Given that Fred MacMurray built a successful film career as the quintessential nice guy, it's rather ironic that some of his strongest and best-remembered performances cast him against type. While remaining known as a fixture of light comedies and live-action Disney productions, his definitive roles nonetheless were those which found him contemplating murder, adultery, and other villainous pursuits. Born August 30, 1908, in Kankakee, IL, MacMurray, the son of a concert violinist, was educated at a military academy and later studied at the Chicago Art Institute. His original goal was to become a professional saxophonist, and toward that aim he worked with a variety of bands and even recorded with Gus Arnheim. MacMurray's musical aspirations eventually led him to Hollywood, where he frequently worked as an extra. He later joined the California Collegians and with them played Broadway in the 1930 revue Three's a Crowd, where he joined Libby Holman on a duet of "Something to Remember Me By." He subsequently appeared in productions of The Third Little Show and Roberta.
The story behind MacMurray's return to Hollywood remains uncertain -- either a Paramount casting scout saw him on-stage, or he simply signed up with Central Casting -- but either way, he was under contract by 1934. At Paramount, he rose to fame in 1935's The Gilded Lily, a romantic comedy which pit him against Claudette Colbert. Seemingly overnight he was among the hottest young actors in town, and he quickly emerged as a favorite romantic sparring partner with many of Hollywood's leading actresses. After Katherine Hepburn requested his services for Alice Adams, MacMurray joined Carole Lombard in Hands Across the Table before reuniting with Colbert in The Bride Comes Home, his seventh film in 12 months. He kept up the frenetic pace, appearing in 1936's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine alongside Henry Fonda, reteaming with Lombard in The Princess Comes Across. After settling a contract dispute with Paramount, MacMurray again starred with Colbert in the 1937 swashbuckler Maid of Salem, one of the first films to move him away from the laid-back, genial performances on which he'd risen to success.