Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood star Joel McCrea (1905-1990). Today McCrea is a beloved movie star in all genres, and I’ll wager that most of my show biz friends know him almost entirely from non-western films, things like the original version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), and the three Preston Sturges films Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Great Moment (1944).
But in his day, McCrea was best known for his westerns. They represented the main trunk of his career. And they were in his blood. Though he was from Pasadena and his father was a utilities executive, his grandfather had been a stagecoach driver who’d fought Apaches. McCrea started out in silent films as a teenager as a stunt double and a horse wrangler for the likes of Tom Mix and William S. Hart. He got to meet the real Wyatt Earp (whom he would later play) when the lawman was in Hollywood acting as an adviser in 1928. He co-starred in the film Lightnin’ with Will Rogers in 1930. Fellow horse lover Rogers became a friend and mentor to him, promoting his career, helping him to buy a ranch in 1933, and advising him to invest in real estate, a move that would make McCrea a millionaire.
Now herewith, some of his western films; I’ll add more later, there are still a few I haven’t seen (warning: we always include spoilers):
Barbary Coast (1935)
Barbary Coast is essentially a gangster picture, transplanted to 19th century San Francisco. Barbary Coast is set in the thick of the gold rush, so that though San Francisco is a city, it is really a just-born boom town, just as wild as any other fly-by-night western burg, but larger. Miriam Hopkins arrives via ship (the only way out there before the transcontinental railway) to find that her mail-order husband has been killed. She becomes the consort of the casino-owning gangster who runs the town (Edward G. Robinson). This works out okay for a while until she actually falls in love with the noble, poetry-spouting prospector Joel McCrea. A classic Camille-like dilemma transpires — rich suitor vs. poor suitor. She eventually chooses McCrea just as his shot-up body is about to leave on the next packet boat, and Robinson is about to be hung by vigilantes. Also in the picture: Walter Brennan, as a one-eyed, thievin’ prospector, and a very young mustache-less Brian Donlevy. Great movie!
Wells Fargo (1937)
An epic of the great freight and passenger hauling firm (which later diversified into financial serices and banking). McCrea plays their star stagecoach driver, and we follow him throughout his career as he and the company move farther and farther west, from upstate New York, to St. Louis, to California, and then the Civil War. The latter causes a rift between him and his Southern-supporting wife (McCrea’s real life wife Frances Dee). Others in the film include old time western star Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Burns, Lloyd Nolan, Mary Nash, Clarence Kolb, Bob Cummings, and B movie star Peggy Stewart.
Union Pacific (1938)
An epic topic worthy of producer/director Cecil B. DeMille’s usual epic treatment. The usual historical story mixed with a love triangle, this one featuring McCrea as a railroad cop, his frequent co-star Barbara Stanwyck as a train engineer’s feisty tom-boy daughter (with the worst Irish accent I’ve ever heard, in what may be the worst performance of her career); and Robert Preston as an old army buddy of McCrea’s, who’s now in league with the bad guys…he partners with Brian Donlevy to ply the workers with booze, whores and gambling so they wont get to Utah first and win the competition against the rival Central Pacific. Lots of Indian fights. No less than two spectacular train wrecks. After the first train wreck the only people left alive are….McCrea, Preston and Stanwyck!
Then there is a really demented scene where railroad cop McCrea is the good guy — busting the head of a labor agitator! It’s very weird to find yourself on McCrea’s side, kind of insidious in a way. At the end of the scene after McCrea foils their strike, the workers actually return to their shovels and sing “I’ve been working on the railroad”! In the end Donlevy accidentally shoots Preston, leaving McCrea free to get Stanwyck.
The Golden Spike is driven by a robber baron who tried to thwart this event. I found the epilogue—a shot of a modern train speeding down the track, quite moving. A celebration of human endeavor; we don’t seem to do that anymore.
