Bright Lights Film Journal

“Strong, Righteous, and Rustic”: An Interview with Joel McCrea

“I told Hitchcock, ‘I do miss my horse.'”

Twenty-five years ago, Joel McCrea, the most retiring of Hollywood actors, was invited to appear at the 1982 Telluride Film Festival for a career tribute. It’s amazing that he got there. Bill Pence, then Telluride co-director, tells of getting almost daily phone calls — 6 a.m. alerts, McCrea already awake on his ranch! — with the panicked guest begging off. He was terrified of a public appearance. Somehow, Pence talked him down, and there was McCrea in Colorado. And somehow, he agreed to a couple of brief interviews.

I knew and loved McCrea’s movies and was first in the door. We quickly hit it off, and McCrea relaxed and seemed to savor reminiscing about the old Hollywood days. Clearly, it wasn’t something he did all the time. In fact, almost never. After a while, someone tiptoed in and announced that the next reporter was outside. McCrea said firmly, “I’m enjoying this talk.” We chatted on. No other journalist but me spoke with the great Joel McCrea. An exclusive interview!

A much-abridged version of our conversation appeared in March 1983, in The Boston Herald. But recently, digging deep in a messy drawer, I discovered my original notes, with lots of choice McCrea quotes that never were transcribed. On my last page: McCrea’s scratchy autograph, with his address below, in case I was in the neighborhood: “Rte# 1, Camarillo, Calif. 93010.” McCrea died in 1990. Regrettably, I never visited.

Joel McCrea and Gary Cooper were not only similar Hollywood actor types — tall and terse in the saddle, shy and “Yes ma’am,” “No Ma’am” polite on the ground — but bosom pals. According to McCrea, they were discovered at the same moment by the famous silent filmmaker Henry King. “He came into a little lousy dressing room. I thought he was selling ads for Variety. He said his name, and I said, ‘You made Tol’able David? I’ll work for free.'” He appeared in King’s Lightnin’ (1930, right). Some years later, he and Coop were walking across the Warners lot when Harry Warner, financial wiz of the Warners siblings, looked up at them and advised, “Humphrey Bogart can kick his mother on screen and get away with it. But you two are Kellogg’s Corn Flakes guys. People buy tickets to see you that way. Don’t disappoint them.'”

Cooper never did, remaining strong, righteous, and rustic through High Noon (1952) and until his death to cancer in 1961. Likewise, Joel McCrea carried forth the legacy. Among other good-guy parts, he played a virtuous man of the law in most of the twenty-four shoot-’em-ups he made between The Virginian in 1946 and Ride the High Country in 1962, his last major film.

“I don’t believe in anti-heroes,” he says today. “Duke Wayne played a mean guy but never an anti-hero.” As for the rampant cursing in recent films: “Cowboys are not beyond swearing, but we used it if a horse stepped on a foot.”

Showing up at Telluride, McCrea in jeans and a cowboy hat at 76 could never be mistaken for even a closet anti-hero. He walks a little slower now, but he stands proud, straight, and tall. “Gary Cooper and I switched off hats and shirts, everything except boots,” McCrea recalls, kicking off one of his very rare interviews in many decades, “He wore size 10, I wore size 12.”

Courtly, considerate, gentle of manner, McCrea remains smashingly handsome, with a white mane of hair, formidable blue eyes, and one of those Hollywood Faces, archetypal American, they just don’t make any more. Cooper with a dash of Joseph Cotten. At his side at Telluride is Mrs. McCrea, retired Hollywood actress Frances Dee (Little Women, An American Tragedy, I Walked with a Zombie). She frequently interjects details of their half century together that her husband has forgotten.

“I graduated college in 1928. I started in talkies as an extra in ’28 and ’29,” McCrea says, reaching into the far past. It was Cecil B. De Mille who would grant McCrea, about ten films in, his first significant screen credit. “I used to be your newsboy,” the ex-Hollywood High student told the famous director. “You gave me a silver dollar at Christmas because I put your papers on the porch when it rained.’ He said, ‘Come into my office.'” With that, De Mille cast McCrea in a bit role for the coalmine melodrama Dynamite (1929).

In the early 1930s, the handsome McCrea played sundry male ingénues while under contract to RKO. As McCrea remembers, the studio squeezed him into “‘Tennis, anyone?’ parts, young boys with scarves. I co-starred several times [The Common Law (1931), Born to Love (1931)] with Constance Bennett. I was getting $200 a week, she was getting $15, 000.” Occasionally, he broke the genteel mold, becoming, under the volcano, the exuberant sailor-lad lover of Delores Del Rio in King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise (1932, above), and being chased about an island by the mad, man-hunting General Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game (1932).

