The Hollywood of betrayals, scandals, nightclub fistfights, power-abuse, substance-abuse and other aspects of conspicuous consumption did exist and still exists. But that noisome Hollywood was never the whole town, only its most notorious neighborhood.
Fred MacMurray, dead this week at 83 after a ravaging illness bravely borne, qualified as honorary mayor of that other Hollywood, which played by the same ground rules that were endorsed in Kankakee, Ill. and Beaver Dam, Wis., where MacMurray was born and raised.
Like Jimmy Cagney (and a crowd of others, men and women alike), MacMurray regarded acting as something you did for a living. It might not have been accounts receivable, but it was work. Cagney once said, “When I finished a picture, I couldn’t wait to hop on a train and get out of town.” (In later years, Cagney and his wife hopped in a car and drove across the country.)
For years, MacMurray retreated to a cattle ranch in Northern California, where the fishing was also prime. His love for the bright lights tended to favor the sun glinting on a trout stream, or on the sleek greens of a golf course.
He was the perfect disproving of the idea that nice guys finish last. The idea wasn’t even on target for baseball, about which Leo Durocher is supposed to have said it; Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial gave the lie to that. And if Hollywood has had a First Commandment for the screen, it is that nice guys and nice women finish first.
The concept of the good guy doing worse than breaking even (except when noble self-sacrifice was involved) never had much currency until the ratings changed in the late ‘60s, and even then it hasn’t found much favor with audiences, who still prefer to see good people win.
And that, of course, was MacMurray’s enduring strength as a performer, in TV’s long-running “My Three Sons” as well as movies. He was the ultimate, likable nice guy, not apt to leap from roof to roof or attempt other heroics, but far from a clown or a buffoon. Absent-minded, maybe, a portrayal that enriched the best of Disney’s live-action comedies.
The movie camera, with its undeniable capacity to see past the characterization to the player’s soul, saw the nice guy that MacMurray really was. Later, and not without anxiety attacks, MacMurray let himself play against the nice guy image, creating that small but indelible gallery of bad guys, as in “Double Indemnity.” The villainies seemed more villainous, or more smarmy, as in the philandering boss in “The Apartment,” because it was Fred MacMurray, for crying out loud.
He was too tall, at 6-foot-3, to have played Andy Hardy, but he could have. In his Midwest origins he was Andy Hardy and the impression he conveyed of never having left behind him the small-town verities of Beaver Dam--thrift, hard work, loyalty, civility--was part of his appeal as a performer.
The impression was not wrong, although it was true, as it was of Cary Grant, that there was a kind of two-way stretch, in which the roles created or enhanced the image, even as the actor was fleshing out the roles. He was tough-minded and nobody’s fool, but that’s OK in Kankakee, too.
MacMurray knew, better than anyone, his strengths and limits as a performer. The stage and the sound stage were his acting schools and he was a quick study. Naturalness on camera--which is as much an illusion as tears or rage--seemed easy for him, and from early days he was a good actor (as the nervous suitor in “Alice Adams,” for example) and he turned out to be one of Hollywood’s most expert light comedians.
The miracle of Hollywood in its early days was that it kept finding the men and women who could help to define the movies’ possibilities. Fred MacMurray was one of the men.