Thursday, July 23, 2015

Joel McCrea

For a long time, I underestimated Joel McCrea. I never disliked him, but I never saw him as anyone particularly special, at least not compared to more dynamic actors like Jack Lemmon or William Holden or Burt Lancaster. McCrea always struck me as kinda vanilla by comparison.

At first, there were his films with writer-director Preston Sturges, Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story. At the time I watched them, I remember knowing more about Sturges than McCrea, so it's possible that I was more caught up with the dialogue than with the actors in those movies. 

This would've been during my early video store days, when I was still learning about major directors and actors. Someone like McCrea would've gone under my radar, except I distinctly remember one day when Bill, my manager, put on These Three. McCrea's name is under the title, after the names of the stars Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, and when I saw that, I thought perhaps his name was pronounced mac-CREE, so that it would rhyme with "three." 

When I started film blogging, I'd see other bloggers write about him in more appreciative tones. but while I saw some more of his movies, I never went out of my way to pay attention to him. To me, he remained an actor who was good, serviceable, sturdy, but not someone I could get excited about.

I wouldn't call Ride the High Country an epiphany of any kind, but that was a movie where McCrea surpassed being merely "good" for me. As an older man, especially in a Western setting that was a little bit edgier than earlier Old Hollywood westerns, he had a more authoritative, distinguished air that suited him well, I think. Of course, by the time I saw that, my tastes had evolved to where I could appreciate different kinds of actors. 

Would I put McCrea in my all-time top ten for leading men? No - so why am I writing about him? Because I realize now that he is better than I used to give him credit for. Also, I'm just enough interested in him to want to know a little more about him - and what I've learned is quite interesting indeed.

For instance, did you know McCrea owned a ranch? He wasn't just a movie cowboy, he was one in real life, too! It was built on what eventually became 3000 acres of land in Santa Rosa Valley, California, back in the 30s at the suggestion of none other than Will Rogers, whom McCrea befriended early in his career, as a fallback in case Hollywood didn't work out. He lived there with his longtime wife (57 years!) Frances Dee, and raised their children there. From the photos, it looks beautiful, like something out of one of his many westerns.

McCrea had a TV show - a Western, natch, called Wichita Town (not to be confused with a movie he made called Wichita), which he starred in with his real life son Jody. It was a post-Civil War series about a US Marshall in a growing town. It only lasted one season on NBC. Jody alternated much more between film and television. Perhaps you saw him in such films as Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and The Glory Stompers?

So I think what we've learned here is that sometimes - not always, but sometimes -there's more to an actor than meets the eye.

Next: Thelma Ritter

Films with Joel McCrea:
Banjo On My Knee
Sullivan's Travels
Ride the High Country

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head

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