Fredric March — He Was a Problem Child (1935) 🇺🇸

Fredric March — He Was a Problem Child (1935) |

March 27, 2023

Fredric March was what we call, nowadays, a problem child. He was considerably worse than mischievous.

by Harry Brundidge

The neighbors weren't fooling when they opined that he'd never escape hanging. Nowadays, if parents have a problem child and enough money, they call in a psychiatrist and have the child's mental innards overhauled. But if they haven't enough money or cannot get hold of one of these mind-doctors, the father usually administers lickings and the mother sheds bitter tears and prays pathetic prayers and wonders whatever will become of her boy. Or, perhaps, if they are really sensible about it, they summon their faith in the good Lord and the potent influence of a good home to set the young devil on the right path. Look back upon your own youth. Perhaps you did some pretty terrible things. So do most young people — especially boys. Listen to Fred's story, as he told it to me.

Fredric March crumpled the motion picture section of a newspaper, crushed it into a ball with strong, bronzed hands, and pitched it into a convenient waste basket. Freddie's face was flushed, his eyes were flashing fire. He reached for and obtained a drink.

"Hell's bells!" he ejaculated. "I'm damn well sick of these sissy stories about little Freddie March.

"That paper had another one. It related how I used to speak pieces and make weekly trips to the bank 'to deposit twenty-five or fifty cents, or whatever he managed to save from his small allowance.' Allowance, my eye! What dough I got my hands on in my boyhood I obtained from picking rags, bottles, iron and paper out of ash pits, alleys, and back yards and hauling the plunder in a home-made wagon to the junk dealer, where I sold it.

"I was a tough kid, back in Racine, Wis.

"I stole chickens, vegetables and canned goods. From the age of seven I did all of the things for which boys are now dragged into the juvenile courts. One day I stole a complete stove from a junk dealer, for installation in a club house, our gang had constructed from stolen lumber. I recall that I congratulated myself on having graduated from petit to grand larceny.

"Had it not been for circumstances, and the environment of a good home, I, too, might have been a gangster — and a good one!

"I say 'I too' because some of my boyhood pals turned out to be thugs and yeggmen.

"Stories of my life have always pictured me as a sort of gutless wonder," he continued. "In every instance, the rough spots have been glossed over. The old theory that truth is stranger than fiction, and a darned sight more interesting, seems to have been forgotten. The truth is that I've lived an interesting life. I've tasted the bitter and the sweet. I've starved. I've walked the soles off my shoes looking for work. I'm going to tell you the truth — all of it — and I hope you get it published. I'm sick and tired of the nonsensical stuff that's been printed."

The many dramas in which March has appeared on stage and screen were spun of no more colorful threads than those woven into his own story — a story which carries a message to every mother's son and every son's mother. The fates must have intended him for the stage and screen, for his early background seemed to have destined him for something else. March says he might have been a gangster. You probably have read that after his youthful life of crime, he landed a job in a teller's cage in a bank. Rather different — yes. Thanks to certain influences, which I'll let him tell you about himself.

He was born in Racine, Wisconsin, on August 31, 1897, and was dunked Frederick Mclntyre Bickel. His father was of German lineage; his mother, Cora Marcher (which name inspired him with his stage name), was of English, Scotch and Dutch extraction.

"As I said," March told me, "I was a tough kid. I did speak nice pieces at nice local functions when called upon. But at the age of six I was thrashed for doing an imitation of an old man who hobbled. by on crutches. Soon thereafter our gang began building little clubhouses along the shores of Lake Michigan. We stole everything needed for construction and maintenance, from lumber to food and fuel. We engaged in gang fights, used bricks for weapons, and running amuck now and then, tipped over all the Chic Sales in Racine. We were headed straight for the penitentiary, according to all the town authorities, and some of the boys actually reached that destination. Had it not been for the environment of a good home and loving, understanding parents, I, too, might have been a jail bird. I might have been the right-hand man of an Al Capone or a 'Legs' Diamond.

"My boyhood nickname was Bottles. My abilities as a junk picker earned that sobriquet for me. I could 'find' more bottles, more scrap iron, more rags, more old washboards, than any boy in our gang. This might have been due to the fact that I was an observing child and knew just what days the good housewives of Racine went to town. However, the excitement of collecting and selling junk was nothing as compared to the thrill of the theatre — the circumstance that doubtless saved me from the eventual clutches of the law. Racine boasted the Jack Besse Stock Company, and, now and then, provided a good company on tour, such as Maude Adams in Peter Pan and Richard Bennett in Damaged Goods. It was after watching Bennett that I made up my mind to be an actor."