Buffalo Bill (1944)
McCrea plays one of America’s greatest showmen Buffalo Bill Cody in a film that trades on his name but misses the point of his existence. The picture ignores Cody’s life in show biz (where he made a real, tangible mark) until the film’s last ten minutes, and spends the balance of the picture on fictitious western exploits, depicting him as brokering peace between soldiers and Indians who never existed. But those last ten minutes (in glorious Technicolor) are worth it, for me anyway. The sight of McCrea in full Buffalo Bill drag saying goodbye to his audience makes me wish we’d seen him say hello to his audience! Thomas Mitchell floats in and out of the picture as the man who made Cody’s legend in dime novels, Ned Buntline.
The Virginian (1946)
A solid Technicolor remake of the perennial western classic with McCrea in the title role gamely stepping into the Gary Cooper part and doing a might good job. This might be best structured version I’ve seen. The various elemnts are really clear: There is the romance with the schoolteacher, who plays hard to get through all the culture clash until she finally comes around. The early beats are about him courting her, and some foreshadowing beats with Trampas (a well cast Brian Donlevy). Then there is the growing tension of the rustling. They catch a bunch of thee culprits and the Virginina has to hang his cheerful friend Steve. Then he is shot and recuperates. And then the final shootout with Trampas.
Andre de Toth directed, with his wife Veronica Lake as (essentially) a noir dame transplanted to the old west, manipulating all the men around her into doing her bidding so she can acquire wealth, power, money, land, and (it is strongly implied) sex. McCrea plays her titular ramrod, and if that title ain’t a tip-off, I don’t know what is. Charles Ruggles plays her father, Donald Crisp a sheriff, Lloyd Bridges a bad dude, and Preston Foster McCrea’s principal rival for Lake, whom he ultimately dumps because she’s rotten to the core.
Four Faces West (1948)
McCrea is a nice guy who, out of desparation, robs a bank in the nicest way possible — no violence, and he lets his one hostage (the bank manager) go, along with an IOU that he promises to pay the money back. Still and all, that doesn’t wash with the authorities. He is pursued by the famous Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford), a sheriff (William Conrad) and others. Along the way he is befriended by Frances Dee and others and winds up aiding a sick family, a good deed that will be taken into account when he is finally captured.
Colorado Territory (1949)
Raoul Walsh directed McCrea in this western about a train robber who just can’t keep out of trouble. He breaks out of jail and heads out to Colorado, hoping to go straight, but his old boss wants him to do “one last job”. You KNOW how those “one last jobs” always work out. As a consolation prize he gets Virginia Mayo (va va voom!) but only until he meets his bloody end. Nice guys finish last!
Stars in my crown (1950)
An unusual western. More like To Kill a Mockingbird. McCrea is a preacher, who shows up to a town and begins preaching in the saloon – at gunpoint. He then marries girl and raises her orphaned nephew (Dean Stockwell). There is a typhoid outbreak which shakes his faith. The climax concerns a lynch mob (led by rich man Ed Begley) out to kill an old black man named “Uncle Famous” over his land but McCrea faces them down and defeats them with words.
All star western Technicolor western with a theme song by Tex Ritter. McCrea as Wyatt Earp, Peter Graves as his brother Morgan. Edgar Buchanan, Lloyd Bridges, Vera Miles, Wallace Ford, Jack Elam. Mae Clarke! And Sam Peckinpah in a bit part a bank teller. Riding solo with a grouch bag of $ from sale of buffalo pelts, McCrea comes upon trail drive bound for Wichita. He has a run in with bad boy Bridges who tries to steal his money. McCrea kicks his ass. Then he shows up at Wichita, a notoriously wild town. The movie about some of the town leaders trying to convince Earp to take job as a lawman. He keeps refusing, but also keeps doing heroic lawman type things until he finally takes the job. Then he proceeds to clean up the town.
The First Texan (1956)
The story of the founding of Texas. McCrea plays Sam Houston. Houston’s the former governor of Tennessee; he rides in and meets up with Jim Bowie (Wallace Ford). He gets Bowie out of trouble in a Mexican court but he won’t join the Free Texas movement. But the pressure is irresistible. The girl he wants to marry insists he join the movement and Andrew Jackson insists he lead it. He is late to the Alamo but later defeats Santa Ana and becomes president.
