Born in South Pasadena, CA in 1905, Joel McCrea is not a legendary name amongst today’s general populace despite having made in excess of 100 movies that include many classics equaling those of such Hollywood contemporaries as Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable. It may be that McCrea’s decision to concentrate almost exclusively on westerns in the fifties (24 films) and early 60s negatively affected his legacy. He’d demonstrated a comic as well as dramatic flair in the 30s and 40s, working with such master directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, George Stevens, William Wyler, and Cecil B. DeMille.
As David Shipman wrote in The Great Stars: The Golden Years, “Joel McCrea was one of the leading Leading Men of the 30s, a tall, good-looking, reliable actor without any great pretension. Physically, he was not unlike Gary Cooper…” He had no illusions and told the Evening Standard he never attempted acting: “A placid sort of fellow, that’s me…” Shipman added that, “McCrea didn’t reach the heights because he didn’t really want to.”
McCrea’s best movies include:
The Most Dangerous Game (1932). You would not be wrong to discern jungle sets that were used again in 1933’s King Kong. In Most, McCrea’s Bob Rainsford survives a South Seas Island shipwreck and becomes the guest of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who hunts the most dangerous game, aka man. As a big game hunter, Rainsford provides Zaroff with a special prey, and Fay Wray, about to achieve cinema immortality in Kong, was the appropriately named and lovely Eve, to become Zaroff’s prize—if he succeeds in his nefarious activity.
Despite a restrictive Production Code that wouldn’t be implemented until 1934, Bird of Paradise (1932) was notorious for McCrea’s nude underwater swim scene with the equally unclothed and aptly named Luana (Dolores Del Rio).
In 1933 McCrea married a Hollywood leading lady of repute: Frances Dee. Her films include Little Women, Souls at Sea, If I Were King, and I Walked with a Zombie. McCrea and Dee were married until his death in 1990.
These Three (1936) was based on a Lillian Hellman play but skirted the issue of lesbianism in its account of a student (Bonita Granville) falsely accusing two of her teachers (Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon) of indiscretion. The object of their desire: Joel McCrea’s physician.
Dead End (1937) top-billed Sylvia Sidney and McCrea in one of the decade’s socially conscious gangster movies. This is the film that introduced the “Dead End Kids” to the cinema and became a major stepping stone to stardom for Humphrey Bogart as “Baby Face” Martin, a criminal. McCrea was the ostensible hero, an out-of-work architect and youthful chum of Martin who needed to make a terrible decision regarding his one-time friend.
Union Pacific (1939) was one of director Cecil B. DeMille’s better epics. McCrea played a troubleshooter for the famous railroad entrepreneurs, their dream of connecting the country by rail hurtling to its denouement after the end of the Civil War. Major star Barbara Stanwyck played mail coach mistress Molly. With whom would she align herself, McCrea or likable but morally weak Dick Allen (Robert Preston)? Great character actors abounded, including future leading man and Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn, Lynne Overman, Akim Tamiroff, Stanley Ridges, and Brian Donlevy (Academy Award Supporting Actor nominee the same year for portraying the menacing Sergeant Markov in Beau Geste, also with Robert Preston).
In 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, director Alfred Hitchcock used his cinematic expertise to entertain while simultaneously warning the western democracies about the coming storm. World War II had begun in 1939 and a full-scale attack by Germany on France and England would take place only days after Foreign Correspondent opened. As one might expect from a Hitchcock film, there are numerous tense set-episodes, perhaps the most suspenseful the scene in which McCrea’s American journalist Huntley Haverstock/Johnny Jones’ trenchcoat is caught in a windmill’s gears, threatening to injure or kill him or at the very least alert the spies to his presence. Gary Cooper was the original choice to play Jones and apparently rued his decision not to take it. Lesley Coffin wrote, “But one quality McCrea did have that became signature to him was a sincerity and trust with his audiences.” The movie “benefits from having an anchor like McCrea who is completely trustworthy, as the audience is left to question the loyalties of so many surrounding him.” After surviving a plane crash into the sea, Johnny radios to the still free world an ominous warning: “It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come as if the lights were all out everywhere except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel. Ring them with guns. Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America! Hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights left in the world!”
