Thursday, May 9, 2013

Time to Roll Out Some Joel!

Today's featured actor has been in the back of my mind for a tribute for quite some time, but somehow more urgent personas like Rad Fulton, Mark Goddard and Ray Danton kept weaseling forward! Finally, I'm giving him his place in the sun. We're speaking of Joel McCrea, once one of Hollywood's busiest and most versatile actors, but whose withdrawal from the limelight (and relatively scandal-free existence!) led to a certain lack of enduring notoriety except among devout classic film fans.

McCrea came into this world on November 5th, 1905 in Pasadena, California. The son of a power company executive, he enjoyed an upper-middle class childhood in what would soon be a cornerstone of the motion picture business. As a teen, he delivered newspapers to neighbors of such caliber as director Cecil B. DeMille, who was already becoming a giant in the industry. Not only that, but he got to watch D.W. Griffith direct the jaw-dropping silent film Intolerance (1916), which was partly filmed nearby.

McCrea grew to be 6'3” and was physically fit. While still in school (at legendary Hollywood High), he worked in movies as an extra and a stunt double, hobnobbing with cowboy movie heroes William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Blessed with lean, clean, fresh-scrubbed good looks, he began acting at the Pasadena Playhouse while still enrolled at Pomona College and continued to do so until his graduation in 1928.

That same year, he was signed to a contract with MGM, who cast him in a key role in The Jazz Age (1929), a movie that was released in silent form as well as “part-talkie” in order to capitalize on the new, hot trend of hearing the performers speak instead of merely watching them! Also in 1929, he had a supporting role in Dynamite, while also buried deep in the cast (as a coal miner) was a young actor named Randolph Scott. Years later, these two men would converge for one last late-career success, but more on that later. Dynamite was directed by one of McCrea's old paper route customers, Mr. Cecil B. DeMille!
He soon signed with RKO (though he worked at a variety of places), who placed him in the male lead of The Silver Horde (1930), all about a gold-seeking salmon fisherman who is in love with two different women (one of who was Jean Arthur.) During this early period of his career, he made two films with Will Rogers (Lightnin' in 1930 and Business and Pleasure in 1932) who gave him a piece of sage, and very useful advice: “Save half of what you make, and live on just the other half.” This nugget would serve McCrea unbelievably well in the years to come (and would still be good advice today to fledgling actors and “stars.”)

He, looking so contemporary I must say, was paired with Warner Brothers' top female star Kay Francis in 1931's Girls About Town, in which she plays an already-married gold-digger with her sites set on McCrea's respectable lawyer character.
Also during his stint at RKO, from 1931 to 1933, he was teamed four different times with Constance Bennett (seen above, here and below!), the highest-paid actress of her day. Their movies were Born to Love, The Common Law (both 1931), Rockabye (1932) and Bed of Roses (1933.) I just love his strong chin and soft, romantic gazes. In 1932, he appeared with considerable stars Richard Dix, Mary Astor and Erich von Stroheim (as well as Robert Armstrong) in The Lost Command.
1932, in particular, was a favorite year of mine for Joel McCrea because he made three movies that are memorable for various reasons. Bird of Paradise was a tropical romantic adventure starring Dolores del Rio as a native girl who falls for a handsome sailor (guess who) who's jumped off the deep end to be with her and live on her tribe's island.
McCrea lives peaceably enough among the natives and falls for her deeply until the stirrings of a dominant volcano begin to occur. Here, we find that del Rio has been earmarked to serve as a human sacrifice in order to satisfy the volcano and end its rumblings! This patently old-fashioned tale offers up plenty of McCrea in the scantest of clothing. He takes a memorable dip in the ocean wearing the flimsiest pair of briefs. Other times he is in an abbreviated sarong.
In this and other shots of him throughout this post, you can surely see how his classic looks tend to transcend time. He doesn't have that glossy, slicked-back, heavily made-up quality that was so predominant among leading men in the '20s and '30s. His presence in adventure films, in which his hair would have been considered “mussed” at the time, actually lends a contemporary quality to him now.
This same year he and William Gargan made The Sport Parade, which is notable for its shower room scene and later for its depiction of McCrea as a professional wrestler. Here, again, he is shown jostling around frenetically in a diminutive pair of white briefs.
McCrea, at this point anyway, is a touch too skinny for my own tastes, but I still find him appealing and ingratiating to watch.

