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At the time of his death in 1990 at the age of 84, Joel McCrea was so widely associated with western films that it would have surprised many of his mourners to learn he had not gotten started in the genre until he was in his forties. Born in South Pasadena, California, in 1905 and a resident of Hollywood by 1914, a teenaged McCrea had delivered newspapers to make pocket money while attending Hollywood High School and one of his clients was film director Cecil B. DeMille. While studying ranching at nearby Pomona College, McCrea indulged in drama classes and was spotted by talent scouts who pushed him towards studio work; the future embodiment of frontier machismo got his start in the industry at MGM as a horse riding double - for Greta Garbo! Bits in forgettable films followed until McCrea was given a sizeable role in DeMille's Dynamite (1929). More comfortable on screen in denim and chambray than a collar and spats, McCrea was eager to break into western films. He narrowly lost out on the lead in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930), which went instead to John Wayne.
After playing a World War I aviator in The Lost Squadron (1932) and a decisive man of action in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), McCrea had proved himself worthy of films set out of doors. Wells Fargo (1937) remains a significant title in his resume for marking his debut in westerns and also his first time acting opposite Frances Dee, whom he had married in 1933. Budgeted at $1,500,000, the film's working title was An Empire Is Born, and had been intended by Paramount as a vehicle for Fred MacMurray, Frances Farmer, and Randolph Scott (who had been a lowly extra in DeMille's Dynamite). When production got underway in mid-July of 1937 with McCrea (on loan from the Samuel Goldwyn Company) and Dee cast in the lead roles, Paramount boasted that its recreation of San Francisco's legendary Portsmouth Square was the largest set ever created on location, occupying seven acres and comprising thirty-two buildings. Location shooting spread to Napa Valley, Columbia, Chico, Angel's Camp, and Sonora, before cast and crew returned to Paramount for interior shooting on August 24, 1937.
Wells Fargo marked an early screen appearance by actor Robert Cummings, then a Paramount contract player who had only been in Hollywood for two years. A graduate of New York's American Academy of Arts, Cummings had faked a British accent to win a job on Broadway and came to Hollywood sporting a western twang. No small wonder Cummings wound up in a frontier tale, though his forte in the coming years was in light comedy. Alfred Hitchcock put the actor to the action hero test by casting him in Saboteur (1942), after which Cummings went to war as a flight instructor with the Army Air Corps. Also seen in supporting roles in Wells Fargo are former cowboy star Johnny Mack Brown, reliable character player Lloyd Nolan, Ralph Morgan, Porter Hall, Frank Conroy, Henry Brandon, Republic western actress Peggy Stewart (in her film debut) and child actor Scotty Beckett.
Wells Fargo had its world premiere on December 30, 1937, in San Francisco. The film's original run time of 115 minutes was cut down to 97 minutes for general release. Reviews inclined toward the favorable, with qualifications; writing in The New York Times, critic Frank Nugent found Wells Fargo "admirably done" but chastised the filmmakers for their attempt "to crowd too much onto its canvas." Promotional materials heralded Frank Lloyd's Wells Fargo, likely in deference to Lloyd's Oscar® nomination for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Not well remembered fifty years after his death, the Glasgow-born Lloyd had been a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and had served as Academy President between 1934 and 1935. His Cavalcade (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty had both won Best Picture Oscars® but the best Wells Fargo could do was a nomination for Best Sound, for which it lost to John Ford's The Hurricane (1937). As for Joel McCrea, he had nearly a decade more of suit-and-tie roles ahead of him (notably, in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) and several films for Preston Sturges) before switching over to westerns exclusively with the success of The Virginian (1946).
Producer: Frank Lloyd
Executive Producer: William LeBaron
Director: Frank Lloyd
Screenplay: Paul Schofield, Gerald Geraghty, Frederick J. Jackson, Stuart N. Lake
Music: Victor Young
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Editor: Hugh Bennett
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, John B. Goodman
Cast: Joel McCrea (Ramsay MacKay), Bob Burns (Hank York), Frances Dee (Justine Pryor), Lloyd Nolan (Dal Slade), Henry O'Neill (Henry Wells), Mary Nash (Mrs. Pryor), Ralph Morgan (Nicholas Pryor), Scotty Beckett (Young Nicholas Pryor), Johnny Mack Brown (Talbot Carter), Jack Clark (William Fargo), Robert Cummings (Dan Trimball), Frank Conroy (Ward), Peggy Stewart (Alice MacKay), Henry Brandon (Larry), Frank McGlynn (Abraham Lincoln).
by Richard Harland Smith
Joel McCrea: Riding the High Country by Tony Thomas (Riverwood Press, 1991)
Last of the Cowboy Heroes: Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy by Robert Nott (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000)