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Philadelphia Inquirer (28/Oct/1990) - Joel McCrea: Western Hero and Heartthrob



Joel McCrea: Western Hero and Heartthrob

The athletic, amiable, unpretentious Joel McCrea — the Jeff Bridges of his generation — died Oct. 20 in Los Angeles of pulmonary complications at the age of 84. A veteran of nearly 80 motion pictures, McCrea enjoyed a 50-year career as a screen star. He maintained that acting was a means of supporting his "real career" as a rancher.

If you're thinking that Joel McCrea was the guy who sang "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in Oklahoma!, think again. That was Gordon MacRae.

Joel McCrea, the dazzling, laconic heartbreaker in Bird of Paradise and The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932), was the plain-spoken hero of wartime classics such as Foreign Correspondent (1940), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943).

He was a consummate underplayer who also played down his considerable screen accomplishments. Although he yearned to become a western icon the likes of John Wayne, McCrea achieved something comparable. The guy who branded cattle on his 2,700-acre ranch invented the archetype of the befuddled urban hero — later refined by William Holden and Jack Lemmon.

Born in 1905, McCrea was that Hollywood rarity — a native Angeleno. One of his grandfathers was a stagecoach driver, the other a '49er. McCrea identified with his frontiersman forebears and was much prouder of being elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1958 than he was of any of his Hollywood or financial successes. (McCrea made so many shrewd real estate investments that one columnist called him "Bernard Baruch in Levis.")

As a strapping adolescent of 13, McCrea became the first boy to attend the Hollywood School for Girls. He got to attend the school because the 1918 flu epidemic had closed the Los Angeles public schools. McCrea thus became the first — and enduring — heartthrob of his adoring schoolmates, among whom were daughters of movie magnates Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. De Mille.

While in high school, McCrea toiled in construction work before winning a job as a "wrangler" (an exalted name for horse-groomer) for Hollywood western silents. The bewigged McCrea was also a horseback stunt double for Greta Garbo in The Torrent.

It didn't take Hollywood long to figure out that McCrea's assets weren't being best utilized. Blessed with a striking physique (he was 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds), pale blue eyes, and a clear, uninflected speaking voice, he was made-to-order for the talkies. It didn't hurt that Hollywood divas such as Marion Davies and Constance Bennett demanded the handsome McCrea as a co-star. Bennett won him for the trite Born to Love (1931) and the enchanting Rockabye (1932).

Bennett also proposed marriage, but McCrea demurred. After affairs with many of his co-stars, including Bird of Paradise's Dolores del Rio, McCrea married actress Frances Dee (his co-star in The Silver Cord) in 1933. They were married for 57 years and had three sons.

Unlike Gary Cooper, a male beauty who confidently moved back and forth between sex-symbol and rugged roles, McCrea always looked faintly uncomfortable when his female co-stars made goo-goo eyes at him. But — as most who saw him in movies such as the charming Girls About Town (1931) can tell you — McCrea was such a magnificent specimen of hunkus americanus that goo-goo eyes were the only possible response. Some observers have suggested that McCrea's unease with his own desirability was what kept him from achieving the legendary status of Cooper.

It didn't bother McCrea that most of the pictures that came his way had first been rejected by Cooper or Cary Grant, because McCrea never sought their kind of stardom. He derived pleasure from his family and his ranch.

McCrea's straight-arrow personality made fans of directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens and William Wyler, all of whom recognized his rare generosity as a star who allowed his co-stars to shine. He was solid support to Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in Wyler's These Three (1936), a laundered version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. He was excellent as the reporter who uncovers a spy ring in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. Even better was Stevens' The More the Merrier, where McCrea romanced roommate Jean Arthur.

Best was McCrea's work for writer-director Preston Sturges, who successfully transformed the hunk into Everyman. McCrea's outstanding work comes in Sturges' classic Sullivan's Travels as a movie director who mistakenly thinks making audiences cry is more important than making them laugh. The pair worked successfully in The Palm Beach Story (1942), a high-velocity slapstick about an unsuccessful inventor (McCrea) whose wife (Claudette Colbert) decides to leave him and land a millionaire. In McCrea's final movie with Sturges, The Great Moment (1944), the actor is the Boston dentist who first used ether. In McCrea, Sturges found his alter ego. In Sturges, McCrea found a director who plumbed both his comic and dramatic depths.

McCrea's career blossomed in wartime because he was one of the few leading men who did not enlist. Although he was offered the starring role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), the conservative McCrea refused. He was embarrassed for his sons to see him playing the moral equivalent of a gigolo. The films he chose to make — morally upright westerns such as The Virginian (1946) and The Oklahoman (1957) — did not exploit the actor's talent for expressing conflict.

His last important film, Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), permitted McCrea to play an exemplary gunfighter who protects the innocent Mariette Hartley and who makes as graceful an exit as any cowboy ever has.

McCrea's role in Ride the High Country is the way he would want to be remembered, as the epitome of frontier morality. Hopefully, he won't mind if, instead, we remember him as the embodiment of urban skepticism — and a dish.