Joel McCrea movies: LACMA’s ‘Centenary Tribute’ to Old Hollywood star
Joel McCrea, the star of numerous light comedies, melodramas, and Westerns from the early the 1930s to the early 1960s, will be honored with a “Centenary Tribute” by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (website). Between Oct. 14–Nov. 5, LACMA will screen fourteen movies as its “Centenary Tribute to Joel McCrea.” (Image: Joel McCrea in the early ’40s.)
Born in the Los Angeles suburb of South Pasadena in 1905, Joel McCrea began his film career as an extra in the late 1920s. (He can be spotted in a crowd scene in the 1927 Marion Davies silent comedy The Fair Co-Ed.) In a mere couple of years, McCrea was playing leading roles in movies of various genres, mostly at RKO.
Those ranged from Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel’s thriller The Most Dangerous Game (1932), with McCrea opposite Fay Wray and mad hunter Leslie Banks, to several risqué melodramas starring Constance Bennett – one of which, the now-forgotten Paul L. Stein’s The Common Law, will be screened in the LACMA series.
Joel McCrea: Top leading ladies and directors
In the late ’30s, Joel McCrea came into his own as a “movie star” (though never quite a “movie superstar”), a position he was to hold until the late ’40s. During that period, McCrea played opposite some of the biggest female luminaries of the era, among them Jean Arthur (The More the Merrier), Sylvia Sidney (Dead End), Ginger Rogers (Primrose Path), Barbara Stanwyck (Union Pacific and The Great Man’s Lady), Loretta Young (Three Blind Mice), Claudette Colbert (The Palm Beach Story), Veronica Lake (Sullivan’s Travels, Ramrod), and Maureen O’Hara and Linda Darnell (Buffalo Bill).
Additionally, McCrea worked for top-rank directors such as Cecil B. DeMille (Union Pacific), Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Moment), William Wyler (These Three, Dead End), George Stevens (The More the Merrier), Howard Hawks (Barbary Coast) and Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent) – in addition to Come and Get It, credited to both Wyler and Hawks.
Beginning in the late ’40s, McCrea opted to appear almost invariably in Westerns, which, as the years progressed, became increasingly lower-budget. One exception was the very last of the batch, Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Ride the High Country (1962), which paired McCrea with another Western veteran, Randolph Scott. Ride the High Country will also be screened at LACMA, along with Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory (1949) and Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback (1950).
Joel McCrea at LACMA
Among the most interesting Joel McCrea movies to be presented at the LACMA retrospective are the following:
- Girls About Town (1932), a rarely screened pre-Code comedy co-written by silent film comedian Raymond Griffith, directed by George Cukor, and starring Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman in the title roles.
- These Three (1936), a bowdlerized but still effective adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play about the nasty power of a lie, with Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon, and Miriam Hopkins forming an ill-fated love triangle (minus the lesbianism). Plus Bonita Granville as proof positive that at least some children shall not inherit the kingdom of even the most lenient of gods.
- The Palm Beach Story (1942), in which McCrea and Claudette Colbert get entangled with Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor.
- Foreign Correspondent (1940), a fast-paced and still effective cry against dictatorial regimes – in this particular case, Nazism and Fascism. Laraine Day and Herbert Marshall co-star.
- Ride the High Country (1962), McCrea’s fitting swan song – if one ignores two minor comebacks in the ’70s.
From 1933 until his death, at the age of 84 in October 1990, Joel McCrea was married to Frances Dee, with whom he co-starred in the highly successful 1937 Western Wells Fargo.
“People say I’m a one-note actor,” the highly underrated Joel McCrea once said, “but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”