I did the best I could without trying too hard
Myself, I regard McCrea (left with his horse Dollar) as one of the truly great Western actors, and I know from various comments left after reviews of his movies that I have written that I am not alone. Not all his Westerns were superb - whose were? Yet there was an extraordinarily high number of outstandingly good ones, and he lifted the mediocre ones just by being in them. You'll never see a bad performance from Joel McCrea, and furthermore you believe him as a Westerner. He looked right, he rode superbly, he could wear the clothes.
The young Joel
Joel Albert McCrea (1905 – 1990) was a local boy, born in Woodland Hills and never living more than fifty miles from Hollywood in his life. His paternal grandfather fought in the campaigns against the Apaches and later established a stagecoach line, and his maternal grandfather came West in a wagon train. That’s a pretty Western heritage. Joel himself always wanted to be a rancher, and only really went into the movies to make enough money to buy land. It was his mentor Will Rogers who advised him to borrow as much as he could to do that. It was a shrewd investment. McCrea said that when he sold off the land late in life, “I made more money than I had in thirty years of making pictures.”
But he went to school with the children of Louis Meyer and Cecil B DeMille, he rode his bike down Sunset Boulevard to watch DW Griffith filming, and he hugely admired William S Hart, whom he would later meet and with whom he would become friends. There are even those who say McCrea’s acting style in Westerns was modeled on Hart’s, though I find that difficult to see, and McCrea himself said, “I never even tried to copy my idol, William S Hart.” McCrea added, “I liked him better than Tom Mix because, although Mix was colorful, Hart was sincere. He thought everything he did on the screen was real, he was great on authenticity and I admired that.” In fact McCrea always tried for authenticity in his own Westerns. Being a working rancher helped.
He called himself a rancher to the IRS, who objected. McCrea rebutted, “Look at these hands. I didn’t get these calluses from acting.” The IRS backed down.
Motion pictures, though, were everyday life to him, rather than some glittering world of make-believe. It was a practical thing he did to enable him to ranch.
He started as a stunt-extra, putting on a dress and wig and riding for Marion Davies and Greta Garbo. It is said that he was considered by Raoul Walsh and Fox for The Big Trail, though he lost out to the young John Wayne. Finally DeMille cast him in the “all-talking picture” Dynamite (a mining drama) at MGM in 1929. As a boy, Joel had delivered newspapers to DeMille and been given a silver dollar by the great man. Later he dated Cecilia DeMille a couple of times.
He kept the silver dollar DeMille gave him
Though he became such a leading figure of Western movies, and in fact devoted the whole of the latter part of his career to them - from 1946 to the end of his career in 1976 only one of his twenty-eight pictures was not a Western - he came late to the genre. Through the early and mid-1930s he appeared, with increasingly high billing, in a series of dramas, thrillers and love-stories. He was handsome but self-effacing and the studios considered him an ideal foil for the leading ladies of the period. By the time of RKO’s Scarlet River (1933) he was well enough known as a Hollywood actor to have a walk-by micropart in a picture about a silver-screen cowboy (Tom Keene) who knows some big stars. The nearest Joel came to acting in a Western himself in this period was his third billing in Samuel Goldwyn’s Barbary Coast, a San Francisco fog-and-waterfront melodrama starring Edward G Robinson and Miriam Hopkins, directed by Howard Hawks.
In Barbary Coast
McCrea said, “Goldwyn was a very strange man in some ways but he loved making movies and he tried for quality. Some actors had trouble with him but he was good to me.” Goldwyn had a famous way of mangling names. “He used to call Errol Flynn ‘Earl Flint’. Me he called Joe McReal. One day one of his executives tried to correct him and he snapped back, ‘Who is it who is paying Joe McReal $3,000 a week, me or you?’”
Even McCrea’s first major star vehicle in our noble genre, Paramount’s Manifest-Destiny epic Wells Fargo in 1937, was really more of a nineteenth-century costume drama/romance than a true Western. It was more Western than anything McCrea had done to date but crinolines and top hats and carriages featured largely and for most of it Joel wasn’t galloping round the West in a Stetson with a Colt .45, as we became used to after the war. It’s a very enjoyable film, though, well directed by Frank Lloyd, and it made McCrea a big Hollywood star. It co-starred Joel’s wife, Frances Dee. They had met and married while working on an RKO picture in ’33. In 1934 son Jody appeared and the following year second son David. Twenty years later, a third, Peter, would arrive. The boys followed in the ranching business, and in the case of Jody tried movies too.