In 1933, he met Dee on the set of The Silver Cord, in which they both were cast. They married and moved where McCrea would be comfortable forevermore: to a California ranch home outside of Thousand Oaks in Ventura County. “I get a chance to rope a bit,” he says of his away-from-LA life. “I never get away from the ranch thing. When I started in pictures, they bought me a pair of tails. But I was always more at home when I was in a western because of the horse.”

In 1935, the always mild McCrea had his only major run-in with a director. At Paramount, he was cast opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Devil Is a Woman. McCrea: “I had a scene in a café. I clap and ask for a cup of coffee. I guess it was Spain, and I said, ‘Garcon,’ or something.” His role lasted one day, because he ran afoul of ultra-perfectionist director Josef von Sternberg. McCrea remembers Sternberg: “He was a little guy. He said, ‘Do you drink coffee?’ We did 35 takes. He said, ‘That’s not the way to ask for coffee. You are not getting it over.’

“The next morning, he said, ‘I looked at the rushes and there’s nothing I can do.’ I said, ‘That’s fortunate. I don’t want to do anything with you.’ The next thing, Caesar Romero was doing the part.” McCrea refused to continue, even when Dietrich took him aside and explained the predictability of Sternberg’s rudeness. “He speaks to me in German and calls me an old cow,” Dietrich told McCrea. “Just ignore him.”

McCrea holds no grudge. “The peculiar thing is that I like all of Sternberg’s pictures,” he says, and laughs when told of Sternberg’s remembrance of the incident in the director’s 1965 autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry: “(McCrea) . . . managed to survive meeting me, fled in terror after his first scene with me, and I had to replace him with another six-footer.”

In retrospect, McCrea’s arbitrary firing seems to have had dire consequences. Not for McCrea but for Sternberg, whose time at Paramount making Dietrich films ended abruptly with The Devil Is a Woman. McCrea remembers the reaction of Paramount executive Emanuel Cohen to his dismissal by Sternberg: “Manny said, ‘That little s-o-b! That’s his last picture for Paramount.'”

With other filmmakers McCrea had no trouble at all: “I count 97 directors, not counting 29 TV pictures. With Richard Boleslavsky, there was one day’s work and he was taken away. With Harry Beaumont, on The Broadway Melody in 1929, there was two days. [Andy Hardy director] George B. Seitz I knew personally. We went to church together. With Frank Lloyd [on Wells Fargo (1937)], it was like working for General MacArthur. He outlined for everyone exactly what he wanted. I loved Frank Lloyd, [and would have] even if he’d been a bad director who nobody remembered.

“I did Barbary Coast with Howard Hawks, but on Come and Get It, Hawks walked. He said to [cinematographer] Gregg Toland and me, ‘Come over here and have coffee. I’m getting out. I can’t get along with Goldwyn.'”

Of William Wyler: “I went on the set of Dodsworth, and Ruth Chatterton said, ‘He’s a stupid little man. Don’t work with him.’ For These Three, Wyler wanted Leslie Howard. But Sam Goldwyn said, ‘No, you’ve got Joel McCrea under contract. Use him.’ After three weeks on the set, I went up and said to Wyler, ‘I would have wanted Leslie Howard too.’ But Willie said, ‘After three weeks, I’m glad I have you.’ and he requested me again for Dead End” (above).

Of William Wellman: “He was still ‘Wild Bill,’ and he wasn’t afraid of anything, but he wasn’t crazy at all. We couldn’t have been more different types, him looking for conflict and me wanting to sit under a tree and take a nap. But we hit it off on Buffalo Bill. He was very business-like. He once said that me and Bob [Robert] Taylor were the two actors he liked to work with best.”

For many, the zenith of McCrea’s Hollywood career was the early 1940s. He developed an appealingly awkward urbanity with his leads in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, George Stevens’ The More the Merrier (1943), and in three zany Preston Sturges classics, Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Great Moment (1944).

“George Stevens was the most sympathetic man. He gave me such confidence on the set of The More the Merrier,” McCrea says. “I still remember what it was like to be there, having 75 people around saying, ‘Look at him. I thought he was taller than that. Look, he’s losing his hair.'”

McCrea first encountered the artistry of Preston Sturges in 1933, when he visited Spencer Tracy on the set of William K. Howard’s The Power and the Glory. “I picked up the script and read it, and I liked it. Spence said, ‘Stick around.'” The screenplay was by Sturges. “His dialogue was amazing, It was so good, even with the butler and the train porter,” McCrea said. “He was excellent with actors. Colbert loved to work with him, and even people like me who weren’t so good. I wasn’t a quick study.

“We came on the set one morning for Sullivan’s Travels, and Sturges said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting doing it all in one take, nine pages? Then we could go home.’ I said, ‘You didn’t hire Jack Barrymore. You know my limitations.” We did two takes, and Sturges said, ‘Why didn’t you think you could do it?’ We did that one picture, and he insisted on two more. The Great Moment was taken from Henry Hathaway and given to Sturges. Buddy Da Silva, head of Paramount, didn’t like Sturges, or the picture. It slipped out and was let go. It was badly edited, and they didn’t care.

