TCM starts 2016 with Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) taking point as Star of the Month. The reliable actor enjoyed a career of over 40 years as a leading man in movies and on television and radio. As with most things that are "reliable", we take for granted the fact that they work well and never disappoint, often overlooking the skill behind that lauded reliability.
Fred MacMurray was not trained as an actor, but I believe his natural instincts as a performer were honed through his background as a musician. While attending Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin MacMurray played saxophone in local bands and later was a professional with Gus Arnheim's big band and pit orchestras in Los Angeles. He knew how to read the notes on the lines, interpret them with the correct weights and measures; how to blend with an ensemble and how to take the solo line. These skills were deftly transferred to reading the lines of a script and interpreting them with his own knowledge, personality and physical attractiveness.
Practically out of the gate MacMurray made his mark on screen. Signing with Paramount in 1935, he made 7 films in which he was lead or second lead including Alice Adams wit Katharine Hepburn, The Gilded Lily with Claudette Colbert (7 collaborations) and Hands Across the Table with Carole Lombard (4 teamings). He was immediately able to support and share the screen with such formidable leading ladies and make a positive impression on audiences. His film career also provided challenging dramatic roles in Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment, none of which, surprisingly, were acknowledged with an Oscar nomination. Fred MacMurray is purported to have said that he never felt comfortable on a horse in reference to the older leading man moves to westerns phase of his career. However, I would point to Face of a Fugitive and Good Day for a Hanging and disagree with his assessment. I can think of no roles where Fred MacMurray was not a hundred percenter and believable.
My own particular bias in performing is a great admiration for those who excel at comedy and this is where Fred MacMurray shines be it the witty banter of a screwball comedy (Honeymoon in Bali, The Egg and I) or the wacky and over-the-top physical side of things (Murder, He Said). MacMurray ranks with the best in this regard. Sure, Spencer Tracy is fine in Judgment in Nuremberg, but give me Adam's Rib or Father of the Bride. Go ahead and give Alec Guinness an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, but give me The Ladykillers or The Lavender Hill Mob. Best of all, give me Fred MacMurray in 1961s The Absent-Minded Professor.
Fred MacMurray stars as Professor Ned Brainard ("Neddy the Nut") of Medford College. The chemist is particularly single-minded in his research to the detriment of other aspects of his life, as exemplified by the picture above. Beloved betrothed Betty Carlisle played by Nancy Olson (Sunset Boulevard, Pollyanna, So Big) is a patient woman, but how many last chances can you give a guy?
Surely Ned can be forgiven for missing their latest wedding date because he was busy inventing Flubber (flying rubber), an entirely new energy source with untold benefits to mankind. I absolutely adore MacMurray in the scenes of his discovery. It is easy to believe that Flubber is flying around and the actor is not in an empty room waiting for special effects (Oscar nominated Robert Mattey and Eustace Lycett) to do their stuff. His eagerness to share the momentous news is infectious. Look at that face - the man just invented Flubber!
Flubber may indeed prove to be a great boon to humanity, but it causes a myriad of immediate problems for Professor Brainard. He must deal with Betty's chagrin, as well as a rival for Betty's affections in Elliot Reid (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Woman's World). The villain of our piece, industrialist Alonzo Hawk played by Keenan Wynn (Kiss Me Kate, Neptune's Daughter) wants to control Flubber and will stop at nothing. Alonzo Hawk as played by Wynn was such a swell villain that he makes future appearances not only in the superbly funny sequel Son of Flubber (best title ever!), but also in the 1974 sequel to The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again.
The zaniness of romantic travails, financial difficulties for the college and the dastardly doings of Alonzo Hawk culminate with a flying Model T and an incredibly bouncy basketball game. Familiar faces in support include Tommy Kirk, Leon Ames, James Westerfield and Wally Brown. The screenplay from a story by Samuel Taylor is by Disney producer/writer Bill Walsh (The Shaggy Dog, That Darn Cat!) and the director is Robert Stevenson (Mary Poppins, Old Yeller, Jane Ayre). Along with the special effects team, the movie was Oscar nominated for black and white cinematography for Edward Colman (TVs Dragnet, -30-) and for art direction/set decoration in black and white for Carroll Clark (Top Hat), Emile Kuri (Shane) and Hal Gausman (The Untouchables).
The good-natured laughs and exemplary leading performance of The Absent-Minded Professor can be enjoyed on TCM on Wednesday, January 27th at 8:00 pm. Do not miss this last evening of the MacMurray salute nor the rest of the month.