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Noir MacMurray


It’s harsh to judge an artist, an act or any on-going entertainment by the latter part of her/his/its career. Madonna isn’t really Hung Up, just as Sting isn’t only Sting he’s also The Police and HAPPY DAYS isn’t the final years when Richie got posted to Greenland. You will have your own examples, I am sure.

This brings me slowly and contrived-ly to Fred MacMurray, of television’s MY THREE SONS (1960-72). MacMurray played widower Steve Douglas. Steve Freakin’ Douglas with the cardigans, pipe and widow’s-peak coiff; he had a “laid-back” but firm way of raising his Three Sons. His supposedly likeable persona, kind of a cut-rate Jimmy Stewart, was phoney as. I’m not referring to the man himself (of whom I know little) but his actual performance as the Douglas patriarch, that, to modern eyes, seems at best phoned in. At worst he comes across like the most distant and uninvolved of the television fathers of that era. Check Steve Douglas’s eyes, people, he doesn’t give a toss about Chip, Ernie or Rob.

This may have something to do with the so-called “MacMurray Method" of shooting the series. The Museum of Broadcast Communications explains the method like this:
Before he agreed to his contract, Fred MacMurray queried veteran television performer, Robert Young, about Young's workload. Upon Young's complaint about television's time-consuming schedule, MacMurray insisted on a unique shooting plan that was to be copied by other top actors and christened "the MacMurray Method." This so-called "writer's nightmare" stipulated that all of MacMurray's scenes were to be shot in 65 non-consecutive days. All other actors had to complete their fill-in shots while MacMurray was on vacation. Practically speaking, this meant the series had to stockpile at least half a season's scripts before the season ever began so that MacMurray's role could be shot during his limited work days.

This tale might be apocryphal, and although I have seen it cited in various places around the net (here and here) these references all seem to rely on each other at least in part. Who knows how true it is?

Accurate or not, Steve Douglas was a lucrative if somewhat naff role for MacMurray. Arguably his best screen creation was in the 1944 film noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY, where he played the non-naff Walter Neff. Neff is an insurance salesman who schemes with femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (the awesome Barbara Stanwyck) to kill her husband for the insurance money. If you’ve never seen the film with its souped up dialogue and over-heated tone, then track it down as an example of over-ripe film noir.

Once you’ve seen MacMurray play the weak, cold-hearted Neff, then his performance as Steve Douglas becomes more, rather than less, watchable. If you simply imagine Douglas as Neff, biding his time, searching for a way to bring the travesty of his middle-class existence as an aeronautical engineer to an end. This reading makes the detachedness of Steve Douglas far more persuasive and a little poignant. – even if it is completely wrong.

Elevate The Insignificant,

Mr Trivia


clore said…
The Museum of Broadcast Communications piece has a slight error. James Stewart did not use the MacMurray method for his sitcom.

He was offered the chance, but he refused it saying that it was unfair to the rest of the cast.

Yes, Fonda did use it for "The Smith Family" as did Brian Keith for "Family Affair." These two were produced by Don Fedderson who also produced MacMurray's show.
Mr Trivia said…
Thanks for setting us straight, clore. It seems unreliable old memories have turned into television folklore.

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