“Sturges was never in gear with the administration. He left Paramount and went across the street and made a deal with Howard Hughes that wasn’t good for him.”

McCrea has a special fondness for Alfred Hitchcock, who utilized him as an American reporter caught up in the new Nazi world of Europe in Foreign Correspondent (right). Says McCrea: “Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht explained that they cast me because they wanted a Johnny Jones who didn’t know what was going on in the world. For the movie, Alfred took off his tie and gave it to me to wear.” McCrea and Hitch got on famously. “He asked me each day to bring some fresh eggs and fresh-churned butter from my ranch. He’d fall asleep at dinner — politely, never snoring — then wake up and say, ‘Did I miss anything?'”

McCrea remembers a scene in Foreign Correspondent in which he kept tripping on steps in his size 12 shoes. “Hitchcock said, ‘Joel comes down the stairs like an elongated bag.’ I told him, ‘I do miss my horse.'”

Were there any roles McCrea refused to do? “Tay Garnett wanted me for The Postman Always Rings Twice. I said, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ I didn’t like that character getting together with Lana Turner and killing her husband. I didn’t want to be connected with it. Later, I was borrowed by Warners to play Will Rogers. I said, ‘I can’t play him,’ but I was under contract, and I had to do it. So I went out to Warner Brothers, where Mark Hellinger was the producer. He was a very bright man, Mr. New York. He tried to get me drunk, but I emptied the drinks into a flower pot. He said, ‘Go down and see the director. Michael Curtiz. ‘

“Curtiz said, ‘You’re an actor, aren’t you?’ I told him, ‘Not necessarily. I’m not good enough to play the part. If I do it, I’ll blame it on you.’ Curtiz said, ‘You are the first g-d actor who said he wasn’t good enough. They usually say, ‘The part wasn’t good enough.’ Let’s go up and see Jack Warner.’ Curtiz said, to him, ‘J. L., this is an honest man. I don’t want him.'” (The lead in The Story of Will Rogers [1952] would be played ably . . . by Will Rogers Jr.)

Meanwhile, McCrea finally got to make westerns, though the great majority of his two dozen are lost in the dust today. Perhaps the best of the obscurities is Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory(1949), a neurotic-cowboy remake of Walsh’s Bogart-starring gangster film, High Sierra (1940). Outlaw McCrea and his sexy girlfriend, Virginia Mayo, are penetrated by a hail of bullets at the end, a startling prefigurement of Bonnie and Clyde. Predictably, McCrea is on record preferring a more humane western role. He once said, “The film I am most proud of today is Stars in My Crown (1950). I played a nineteenth-century parson who wore six-guns.”

In 1962, McCrea left Hollywood behind, and gladly, for a reclusive life on the range. “After 87 pictures in 47 years, I knew when to quit,” he explains. McCrea has slipped out of retirement for several little-seen cowpoke movies, Cry Blood, Apache (1970), and Mustang Country (1976). In the 1980s, however, he seems to have abdicated for good. The new Hollywood had offered him plenty of scripts, “where I’d play the father of someone whom I didn’t respect.” He’s turned them down. Even tempting projects have been rejected, such as a role in a picture directed by his friend Clint Eastwood. “Clint called a few weeks ago and I said, ‘Don’t send a script. I might like it.'”

Luckily, McCrea abandoned Hollywood only after making the finest of his westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962). That film formally draws the curtain on the classic (William S, Hart/Gary Cooper/John Ford) western tradition, ritualized in the elegaic final scene in which Randolph Scott leaves his bullet-ridden pal, McCrea, alone to die a stoical, heroic, and absolutely noble death. That last mythic shot, of McCrea’s body sprawled across the screen, closes down the Hollywood frontier.

“When it came out,” McCrea says, “the studio didn’t sell it. But the critics grabbed onto it. Neither Randy or I had ever gotten such criticism. We were surprised, though we knew it wasn’t a regular shoot-’em-up.” Twenty years have passed, and McCrea sounds nostalgic. “I really enjoyed Ride the High Country. Both Randy and I were washed-up actors playing washed-up lawmen.”

Randolph Scott assumed the part of the ex-deputy gone crooked (for a time), the Good Bad Man. McCrea, of course, would only agree to play the Good Good Man, Steve Judd, aging deputy, who leaves this earth “justified.” In this guise of pure conscience, McCrea got an opportunity to say what is perhaps the first ecological line in Hollywood cinema, when he tells off a brash youngster who is dirtying up the environment. In Telluride, Joel McCrea proudly repeats the line, a 76-year-old sage quoting from a holy tabernacle. “These mountains don’t need your trash.”