Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fred MacMurray - The Walt Disney Years

“ I will say the seven pictures I made at the Disney Studio were the pleasantest times I’ve had in the picture business—and I’ve been around quite a while ”

This was what Fred MacMurray said during a 1973 television special for Walt Disney’s Golden Anniversary. And by george, watching the movies he made was pleasant for us too!

Each and every one of his pictures is a delight to watch. Fred MacMurray was Walt Disney’s favorite leading actor and it’s no wonder– he’s such a big, lovable guy. His affable, easy-going nature didn’t make him seem like a “movie star” but more like one of us; a very approachable character and one we felt we knew and could easily relate to. He was your everyday All-American Joe Smith just larger than average – not only in stature but in heart. Even C.C Beck, the creator of Captain Marvel said he modeled his comic book character after Fred MacMurray because looked like a real hero of a man. 

                     

Walt loved choosing script material for him and he saw him as a rather onscreen surrogate too. Probably because he often played a man who never loses his love ( or pluck ) in dreaming, experimenting and exploring new things. This “yes we can!” character was seen in The Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, Follow Me Boys, and in The Happiest Millionaire, where as Anthony J. Drexel Biddle he truly epitomized America’s spirit of self-confidence and undying perseverance. 

Fred MacMurray was born on August 30th, 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois. While touring with a band ( he was a vocalist and accomplished saxophonist ) in California during the late 1920s he got his start in the motion picture business by appearing as an extra in a couple of films. After just a few more brief appearances onscreen, Paramount signed him to a seven year contract, and whoosh! his career took off like wildfire.


“ I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara Stanwyck. In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara -- and I did, too.”

Fred MacMurray played a wide variety of roles, in a wide variety of genres, such as adventures ( The Texas Rangers, Above Suspicion, ), dramas ( Remember the Night, Miracle of the Bells  ) biographies ( Captain Eddie, The Far Horizons ) musicals ( Swing High – Swing Low, And the Angels Sing ) and most notably….comedy. It was here that he found his niche playing decent, thoughtful, “nice guy” characters , although occasionally he was cast against type and struck gold….who can forget his stellar portrayal of insurance salesman Walter Neff in Double Indemnity?



                      

In the late 1950s Fred MacMurray’s popularity began to wane and that’s when he took up an offer from Walt Disney to star in “The Shaggy Dog”, the Studios first live-action comedy film. It was immensely popular at the box office ( it was the highest grossing film of the year…and even outsold “Ben-Hur” ! ) and thus began Fred’s “second career” – his Disney career.

Although he made many comedies prior to “The Shaggy Dog”, his comedic talent never shined so well as it did during all the films he made for Walt Disney. Even while The Shaggy Dog was still in the process of filming, Walt had his staff of writers put pen in hand and come up with comedy vehicles for his new leading man. And the first one they wrote was a light-hearted bit of whimsy inspired by a Dr. Julius Miller  – an atomic physicist Walt saw lecture at the 1959 Brussels’ World Fair. “The Absent Minded Professor” was the perfect showcase for Fred’s homespun brand of humor and it was such a success that is prompted a sequel…”The Son of Flubber” in 1962. In between these pictures he had time to do another Disney family comedy, “Bon Voyage!” with the lovely Jane Wyman.

                

Television producer Don Fedderson also approached him at this time with an offer to do a television series about a single father and his three growing boys. Fred accepted and “My Three Sons” became a hit series, lasting 12 seasons on air ( 1960 – 1972 ). Fred MacMurray was known throughout Hollywood for being the “frugal millionaire” but not only was he frugal…he was shrewd as well. During the early 1940s he had purchased a ranch in Northern California where he raised prize winning Angus cattle, and since he loved spending time working on the ranch and being with his family ( wife June Haver and their four daughters ), he had a special contract made up that allowed the cast to shoot “around” him. He had all his scenes filmed first, and thereby would finish an entire season in only 65 days, and have time to do other motion picture projects as well. And he still received the highest paid salary among the cast!

                  

During the mid-1960s he made “Follow Me Boys” ( about the life of a Midwestern boy scout leader ), and the musical extravaganza “The Happiest Millionaire” before going into semi-film-retirement. But after “My Three Sons” went off the air, he returned to make one last picture for Walt Disney Films…the comedy “Charley and the Angel”, where he was reunited with fellow “Follow Me Boys” actor Kurt Russell. 

Fred MacMurray was honored as the very first Disney Legend in 1987, a title he well deserves. He passed away on November 5th, 1991 at the age of 83. The MacMurray Ranch is still up and running today as a winery, now run by his daughters.

This post is a small part of the 2013 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Sittin' On a Backyard Fence and Scribe Hard on Film...you can view the complete schedule of participants celebrating TCM's month long event via blog posts here. 

10 comments:

  1. Oh, thank you for this posting on Fred MacMurray. Seeing his lovely face returns me to a simpler time, a truly by-gone era. I have, from the very first time I saw it in the 3rd grade, loved “The Absent Minded Professor”.

    That is also an interesting fact about his wife June Haver and his acting schedule. Thank you, again... You have a lovely blog, Diana & Connie!

    So glad I was able to find you through Sittin on a Backyard Fence!

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    1. Why thank you! We're glad you like our blog. To tell you the truth, EVERY Walt Disney film brings me to a state of simplicity. If ever things get too complicated in my head, I pop in a Disney film and all my so-called "cares" seem to wash away. Perhaps it is because the characters featured in his live-action films always have such enormous problems ( much worse than my own ) and yet take such a humorous approach to solving them. They are all great films..and Fred MacMurray contributed to alot of them by making them so enjoyable!

      Stop by again anytime..you're always welcome here!

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  2. Of the Disney films, I love Follow Me Boys,a heartwarming story with Fred,Vera Miles and a young Kurt Russell.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

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    1. I agree Vienna, Follow Me Boys is a real heartwarming film and, sadly, one of the most overlooked of MacMurray's films, even among his Disney ones. Such a shame!

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  3. I place Fred's turn in "The Absent-Minded Professor" as one of my all-time favourite screen performances. I'm naturally inclined to an appreciation toward comedy and his Professor Brainard is perfect. Watch him very closely in that movie. The man totally believes he invented flubber. Not one false note. Speaking of notes, my theory on MacMurray's stellar acting ability is that he began as a musician. He knows how to translate those dots on the page or the lines in that script.

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    1. I don't blame you for ranking the Profs performance as a favorite, MacMurray really does shine in the role. No matter how many times I see him honk his horn on Elliott Reid's car in his fit of jealous rage, I get the biggest laugh! I wonder if MacMurray did have a "method" about his method..or perhaps he never really acted, but rather just played himself and thought of how he would react to a situation if it was his own.

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  4. Great post! It's interesting how both Fred MacMurray and Brian Keith were Disney fixtures and then headed Don Fedderson sitcoms. Like MacMurray, Keith seemed to view his experiences at Disney in a favorable light.

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  5. I first knew MacMurray from his Disney films and My Three Sons. The very first time I saw him in Double Indemnity? WHOA.

    Fantastic piece. Thank you so much for participating.

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  6. What an exceptional BLOG! I am glad that I'm not the only one who adores Fred MacMurray in those great Disney title roles. I know he has a wide range as an actor....but I love him best for his Disney films!

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