One of McCrea's most enduring films was also released in 1932 and that's The Most Dangerous Game. Filmed on an overlapping schedule with King Kong (which was released later thanks to all the special effects work that movie required), it utilized many of the same sets, the same leading lady (Fay Wray) and a key supporting player (Robert Armstrong), but swapped out Kong's leading man Bruce Cabot for McCrea.

Here, he plays a big game hunter who finds the tables turned on him when he is shipwrecked on an island owned by a wealthy, sadistic counted played by Leslie Banks (in a striking performance.) Banks plays nice for a brief while, but ultimately informs McCrea that he has 24 hours to try to escape from the island and that Banks will be hunting him for the kill, like wild game, the entire time!

McCrea and Wray (THE scream queen of the time) have to race through jungle terrain while Banks employs every skill he possesses to try to slaughter them. The 65-minute movie was not only taut and suspenseful, but physically demanding and McCrea was up to the challenge of it (even if acting accolades went to Banks for his fiendish work.)

In 1933, he made another one of my own favorites, The Silver Cord. In it, he plays the son of a staggeringly manipulative, smothering and domineering mother (Laura Hope Crews) who brings home a wife (Irene Dunne) who fails to make the grade with mom (not that any woman could!)

He has a younger brother (Eric Linden) who is facing the same scenario with his own fiancee Frances Dee. Crews is nothing short of unforgettable in her role and is given a run for her money by both Dunne and Dee, the men coming off as rather pale by comparison. I cannot recommend the movie enough as a jaw-dropping melodrama.

The Silver Cord had a far more significant effect on McCrea than any other movie, though, because it was here that he met and fell in love with Dee. The two hit it off and were soon married. Dee was a strikingly beautiful girl with a distinctively smirky smile who'd gotten her start at about the same time as McCrea. The same year as Cord, she'd played Meg in what many people consider to be the definitive version of Little Women.

She later had roles in Bette Davis' Of Human Bondage (1934) and in Becky Sharp (1935), the first three-color Technicolor feature film, and only lost the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939) because she was deemed too outright pretty for the comparatively mousy part.

Together, McCrea and Dee forged one of Hollywood's most successful and enduring marriages and seemed to the world to be mad for each other. They would proceed to have three sons together, Jody (1934), David (1935) and, twenty years later, Peter (1955!) At forty-six, she was a decidedly mature new mother with that pregnancy, especially for that time.

McCrea continued to star in film after film, sometimes as the lead and sometimes with a bigger star like Ginger Rogers (as in Chance at Heaven, 1933.) In 1934, he worked with Barbara Stanwyck in Gambling Lady and the two would ultimately make six films together in all. In 1935, he worked with Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds, Miriam Hopkins (who would ultimately costar with him five times) in Barbary Coast and Splendor and Shirley Temple in Our Little Girl.

1936 brought the exemplary William Wyler-directed film These Three, a reworked version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour (reworked because by now The Production Code was in full swing and there could be no allusion to lesbianism as there could be in the much later version The Children's Hour with Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn and James Garner in 1961.) These Three costarred Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon.

He was making movies as if on a treadmill, some more notable than others. In 1936, he did Come and Get It, which costarred the famously troubled actress Frances Farmer. He worked with Stanwyck again in Banjo on My Knee (1936) and Internes Can't Take Money (1937), which was the very first Dr. Kildare movie. Hereafter, Lew Ayres would portray the stalwart young physician.

McCrea kicked off another cinematic series when he starred in Dead End in 1937. The rough-housing, ne'er-do-well young men from the film, “The Dead End Kids,” went on to make six additional movies, all without McCrea's involvement. That same year, he took real-life wife Dee as a costar for Wells Fargo, one of only a handful of semi-westerns he'd done up to this point. A lover of horses, he would soon be pressing to do more saddle operas rather than the more cosmopolitan and contemporary roles he often found himself in at this time.
In 1938, he played the love interest of Loretta Young in Three Blind Mice. Now an established movie star, McCrea was the co-lead (with Barbara Stanwyck) in Cecil B. DeMille's railroad epic Union Pacific (1939.) This publicity still of Stanwyck being flanked by McCrea and Robert Preston is of a scheme that was used very often in McCrea's career. Many photos exist of him and a male costar sandwiching the leading lady in between them.
Several routine films followed until 1940 when he went to work for The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, in Foreign Correspondent. McCrea's everyman appeal was well-suited to the director's penchant for placing ordinary men in extraordinary situations. He plays a reporter who gets caught up in international espionage and narrowly escapes death more than once.