Frances and Joel age, thanks to the make-up dept
Two years after Wells Fargo, after a couple of intervening rom-coms, McCrea was again at Paramount to make another nation-building epic, this time back with his first director, Cecil B DeMille: Union Pacific. Wells Fargo had told of the spanning of the young nation with a stagecoach line; now it was the turn of the railroads. This picture was the first of several Western collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck, whom McCrea came to admire greatly. "She was, with no reservations, the best I ever met. Every crew we ever worked with loved and admired her and so did I. She taught me a lot and I shall be ever grateful to her."
Stanwyck as chirpy Irish colleen
In 1940 came what was perhaps McCrea’s most famous film, Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. Hitch had wanted McCrea’s friend Gary Cooper but Coop turned it down. He later said he regretted it, but he didn’t regret the fact that it boosted Joel’s career. Another Western didn’t come along for McCrea until 1942, and that was only another semi-Western, The Great Man’s Lady, directed by William A Wellman, again with Stanwyck – in a stunning performance. Really, no one at this time would have thought of Joel McCrea as a Western actor at all. He was only in about half The Great Man’s Lady anyway; it was a Stanwyck tour de force.
With Wellman on the set
Playing the great Western heroes
In 1944, however, McCrea got to star as Buffalo Bill, again with Wellman. This was a Western. Harry Sherman produced a whitewash biopic. It was wartime, and Sherman and Wellman felt it was not the moment to start debunking American heroes (Paul Newman would get round to that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War). Though Buffalo Bill was far from a great film, McCrea was simply magnificent as William F Cody. He looks splendid (and very like) and he endows the character with real nobility. McCrea was always a modest man who knew his limits. He turned down parts that were too challenging for what he regarded as his limited acting skills. But as Buffalo Bill he excelled. He said, “Leslie Howard was a marvelous actor but if he had tried to play Buffalo Bill it would have been silly. On the other hand I could play Buffalo Bill fairly easily and I wasn’t anywhere near the actor Leslie was.”
He really looked the part
With Paramount’s remake of The Virginian in 1946 McCrea made the decision henceforth to specialize in Westerns. He said, “I wasn’t instinctively an actor and I had no burning desire to act, but I liked making movies and wanted to do the Western things I had read, like The Virginian … I had enjoyed doing the comedies but as I got older I was better suited to westerns. The minute I got on a horse, with the hat and the boots, I felt easier. I didn’t feel like I was an actor anymore. I felt like the men I was playing.” By taking the roles of Buffalo Bill, the Virginian, Sam Houston, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, McCrea would indeed portray some of the great figures of the ‘Wild West’.
The Virginian was not a great Western. It suffered from poor casting apart from McCrea, and rather wooden direction by Stuart Gilmore. It wasn’t a patch on the 1929 version with Gary Cooper. It’s only real quality was the color. But it started McCrea on the long Western trail which only ended in 1976 with his final film, when he was in his seventies.
He gets Trampas to smile
There were some good Westerns along the way, there were even some great ones, and a few were vin ordinaire, but they were all professionally made, they all brought a good return on investment and McCrea was reliably excellent in every one. He was just right as a Western hero, tall, decent, steady, but getting really tough when the going did. Byron Haskin, director of The First Texan (probably one of the vin ordinaire Westerns if truth be told) said, “I finally ran across the man I consider the greatest pure cinema actor I ever worked with – Joel McCrea. I used to watch scenes on the set and think, Jesus, there wasn’t anything to him – and I’d see him in the rushes the next day and it would knock you off your seat.” People said the same of Gary Cooper. McCrea himself said, “I did the best I could without trying too hard.”
Superb late-40s oaters
Some remember McCrea chiefly for those major A-picture epics he made for Paramount and Fox but for me, some of the very best were the ‘smaller’ Westerns he made in the late 40s. I am thinking especially of Ramrod (1947), Four Faces West (1948) and Colorado Territory (1949). Ramrod had the huge advantage of being a Luke Short story and being directed by the talented André De Toth. It did perhaps suffer from the casting of Mrs. De Toth, the glacial Veronica Lake, as co-star; she was unsuited to the genre. But overall it is a noirish, moody piece of real quality.
Very fine in Ramrod
Four Faces West, a filming of the Eugene Manlove Rhodes novel They Passed This Way, is absolutely charming, a little gem. It’s a rare Western in which no gun is ever fired. Frances Dee co-starred again.
With wife Frances Dee in one of my all-time favorite Westerns, MGM's Four Faces West, 1948
If I didn’t see the opening credits of South of St Louis (1949) I would believe that this beautiful little B-Western was directed by some class act like Jacques Tourneur. Yet it’s good old Ray Enright, workaday helmster of many a routine oater. It’s the visual inventiveness, the little quirky insertions, the surprisingly classy photography, as well as the pace and zip of the movie that make it definitely one of Enright’s very best.
