Here's a trivia question to ponder with your tea or coffee: Who was Carole Lombard's most frequent leading man in feature films? It wasn't either of her husbands, William Powell or Clark Gable. It wasn't Cary Grant or Gary Cooper. Nor was it Fredric March, George Raft or James Stewart.
No, the actor who has that honor is also the person who made more appearances on the venerable Lux Radio Theater than any other actor. He had a long, distinguished career, appearing in several classics (and one Academy Award best picture winner). But of all the actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood, his post-career reputation is arguably the most misconstrued.
Okay, then, who's the answer to the trivia question? None other than...
...Fred MacMurray, shown here with Carole in "Hands Across The Table," the first of four films he made with Lombard, all between 1935 and 1937. In contrast, Powell co-starred with Carole three times (two before they were married, one afterwards). None of the others shown above made more than two co-starring appearances with her.
For some younger or more casual movie buffs, that may be a surprise. Fred MacMurray, the affable patriarch from the long-running sitcom "My Three Sons" and Disney films, a romantic leading man?
You better believe it.
To be fair, many film fans are aware of some of MacMurray's other turns, such as his work in two Billy Wilder classics, "Double Indemnity" (1944) and the Oscar-winning "The Apartment" (1960). He also had a major role in another "class" film, "The Caine Mutiny" (1954).
Fortunately, people from MacMurray's hometown of Beaver Dam, Wisc., are trying to set the record straight this year. They are hosting a Fred MacMurray Museum in the town's Heritage Village Shops mall for the next few months to help celebrate the centennial of his birth.
Born about six weeks before Lombard, on Aug. 30, 1908 in Kankakee, Ill., MacMurray's family moved to Beaver Dam in his youth; his father, Frederick MacMurray, was a concert violinist, and passed his love for music on to his son. A fine high school athlete, MacMurray won a football scholarship to Carroll College in Wisconsin, where he played saxophone for extra money.
After college, Fred moved west and got work in Los Angeles orchestras. He also found work as an extra in three 1929 films, and with his good looks and size (6'2 1/2") was offered a speaking part -- but due to stage fright, he said no. Instead, he focused on his music, starring on sax and even singing on a few records.
In 1935, MacMurray got a second crack at acting, and this time accepted. He got a part in a movie called "Grand Old Girl," and one of the scenes had his character at a football game, eating popcorn with his date. As it turned out, Claudette Colbert's new film, "The Gilded Lily," had a pivotal scene where she and the male lead ate popcorn in a park...but no one seemed to get quite the right feel for it. Someone recalled the scene in "Grand Old Girl," recommended MacMurray -- and "The Gilded Lily" became a hit. As with Lombard, MacMurray and Colbert would also become a frequent co-starring team during the '30s.
Colbert and MacMurray continued collaborating through the 1940s, but perhaps his best-known leading lady during that decade was Barbara Stanwyck. "Remember The Night," a warm romantic comedy (written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen), came several years before "Double Indemnity" and had a far different sensibility.
MacMurray once said of working with Stanwyck, "I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara. 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 Stanwyck -- and I did, too."
As the 1950s began, MacMurray (like so many other actors at the time) faced a career crossroads due to changing tastes. He made fewer films and began appearing on television, initially in guest roles on dramatic anthologies.
MacMurray was the first choice to portray Perry Mason in the TV adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner's famed character, produced by one-time Carole cohort Gail Patrick (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/75754.html). Had he taken the role, he no doubt would be remembered far differently today. Same thing with a part he was later offered, Eliot Ness in "The Untouchables" (which ended up going to a good friend of Lombard's, Robert Stack).
Instead, MacMurray got an offer to star in -- and own a considerable share of -- a family sitcom, "My Three Sons." To keep his time on the show at a minimum, each entire season's scripts were written in advance, and the scenes featuring MacMurray were filmed over a three-month period. Then the scenes with the rest of the cast were filmed. As a result, MacMurray found time to act in films, including many for his good friend Walt Disney.
"My Three Sons" show lasted 12 seasons, and MacMurray became the only major Golden Age actor to have sustained success on series television. (Lucille Ball got plenty of work during her pre-"I Love Lucy" career, but she was never a top-rank star.) He acted periodically after the series ended, with his swan song coming in the 1978 disaster movie "The Swarm." He died in 1991 at age 83.
MacMurray made plenty of wise investments in real estate and other endeavors and became one of Hollywood's wealthiest actors. One wonders if he's checking out the stock market in this shot, taken during a break in the Lombard film "The Princess Comes Across":
Getting back to the museum -- it features a wide array of MacMurray memorabilia, as well as a tribute to his second wife, June Haver, and to Beaver Dam's other film star, Brian Donlevy ("The Great McGinty," "I Wanted Wings," "The Glass Key"). The museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children. To learn more about the museum and MacMurray, go to http://www2.powercom.net/~fredmac/. Beaver Dam is in south central Wisconsin, not far from Madison.
In addition, beginning tonight, the museum will be showing MacMurray films (many of them rarely revived), usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, through the beginning of October. Here's the schedule (doors open at 6:30 p.m., the film starts at 7):
June 24: "The Egg & I" (1947)
June 26: "Hands Across The Table" (1935)
July 1: "Men With Wings" (1938)
July 3: "Trail Of The Lonesome Pine" (1936)
July 8: "The Princess Comes Across" (1936)
July 10: "Sing You Sinners" (1938)
July 12: "Maid Of Salem" (1937)
July 17: "Invitation To Happiness" (1939)
July 22: "The Texas Rangers" (1936)
July 24: "Gun For A Coward" (1957)
July 29: "Family Honeymoon" (1949)
July 31: "No Time For Love" (1943)
Aug. 5: "One Night In Lisbon" (1941)
Aug. 7: "Standing Room Only" (1944)
Aug. 12: "New York Town" (1941)
Aug. 14: "True Confession" (1937)
Aug. 19: "Champagne Waltz" (1937)
Aug. 21: "Cocoanut Grove" (1938)
Aug. 24: "The Bride Comes Home" (1935)
Aug. 28: "Suddenly It's Spring" (1947)
Sept. 2: "Singapore" (1947)
Sept. 4: "Double Indemnity" (1944)
Sept. 9: "The Forest Rangers" (1942)
Sept. 11: "Rangers Of Fortune" (1940)
Sept. 16: "And The Angels Sing" (1944)
Sept. 18: "Take A Letter, Darling" (1942)
Sept. 23: "Virginia" (1941)
Sept. 25: "Remember The Night" (1940)
Sept. 30: "Day Of The Bad Man" (1958)
Oct. 1: "Quantez" (1957)
One film not on the list is "Pardon My Past" (1945), in which Fred's character heads to Beaver Dam from the Army to start a mink farm. (The town is mentioned eight times.) You can also find visual references to his hometown in "Remember The Night."
As stated earlier, the depth and diversity of MacMurray's film career is nowhere as well regarded as it should be. After the success of "Honey I Shrunk The Kids" and similar fare, Rick Moranis was quoted as saying he hoped to become his generation's Fred MacMurray. Obviously, he was referring to the MacMurray of "The Absent-Minded Professor" or "Son Of Flubber"; it'd be difficult to imagine Moranis starring in most of the films listed above.