Aside from a tense windmill sequence, there is a climactic plane crash that appeals greatly to my love of disaster movies. For its time, the sequence is spellbindingly vivid and exciting, causing many viewers to wonder how on earth Hitchcock could even pull it off so believably.

McCrea's leading lady was Laraine Day, with solid support coming from Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, Robert Benchley and Edmund Gwenn.

Most likely McCrea's bid for a bonafide classic is 1941's Sullivan's Travels, directed by Preston Sturges and costarring the white hot (at that time) Veronica Lake. McCrea plays a spoiled, unknowing film director who disguises himself as a hobo in order to learn more about life on the other side of the fence, but who ultimately learns more about himself in the process.

Telling of the degree of McCrea's own appeal at the time is that the movie was written with him in mind by Sturges and no other actor was ever even considered for the part. McCrea was more than a foot taller than his diminutive (and, at the time, very pregnant!) costar Lake. That same year, he played a clam fisherman transplanted to the automotive world of Detroit in Reaching for the Sun.
Other notable films were still to come as well including the slapstick comedy The Palm Beach Story (1942), also directed by Sturges (and do note the publicity photo's scheme!), with Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee and The More the Merrier (1943), a George Stevens film about McCrea having to share living quarters with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn during cramped wartime conditions in Washington, D.C.

In 1944, he went to work for William Wellman and sported a long wig and jaunty goatee in Buffalo Bill, a Technicolor extravaganza that costarred the luminous Maureen O'Hara as his wife.

In 1946, he starred in The Virginian, playing the title character which later emerged as the subject of a long-running TV series starring James Drury. (Drury would appear in McCrea's 1962 film Ride the High Country just before starting the series.) Note again the “sandwich” style layout I referred to earlier of this publicity shot with Brian Donlevy and Barbara Britton.

McCrea no longer wished to play urbane types, trying to look young and romancing younger female costars the way Gary Cooper was still doing and would continue to do until it became uncomfortable to watch (by, say, Love in the Afternoon with Audrey Hepburn in 1957.) He had invested his money very successfully and could work in the projects he wanted to and what he wanted was westerns.

In 1947, he was reunited with his Sullivan's Travels leading lady Veronica Lake in Ramrod, a grim but well-regarded tale involving ranchers versus sheepmen. Next, he had Dee join him again for Four Faces West (1948) in which he played a bandit who has robbed a bank for reasons other than greed.

In 1949 came two more westerns, South of St. Louis (with Alexis Smith) and Colorado Territory (with Virginia Mayo.) 1950 was busier, but of his own choosing, with The Outriders (costarring Arlene Dahl), Stars in My Crown, Saddle Tramp and Frenchie, a reworking of Destry Rides Again (1939), with Shelley Winters in the Marlene Dietrich role. Here at left we see Mr. M helping Shelley protect her costume with a sip of water in between shots.

Many more low-budget, but solidly crafted westerns followed during the mid-'50s with Evelyn Keyes, Yvonne de Carlo, Barbara Hale and Vera Miles among his leading ladies. In 1957, he teamed with Barbara Stanwyck for a final time in Trooper Hook, with McCrea playing the title role of a cavalry sergeant who rescues Stanwyck and her young half-Indian son from a vengeful renegade leader.

Playing one of the fellow troopers in Trooper Hook was a fledgling actor by the name of Jody McCrea, Joel's first born son. He'd appeared in his father's film Wichita two years prior as well as The First Texan (1956) and Gunsight Ridge (1957), but had done work with other folks as well including a few appearances on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and in the thriller The Monster That Challenged the World (1957.)

He would continue on, winning roles in William Wellman's Lafayette Escadrille and the John Saxon/Sandra Dee flick The Restless Years (both 1958.) The same height as his dad, Jody was handsome in his own way, though not quite reaching the same level looks-wise as papa. Now, the two of them would work together full time as Joel opted to act for the very first time on television. Wichita Town was a half-hour western series that starred the two McCrea's as a sheriff and his young deputy.