Later that same year McCrea finally did work with Raoul Walsh, on the excellent Colorado Territory, a Warners transcription into the key of Western of Walsh’s own crime/adventure flick High Sierra. It’s superb, and McCrea, in the Bogart part of tough-guy ex-con Wes McQueen, was rarely better. It was an unaccustomedly uncompromising role for McCrea but he carried it off with aplomb. He admired Walsh. "I'd do stuff for him that I wouldn't have done for any other director. He was a gutsy little bastard. And funny."
You could actually argue that these late-40s McCrea Westerns with a noirish tinge were among his best ever work.
The 50s dawn
McCrea made three Westerns in 1950, four if you count Stars in My Crown. He was now fully committed to the genre. The Outriders, back at MGM, was a Civil War story, like South of St Louis. Barry Sullivan is a charismatic bad guy and Jeff Corey a Quantrillesque guerrilla leader. It’s not that special, and certainly not Joel’s best, but it’s a decent Western outing you can enjoy nonetheless. Next came Stars in My Crown, which may be a fine film (Jacques Tourneur directed) but is only a Western in the way that Friendly Persuasion (review coming soon) or The Missouri Traveler are Westerns, more of a bucolic American idyll which happens to be set in the West. Still, McCrea was good in it.
Stars in His Crown
Saddle Tramp was a fairly unremarkable and slightly juvenile picture in Universal’s long series of color B-Westerns but it had undoubted charm. Frenchie, also for Universal, was a paler remake of the studio’s Destry Rides Again, with Joel in the James Stewart part, flirting with comedy, and Shelley Winters taking over from Marlene Dietrich. All in all, Joel’s 1950 Westerns weren’t quite up to those classic late-40s ones. Still, they certainly aren’t bad.
He whittles in Frenchie
Between Stars in My Crown and Saddle Tramp, Joel started NBC’s radio series Tales of the Rangers. It will be simplest if I quote the relevant paragraph from Tony Thomas’s Joel McCrea: A Film History, Riverwood Press, 2013 - which, by the way, I have used extensively for this post and to which I am grateful:
Like all movie stars in the pre-television era, Joel McCrea ‘appeared’ on radio, mostly in audio versions of his movies adapted for the popular Lux Radio Theater, produced and hosted by Cecil B DeMille. The only series in which McCrea starred was Tales of the Texas Rangers, which was aired for the first time on July 8, 1950. The program ran as a weekly half-hour over the next two years. McCrea voiced the role of Ranger Jace Pearson in stories that were claimed to be based on actual case histories. … The modestly successful radio series was mostly written by Joel Murcott, and produced and directed by Stacey Keach, Sr.”
I myself have never heard any of these broadcasts and can’t comment on their quality (or otherwise).
The film bio
Back to movie Westerns – if a bit on the B side
Cattle Drive (1951) was another of the Westerns McCrea did for Universal in the early 50s (after Saddle Tramp and Frenchie). Universal Westerns of this period were hardly big A-pictures but they had high production values, were shot in nice color in handsome Western locations and usually used quality character actors and solid directors and DPs. Cattle Drive is a typical example. It’s a children’s Western in many ways, or rather a boy’s one, with child star Dean Stockwell as the spoilt brat son of a railroad exec gradually learning how to be a decent man when tutored by Westerner McCrea. It was a common theme, and McCrea would do several Westerns mentoring young boys, right up to his last one, Mustang Country. They were wholesome and family-friendly, which suited McCrea, though to modern tastes they are a bit saccharine.
He often had a boy to co-star
The San Francisco Story (Warner Bros, 1952) had Joel going back to Frisco, as they call it, where he was in his very first Western (or Westernish), Barbary Coast in 1935. It’s an 1856 tale (though of course they all have 1870s Stetsons and Colt Peacemakers) and it does have men being shanghaied and fog and the waterfront, so it’s a real San Francisco story in that way, but most of the plot could have been set anywhere in the West and the action is reminiscent of many a proper Western. It co-starred Yvonne De Carlo.
After a spell in England making the unsuccessful espionage thriller Rough Shoot, his only non-Western between 1946 and the end of his career, Joel was back in the saddle (phew) in The Lone Hand, another Universal oater, with a boy and a dog (Cherokee, playing Cherokee). We are at first asked to believe that Joel is a bad guy, robbing banks and such. The very idea! Of course it turns out he is a Pinkerton man infiltrating the gang to bring them to justice.