Sullivan’s Travels (1941) was the first of McCrea’s collaborations with comedic genius and director Preston Sturges. In this one, film director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) masquerades as a hobo to get the real dope on the downtrodden of the Depression years. He teams up with “The Girl” (Veronica Lake) and endures a number of misadventures before returning to his milieu with the goal of again making comedies to soothe people. Sullivan’s Travels was one of the first films to be placed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
The Palm Beach Story (1942) featured McCrea and Claudette Colbert as husband and wife in this Sturges screwball comedy with a surprise ending. It is reckoned another jewel in Sturges’ crown—and certainly in McCrea’s.
The More the Merrier (1943) was a delightful comedy from director George Stevens. McCrea was Sergeant Joe Carter, desperate to find housing in Washington, DC during World War II while waiting for orders to ship out. Endearingly curmudgeonly Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn, Supporting Actor Oscar-winner) sublets his so-called apartment to Carter without telling landlady Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), who is aghast but has spent Dingle’s rent money and can’t oust him or Carter. This suits Dingle fine; he’s playing matchmaker for the twosome.
Ramrod (1947) was considered by Brian Garfield “a little classic” that had “hardly dated at all.” The title character Dave Nash (McCrea) tries to ameliorate the feud between Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake) and her father (Charlie Ruggles). Surprisingly, matters are not wrapped up smoothly.
Four Faces West (1948) presented a pseudo-Pat Garret/Billy the Kid scenario with Charles Bickford’s Garrett tracking bank robber Ross McEwen (McCrea). McEwen’s decision to risk his life helping a sick Mexican-American family convinces Garrett to vouch for him at the upcoming trial. Brian Garfield found “Stretches of lyrical beauty” in the film. “It’s a splendid example of what a low-budget Western can be: its excellence is such that it can make you feel as if you have never seen a Western before.”
Colorado Territory (1949) was the western version of High Sierra (1941), the film that helped turn Humphrey Bogart into a leading man. Here Wes McQueen (McCrea) plans a final robbery but it goes awry. Wounded and in hiding, he agrees to marry the female member of the gang, Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), but cornered in the ruins of ancient cliff dwellers, both meet their dismal fate. The most enjoyable scene is a gun-toting Mayo, blazing away at the posse.
Wichita (1955) allowed McCrea his take on the Wyatt Earp legend as he comes to Kansas and is appointed marshal. Instituting a no guns in town policy works temporarily but when the wife of one of the town’s fathers is killed, Wyatt buckles on his sidearm and tames the essentially uncivilized cattlemen. Director Jacques Tourneur might deserve the back-handed compliment also given another director, Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People, The Flame and the Arrow, Executive Suite, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain), i.e., a chameleon who could not be labeled an auteur. But like Wise, Tourneur created classics in various genres, including I Walked with a Zombie with McCrea’s wife, Canyon Passage, Out of the Past, and Curse of the Demon.
In Fort Massacre (1958) McCrea played against type a psychologically-disturbed cavalry officer trying to keep his unhorsed troop together. This is a movie containing a variation on the outrageous sentiment, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian, baptized or not!” (Francis McDonald as Old Piute Man). Garfield wrote, “The McCrea character is unusually complicated and it is fascinating to watch the changes in him.”
Ride the High Country (1962) was McCrea’s last significant film and although relegated to the lower half of a double bill, was soon recognized as a classic, even winning the Grand Prix e I’UCC from the Belgian Film Critics Association. McCrea costarred with another actor from Hollywood’s golden age who chose to inhabit characters from the old west during his last working years: Randolph Scott. Ride the High Country was an early feature-length movie from director Sam Peckinpah. Joining forces with Gil Westrum (Scott), ex-marshal Steve Judd (McCrea) is hired to transport gold from a mining site only to have his mission compromised by a half-witted gang of thugs and Elsa (Mariette Hartley), trying to escape an abusive father. On-location filming near Mammoth Lakes, California, judicious gunplay, and a score by George Bassman enhanced the proceedings.
Coffin, Lesley L. Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System. 2014.
Garfield, Brian. Western Films: A Complete Guide. 1982.
Meyer, William R. The Making of the Great Westerns. 1979.
Shipman, David. The Great Stars: The Golden Years. 1970.