Some critics have suggested another reason for his failure to rise to the top. In David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the film scholar suggested, "...MacMurray is a romantic lead built on quicksand, a hero compelled to betray, a lover likely to desert." Inspired by his few but very effective turns as heels, most notably as crooked insurance agent Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944), some have suggested the tragedy of his career was that he so rarely sought out similar roles, usually choosing to play more pleasant if less noteworthy characters. In truth, however, MacMurray was a simple, uncomplicated man more like the characters in his light comedies than in his most acclaimed performances. He would even admit, "The two films I did with Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity and The Apartment (1960), were the only two parts I did in my entire career that required any acting."
MacMurray came by his talent and all-American simplicity naturally. He was the son of a concert violinist and grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, where he was born in 1908, and Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. MacMurray loved his small-town roots and featured references to them in several of his films. In the one movie he produced, Pardon My Past (1945), he played a veteran who dreams of starting a mink ranch in Beaver Dam.
MacMurray made his stage debut playing violin with his father, but was so overcome with stage fright he didn't return to performance until he was in high school. By then he had learned to play piano, guitar and saxophone and performed with a series of small-town bands, eventually dropping out of college to focus on his music career. Band work brought him to the West Coast in the late '20s, when he made his screen debut as an extra in Girls Gone Wild in 1929. Joining forces with a group called The California Collegiates, he toured the U.S., eventually appearing with the group in two Broadway musicals. In Three's a Crowd (1930), Libby Holman sang "Something to Remember You By" to him, but it was Roberta in 1933 that had the greatest impact on his life. On the personal front, he met dancer Lillian Lamont, who would become his wife in 1936. Professionally, his few bits and the chance to stand in as an understudy caught the attention of Hollywood talent scouts, and in 1934, he signed his first contract with Paramount Pictures.
On his return to Hollywood, MacMurray was treated as leading man material, although at first the studio tested his talents with a loan to RKO, where he made his starring debut opposite Dame May Robson in Grand Old Girl (1935). He hit his stride with his next film, The Gilded Lily, playing a fast-talking reporter vying with British lord Ray Milland for cabaret star Claudette Colbert. His easygoing style made him a good match for the mercurial leading lady, and they would team for a total of seven films, including the hit comedy The Egg and I (1947), which introduced Universal Pictures' profitable "Ma and Pa Kettle" films.
Another loan to RKO brought MacMurray added prestige when he played the small-town society boy worshiped by Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (1935), although the studio-imposed happy ending left many critics scratching their heads. Despite the occasional Western or war film, like the Warner Bros. loan-out Dive Bomber (1941), MacMurray spent most of his time in comedies such as Too Many Husbands (1940), in which he returned from a shipwreck to discover wife Jean Arthur had not only taken a second husband (Melvyn Douglas), but couldn't choose between the two men; Hands Across the Table (1935), in which he played a penniless playboy involved with man-weary manicurist Carole Lombard; and Remember the Night (1940), in which he prosecutes Barbara Stanwyck for shoplifting then invites her to spend Christmas with his family.
Writer-director Billy Wilder finally gave him a shot at a more serious role, though it would take some convincing to get MacMurray to turn in one of his best performances. Wilder was working on an adaptation of James M. Cain's torrid tale of murder, Double Indemnity, but nobody wanted to play the male lead. Alan Ladd was afraid to play a villain, and George Raft insisted the man be revealed to be a government agent out to catch murderous leading lady Barbara Stanwyck. Wilder finally pressured MacMurray to play the murdering heel, and MacMurray got the best notices of his career. It didn't lead him to more dramatic roles. Even when the star left Paramount in 1945 and tried his hand at producing with Pardon My Past, he stuck to comedy. When Wilder came calling with another cynical role, the screenwriter-turned gigolo in Sunset Boulevard (1950), MacMurray turned it down, leaving William Holden to play the career-changing role.
Perhaps that film's success changed MacMurray's opinion of villainous roles. In the '50s, he took on the fast-talking TV adman in Callaway Went Thataway (1951), the duplicitous Naval officer in The Caine Mutiny and the corrupt cop in Pushover (both 1954). Later Westerns such as Good Day for a Hanging and Face of a Fugitive (both 1959) also offered him edgier roles. And when Paul Douglas died before he could appear in Wilder's The Apartment (1960), MacMurray agreed to play a philandering executive, another of his best performances.
By that time, however, he had already taken steps to secure his image as the perfect father, signing with Walt Disney to play Tommy Kirk's dad in The Shaggy Dog (1959). He would make seven films for Disney, all of them casting him as squeaky-clean authority figures, often fathers. When the sci-fi comedy The Absent-Minded Professor became one of 1961's top films, he readily agreed to a sequel, Son of Flubber (1963). He also signed for the long-running comedy series My Three Sons (1960-1973), playing architect Steve Douglas, a single father (he didn't remarry until the final season) and occasionally his look-alike Scottish cousin Fergus. He only agreed to appear in the series when the producers guaranteed him a 65-day commitment per year. All of his scenes for the season were shot at once, with other actors playing props men through the rest of shooting. With his big-screen name, he got top dollar for his work on the series.
MacMurray's modest lifestyle was legendary in Hollywood. Even at the height of his success (in the '40s he was one of Hollywood's highest paid actors, making more than $420,000 a year thanks to agent Zeppo Marx), he packed his lunch every day and never attended studio parties. He and his wife Lillian socialized mostly with other married couples -- the Jack Bennys, and Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor among them -- and there was never a hint of scandal. Lillian died in 1953, and a year later musical star June Haver, who had teamed with him in 1945's Where Do We Go From Here?, retired from acting to become his second wife. Thanks to judicious investments, mostly in real estate, he was already one of Hollywood's wealthiest stars, a position he spoofed in an appearance as himself on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.
by Frank Miller