Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Christmas Album: Joel McCrea and Frances Dee

On our second day in that dimly remembered country called Christmas Past, we pause at a scene that might seem illusory, until you realize that the real life couple shown here bantering with a slightly amateurish member of Santa's league of helpers were Joel McCrea (1905-1990) and Frances Dee (1909-2004).

I'm dating this photo by the looks of those somewhat sharp-featured early Mickey Mouses (or would it be Mickey Mice?) lining the shelves of this well-stocked branch of Santa's Workshop, so I suspect this may have been a day in December in the mid to late 1930s. By that time the married couple, who had met on the set of the drama, The Silver Cord (1933), had reason to purchase a teddy bear or two...

They had two of the three boys they would raise at home: Jody, born in 1934, David, born in 1935, and Peter, who would come along in 1955, when Dee was 47 and McCrea had just entered his 50s. This latter occasion caused a raised eyebrow or two among the smart aleck set in Hollywood, though the McCreas certainly seemed to handle this event with their customary equanimity. It may be that this photo was taken to garner some publicity in 1937, when Wells Fargo, the second of the four films the couple made together, opened at Christmas time in theaters around the country. The pair would eventually make two more screen appearances together, in Cattle Drive (1951)--a Western without a shot fired!--and in perhaps their best collaboration, Four Faces West (1948), a tidy oater that highlighted the naturalistic acting skills of both marital partners, warmed by an interesting spark that passed between them.

The appearances of the perennially beautiful Dee on screen diminished as her family grew, but those who have seen her sometimes startlingly original acting in diverse films such as An American Tragedy (1931),* Little Women (1933), Blood Money (1933), Finishing School (1935), a nearly mute but indelible presence in So Ends Our Night (1940), and the cult favorite, I Walked With a Zombie (1943), cherish the quality of her portrayals.

In an era when many husbands felt awkward about a wife who worked, Joel McCrea had the grace and wisdom to be supportive. Later in life, Frances Dee mentioned that "I wanted to give up my career when I married Joel, but he wouldn't let me. I thought marriage, a home, husband and family were all I wanted. Joel knew I was sincere in my belief but he was wise enough to realize that sooner or later I might miss my work and blame him." An appreciative husband was not the only one who looked forward to seeing Dee's work. The noted film critic for Time Magazine and columnist for The Nation, James Agee, once wrote that Dee was "one of the very few women in movies who really had a face...and always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent...[she] has something of a novelist's perceptiveness behind the talent...[though] she has never been around nearly enough."

Rediscovered by the resurgence of interest in pre-code movies in the last two decades, Ms. Dee was once chided by a friend who scolded the actress "for playing a prostitute in Blood Money (1933)," but she denied playing such a disreputable character, explaining that she had actually 'played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac, not a prostitute.'" Frances Dee was equally down-to-earth when questioned about her role in one of her most famed pictures, producer Val Lewton's twist on Jane Eyre, in the Jacques Tourneur-directed movie,  I Walked With a Zombie. While aficionados questioned her on subtext, symbolism and motivation, Dee simply divulged that the picture was chosen by her not because of the undercurrent of romantic doom that laced the black and white film--but because of the salary--just enough to buy her mother a new car!

Perhaps that shared levelheaded quality was one of the things that kept the handsome couple together. After buying out his contract with Sam Goldwyn in the late '30s, with whom Joel McCrea had made some excellent films (especially when directed by William Wyler), such as These Three and Dead End, the actor became one of the bigger names to freelance in the studio era. A sparkling array of films resulted in the next decade as McCrea followed his own instincts, including Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), La Cava's Primrose Path (1940), Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Stevens' The More the Merrier (1943). Though he said that he liked doing comedies, the modest, soft-spoken actor began to feel awkward about his movie career. "I got older I was better suited to do Westerns," he believed. "Because I think it becomes unattractive for an older fellow trying to look young, falling in love with attractive girls in those kinds of situations." In addition to his own maturity, when McCrea looked around at the changing postwar landscape of the movie business, he concluded that "After World War Two I didn't have Preston SturgesLa Cava had gone. Those fellows sometimes burned themselves out, or, for some reason got out of it..." In private he told his wife "If I'm gonna do claptrap, I might as well do claptrap on horseback," and began to appear solely in Westerns. Several of these idiosyncratic genre movies were entertaining, and a few have become classics of their kind, including Colorado Territory (1949),  Stars In My Crown (1950), and Ride the High Country (1962). Each of these movies highlighted McCrea's fidelity to two things: his seamless craftsmanship as an actor and his own spiritual values.

