In the 1970s I walked into the ocean on Maui noticing that the only other person in the water was a lady with fantastic gray hair that was not wet and was gorgeously styled. As I moved closer to her, I saw how extraordinarily beautiful she was. She said hello to me and I responded by telling her she looked like a movie star. She said I used to be one and flashed a bright smile.
I was so embarrassed that I didn't recognize her and as I was hemming and hawing someone came up behind me and said something like I can't leave you for a moment without finding you talking to another man. Even before I turned around I recognized that distinctive voice that I had heard so often in my childhood and I quickly said to her... you're Frances Dee. Boy, was she impressed that someone in his 30s would know who she was.
|As they looked on Maui|
So there we were, Mr. and Mrs. Joel McCrea and I bobbing around in the warm Hawaii waters discussing at first Maui and all its splendors and then movies. Two things cemented my brief encounter with him. One was that we shared the same birthday. I told him how many famous people also shared our birthday and he found it a hoot. He was more struck by the fact that I told him an actress he said appeared with him in a particular movie was, in fact, someone else. I then oh so gently told him the correct film in which he costarred with her. We had a good laugh. While Mrs. McCrea went to lie on the beach, my cowboy star and I continued talking in the water for about a half hour. It was great fun.
He was a Southern California boy through and through having been born in South Pasadena in 1905 to a electric company executive. His western roots were deep. His paternal grandfather had been a stagecoach driver between Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Young Joel attended Hollywood High School and found himself among moviemakers and horses all his life. He wasn't so impressed by stars as he was horses. As a boy he delivered newspapers to various show folks, including director Cecil B. DeMille who would one day hire McCrea on the strength of those deliveries. He studied acting at Pomona College and afterward would attend the famed Pasadena Playhouse. After graduating from the University of Southern California in 1928, he got some work as a stunt player.
He picked up some small roles in films of the 1920s but his first leading role was in 1930s The Silver Horde. He signed on with MGM for a brief time and later become a contract player at RKO and still later for Samuel Goldwyn Studios. In 1932 he starred in the controversial Bird of Paradise with Dolores Del Rio where he had nude scenes (pre-code days). In 1933 he made The Silver Cord, notable only because it's the movie on which he met his future and only wife, the lovely Ms. Dee. The following year he made Gambling Lady, his first of six films opposite Barbara Stanwyck. In 1935 he managed a Shirley Temple movie, Our Little Girl, one of her lesser efforts. The same year's Barbary Coast with Miriam Hopkins (with whom he would work five times), Edward G. Robinson and Walter Brennan was a rousing hit.
McCrea befriended humorist-actor Will Rogers in the 1930s. They enjoyed talking about and riding horses and Rogers taught McCrea to be an expert with a rope. He also gave the younger actor two bits of advice that McCrea would never forget. The first was to live on half his salary and save the other half. He also told him the value of investing in real estate. McCrea almost immediately bought 1,000 acres in Thousand Oaks, California, and ultimately added more and more. The McCreas built their ranch and would live on it the rest of their lives. By the late 1940s, they would be multi-millionaires.
McCrea, Hopkins and Merle Oberon in 1936 would make Lillian Hellman's These Three with the lesbian theme completely gone. Next was his best film of the decade, Come and Get It (1936), William Wyler and Howard Hawks' version of Edna Ferber's tale of lumberjacks. It is most notable for beautiful Frances Farmer in dual roles. McCrea was so good-natured and easy to get along with that he was popular on most any film set.
I just recently saw Wyler's noir-like Dead End (1937) for the first time and was surprised how much I liked it. Its in-your-face take on budding bad boys and real bad boys on the cruel streets of New York made me sit up in my seat. An eclectic cast comprising of Sylvia Sidney, Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor and the Dead End Kids found a lot of them on the wrong side of the law but not Joel McCrea.
Next up was Wells Fargo... a western, and McCrea was one happy fella. I believe it was his first and he'd been begging his various bosses to get him a horse so he could make the movies he really wanted to make. He never doubted his good fortune to be working with good people in fine films (the best yet to come) but he wanted to be a cowboy. This one was rather routine but adding Mrs. McCrea as his leading lady helped make the experience a joyous one for the actor.
He came alive again in 1939 when DeMille hired him and Stanwyck for the rock 'em-sock 'em western, Union Pacific, about two railroads competing for the expansion of the American west. By this time he was under contract to Paramount. After Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable turned down Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), McCrea got the part. It concerned a reporter sent to Europe just before America's involvement in WWII to see what he could uncover. He and Laraine Day were a bit bland and although the film wasn't one of Hitchcock's best, it stands up as a decent thriller.
