Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel in Racine, WI, he aspired to a career in business as a young man, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in economics after serving in the First World War as an artillery lieutenant. He entered the banking business in New York in 1920, working at what was then known as First National City Bank (now Citibank), but while recovering from an attack of appendicitis, he decided to give up banking and to try for a career on the stage. March made his debut that same year in Deburau in Baltimore, and also began appearing as an extra in movies being shot in New York City. In 1926, while working in a stock company in Denver, he met an actress named Florence Eldridge. At the very end of that same year, March got his first Broadway leading role, in The Devil in the Cheese. March and Eldridge were married in 1927 and, in lieu of a honeymoon, the two joined the first national tour of the Theatre Guild. Over the next four decades, the two appeared together in numerous theatrical productions and several films.
March came along as a leading man just as Hollywood was switching to sound and scrambling for stage actors. His work in a West Coast production of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's satirical stage work The Royal Family in 1929, in which he parodied John Barrymore, got him a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures. March repeated the role to great acclaim (and his first Oscar nomination) in George Cukor's and Cyril Gardner's 1930 screen adaptation, entitled The Royal Family of Broadway. Over the next few years, March established himself as the top leading man in Hollywood, and in 1932, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), became the first (and only) performer ever to win the Best Actor Academy Award for a portrayal of a monster in a horror film. He excelled in movies such as Design for Living (1933), The Sign of the Cross (1932), Death Takes a Holiday (1934), and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934).