Star of the movie Cherokee on the left, with co-stars center and right
Universal’s Border River the following year, directed by good old George Sherman, re-paired McCrea with the less than suited Yvonne De Carlo and was something of a Mexican pot-boiler. It’s another Civil War tale, with Joel as a Confederate officer desperately trying to get guns for the South. A bit ho-hum, honestly. Black Horse Canyon immediately afterwards was another slightly juvenile catching-a-wild-stallion picture, this time helmed by the not-quite-John-Ford-or-Howard-Hawks Jesse Hibbs.
Jacques is back
These Universal oaters were OK but in all honesty not much more, though they were lifted by McCrea in the lead. However, in 1955 serious quality returned when Jacques Tourneur (right) did. Tourneur directed a new brace of pictures with McCrea, Stranger on Horseback and Wichita. McCrea was a great admirer of Tourneur and asked for him when he had the option. Stranger was a Louis L’Amour story about a traveling judge (McCrea) and in fact McCrea recounted a compliment about the film received from L'Amour: "He told me that my playing of his character was exactly what he had in mind when he wrote it. I was very proud to hear that." It’s a fine Western. Wichita was the first of a three-Western contract McCrea signed with producer Walter Mirisch. It had a half-million dollar budget and the enormously experienced Daniel Ullman as writer. It had McCrea almost ideally cast as Wyatt Earp – the Wyatt Earp of legend, naturally – rock-steady and decent, cleaning up a wild cow town. Of course Earp was never marshal of Wichita but who cares? It’s an absolutely classic Western from the golden age of the genre, the mid-50s. McCrea had rarely been better.
A couple of OK ones
The First Texan (1956) and The Oklahoman (1957), the next two Mirisch/McCrea pictures, weren’t quite up to the standard of the Jacques Tourneur ones. The first was a solid but uninspiring biopic of Sam Houston directed by the unremarkable Byron Haskin, with McCrea possibly even miscast, for Houston was an ultra-energetic, at times violent man who was very fond of the bottle and McCrea gave us a steady, decent, restrained Houston.
Joel as Sam
The second, directed by the also less-than-stellar Francis D Lyon, was a tale of a decent doctor (ideal for McCrea), a modest-budget ‘town’ Western, with the emphasis on character and human interest rather than action. They were solid and enjoyable Westerns both, but you wouldn’t say they were among the very best McCrea did.
Later in ’57, however, came a non-Mirisch Western (it was produced by Sol Baer Fielding, his only oater), the very fine Trooper Hook, again with Stanwyck - the last time they worked together. It is a low-budget 81-minute black & white picture released in the year of major commercial color Westerns such as Paramount's Gunfight at the OK Corral and Fox's The True Story of Jesse James, and it was in many ways completely overshadowed. Most of the potential viewers probably stayed at home to watch Gunsmoke on TV. But ’57 was also the year of Columbia's really fine black & white 3:10 to Yuma, and Trooper Hook can justly be compared with that outstanding Delmer Daves picture. McCrea as magnificent as the tough sergeant and Stanwyck was superb as the white woman rescued from the Indians (it has a sort of The Searchers/Two Rode Together plot). I myself put Trooper Hook very high in the canon of McCrea Westerns (though not everyone does).
Very good indeed
Gunsight Ridge, which followed it, was also directed by Lyon. It was a black & white B-Western, really, and in some ways routine but it has good dialogue (by Talbot Jennings) and some nice Old Tucson locations. Joel was ever so slightly anno domini to be playing an Irish lothario and some of the plot is on the improbable side. Perfectly watchable, though.
Three more with Mirisch
In late ’57 McCrea signed up for another three Westerns with Walter Mirisch (left) and the first fruit of this new batch was The Tall Stranger. An absolutely classic, straight-down-the-line 1950s Western, The Tall Stranger has McCrea at the very top of his game as the lead and some top-notch character actors in other parts, notably Virginia Mayo (returning with McCrea after Colorado Territory) Leo Gordon, Ray Teal and Michael Pate. It’s another Louis L’Amour story.
The second Mirisch picture was Fort Massacre and the third was The Gunfight at Dodge City. But first McCrea made a picture back at Fox, Cattle Empire. It was directed, as Trooper Hook had been, by Charles Marquis Warren, an enormously experienced writer and director. In Cattle Empire McCrea acts against type and is harder than his usual quiet, decent but brave persona. He’s almost a SOB in fact, though he turns out, phew, to have been a goody all along. Cattle Empire is no Red River but it’s an enjoyable cattle-drive Western which more than holds its own with the others of the genre.