They demonstrated a mentor/student sort of relationship, but weren't actually playing father and son. The show was of a reasonable quality, but faced with many similar programs during what was a gluttonous time for TV westerns, it failed to emerge as a hit and was cancelled after one season of 26 episodes.

There were a couple of thin years for Jody McCrea, but he soon became a core cast of the Beach Party movies, the first one arriving in 1963, and played variations on the big, dumb, adorable lunkhead for several years thereafter.

With Wichita Town coming to an end in 1960, Joel McCrea was close to being ready to retire from acting. He was fifty-five years old and, thanks to smart saving and shrewd investing, was a multi-millionaire, happy to work his ranch with his wife of many years. There was still one considerable triumph yet to come, though.

Sam Peckinpah, then a TV director still in the early stages of big screen filmmaking, was approaching his second feature, Ride the High Country (1962) starring Randolph Scott, a 1930s actor whose career trajectory had been remarkably similar to McCrea's. An actor of similar experience and fame was needed for the movie and so the two teamed up for it. Though things got off to a slightly bumpy start when neither star felt comfortable with his part, this was easily solved when they merely swapped roles!
The shooting took place in just 26 days and the veteran cowboys gave their all to the project. With newcomer Mariette Hartley in tow, the movie went on to become a treasured western classic among genre fans. Scott immediately retired after seeing it, feeling he would never better it and wanting to go out on a high note. McCrea felt the same way, but was eventually coaxed back for a few more (mostly unworthy) projects. Note that even at this late stage, publicity shots have the female lead in between McCrea and his male costar!

McCrea and Dee, a longstanding couple who always seemed ideal, did hit a rough patch in 1966 and McCrea filed for divorce (as well as custody of their youngest son), but somehow they patched things up and continued on, eventually reconciling beautifully.
In 1970, McCrea agreed to support his son Jody by appearing in the young man's movie Cry Blood, Apache. It's generous to call the amateurish, cheap, vulgar, uncomfortable pile of celluloid a movie because it really is a repugnant, boring mess with but a few redeeming features. McCrea was only present for a few moments, but it's a shame he did even that.

Perhaps not wishing Apache to be his cinematic swan song, McCrea took on one more film role in 1976, that of a kindly ex-rodeo star and rancher who takes a young Indian boy under his wing as he attempts to capture a wild stallion. Mustang Country was a low-budget family film, but one with spectacular mountain scenery and a thoughtful, appealing final performance from its star.

Joel McCrea remained married to his first wife Frances Dee for fifty-seven years until his death in 1990 at age eighty-four of pulmonary disease. They had donated 75 acres of their land to a YMCA in the Conejo Valley of California. Despite his film career of more than 90 movies, many of which are now regarded as excellent examples of their respective genres, he was never once nominated for any major award. He does, however, have a devoted fan following, primarily among western fans who appreciate the stalwart presence he lent to so many pictures over the years.

Dee, who had given up her career entirely from 1954 on, made a surprise return in a short film called Far as the Eye Can See (released in 2006, but shot a couple of years prior.) After McCrea's death, she gave 220 more acres of land to the people of Conejo Valley and today that area is known as Joel McCrea Park. She passed away herself in 2004 of stroke complications at age ninety-four. Jody McCrea, who had turned to ranching himself in the early-'70s, passed away in 2009 at age seventy-four of a heart attack.

We love Joel McCrea for his handsome, appealing looks and his gentle demeanor. He never played a villain of any consequence, but was always the hero who could be counted on. The world misses role models like this. Always disparaging of his own acting talent, no less a star than Katharine Hepburn thought he was brilliant and felt he ought to be counted among the acknowledged greats Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy! Perhaps he made it all look too easy.


NotFelixUnger said...

I am embarrassed to admit, I had him confused with Gordon MacRae!

Though not my type, I do see the appeal of Joel. He's never been on my radar. Still, and this is the reason I love this blog, I've just been schooled in Hollywood movies I never knew existed before as well as movie star trivia. "Ride the High Country" and the "The Most Dangerous Game," are now on my list of movies to watch.

Joel IS quite hunkalicious in several of the pictures presented.

Poseidon3 said...

