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Joel McCrea was born to be a Hollywood star. The Pasadena native remembered riding his bike down Sunset Boulevard to watch D. W. Griffith preside over the towering set of Intolerance (1916), shared classes with Harlean Carpenter (later Jean Harlow) at Hollywood High School, and had Cecil B. De Mille's house as a stop on his paperboy route. Daughters of industry folks, like Irene Mayer Selznick and Cecilia De Mille, confessed to teenage crushes on the tall, tan, adorable boy they'd see around the neighborhood and the beach. Being 6' 3" and devastatingly handsome was enough to make a guy stand out, even in Hollywood, but in an industry populated with fragile egos and moody creative types, McCrea's most remarkable feature was his sunny personality. It's that charming good cheer that shines through in Gambling Lady (1934), his first feature with recurring leading lady Barbara Stanwyck.
McCrea's first ambition was to be a rancher, but a drama instructor at Pomona College insisted that his height, looks, and industry connections meant opportunity. Work now as an actor, the teacher told him, and you'll earn enough to own your own ranch later. Sure enough, he found work quickly, and new friends too: When his part as an extra was cut from a Marion Davies movie, she invited him to San Simeon, where her usually protective boyfriend William Randolph Hearst quickly dubbed McCrea the "All-American Boy." McCrea didn't stay an extra for long, and soon landed leads in films like The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Gambling Lady.
Directed by Archie Mayo, Gambling Lady was, by Pre-Code standards, a tame romp into the zone where gambling syndicates and high society intersect. When an honest card sharp commits suicide rather than go crooked, his daughter Lady Lee (Stanwyck) steps into his place, winning great sums for herself (and her bosses) while keeping the game fair and square. But when handsome high society swain Garry (McCrea, looking about as good in a tuxedo as is humanly possible) steps into a game, she's smitten - not realizing that their ill-matched pairing between high and low society might be a sucker bet.
Stanwyck didn't think much of Mayo, "a rude, fat man" prone to pinching actresses' bottoms (she grabbed his arm the first - and presumably last - time he tried pinching hers). But the actress liked McCrea. He, in turn, marveled at her professionalism, and how, if a take was blown it was always because of his stumble, not hers. But she also gave him a frank lesson in professionalism the day he was absent from shooting stills of the cast. (It wasn't McCrea's fault - nobody told him about the shoot, especially the publicist who figured no one would miss an RKO actor on loan.) At lunch Stanwyck cornered McCrea. "Where the hell were you for stills?" When McCrea shrugged and said they didn't need him, Stanwyck gave him a tongue lashing. "I was in burlesque. We used to have to change our clothes on the train, and our makeup, and we couldn't take a bath and we lived out of a suitcase. You've grown up in California where you go to the beach on your days off and ride the waves, and you're a happy Southern Californian kid. Just get off your big fat ass and get to work."
McCrea took her candid advice to heart, and he and Stanwyck became great friends during the filming of Gambling Lady. McCrea had married actress Frances Dee in October 1933, a very happy union that lasted until his death almost 60 years later, but you'd never know he was a committed newlywed from the sensual way he and Stanwyck roll around and paw each other in scenes that wouldn't pass muster a year later under a bolstered Production Code. Their chemistry is a study in complementary opposites: He's amiable where she's brittle, and he's smooth where she's tough, but the carnality between their characters is undisguisable. Stanwyck and McCrea made six movies together, and when Stanwyck was later cast in Internes Can't Take Money (1937), she specifically asked director Al Santell to cast McCrea as well. "I want this guy," she told him. "He's gonna be a good leading man."
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Doris Malloy (screenplay and story); Ralph Block (screenplay)
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Film Editing: Harold McLernon
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Lady Lee), Joel McCrea (Garry Madison), Pat O'Brien (Charlie Lang), Claire Dodd (Sheila Aiken), C. Aubrey Smith (Peter Madison), Robert Barrat (Mike Lee), Arthur Vinton (Jim Fallin), Phillip Reed (Steve), Philip Faversham (Don Carroway), Robert Elliott (Graves).
by Violet LeVoit
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