Joel McCrea had earned the right to be independent. A naturally frugal man, the California native could still remember another holiday season when he was a newsboy. A customer had tipped him with a silver dollar for Christmas in appreciation of the youth's efforts to deliver newspapers on the porch when it rained. McCrea never forgot that generous reward for his conscientious attention to detail. He had a chance to remind the customer of this incident when Joel was just beginning to get work on film sets. Director Cecil B. DeMille, who liked his news dry, was moved to give the big, good-looking lad his first screen credit. DeMille's hit, Union Pacific (1939) starring McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, also helped to raise McCrea's profile in Hollywood at a time when his career was poised to accelerate. Despite the opportunities and rewards that Hollywood continued to give him, the actor managed to keep his distance from the place.

That perspective was partly achieved by choosing investments of time and money with care. The same year as the McCrea's initial meeting and rapid courtship, they purchased a thousand acres in eastern Ventura County in California. The McCrea property eventually grew into about a three thousand acre spread where the family would ride horses, work the land and raise their boys away from much of the Hollywood hubbub. The grandson of a stage coach driver who had helped to settle the frontier, McCrea would often deride his own acting, sometimes claiming that he his profession was rancher, and his hobby was acting. "The minute I got a horse and a hat and a pair of boots on, I felt easier. I didn't feel like I was an actor anymore. I felt like I was the guy out there doing it." So modest about his abilities he sometimes claimed that "I have no regrets, except perhaps one: I should have tried harder to be a better actor." At a more perceptive moment, he acknowledged that he was "a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note."

Regardless of the legacy they have left as actors, this man and wife were quite human. They stayed married for 57 years until McCrea's somewhat unexpected death in 1990, even though their long marriage sometimes included separations and a near divorce. They have left us with a wealth of memorable portrayals on film that have become more burnished with time, creating, as Joel McCrea once slyly pointed out about his films on television, "a sneak up comeback" on the public consciousness. The National Register of Historic Places has announced plans in the last year to build a visitors center on their former ranch land where they lived, raised children and cattle, and rode horses. The McCreas had donated several hundred acres of their personal property to the newly formed Conejo Valley YMCA for the city of Thousand Oaks, California, both of which celebrated their 46th anniversaries of service and community in 2010. You can see a lovely photo of part of the McCrea ranch here at R. Cooper's photography site.
Frances Dee and Joel McCrea in graceful old age.
*An American Tragedy and the McCrea's First Meeting:
While stopped at a traffic light in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, Frances Dee noticed that the young man in the car next to her at the intersection was Joel McCrea. They had never met, so when the 6'3" blue-eyed star of The Most Dangerous Game and Bird of Paradise had the temerity to tip his hat at the beautiful, well bred young actress, she thought him very fresh, since they had not been introduced. Dee, who was reportedly being courted by cosmopolitan men like Joseph Mankiewicz, Josef von Sternberg and Charles Boyer, proceeded to turn haughtily away and stepped on the gas, according to Andrew Wentink, a family friend and archivist who is reportedly working on a biography of the actress. According to other sources, McCrea may have asked RKO to cast Dee in her role in The Silver Cord, facilitating their meeting after he had seen her performance in An American Tragedy and developed a crush on this intelligent beauty. 

Film writing and Selected Journalism by James Agee, (Library of America, 2005) 

Focus on Film, Issues 26-37, (Tantivy Press, 1977)
"Frances Dee, 96, Film Star of the 30's and 40's",  The New York Times, March 9, 2004
"Interview with Joel McCrea" by Gerald Peary, The Boston Herald, March 22, 1983
Last Of The Cowboy Heroes: The Westerns Of Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, And Audie Murphy by Robert Nott, (McFarland, 2005)

Online Sources:
Remembering Frances Dee 

Laura's Miscellaneous Musings


Caftan Woman said...

You mentioned that Joel McCrea's death was unexpected. I must confess that my husband is to blame. We were at a party and the discussion fell to "most handsome stars" and my contribution was Joel McCrea. Hubby chided me that for once I could at least choose someone who was still alive. I told him that Joel McCrea was very much alive. On the way home it was announced on the car radio that Golden Age Film Star Joel McCrea had passed away. To this day, hubby checks the IMDb before saying anything about anybody being alive or dead - at least to me.

Frances Dee and Joel McCrea made a stunning and inspirational couple. 57 years is a long time and nobody is perfect. It takes true character to nurture your devotion.

Moira Finnie said...

It's amazing how powerful you are, Lady of the Caftan. I'm sure that Joel McCrea will understand that you admired his presence here on earth, and mentioning his name was not meant to attract the attention of the fates as much as his being 85 years old did. He'd been dodging those actuarial tables for quite a few decades already. But YES, that was spooky...(cue The Twilight Zone theme)...

I admire the McCreas as a couple too, as you can probably tell. Finding out that they were a team off-camera for over a half a century also filled me with awe. In Hollywood, yet.

I had liked Joel McCrea for years, (he is stunning in Bird of Paradise and The Most Dangerous Game), but only vaguely knew who Frances Dee was until the last decade when I started to see her early films. She knocked my socks off.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Patricia. Please use your superpowers for good over the holidays, won't you?

Btw, I believe that readers of this blog would enjoy knowing that the author of this comment is the fabled Caftan Woman, whose blog of the same name examines films, actors and life's cavalcade from an appreciative, warm-hearted perspective.
Cheers from your sincere admirer,

The Lady Eve said...

I would just like to say thank you for your thoughtful and in-depth post on Frances Dee and Joel McCrea. I'm much more familiar with McCrea, whose work I admire (Hitchcock, Sturges, Peckinpah)- he seems so underrated. I know Dee mostly from LITTLE WOMEN. I've gotten so much from your post - now I'm going to look into Frances Dee's films.
The picture of the two late in life is simply beautiful. Thanks again.

Moira Finnie said...

Your entirely welcome, Lady Eve. I envy you the discovery of Frances Dee's early work. Her films may be hard to find, though they are worth it. She had an extraordinary talent that may not have been fulfilled in Hollywood's marketplace by the world's standards, though she had more important things to do--like living.

I completely agree about Joel McCrea being underrated. I am hoping that TCM will be able to put together a Star of the Month focusing on McCrea's extraordinary career from silents to the seventies. I sometimes think that his subtle acting is partly responsible for his relative lack of recognition.

Btw, one thing that I didn't convey in this piece was the way that he blended comedy into even his most serious roles. The man was funny! If only he and that other neglected comic talent, Randolph Scott, could have had a chance to do an out and out farcical film together--the world would have been a happier place...for me!

The Lady Eve said...

And I completely agree with you, Moira, about Joel McCrea's comedic flair...and his subtlety. He really does deserve a Star of the Month showcase on TCM - he was so much more than "the poor man's Gary Cooper." Also agree about Randolph Scott's comic ability. As for the two as co-stars, they were so good together in "Ride the High Country," I would watch them in anything - a great team.

Laura said...

"If only he and that other neglected comic talent, Randolph Scott, could have had a chance to do an out and out farcical film together--the world would have been a happier place...for me!"

Oh, yes, definitely!

Thanks so much for your detailed post about two of my favorite people, off and on the screen. I'm very much looking forward to touring the ranch when it opens to the public.

If you haven't seen it yet, you might enjoy this tribute to Frances Dee:

Best wishes,

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for the kind words, Moira. If you or any of your clan ever find yourselves in Toronto I'd be pleased to put more water in the kettle.

SimpleGifts said...

The photo of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee in their later years says it all. These talented actors each appeared in many romance films but none of those love stories were as sweet as their own. Thank you, Moira, for the wonderful tribute. Jane

happythoughtsdarling said...

What a wonderful tribute to Joel McCrea and Frances Dee. It's refreshing to hear about two such down to earth, humble people existing anywhere, much less in Hollywood. McCrea has been one of my favorite actors for some time, and the more I find about about him as a person, the more I adore him.

The story of Joel tipping his hat at Frances and her thinking he was fresh is adorable! It sounds like something out of a romantic comedy, in fact. :)

Thanks for a very enjoyable post.



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