Fred finished high school and wanted to go to the University of Wisconsin but the family funds were low, so he went to work in the Manufacturers' National Bank and worked his way up from the Christmas savings cage to a position as assistant teller. He saved his money and in 1916 entered Wisconsin University. With the outbreak of war, he enlisted, was commissioned a shavetail, and was attending an artillery school when the Armistice was signed. Returning to the university, he won a scholarship for a course in training for foreign service with the National City Bank of New York. All very admirable. But —

"I soon realized it was the thought of foreign travel — not a banking career — that kept me at work," he confesses. "In my heart," he admits, "what I really wanted was to be an actor. I left the bank and went to work as a $3 a day extra in the Long Island studios. Then I went to work posing for illustrators and photographers, and met Norma Shearer, Neil Hamilton, Eleanor Boardman, and others who were earning their bread and butter, posing.

Then came the turning point in the life of Freddie Bickel.

"I stood, one day, in an automat in downtown New York, and flipped my last dime into the air. I was cold and hungry. I had not worked for days. The soles were gone from my shoes and I could not return to my rooming house without cash, for I had been locked out. I caught the dime in my palm, and closed my fist, before looking. Heads, and the dime would be inserted into a sandwich slot and I would eat, and abandon dreams of a stage career; tails, and I would use a nickel to telephone an agency for models, and use the other jitney for carfare.

"I opened my fist, looked, got two nickels for the dime from the cashier, went to the phone, talked to a man, grinned, and hurried for the uptown subway, hungry but happy. Leon Gordon, noted artist, needed a male model. For three hours I stood on the pedestal. At the end of that time Gordon yawned, laid aside his brushes, and turned to me. 'Three hours, three dollars,' he said, handing me three $1 bills. With thoughts of food I hurried for the door.

"'Wait a minute,' called Gordon. 'Would you mind doing an errand for me? Will you run over to the theatre and get me two seats for tonight for Lady of the Lamp?"

"I took another notch in my belt and went to the theatre, bought the tickets, and on the way out, bumped into an agent who told me that two extras were needed at the Belasco theatre for Deburau. He told me I'd better hurry. I ran all the way, and was engaged for a walk-on part. I ran back to Gordon's to deliver the tickets, hurried to the Belasco and was so excited I forgot I was hungry. It was a grand break for me.

"That was the beginning. I became call boy, understudy, stage hand, and bit player, and after twenty-five weeks found myself playing the juvenile lead in Deburau. From then on, it was just plain hard work in stock companies. I wasn't an actor and everyone including myself knew it, and I was advised to get some stock experience.

Five years of hardship followed; five years of stock, third-rate companies, cheap boarding houses, thin overcoats, summer clothes for winter, and vice versa; half-soled shoes, second-hand hats, socks with holes in the toes; weary miles of trudging, looking for work, with blistered heels and burning feet. Long days — days during which the activities of gangsters who might even have been his boyhood pals filled the front pages — caused Freddie to wonder if he had chosen the right profession.

Then came Florence Eldridge; they were married in the spring of 1927. She was well known then. She has gradually put aside her career — her husband's was more important to her. She helped him tremendously. She has such a deep understanding for acting and the theatre.

A year later, March was offered the leading role in the Los Angeles production of The Royal Family. He was offered that role because of his striking resemblance to the John Barrymore of a dozen years ago.

I saw the opening of The Royal Family in Los Angeles, the guest of Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston.

At the conclusion of the performance Dick turned to me and said, "Ten to one some producer signs him for pictures."

I didn't take the bet. And — well, you sort of know the rest, I think.

March had finished his story. He reached for another drink.

"Do I sound like the sort of coddled egg that writers insist on painting me?" he demanded.

"It sounds like the confession of an egg that just escaped being a yegg," I admitted.

March grinned.

"I think that prefix of 'Freddie' may have had something to do with it," he laughed. "Say, how would Bottles March look in electric lights?"

I reached for my hat.

Freddie led the way to the door. He paused, for a moment, and then, with a wistful look, said:

"I've a grand blurb for your story. 'I Might Have Been a Gangster.'

"And I might have, too," he added.

March as the noble-looking Browning of The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Fred — about eleven — with his father, an understanding and kind gentleman.

In the earlier sequences of "We Live Again" with the beautiful Anna Sten.

The chap with Mary Carlisle is James Blakely, N. Y. socialite and screen newcomer. At Junior Laemmle Jr.'s going-away party.

Collection: Modern Screen MagazineJanuary 1935