In Cattle Empire he was tougher than usual
In Fort Massacre, perhaps director Joseph M Newman’s best Western (this or The Gunfight at Dodge City), McCrea took the tough-guy character a step further. Visually splendid, with Carl E Guthrie cinematography in CinemaScope of stunning New Mexico locations, it is also a gritty and intense drama with McCrea as an Indian-hating sergeant who finds himself the ranking officer after an attack and in command. He is racked by doubt as to his worthiness and ability to bring the men to safety but does the very best he can despite an unruly, insubordinate and whining crew.
Tougher than ever
In The Gunfight at Dodge City, which McCrea, now 54, had decided would be his last feature, Joel was back as a tough but decent marshal cleaning up the town, as he had in Wichita. This time he was Bat Masterson, bringing law ‘n’ order to Dodge. It was equally absurd historically but it was equally classic as a Western movie, written once again by Daniel Ullman. It’s a super picture with Joel McCrea on top form.
Joel as Bat
That was to have been that. McCrea’s friend Randolph Scott, seven years older than Joel, made the same decision, after wrapping Comanche Station (shot contemporaneously with Gunfight). Both stars felt they were now too long in the tooth.
McCrea did, however, consent to Mirisch’s request to star in a TV series. By the late 50s these shows were all the rage (see my series of three posts on the subject here, here and here) and some, like Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, which premièred within four days of each other in 1955 and were by now dominating the airwaves, were immensely popular all over the US – in fact all over the world. Mirisch and McCrea cooked up a series that would in a way be a spin-off of their ’55 picture Wichita, and they named it Wichita Town. It would go out on NBC, as a weekly half-hour show, with Joel as Marshal Mike Dunbar and son Jody as his deputy Ben Matheson.
Joel and Jody
Marshal Mike Dunbar
So, that really was that.
Or was it?
Two great cowboys ride the high country
In 1961 McCrea received a call from Randolph Scott saying that he had a script, Guns in the Afternoon by NB Stone (writer of Man With the Gun) about a couple of old Westerners, dinosaurs really, down on their luck and hard up for a buck. Two of the richest and shrewdest actors in Hollywood thought that might be amusing to do and both greatly admired the writing.
Two penniless drifters…
The two vets set up a meeting with Sam Peckinpah and out of it came one of the finest Westerns in the whole history of the genre, Ride the High Country. At first McCrea was slated to play the charming-rogue Gil Westrum and Scott the flintier and stern Steve Judd, but by mutual consent they changed roles. They tossed a coin in a restaurant for top billing, and Scott won, though actually the posters had their names side by side. It is difficult to decide whose performance is finer in Ride the High Country but it is fair to say that it was a draw and both players were entirely magnificent. Neither had ever been better.
The last picture show
For Randy that was the end. McCrea didn’t rule out another picture but “The things that had been submitted to me,” he said, “were not very interesting or exciting, and most of them were on the degrading level, which I didn’t ever want to do because I had kind of established an image, such as it was. I saw no reason to become an anti-hero.”
In 1970, however, Joel’s son Jody co-produced and starred in a Western, Cry Blood, Apache, and well, you have to support the family business. Joel ‘bracketed’ the action by portraying his son as an old man, at the beginning and at the end, reminiscing in flashback on the events of the film. In the film bio mentioned above Tony Thomas says, "With a muddled plot and a cast of unsympathetic characters, Cry Blood, Apache failed to win many bookings and soon drifted into film oblivion, taking with it Jody McCrea's last major stab at a film career."
Four years later Joel McCrea agreed to do the voiceover narration for Kieth [sic] Merrill’s Academy Award-winning rodeo documentary The Great American Cowboy.
Lastly, in 1975, McCrea read another script, which harked back to the old-cowboy-mentoring-young-boy theme he had made his own. He liked Canadian John Champion’s project (Champion produced, wrote and directed Mustang Country). Universal would back it and it would be shot in Technicolor up in the beautiful Banff National Park in Alberta. He said yes. The cast was small, the story simple and the picture frankly unremarkable. The catching-a-wild-horse plot has been done often before (including by McCrea in Black Horse Canyon).
He rides the high country for the last time
The film is very pretty, and there are echoes of Disney and National Geographic with a multitude of critters making appearances. The cinematographer was J Barry Herron, who had in fact done some National Geographic documentaries, including one on America’s national parks. But the picture flopped and McCrea decided never to do another.
So long, Joel
Joel McCrea was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers in Oklahoma City. He said, “I guess I’m like some of the western characters I played, the image of The Virginian, something like that. I tried to be believable and authentic. That’s where I had something to offer. I stayed within my scope more out of common sense than humility. Preston Sturges once told me that you had no right to drag people into a theater and bore them. I tried not to be boring.”
Joel McCrea died on October 20, 1990, the day of the 57th anniversary of his wedding to Frances Dee, aged 84.