Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The Christmas Album: Fred MacMurray & June Haver
The ninth day of our trip through Christmas Past finds a genuinely happy-looking pair, gently embracing the newest additions to their family, twin girls, Laurie and Kathryn on a day in December shortly before Christmas. This picture, taken on December 7th, 1956, marked the day when Fred MacMurray and his wife, June Haver were able to take these adopted babies home with them for the first time as their own children.
Much of the time in Hollywood, there seem to be sad or overwrought moments when the offspring of the famous are caught on camera by an intrusive, predatory press. In the case of the MacMurrays, this glimpse seems to be an occasion of real joy, offering a reminder of life's ability to break our hearts and sometimes to heal them again. A few years earlier, Fred MacMurray might have had some difficulty imagining himself so happily involved in life. In 1953, his first wife Lily had died of a heart ailment on the seventeenth anniversary of their marriage, leaving him to raise their adopted children, Susan and Robert, alone. He was said to believe that he would never remarry.
Yet, a year later, at a Christmas party he attended reluctantly, he and June Haver were "fixed up" by mutual friend John Wayne. Both had been through a lot. Ms. Haver, a singer and dancer sometimes described as a "pocket Grable" had lost her fiance John Duzik to a sudden illness some time before. That event had led her to forfeit a $3,500.00 a week contract at 20th Century Fox and instead spend time re-evaluating her life as a novice in a convent for some time before returning to her life in Los Angeles. Described by co-star Darryl Hickman "as sweet a human being as I met, a delightful woman", Haver had worked with MacMurray a decade before. Spying him that night at Wayne's party as he sat on the bandstand playing the saxophone, she kept trying to catch his eye and make him laugh as she danced by with newly arrived British actor, Laurence Harvey. "I can't put it into words", she later said. "But when you love someone, you love him. It's not the color of his eyes or anything like that. It's just the man, Fred. He was kind of a challenge. I wanted to know what he was really like." June Haver, who retired from films after their marriage in 1954, spent the next thirty seven years getting to know him.
Fred, one of the most underrated actors by those unfamiliar with his film work before he became a fixture at Disney and as the father of My Three Sons, was also one of the quietest, least outgoing actors in Hollywood. He also made what he did on screen look easy. Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up seeing his older movies on television when he demonstrated that he could be a deft partner to the likes of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell knew better. Now that many of these films are finally coming to DVD, perhaps more of us will appreciate his range and naturalism as well. Modestly, MacMurray claimed that "I take my movie parts as they come. I don't fly into an emotional storm about them. I just do them. I guess I am an offhand comedian in a natural way."
Right: In a rare night out, Fred MacMurray and his first wife Lili joined the director Mitchell Leisen (far right) and his escort at the opening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on Dec. 21st, 1938.
Renowned for his frugality, MacMurray raised his four children in as normal a way as possible, dividing his time between Los Angeles and his ranch in the Russian River Valley at a remote spot he'd owned since 1941 where the family could live on a ranch devoted to cattle. Today, his daughter Kate MacMurray is still involved in the preservation of that spot for agriculture, promoting the careful use of the land and viticulture that now dominates that area. He may have found this way of life a healthy change from the career he always seemed to keep in its proper perspective, whether he played a funny role in great romantic comedies such as Hands Across the Table, or lovely dramas such as Remember the Night, or a first class user as he did in The Apartment. "Whether I play a heavy or a comedian," he said, "I always start out Smiley MacMurray, a decent Rotarian type. If I play a heavy, there comes a point in the film when the audience realizes I'm really a heel."
Denying that he could be confused with "a dedicated actor", Fred said he was "lazy in spurts -- I'd as soon go fishing or play golf." MacMurray can be seen in some of his very best films, from Alice Adams (1935-George Stevens) to Remember the Night (1940-Mitchell Leisen) to The Egg and I (1947-Chester Erskine) in the next few weeks on TCM. You can see all his upcoming appearances here.
Previous posts on this blog on Fred MacMurray's life and films can be seen here.