The Oklahoman (1957)
A rather nothing little film. McCrea plays a doctor who is on his way to California in a covered wagon with his wife and another couple. En route, McCrea’s wife dies in childbirth. McCrea decides to stay in the nearest small town to raise his daughter. Several years later, he is a well established citizen, the town doctor. His tendency to defend the local Indians gets him into trouble however. A young native girl he brings in to be his daughter’s nanny gets the whole town to talking. And he defends the nanny’s father from some unscrupulous brothers who want to grab his land. It turns out they—rather anachronistically—are after the oil. (I believe Rockefeller and company were just getting the oil industry started…in Pennsylvania and Ohio at the time). It comes to a head when the Indian is forced to kill one of the brothers in a fight on the property. McCrea insists on a fair trial, and then comes and announces the business about the oil. He bests the bad guy in a shoot out, then marries a local lady rancher.
Gunsight Ridge (1957)
McCrea as an undercover stage line investigator investigating stage hold-ups. Slim Pickens as a stage driver. He arrives in town on the stage and is robbed along the way. Dan Blocker as a bartender! McCrea becomes deputy to the sheriff, an older man. The stage robber all the while is a guy who lives in rooming house with him. (For comic relief McCrea pretends to be Irish to get on the good side of the Irish landlady). When the older sheriff gets killed, McCrea has to catch the bad guy and bring him to justice. As added incentive he is in love with the sheriff’s daughter, who had been on the stage with him during the robbery, and does seem to like him very much. He of course wins her over in the end as well.
Trooper Hook (1957)
McCrea as cavalry man who rescues Barbara Stanwyck from Indians. McCrea a sergeant in charge of a patrol. It opens on a battle with a band of Apaches. They find Stanwyck among the prisoners. She had been a captive and was made the squaw of the chief; she has had a small boy by the Indian. McCrea is ordered to return her and boy to her white husband (John Dehner). There is lots of prejudice and animosity towards the boy from everybody along the way. (This is an early movie for such a liberal message. It was independently produced). The stagecoach picks up folks along the way. Earl Holliman as a young trouble-loving cowpoke. Edward Andrews as a rich man. And an old Spanish woman and granddaughter. The stage breaks a wheel. The Apaches escape. Holliman rides to warn the stage and held defend it. They parlay with the Indians and mange to escape (McCrea threatens to kill the kid). When they get to their destination the husband doesn’t want the boy. Then he conveniently dies (killed by Indians) and McCrea gets the woman. O, Hollywood!
Fort Massacre (1958)
As the title accurately indicates, a very violent film. McCrea plays a cavalry sergeant who must take command of what’s left of the troops after a defeat by Apaches out in the middle of the desert. His dozen or so men ambush 50 or so Apaches and make out OK. It may be necessary, but then McCrea might be insane (his wife and kids were killed by Apaches). They must make their way back to their fort, braving privations and the many risks McCrea makes them take as he drives them home. Also has Forest Tucker and Denver Pyle. Eventually the men stage a coup against McCrea’s authority.
The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959)
Bat Masterson (McCrea) kills a man in a justified gunfight and goes to hide out at Dodge, where his brother Ed is sheriff. Bat, a gambler, has a reputation as a killer. He goes in with a widow on a saloon (her husband had been killed by crooked marshal and a rival saloonkeeper for refusing to pay graft). Ed is murdered too. Bat takes over his job. As is often the case, he has two love interests: a good girl who is the daughter of a preacher, and the bad girl he runs the saloon with. At one point, he disarms the whole town single-handedly. McCrea perfect for the role: toughness plus decency. He gives up the saloon to marry the minister’s daughter. He loses his badge for freeing a feeble minded prisoner. Then he gets it back. At the climax, the titular gun battle with the villain, which is over in two seconds. Essentially an old school western; it breaks no new ground.