You're always so generous in your comments, NotFelix. I appreciate it! While my primary purpose is to entertain and maybe occasionally titillate, I do also like to sift through the sands of time and dredge up folks who might not be getting their full due. Of course, I don't KNOW all this stuff myself either a lot of the time. It takes a lot of research before I spew out one of these tributes. So I'm learning, too, not just playing one of the mwah, mwah, mwah teachers from Charlie Brown! LOL I love trivia, so I try to include as many little bits of it as I think I can include without becoming overly bogged down.

Tonight is the opening of the play I'm in (it's sold out tonight!), so my weekend will be packed. It runs three weeks, so all I can say is that I will be posting again as soon as I'm able. ZZzzzzzz :-)

Take care!

joel65913 said...

Ah Poseidon one I have been anxiously anticipating! I know I have stated my big crush on the super dreamy Mr. McCrea before and today was a big dive into Joel mania for me. Thank you!

I have seen many of his films, I'm more fond of his contemporary roles than his westerns although many of those are good too.

I found Bird of Paradise ridiculous but have to say the preposterousness of the plot was greatly relieved by the scantily clad Joel.

I agree about The Silver Cord, I caught it once on TCM, Laura Hope Crews is both great and deeply disturbing.

Even with their height disparity Veronica Lake and he were great together in Sullivan's Travels and she spoke highly of him in her autobiography, quite the read, but the water seems cloudy. He apparently turned down I Married a Witch saying "Life's too short for two films with Veronica Lake!", leaving the part open for Fredric March and a REAL major hatefest between the two of them. Then she and Joel did work on Ramrod together so maybe they made peace or the quote was spurious.

A delightful post so thanks again and break a leg with the play.

NotFelixUnger said...

Break a leg, kid! I wish I could say I'll front row and center.


Narciso Duran said...

Yeah, break a leg! And tomorrow is Sunday. Is there a matinee? If so, project loudly for all the blue-hairs in the audience. They all will have had lunch at a coffee shop or a buffet and will be in a good mood. Knock 'em dead.

I adore Joel McCrea. He stars in one of my favorite 1930s films, "Pony Express" with his wife Frances Dee. One reason I love that film is that Paramount spared no expense and actually recreated an 1860s San Francisco street corner down to the minute detail. Very impressive.

He also stars in my favorite Gold Rush-themed film, Samuel Goldwyn's "Barbary Coast," as a gold-miner with a poet's soul who falls for the dance hall queen Miriam Hopkins.

This is a great film, with a tight, terse screenplay by Hecht and MacArthur. I have posted before that I know my California history, and this one catches the spirit of the times perfectly in simple but broad strokes -- anarchy versus law, the crusading editor, an all-male society. etc. Joel McCrae is devilishly handsome in it.

McCrae had a unique screen personality -- direct, self-effacing, manly without the selfishness. Difficult to put into words.

"Barbary Coast" is easily available on DVD but "Wells Fargo" can only be had in bootleg VHS-to DVD transfer copies that sell on eBay's various rivals.

Narciso Duran said...

...if I was unclear, the film is "Wells Fargo" and it's about the pony express. Uggh, the assault of age...

georgiagarrett said...

Love this tribute to such a good actor and beautiful man. I once read that McCrea got into acting so that he could have sex with a lot of women. Apparently he was pursued by several of his leading ladies, but once he was married, he seemed to be a one woman man.

Sharleen Rayner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharleen Rayner said...

Just a note of correction to a great article. The 1932 movie in which McCrea plays a WWI veteran who becomes a Hollywood stunt flyer with Richard Dix is called The Lost Squadron.

Mrs. R said...

Just found this site, which is excellent.

I love Joel McCrea. And Frances Dee was so beautiful.

Please do a feature on one of my favorites, Tyrone Power.

Mona Leigh said...

I believe he really did make it all look too easy, because it seemed easy for him. I don't remember ever seeing him do anything poorly in all of his movies except for trying to smoke when he didn't smoke and he didn't know how to fake it very well either. I believe he took it up during Sullivan's Travels and there is a photo of him and the gorgeous Veronica Lake sitting on the set and both of them appear to have cigarettes going. Odd that he was never nominated for any major awards though I think a costar got best supporting actor for "The More The Merrier". Good article... Mona Leigh McCrea

Poseidon3 said...

Mona, thanks for reading and taking time to leave a thoughtful comment. Are you a relation of Mr. McCrea's??