantic leading man before emerging as one of our most versatile and accomplished character actors.

Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel in Racine, Wisconsin, on August 31, 1897, March attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began his career as a banker. In 1917, during World War I, he served for a year in the U.S. Army. In the early 1920s, he began appearing as an extra in movies shot in New York City, and by 1926 he was also appearing on Broadway. His role as the John Barrymore-like character in a West Coast production of The Royal Family landed him a five-year contract at Paramount Pictures (and admiration from Barrymore himself).

March's rich, theater-trained voice proved an asset in the early days of sound; historian David Shipman described him as "virtually the first new star of the talkies." His early film roles often found him in support of a female star. In The Wild Party (1929) he plays a professor enticed by impetuous student Clara Bow. His other leading ladies of the period included Ruth Chatterton, Ann Harding, Jeanne Eagels, Mary Astor and Claudette Colbert. Florence Eldridge, March's wife from 1927, made her film debut with him in The Studio Murder Mystery (1929).

March moved out of co-star status with The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), in which he revived the Barrymore role from his stage success and earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. In 1931, he starred opposite Nancy Carroll in The Night Angel and Tallulah Bankhead in My Sin. Neither film did much for his career.

A huge success came March's way when director Rouben Mamoulian chose him to play the title role(s) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). With the aid of make-up and special-effects photography, March delivered a stunning performance and became the first actor to win an Oscar for a performance in a horror film. His makeup reportedly was so extreme, that it came close to permanently disfiguring him and landed him in the hospital for three weeks.

March appeared in a number of other prestige films during the early 1930s, including the Noël Coward adapted comedy Design for Living (1933), with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins; the biographical drama The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), as Robert Browning to Norma Shearer's Elizabeth Barrett; the Victor Hugo adaptation Les Misérables (1935), as Jean Valjean to Charles Laughton's Javert; and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1935), as Count Vronsky to Greta Garbo's Anna. Of the aloof Garbo, March famously remarked that costarring with her "hardly constituted an introduction."

Also in the '30s, March starred in Mary of Scotland (1936), playing the Earl of Bothwell with Katharine Hepburn as Mary Stuart and his wife, Florence Eldridge, as Elizabeth Tudor; Anthony Adverse (1936), in the title role opposite Olivia de Havilland; and the scintillating comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), with Carole Lombard. March's Oscar-nominated turn in A Star Is Born was described by film historian David Shipman as "a performance of great daring, a gathering of horror stories about Hollywood crackups."

The highlight of March's work in the 1940s was his moving and very real performance as a WWII vet readjusting to civilian life in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In addition to March's Best Actor Oscar, the film won in six other categories including Best Picture and Director (William Wyler). Among others from that decade in TCM's tribute are Susan and God (1940), Tomorrow, the World! (1944) and Another Part of the Forest (1948).

Throughout the 1940s, March also starred in the biographical dramas The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), in which his makeup allows a remarkable resemblance to the celebrated author, and the British-made Christopher Columbus (1949) in which March plays the intrepid explorer to Eldridge's Queen Isabella.

In the 1950s, March entered his character-actor mode, landing the coveted role of Willy Loman in the screen version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1951), which brought him an acting prize at the Venice Film Festival. He also played such roles as the ruthless senior executive in the all-star Executive Suite (1954) and, most touchingly, the aging businessman who falls for a much younger woman (Kim Novak) in the Paddy Chayefsky drama Middle of the Night (1959).

March had a showy role in Inherit the Wind (1960), a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which he played the William Jennings Bryan character with Spencer Tracy standing in for Clarence Darrow. The military thriller Seven Days in May (1964), starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, casts March as the U.S. President.

In ...tick...tick...tick... (1970), a drama about racial tensions in a small Southern town, March has the scene-stealing role of a cantankerous old mayor. His final film role was Harry Hope, the drunken bar owner, in a special four-hour version of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1973).

Through the decades, March balanced his film career with work on Broadway, notably A Bell for Adano, Years Ago (won the 1947 Best Actor (Dramatic) Tony Award) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (Best Actor (Dramatic) Tony Award in 1956). Eldridge often performed opposite him onstage.

March had been married once before to Ellis Baker (1925-27). With Eldridge, he and his second wife had two adopted children. March died in 1975 of prostate cancer. The titles from his two biographies sum up his professionalism: Craftsman First, Star Second (1996) by Deborah C. Peterson and A Consummate Actor (2013) by Charles Tranberg.

March himself once commented on his no-nonsense attitude toward his work: "I have earnestly endeavored to perform my own share without fuss or temperament. An actor has no more right to be temperamental than a bank clerk." He loved his profession and said that "I'd keep acting even if I had to get on the back of a truck. I'd act wherever there was a group of people."

by Roger Fristoe
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