Joel McCrea: Life Imitates Westerns

Joel McCrea is the quintessential California story, a remarkable life which included a childhood stint delivering the L.A. Times to movie industry names such as Cecil B. DeMille, attending the University of Southern California and Pomona College, decades in a highly successful career in the film business, and simultaneously working at the beloved job he listed as his occupation on his tax returns, rancher.

Joel was born in Pasadena on November 5, 1905. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was regularly exposed to the burgeoning film industry and people who worked in the business. Director Cecil B. DeMille, who would later delight in referring to McCrea as 'my paperboy' on movie sets, remembered young Joel fondly because of the care he took putting newspapers on the front porch on rainy days. Joel started college at USC and later transferred to Pomona College, where he joined his older brother who was active in theatrical pursuits.

A Pomona professor told Joel that with his talent and industry connections, he should try for a career in the movie business. Joel followed the advice, obtained a few bit parts and small roles, and within a short time he was playing a supporting role in Dynamite (1929), directed by his former newspaper customer, Cecil B. DeMille. From there it was onward and upward, starring in movies for three decades before retiring from the screen to focus on ranching.

Joel loved working in the movie business, but he had always had the desire to be a rancher and viewed his movie career as the means to buy a ranch. The great actor and humorist Will Rogers, a mentor to young Joel, teased him he'd end up spending his money on a convertible and a flashy lifestyle, and Joel was determined to prove Rogers wrong. In the early '30s he bought a ranch in what is now Thousand Oaks, California, northwest of Los Angeles. It was more ranch than he perhaps could have afforded early in his career, but Rogers looked the ranch over and gave Joel his blessing, along with the card for his banker, who approved financing the same day. Joel would live and work on the ranch for the rest of his life.

Joel had worked with beautiful young actress Frances Dee when she played his brother's fiancée in The Silver Cord (1933), and they also costarred in One Man's Journey (1933). They were married on October 20, 1933, and quickly had a pair of sons, Jody (born 1934) and David (born 1935). Another son, Peter, arrived much later, in 1955. The McCreas would make two more films together, the Westerns Wells Fargo (1937) and Four Faces West (1948).

A home on the ranch property, designed by architect John Byers, was completed just after Joel and Frances married. Joel and Frances led a very un-'Hollywood' lifestyle on the ranch, living in a comfortable but relatively small home heated by old-fashioned stoves. For the first few years of their marriage they could be reached only by telegram, as they didn't have a phone! Joel had a herd of cattle and also engaged in 'dry land farming,' growing oats and barley. The McCreas had many pets, including caring for animals abandoned on their property. The boys' photos were kept out of movie magazines to help them live a normal life; the boys attended local schools, rode horses, and worked on the ranch.

Frances, who had a successful career including classics such as Little Women (1933), Of Human Bondage (1934), Becky Sharp (1935), If I Were King (1938), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), scaled back her career in the '40s in order to focus more on raising her sons.

Joel, meanwhile, saw his career take off over the course of the '30s due to his acting talent, charm, and all-American good looks. He worked with many great directors over the course of his movie years, including William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, William Wellman, George Stevens, and Jacques Tourneur. Beginning in the late '40s he only made Westerns, with Shoot First (1953), a thriller set in England, being the rare exception. Joel spent 16 years as a beloved cowboy hero before mostly retiring from the screen after starring in Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962).

Joel spent many happy years after his retirement from movies, raising his youngest son Peter and enjoying his family and ranching. Joel McCrea passed away on October 20, 1990, with Frances by his side. It was their 57th wedding anniversary.

In their later years Joel and Frances had donated much of their land to charitable groups, and in 1995 the McCrea family also donated 225 acres of the ranch, including the ranch house, to the Conejo Recreation and Park District. The Ranch is now on the National Register of Historic Places. A Visitor Center was opened on the ranch on Joel's birthday in 2011.

The CRPD is working to restore and preserve the ranch and hosts periodic public events, with plans to eventually open the Visitor Center and ranch to the public on a regular basis. I've been fortunate to visit the ranch twice; it's a fascinating intersection of California ranching and film history. Extensive photos of the ranch were published on my website on November 5, 2011 and March 16, 2013.

Here's a selection of a dozen great McCrea films from Joel's long career which are available on DVD.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - One of the creepiest pre-Codes ever, based on the classic Richard Connell story about a most unusual 'hunt.' Costarring Fay Wray.

Dead End (1937) - The William Wyler classic about life on the mean streets of New York's East Side, with good guy Joel vs. bad guy Humphrey Bogart.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) - This is my favorite Hitchcock film, filled with memorable set pieces - windmills, umbrellas, an airplane crash at sea - and a sterling cast including Laraine Day, George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, and Robert Benchley.

Sullivan's Travels (1941) - The first of three films in which Joel was directed by Preston Sturges, with Joel playing the director of lighthearted fare who wants to make a 'socially responsible' picture. He becomes a hobo in order to experience the problems of the downtrodden firsthand, but he also enjoys the bonus of meeting lovely Veronica Lake along the way.

The Palm Beach Story (1942) - Joel was in a couple of the funniest movies ever made, and this Sturges classic is one of them. Joel's wife, played by Claudette Colbert, decides the only solution to their low bank account is divorce, followed by her marriage to a wealthy man. Joel doesn't take this news well, and it only gets crazier when Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor, and the Ale and Quail Club become involved.

The More the Merrier (1944) - This is another film which never fails to make me laugh. George Stevens directed Joel, Jean Arthur, and Oscar-winning Charles Coburn in this story of three housemates in a cramped Washington, D.C., apartment during WWII. In addition to being hilariously funny, it's also got one of the steamiest love scenes in movie history, as Joel courts Jean sitting on their front stoop.

The Virginian (1946) - Owen Wister's classic Western story, with Joel in the title role and Brian Donlevy as the villainous Trampas. Barbara Britton plays Molly, the schoolteacher who catches the Virginian's eye.

Ramrod (1947) - Joel plays a ranch foreman who's on the wagon after a tough time following the deaths of his wife and son. He runs into serious conflicts with his employer, Veronica Lake. A great supporting cast includes Preston Foster, Donald Crisp, Arleen Whelan, Charlie Ruggles, and best of all, Don DeFore in a surprisingly potent performance as McCrea's sexy, morally ambiguous sidekick.

Four Faces West (1948) - This atypical Western is an unsung gem about redemption and the kindness of strangers. Joel plays a good man who happens to have done something wrong -- as in robbing a bank! Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford) is hot on his trail. Meanwhile Joel falls for a lovely nurse (played by his wife, Frances Dee). Joseph Calleia is a stranger who might be friend or foe. A very special movie - don't overlook this one.

Stars in My Crown (1950) - Joel plays a rural parson dealing with small-town conflicts and problems while he and his wife (Ellen Drew) raise their orphaned nephew (Dean Stockwell). Directed by Jacques Tourneur, this film's reputation has grown with the passage of time.

Cattle Drive (1951) - This is a good example of his '50s Westerns, the entertaining story of a poor little rich boy (Dean Stockwell) who matures when he unexpectedly ends up on a cattle drive headed by McCrea. Film fans should look closely at the photo of McCrea's love.

Ride the High Country (1962) - The classic pairing of two '50s Western icons, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. It was Scott's last film and the last significant title in McCrea's career. A fitting swansong to a pair of great careers.

Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.