Ride the High Country (1962)
Ride the High Country is a passing of the torch between generations. It represents the end of the careers of two Hollywood stars much associated with the western, McCrea and Randolph Scott, and the beginning of the career of a director who would soon be synonymous with a new style of western, Sam Peckinpah. It’s often inaccurately said that this was the last film for either Scott or McCrea. In reality, while this was Scott’s last film, McCrea went on to do a handful of low budget westerns through 1976, although Ride the High Country was definitely his last last MAJOR picture. As for Peckinpah, his The Wild Bunch (1969) virtually redefined the genre, and he also went on to make the westerns Major Dundee (1965), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), and the modern-setting westerns Junior Bonner (1972), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
Ride the High Country is also pivotal in being a sort of bend in the road in western aesthetics. Peckinpah had made one previous film and done lots of television work at this stage. He still has one foot back in the aesthetics of classic Hollywood. While violent, Ride the Country is nowhere near the level of slow motion gore ballet of The Wild Bunch.
This is one of the first films to take on the subject of the “late west”, an acknowledgement of the genre’s aging stars and the fact that the country itself was now changing, getting very far indeed from anything like a frontier nation. Instead it was the age of Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and even space exploration: “the Final Frontier”.
So we have the aging former lawman Joel McCrea ride into town, looking much the worse for wear. The time seems to be the early 1900s. The town is full of dudes, automobiles, a modern police department. Nonetheless there is still lawlessness to be found; it’s just a little further away, up in the mountains. (The Sierra Nevadas, in California). McCrea is hired to transport gold from a mining settlement at the top of the mountain. As a helper, he hires his old deputy Randolph Scott, who is now a two bit carny, a sort of fifth rate Buffalo Bill. He also hires a young man (Ron Starr) who works in the carnival with Scott.
On the way they stop at the farm of a religious man (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter (Mariette Hartley). The daughter wants very much to get away and sort of half romances the young man but also mentions a previous beau who is up at the mining camp who had asked her to marry him. The girl follows the guys, and they end up having to take her to the mining camp. The camp is rough enough to be intrinsically terrifying. Here the Peckinpah we will come to know and love comes out. The girl’s fiancé (James Drury) has four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler). They are like the guys from Deliverance–absolute animals. Somehow, we know from the very first to expect the worst from them. (Perhaps because one of the brothers, Warren Oates, has a pet raven.)
The only women in the camp are hookers with a cynicism straight out of Weimar. The only person with a heart seems to be the judge (Edgar Buchanan) who marries them and gives a terrific sermon (though later the man proves morally worthless). A terrifying scene at the wedding party. Her husband passes out and the brothers are all set to gang bang the girl.
The heroes rescue her, but she is legally married. They steal the judge’s license, and take the girl and the gold back down the mountain. But they are pursued by the evil brothers. To further complicate matters, Scott and his henchman try to steal the gold (it has been their aim all along) but McCrea catches them. (A major theme of the film is that McCrea remains law-abiding and decent, despite the fact that he has always been poorly rewarded for his efforts). It’s a rare film in which Randolph Scott — or gets a chance to really show his acting chops. He went out on a very strong note.
McCrea keeps Scott and Starr prisoner at first, but is forced to release them to help him fight the five monstrous peckerwoods who are chasing them. It ends with a shootout back at the girl’s farm, where McCrea is fatally wounded. But true to Peckinpah form all five brothers are also gloriously dispatched. And McCrea himself dies in a pose most religious, allowing his Christ-like nature to sink in for the thicker audience members.
A gorgeous film, wonderful in every respect.
Cry Blood, Apache (1970)
An atrocious low budget western, created by and for Joel McCrea’s son Jody, with whom he had co-starred in the short-lived 1959 tv series Wichita Town. The story is all a memory of McCrea’s — Jody plays him as a younger man in the flashback. The character is with a small gang of men, who are communing with some Apaches when they learn the Indians have some gold. The gang (except McCrea) kill the Apaches (including women and children) but keep one woman alive to show them where the gold is. They head out into the desert, pursued by an Indian who wants vengeance and who kills them one by one. I find this kind of thing exceedingly boring. Why does everyone think this is a movie? Atrociously written, atrociously acted. McCrea also made another movie with Jody that year called Sioux Nation that apparently went unreleased,
Mustang Country (1976)
McCrea’s last movie, a rated G story about a former rodeo star who befriends and mentors a runaway boy.