Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2005/ 11Tishrei, 5766

Greg Crosby

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Joel McCrea | Among the classic "everyman" movie stars, the names Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper most often come to mind, but Joel McCrea certainly fits that image every bit as much. Joel McCrea never got the same level of attention nor the accolades that Stewart or Cooper enjoyed but he's always been one of my favorites, and now at last, his film work is being recognized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a three-week tribute honoring the actor.

"A Centenary Tribute to Joel McCrea" opened this past Friday with a couple of his early films, "Girls About Town" and "The Common Law" both from 1931. The retrospective will continue each week-end through November 5th and will contain some of his best pictures including two classic Preston Sturges comedies, "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Palm Beach Story."

Always a bit self-effacing, McCrea once said, "No one writes a script for me, they write a script for Gary Cooper and if they can't get him, they use me." There was probably a lot of truth to that, but it didn't work out that way with 1941's "Sullivan's Travels," which was written specifically for McCrea by Struges. The picture was a perfect fit for McCrea and his teaming with Veronica Lake was wonderful.

"The Palm Beach Story" is a 1942 romantic comedy co-staring Claudette Colbert in pure Struges screwball madness which is just as hilarious today as it must have been 63 years ago. As always in a Preston Sturges film, the cast includes a gang of terrific character actors like William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn.

Other films in the series include "Ramrod," a 1947 western re-teaming McCrea with Veronica Lake; Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 thriller, "Foreign Correspondent;" William Wyler's "These Three," based on Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour;" "Primrose Path" co-starring Ginger Rogers; "Stars in My Crown;" "Colorado Territory;" George Stevens' "The More the Merrier" co-starring Jean Arthur; "Gambling Lady;" "Ride the High Country" with Randolph Scott; and "Stranger on Horseback."

In casting "Foreign Correspondent" Alfred Hitchcock indeed originally tried to get Gary Cooper first and when he couldn't, he had to "settle" for Joel McCrea. Hitchcock always attempted to cast "A" actors in his films, realizing that having the big stars would elevate the prestige of his pictures — but he very often simply could not get the biggest fish, either for budget reasons or because of the stigma many top stars attached to appearing in a "thriller" type picture.

For my money, Joel McCrea was excellent in the Hitchcock film (a movie, by the way, that is greatly underrated today). Of course we'll never know, but I think that McCrea is even better in the part than Gary Cooper would have been. The only other actor of that period who might have worked as well in the role of the all American reporter would have been Jimmy Stewart, but there certainly was nothing wrong with McCrea's performance in that part — he was great.

Born in South Pasadena on November 5, 1905 of Scottish-Irish decent, Joel McCrea was the grandson of a Western stagecoach driver who fought Apaches. He raised and maintained his own horses at an early age and continued doing so throughout his life. No wonder then, that the bulk of his movies, indeed virtually all of the pictures he made after about 1946, were westerns. But throughout the thirties and forties Joel McCrea fit comfortably in sophisticated comedy, drama, and romantic parts as well as Cooper or anyone else of that time.

Ever heard the expression, "hold your horses"? Well, that's how McCrea got into pictures. He got his start holding horses for William S. Hart and Tom Mix, silent movie cowboy heroes of his, then went on to wrangling, extra, and stunt work in 1922. By 1929 he graduated into featured roles and into leading parts the next year. He was a tall, handsome leading man who projected a gentle wholesome honesty on screen, not unlike Jimmy Stewart. Joel McCrea was an extremely likable actor.

An avid outdoorsman who believed in the work ethic and virtually never smoked or drank, he invested well in livestock and real estate and eventually became one of Southern California's wealthiest ranchers. Joel McCrea married actress Francis Dee in 1933, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1990. Even as senior citizens, the two of them maintained their movie star good looks.

A vastly underappreciated actor throughout most of his career, primarily I believe, because he made it all look so easy, thank goodness we have Joel McCrea's pictures to enjoy again and rediscover the talent that this gentle "everyman" brought to the screen.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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