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When people think of the great Western stars of Hollywood, the names John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, even Roy Rogers come to mind. But one of the unquestioned top stars in the genre for many years was Joel McCrea. A man who seemed equally at home in a dinner jacket or cutting up in a witty Preston Sturges comedy, McCrea's life ambition was always, if not to be a cowboy, then to play one.
Like many native Southern Californians of his generation (born in 1905), McCrea more or less drifted into movies, starting in silents with stunts and bits. His easy-going charm and clean-cut good looks soon earned him a reputation as an All-American type, and he became a popular leading man of the 1930s. But he had grown up around real cowboys, the last of their breed, and these were the men he admired most. He had a hard time convincing producers to cast him as an action hero on horseback, but he finally got his break with Wells Fargo (1937). He landed the occasional Western role over the next decade. But beginning in 1946, with enough clout by that time to call the shots in his career, he went exclusively into Westerns, making 11 in seven years and only breaking his run with one urban crime thriller (albeit with a very Western name), Rough Shoot (1953). After that, he went West again and never looked back, working exclusively in the genre for the remainder of his career - 17 more films in all.
Perhaps today McCrea's name isn't completely synonymous with Westerns not only because of his acclaimed work in such comedies as Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The More the Merrier (1943), but because he never played in a classic of the John Ford caliber. His films of the 1950s are generally considered of the "B" movie variety, yet they made money and many of them still hold up well today. He played such true-life legends of the Old West as Sam Houston, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson. He was in the fourth of five versions of The Virginian (1946), a classic that starred Gary Cooper (to whom McCrea is often compared) in 1929 and was made into a popular TV series in the 1960s. And in his last major role he shared the screen with Randolph Scott (another handsome leading man of the 30s who went West later in his career) in what many consider a minor masterpiece of the genre, Ride the High Country (1962), the movie that launched Sam Peckinpah's film directing career.
The Outriders was made right in the middle of McCrea's first long run of Westerns, and it was a critical and commercial hit. Along with Barry Sullivan and James Whitmore, McCrea is a Confederate soldier who escapes from his Union Army captors and becomes involved in a million-dollar gold robbery. But his essential decency, and the love of a beautiful young widow (Arlene Dahl), turns him to the side of right. The simple story, scripted by Irving Ravetch, who later wrote the Paul Newman Westerns Hud (1963) and Hombre (1967), is enlivened by beautiful color photography (shot on location in Utah), tense action, and special effects that, Variety noted in 1950, give it "a scope beyond its actual cost." Outstanding among these is the scene where the men cross the roaring waters of a river at high flood; Variety praised this sequence as "one of the best of its kind ever done on film." The movie also starred silent screen idol Ramon Novarro (the original Ben-Hur, 1925) in one of his last roles before retiring.
McCrea's love of horse and saddle wasn't confined to the screen alone. He invested wisely in real estate and livestock, and listed his occupation as "rancher" on his tax returns, claiming movie acting was more of a hobby. Joel McCrea was conducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1969.
Producer: Richard Goldstone
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Irving Ravetch
Cinematography: Charles Edgar Schoenbaum
Film Editing: Robert J. Kern
Art Direction: Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Andre Previn
Cast: Joel McCrea (Will Owens), Arlene Dahl (Jen Gort), Barry Sullivan (Jesse Wallace), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Roy Gort), James Whitmore (Clint Priest), Ramon Novarro (Don Antonio Chaves).
C-94m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon