We are delighted to participate in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea blogathon. Toby is the mastermind behind the always-delightful 50 Westerns From the 50s blog (see link to your right), and Western lovers – and you know who you are – should visit regularly.
Joel McCrea (1905-1990) has long been one of our favorite actors. He was equally terrific in comedies, dramas, love stories and westerns. It would be hard to select a single McCrea performance as his definitive role, as it is really the body of his work that is most impressive. Some actors – Clark Gable, Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart come to mind – often play extensions of themselves. Their screen personas are so clearly delineated that they all play within the confines of their screen characters.
But McCrea’s art was more subtle. It’s not that he always played himself so much as he always played … us. One of the great (and certainly the most missed) inventions of the mid-20th century was the idea of the American Everyman. Sometimes comedic, sometimes crusading, always savvy, unfailingly honest and always representative of the best in ourselves, the American Everyman was an idealization that did not strain the truth. This is how Americans once saw themselves, and few actors better exemplified the American Everyman, with all his flaws and virtues, better than McCrea. We didn’t want to be him, but, on our best days, we were him.
It’s not surprising that McCrea would eventually morph into a western specialist. The West is the defining American myth, and McCrea was our surrogate in that world. Whether opposing outlaws, crooked business interests, Washington fat cats or homicidal Indians, McCrea met the challenges of the West with honesty, integrity and modesty. McCrea was the natural choice to play many of the great figures of the West, Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody among them, because we would like to see these great figures much like we like to see ourselves. He made them real by making them like us.
It is too easy to forget how terrific an actor he could be when rising to a challenge. There are two versions of Lillian Hellman’s (1905-1984) 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, and the 1936 version, called These Three and staring McCrea and directed by William Wyler (1902-1981), is easily the best.
Wyler would remake the film himself in 1961, with James Garner (1928-2014) in the McCrea role. Because the play deals with two women teachers who find their lives ruined when a little girl accuses them of a lesbian relationship, one imagines that the later film would be superior, if for no other reason than Wyler could openly address the scandal. However, that is not the case: Wyler’s handling of the situation in 1936 actually has great emotional resonance and honesty. His 1961 film is so over-the-top in its hysteria, that it lurches into melodrama, and then camp.
With his 1936 cast, Wyler had to change the story to fit the Hays Code: here, a little girl (the magnificent Bonita Granville – justifiably Oscar nominated) ruins the lives of teachers Merle Oberon (1911-1979) and Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972) by starting the rumor that the women are involved in a ménage à trois with local doctor, McCrea. As a result, their school is ruined and they are later financially crushed when they unsuccessfully sue for libel.
McCrea – quietly heroic, rankling at injustice and eager to set things right – stands by both women. It’s not that McCrea has any showy scene or overly dramatic monolog: no, it’s his presence. Here once again McCrea is our surrogate, doing his best in an unwinnable situation … much as we hope we would behave ourselves. In the later film, Garner (usually a more subtle actor) broadcasts at high volume his integrity and decency, becoming a cartoon. McCrea just … is, the perfect friend and protector that we would want to be.
Amazingly, Wyler wanted to replace McCrea with Leslie Howard (1893-1943), which would have been a catastrophe. A terrific actor (in fact, a better actor than McCrea), Howard would have played his helplessness in the situation, providing only dignified weakness, much like his turn in Gone With the Wind (1939). The friction between Wyler and McCrea is not evident, and one wonders if he changed his mind after the finished film.
One final note – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves reflect our points of view and how we interact with the world. That sense of a national identity – and American Everyman – is impossible in our currently fractured state. Wouldn’t we be better off if we had a presence like Joel McCrea … who reflected the best impression of ourselves?
One cannot help but think that we need a hero, not a figure in tights with superpowers, but one who embodies the best qualities in Americans as a people. I, for one, would certainly welcome the return of more actors like Joel McCrea.