“Easy to overlook but endlessly rewarding to look over”
Joel McCrea, an amiable, modest actor who turned down parts because he felt he wasn’t good enough for them, began his career as a male beauty. He came from a generation and a western milieu that valued plainness as a virtue, and he cultivated simple viewpoints that neutralized any possibility of narcissism. In his day and age, men weren’t supposed to be sex objects. McCrea couldn’t think of himself as sexy; happily, this doubled his sexual impact on film. He always kept aware of his image, which was that of an honorable man, and this image served him well when he relaxed into a series of grizzled fifties westerns. McCrea’s sexual charge in his early and middle movies is exciting because he is completely natural about it and sometimes bashful. It is a kind of sex appeal that is founded on diffidence. It is in short supply today.
McCrea was very tall (six foot three), and he had broad shoulders. His ears were big and his hair was problematic; his ice blue eyes could dart around shiftily or hide out under his brow. His big nose is what made his beauty. Full face, especially later on, he can look a bit harsh, but in profile he was a tanned California god. He moved rather daintily, shyly sometimes, as he draped his long body against things; the effect was one of elegance. McCrea was unconcerned, even embarrassed by his own good looks (and he gave them up with relief as soon as he could).
McCrea grew up around Hollywood in the teens and twenties. He considered himself a real cowboy, like the men around him, and was ambitious to have a career as an actor because he wanted to make enough money to buy a ranch. The movie industry was thriving around him and women were crazy about him: Anita Loos reported that she fainted straightaway when she saw McCrea on the beach. It was women stars who got him into movies and kept him there. After playing some bit parts, McCrea made a positive impression on Marion Davies and her powerful lover, William Randolph Hearst, who helped him out with studio contracts. Constance Bennett swooned over him and put him in four of her films. Miriam Hopkins was equally smitten and was paired with McCrea five times. Barbara Stanwyck co-starred with McCrea six times (unfortunately, they weren’t her best movies).
In an early film like Lloyd Bacon’s Kept Husbands (1931), McCrea is obviously an amateur when it comes to speaking dialogue, but when he reacts silently, he’s completely compelling. McCrea always has the gift of seeming inward and private, yet unguarded. George Cukor proved quite alert to McCrea’s appeal in Girls About Town (1931) and Rockabye (1932). In the first, Cukor seems to go into a long sex trance as a shirtless McCrea swims around in clinging shorts. In the second, McCrea draws your attention by doing as little as possible. During Cukor’s long takes, McCrea is like someone who can’t swim but keeps smiling as they try to tread water.
However, there’s one terrific sexual scene he has in Rockabye with Constance Bennett. As they cook in a kitchen, they start a little rough foreplay. He shoves her against a counter, she smacks him in the face, and they keep doing this slowly, languorously, until he tackles her to the floor and kisses her passionately. In a revealing interview for John Kobal’s book People Will Talk, McCrea makes it obvious that a big part of why he wanted to be in the movies was the chance to meet and bed beautiful women. He casually reveals his track record with his early leading ladies (he got ‘em all) before he married his wife of fifty years, the classically beautiful brunette Frances Dee.
After his Cukor films came movies that stripped McCrea as naked as the censors would allow: Bird of Paradise (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Sport Parade (1932). King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise is one of McCrea’s best films, the one picture that matches his powerfully bashful/unaware sexuality with a completely unabashed sense of sensual abandon. In Dolores Del Rio’s island goddess, McCrea found a contrasting partner of equal carnal splendor, especially in a long sequence underwater where he chases after her: she is naked, he’s wearing next to nothing, and Vidor films their bodies rapturously. The whole film is a shot of pure sexual adrenaline and it had its effect off-camera, too (McCrea told Kobal that he slept with Del Rio, but only after she gave him the go-ahead by asking for a neck rub). The next year, in John Cromwell’s The Silver Cord (1933), an unjustly forgotten, still shocking tale of monstrous mother love, McCrea’s cute obliviousness is put to chilling effect. He’s so unaware here that he doesn’t realize that his mother (Laura Hope Crews) is in love with both him and his effeminate brother (Eric Linden).
McCrea credited Gregory La Cava with helping him move on from this early tacit “piece of ass” phase and onto more challenging roles. In Private Worlds (1935), a once-lauded but now little-seen ensemble piece set in a mental hospital, La Cava cast McCrea as a hothead, xenophobic doctor. It’s a melodrama that skirts outrageousness, but it remains fresh, and it led McCrea into a period where he gracefully partnered women in a series of stuffy Sam Goldwyn films. In Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast (1935), he’s an idealistic prospector who reads Shelley, a big, strong man to be trusted against the relative tinyness of leading lady Miriam Hopkins. When asked to play a drunk scene, McCrea simply declines, but he’s getting better as an actor. He made the most of thankless parts in William Wyler’s These Three (1936), Wyler and Hawks’ Come and Get It (1936), and Wyler’s Dead End (above, 1937).
As McCrea’s friend Gary Cooper aged, his face was riven by doubt. McCrea himself became increasingly wry and wary, and it is this quality that would serve him well in his best work, which came in the forties. Alfred Hitchcock brought out a rather unattractive side of McCrea in Foreign Correspondent (1940). Observing McCrea’s feckless journalist, Hitch takes the callow traits that made him so sexy and flips them over to reveal an unlikable, very American feeling of dedicated ignorance (Vidor picked up on this side of him fleetingly in Bird of Paradise). La Cava used McCrea’s growing grumpiness to painful effect in Primrose Path (1940), putting him through an unpleasant romance with a calculating Ginger Rogers.