One of McCrea's finest bits of work came in Preston Sturges' excellent comedy-drama, Sullivan's Travels (1941). I recently reviewed it so we will move along to another excellent McCrea portrayal in another Sturges comedy, The Palm Beach Story (1942). The screwball plot involves an inventor who needs a lot of money and a wife (Claudette Colbert) who agrees to divorce him and marry a millionaire in an effort to secure the needed funds.
Director George Stevens teamed McCrea with the very funny Jean Arthur in another superb comedy, The More the Merrier (1943). Focused on a housing shortage in Washington D.C. during the war, two men share a two-bedroom apartment with a fussy woman and the older man pulls out all stops to get the other two involved in a romance.
|With Maureen O'Hara in Buffalo Bill|
One of my favorite McCrea roles was as the title star of Buffalo Bill (1944). The highly colorful but largely fictional story of the frontier scout who became an impresario with his own wild west shows turned kind of dark in spots but it brightened considerably by the presence of Maureen O'Hara and Linda Darnell.
McCrea turned down a number of roles during his time in the Hollywood limelight because he said he either wasn't right for them or he didn't think he'd perform them adequately. No one said that in his community... on the contrary, actors always said they could do anything (sing, ride a horse, handle a sword) whether they could or not. One role he turned down was The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), in this case because he didn't want to murder Lana Turner's husband after embarking on an affair with her. He said his public would not accept him in such a role so morally objectionable. Thankfully John Garfield didn't feel the same.
The Virginian (1946), a remake of his pal Gary Cooper's 1930 film, was a big success, partially because of the frosty onscreen relationship between McCrea and lovely Barbara Britton. If he ever played a bad guy role, it would have to be in Colorado Territory (1949), a western remake of 1940s High Sierra. McCrea and Virginia Mayo slipped into the roles created in the original by Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. It was one of his best westerns.
The remainder of his films would all be westerns, paralleling the career of another of his good pals, Randolph Scott. McCrea, Scott and Cooper would all give John Wayne a run for his money as the cowboy stars of the 1950s. I have a funny feeling that I saw them all. McCrea once said that a number of his westerns were Cooper rejects and a few of his suit-and-tie roles were first offered to his pal, Cary Grant.
Stars in My Crown (1950) about a gun-toting preacher and featuring a delightful performance by young and sassy Dean Stockwell was McCrea's favorite film. McCrea was good with kid actors, best exemplified in Saddle Tramp, also 1950, about a drifter who reluctantly takes over the care of a family of orphans.
|The McCreas on their way to Europe|
I went kind of nuts over 1954's decidedly B western, Black Horse Canyon, because it featured the stallion that starred in TV's Fury, a show that was a must-see for me as a kid. Coincidentally, the horse was also featured in Gypsy Colt the same year with Frances Dee in her final movie role. The female star of Black Horse Canyon, by the way, Mari Blanchard, was the actress in dispute that day on Maui.
Fort Massacre (1958) was a gripping adult western about a small group of people warding off Indian attacks. The theme, while overly familiar in the western genre, has rarely been done better than here. In 1959 he did a TV series, Wichita Town, with his son, Jody, but it lasted just one season.
Ride the High Country (1962) is considered a classic western today. Only the second film directed by wild man Sam Peckinpah, it is the story of two old friends, both down on their luck, hired to transport a gold shipment from a mining camp through dangerous country to a bank. One friend is unaware that the other is planning to steal the booty. When McCrea and Scott were hired, it was not determined who would play which role but ultimately McCrea wouldn't play the bad guy and forfeited top billing to Scott. It was Scott's final film. It was also McCrea's last great role. His final four films, the last in 1976, were small, independent ones that utterly suited the old cowboy. He hung up his movie spurs for good.
|The stars of Ride the High Country|
Still, there was life on the ranch which he dearly loved with his beloved Frances by his side. They had raised three boys and enjoyed a fine life. He was rarely heard from in his last 14 years although he would show up at some western affair or tribute and blushed at awards bestowed upon him. Even in his heyday, he listed rancher as his occupation and acting as his hobby.
The kind, self-effacing, gentle man who was Joel McCrea died from pneumonia at age 84 in Woodland Hills, California, on October 20, 1990. It was his 57th wedding anniversary.
The second choice
to play Scarlett O'Hara