Joel McCrea may be no one’s favorite movie star from the 1940s and 1950s, but he’s certainly one of mine. His four truly memorable movies (Sullivan’s Travels, Foreign Correspondent, The Palm Beach Story, The More The Merrier) were all made before 1945, and his big comeback in Sam Peckinpah’s debut Ride the High Country didn’t herald much of a revival. Yet if his status as a high-profile leading man was short lived, his term on the B-list kept him as a familiar face. Being an actor made McCrea rich, and he parlayed his success into major real estate successes. As his Wikipedia article explains, he considered himself a rancher first and thought acting merely a hobby. I don’t know much about his ranching career, but he made 90 movies – that’s some hobby.
Turner Classic Movies recently dedicated a day to McCrea’s films, so I’ve been going through a few of those B-movies. In those, it’s hard to see the easily bamboozled yet unabashedly confident comedic lead of Preston Sturges’ movies. In those movies, Sturges makes McCrea’s staunch integrity both lead-up and the punchline to his jokes. McCrea is not the milquetoast that Henry Fonda plays in The Lady Eve, or the common-sense philosopher that Brian Donlevy plays in The Great McGinty, but as in most of Sturges movies, he’s the goof who happens to catch the attention of near-perfect women.
By the 1950s, McCrea was starring mostly in low-budget Westerns. A look at his IMDB page makes that abundantly clear. The best of these is generally thought to be 1955’s Wichita, directed by Jack of all Trades Jacques Tourneur. Tourneur directed everything from Cat People to Out of the Past, and therefore this umpteenth version of the Wyatt Earp story takes on some of those themes of alienation and moral ambiguity. When we first see McCrea’s Earp, he’s traveling from the distance and approaching a team of cowboys who we assume are the heroes. As this smart review notes, Tourneur quickly establishes Wyatt as the outsider who provokes trouble and brings it back tenfold, even though he’s framed as a good and moral man. After skirmishing with Lloyd Bridges (!), he arrives in the titular town to banners reading “Everything goes in Wichita!” Earp wants to start an honest business, but he quickly establishes himself as a natural lawman in a town that advertises itself as a booze-filling station for frontier-mad cowboys. When a young boy is accidental shot by a group of drunken cowboys, Earp finally takes order and reluctantly accepts the role of Marshall.
Once there, an interesting civic conflict is established. Wichita is supposed to be “”Babylon on the Arkansas River,” yet Earp creates a stringent and reactionary no-gun policy. The townspeople and saloon owners need the commerce from those who don’t want to be told what to do, and Wyatt refuses to submit, which his enemies see as chasing out potential business. The Wyatt Earp legend has always been expertly told hagiography, but Tourneur undercuts that by making Wyatt a killjoy and a bit of a jerk. He refuses drinks, threatens his debaters, and becomes almost as much a villain as the scoundrels he rushes out of town. It’s as if a humorless high school principal were the protagonist of Porkys. If McCrea comes across as uncommonly decent and unfailingly polite, it’s at the service of a rigid and violent vision of civilization and order. It’s also strange that the 50 year old McCrea plays the young Wyatt Earp, before his defining adventures in Dodge City and Tombstone (particularly in contrast to the boyish Henry Fonda as the older Wyatt in My Darling Clementine). Westerns constantly take on the civilizing of the frontier as a narrative trope that the hero fulfills, but Tourneur questions that progress through McCrea’s intense, humorless, and often unsympathetic high moral crusading.
Perhaps because Wichita was a box-office success, his next movie took on another legend and recycled the basics. The First Texan casts McCrea as Sam Houston, once again an outsider reluctant to become involved in a civic issue. Pushed to action through coincidence and circumstance, McCrea again plays a character who is alternately a paragon of masculinity and an all-knowing iconoclast whose controversial tactics provoke dissent. The First Texan is seemingly a safer, much more patriotic movie, directed by journeyman Byron Haskin. But Haskin seems to have more up his sleeve by making the Texas conflict rash and small-minded until Houston’s participation legitimizes it. We never see the battle at the Alamo, for instance, so whether it was the mythic heroism we’ve always read about, or the fool’s mission that Houston originally predicted is never quite clarified. The movie openly questions Manifest Destiny by making its hero initially a critic, driven to action through revenge more than American exceptionalism. When Houston forms his own militia to fight Santa Anna, we’re frequently put in the perspective of his mutinous soldiers who constantly doubt him. Though history is on Houston’s side, this is a jarring point of a view to observe another character and series of events that are often described in more mythic terms. Again, McCrea – remember, once a screwball comedy icon – is a stoic outsider who rarely smiles and refuses to be on the inside until it conforms to his ideals.
There’s more to be said, particularly in the stilted romances of the two movies that both operate along the same lines: his paramour is the daughter of a prominent person who needs his civic investment. Yet these romances don’t do much to humanize McCrea. Rather, McCrea makes these rigidly virtuous warriors into something beyond human, and he’s willing to be the centerpiece of a vision that does interesting things with the genre.