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Joel McCrea - Star of the Month
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Joel McCrea - Wednesdays in May

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 to be a cowboy, and if he couldn't do that, he would settle for playing one on screen.

Like many native Southern Californians of his generation (he was born in 1905), McCrea more or less drifted into movies, starting in silents with stunts and bit parts. 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, at home in dramas (Kept Husbands, 1931), comedies (Girls About Town, 1931) and adventure films (The Lost Squadron, 1932).

McCrea's looks also made him a popular co-star for many of the most glamorous leading ladies of the day. He appeared with Constance Bennett four times: Born to Love (1931), The Common Law (1931), Rockabye (1932), and Bed of Roses (1933); with Miriam Hopkins five times, including These Three (1936), the bowdlerized screen version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour; another film adaptation of a hit play, Dead End (1937), with Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart; and with Ginger Rogers twice, most notably in Primrose Path (1940). He was even rather improbably cast by Josef von Sternberg as Marlene Dietrich's Spanish lover in The Devil Is a Woman (1935), but after one day on the set, he disagreed fiercely with the director and quit; he was replaced by the far more Latin Cesar Romero.

One of his most frequent leading ladies, and an actress with whom he clicked nicely on screen and off, was Barbara Stanwyck. The two made six films together between Gambling Lady (1934) and Trooper Hook (1957).

In the 1940s, he was one of Hollywood's most bankable stars and worked with many top directors. He dabbled in suspense thrillers with Espionage Agent (1939) and for Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), period drama with William Wellman (and Stanwyck again) in The Great Man's Lady (1942), and wartime comedy for George Stevens in The More the Merrier (1943). During this time he also did a run of pictures with Preston Sturges, two of which - Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942)-are among his best, and one - The Great Moment (1944)-an ambitious hybrid of comedy and historical biography that was mangled by the studio and ultimately failed at the box office.

In spite of his success in this wide variety of roles, McCrea 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, turning in solid performances for notable directors in such movies as Colorado Territory (1949), Raoul Walsh's remake of his gangster flick High Sierra (1941); Stars in My Crown (1950), and The Outriders (1950). He made eleven westerns in seven years and only broke his run with one urban crime thriller, Rough Shoot (1953). After that, he went West again and never looked back, working exclusively in the genre for the remainder of his career - seventeen more films in all.

Today McCrea's name isn't completely synonymous with westerns not only because of his acclaimed work in a range of other genres 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 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 helped launch Sam Peckinpah's film directing career (his first feature was the less well received The Deadly Companions, 1961).

Joel 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. He was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1969. He was married for fifty-seven years to actress Frances Dee and died in October of 1990.

by Rob Nixon

* Titles in bold will air on TCM in May

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