But the man who stimulated McCrea the most was Preston Sturges. In Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Sturges’ uneasy, complex classic about an idealistic, wrongheaded director, McCrea delivers the rapid-fire dialogue with verve, and he has the confidence to do most of his acting with quick flashes of doubt that flicker underneath the smallest eye movements. His thought processes have become even more inward; when he has a problem to solve, he withdraws into himself, and we can’t follow him. Veronica Lake is an ideal partner for him; she’s so deadpan that she makes McCrea look like Mickey Rooney, and Sturges highlights her prickly, Louise Brooks-ian intelligence. Sullivan the liberal director could easily be played as a condescending phony, but McCrea makes his earnestness about social problems likable and even admirable.
In his second Sturges, The Palm Beach Story (1942), McCrea handles the racy dialogue with great tact. As a broke husband chasing after his wife (Claudette Colbert), McCrea plays male obstinacy better than anybody before or since. He always seems to be thinking of something else, as if problems are gnawing away at him but he’s determined not to show it (or to let them throw him). He stays within a very narrow range of facial expression and vocal inflection, so that the smallest variation of either face or voice makes a big impact (Bill Murray practices much the same thing lately). He’s almost like Buster Keaton here, especially in the way he blinks furiously after a pratfall down a flight of stairs, and blinks in embarrassment when Mary Astor tells him she grows on people, “like moss.” Oddly, he has trouble with emotional scenes in serious movies, but in comedies he reveals a lot of grave, deep feeling.
And his erotic appeal was still there: the scenes where McCrea helps Colbert unzip her dress are two of the sexiest moments on film. Colbert, usually so unflappable, seems genuinely hot and bothered by McCrea; his character has no money and few prospects, but he has sex on his side. In a defining moment, a distracted McCrea says to avid Astor, “You’re a very embarrassing lady. If I weren’t so mixed up at the moment, I’d take you up on a few of your dares and make you say, ‘Papa.'” This moment defines McCrea. If Clark Gable had said those lines, he would have joked his way through them, as if sex was just one of life’s pleasures, like drinking and hunting. McCrea, on the other hand, says the lines challengingly, even though his mind is elsewhere, as always. Saying “Papa” to taciturn, horny McCrea is obviously not something to be taken lightly.
If Sullivan’s Travels is McCrea’s best movie, then George Stevens’ The More the Merrier (1943) is his best performance. McCrea told Kobal that he was tired out by then and hadn’t wanted to make the film at first. This tiredness is reflected in his performance, but in the best way imaginable. It seems to deepen his persona, so that he becomes even more distracted and mysterious. Merrier is an extremely romantic film. Before they meet,Jean Arthur and McCrea dance a rumba in separate rooms of the same apartment (the music is Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) Arthur is startlingly private as she works out a dance step and stares at her own rear end; McCrea, dressed only in a striped bathrobe, hears the music and then slowly, idly begins doing some steps. With his back to us, he pretends he has an imaginary partner. Stevens begins to cut between Arthur and McCrea, showing us that they’re meant to be together. Then McCrea turns to face us. As he dances with this imaginary girl, he seems likes he’s about to talk, but he doesn’t. His face is almost deadpan, but he does two different things at once: he makes you aware that he knows this pretend rumba is absurd, yet he’s deadly serious and intense about it, too. This striking conflict he creates is sex, pure sex, in the raw. And pure McCrea.
This quality continues in the famous front stoop love scene, where Arthur babbles softly about nothing and McCrea keeps touching her with his big hands, taking off her wrap, putting it back on, caressing her slowly, unconsciously. McCrea knows that Arthur (both actress and character) is a rare butterfly, easily frightened, and he has to coax her gently but firmly. They’ve been walking and they collapse on the front stoop of their apartment house. As she continues talking, he kisses her back, then starts to nuzzle it. Arthur could be a surprisingly sexy actress, and here with McCrea she really lets go, just as Colbert did in Palm Beach Story. With Joel McCrea, it would seem, you just have to let yourself go. That’s what made sophisticated Anita Loos faint with anticipation.
After the war, McCrea did westerns exclusively, some of them B-movies, a few of them quite fine, like Andre de Toth’s moody Ramrod (1947) and Raoul Walsh’s Wagnerian Colorado Territory (1949). In Jacques Tourneur’s overlooked Stars in My Crown (1950), McCrea is at his best as a parson in a small town; he’s so effortlessly noble here that he can vanquish anything, even the Ku Klux Klan. It’s really a difficult role, especially the scene where he saves his black friend from the Klan, but McCrea believed in himself in a positive, decent “real man” sort of way that has gone out of fashion, so he carries it off with ease.
His swan song was Sam Peckinpah’s masterful Ride the High Country (1962), an elegiac western about old age and good and evil. With white hair and a broadened nose, McCrea looks eerily like the aged William Holden, but without the drunken ravages or doubt. McCrea could never have managed the self-contempt Holden displayed in Sunset Boulevard (1950); he was from a different era, an era that was coming to an end. McCrea’s blue eyes are steely here, and his sense of honor is formidable, even rigid and inflexible. He knows this film is special, and he’s giving it all he’s got. He has relinquished his potent, all-American sexuality and what stands in its place is equally impressive: the integrity of a man on the verge of extinction, refusing to back down from his ideals. His exit is superb: shot, he simply sinks down out of the frame (“I’ll see you later,” says his flawed friend, Randolph Scott.) To paraphrase Mae West, Joel McCrea was easy to overlook but endlessly rewarding to look over.