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My Personal Favorite Actor - Joel McCrea
Kathryn Hepburn once said that Joel McCrea was one of the best actors she had ever worked with. Kate felt that he, Joel, should be right up there with Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. This is coming from an actress with 12 Academy Award nominations and 4 Oscars for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
I agree and disagree. You see, I have a problem with "Best Actor" in the way it is theoretically devised as a depiction of the Academy's interpretation of a performance done at the highest level of achievement in acting. When I watch a movie, I interpret an actor's skill by the way he, or she move, or satisfy me. If I forget that the person is acting, that actor is doing his, or her job at their highest level.
Is Joel McCrea a Marlon Brando, or Lawrence Olivier? Heavens no! But what Joel is for me is a conductor on a train who is taking me on a journey away from my everyday trials and tribulations. Joel, like Gary Cooper is a simple, charismatic, defenseless, lovable and caring man who makes me feel better from just watching him take on the establishment, or avoid a manipulative woman, or make love to a vulnerable young lady, or stand up to the bad guy with both six shooters as he did in so many of his later western films.
Most of you readers never heard of this man. If you have, you probably never saw his films and have a rather vague image of who he is. I said the same thing in an earlier article I wrote about my personal favorite actress, Irene Dunne. She, like McCrea was a star, but neither one ever really received their dues for the excellent work in their industry for a lot of years. She did receive five Academy Award nominations, but still did not attain the stardom that I feel was due both she and Joel. They did a film together, by the way, in 1933 titled The Silver Cord.
Let me take you back. Joel was born on November 5, 1905 in South Pasadena, California. He was close to Hollywood and grew interested early on about the movie making business. He studied acting at Pomona College and earned his degree from the University of Southern California. Joel did some stunt work and was chosen from the crowd to play a major role in a movie. Only in America, huh? Growing up on horses, Joel wanted roles in westerns where he felt comfortable in the saddle, but with his good looks and mild mannered charm he was given roles that attracted the ladies.
He played leading man to some of the greatest names in movie history, Claudette Colbert, Dolores Del Rio, Francis Dee, Kate Hepburn, Loraine Day, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyk, Jean Arthur, Veronica Lake, Maureen O'Hara and Miriam Hopkins to name a few.
Joel was first cast in very sexy roles and some of his female co-stars were always eager for more films with Joel. He said in an interview that he had affairs with most of his early co-stars. He mentioned back to his youth when he aspired to get into films just to meet the stars of the screen and have the opportunity to be with them. His dreams came true.
His best film of his leading man era was Sullivan's Travels in 1941 with diminutive Veronica Lake. At 6' 3", Joel towered over 4' 11" Veronica and in some scenes she had to stand on a box. The film would show off Joel's low-brow comical side and his ability to carry a film. He was extroidinary in this movie about a man of wealth that wanted to see how the other side lived and went out without a penny in his pocket. He met Veronica and she became his traveling companion. I very much doubt that he pursued Veronica romantically off the set since he deplored working with her and refused doing another film with her.
In the mid 40's, he finally got his wish to play in westerns. The rest is history. He became one of the greatest western film stars of all time along with John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and James Stewart in his later years. Along with Ben Johnson, Joel was considered the finest horseback rider in western films. For his contributions to western films, Joel was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Joel would make over thirty westerns and retire in 1959 to his beloved ranch after filming The Gunfight at Dodge City in which he played Bat Masterson. The great director, Sam Peckinpah would bring both Joel and Randolph Scott out of retirement in 1962 to make Ride the High Country about two old cowboys, ex-lawmen and longtime friends transporting gold through dangerous territory. This was one of my favorite of Joel's films. Both of these men have those low-keyed, soft talking, slow moving mannerisms the likes of Gary Cooper that made them so immensely popular on the screen.
Scott would go back into retirement while Joel would make four more westerns only to retire again in 1976 after his final film, Mustang Country. His former leading lady, Francis Dee was his wife and companion on their ranch for 57 years. They married on October 20, 1933 and ironically Joel McCrea died on their anniversary October 20, 1990 leaving behind his three sons.
Joel McCrea did all the things he dreamed about. He met all the beautiful ladies of the silver screen. He made westerns and he lived on a ranch where he could be tall in the saddle. The true test of the man lay in his tribute to the woman he loved with a solid marriage for fifty-seven years.
Continue to scroll down for more images of Joel as a western star and pictures of Joel and Francis together in their early years and their twilight years.