Happy 111th Birthday, Joel McCrea!

Joel McCrea, who was born 111 years ago today in South Pasadena, California, is a favorite of ours. Though he eventually settled into a long run of western pictures, he had previously proven to be adept at many other types of roles, too, from screwball and romantic comedies to thrillers and dramas. Here are 10 JM Did-You-Knows:

  • McCrea’s father was an executive with the L.A. Gas & Electric Company; his mother was a Christian Science practitioner. McCrea had a paper route, delivering the Los Angeles Times to D. W. Griffith and other prominent members of the film community.
  • McCrea graduated from Hollywood High School and was a member of the class of ’28 at Pomona College. While in college, he took drama courses and appeared in school productions and also in plays at the Pasadena Playhouse.
  • While in high school, McCrea was already working in the film industry. An adept horseman, he worked as a stunt double and “reins holder” for stars such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix.
  • Just out of college, McCrea signed with MGM, appearing in The Jazz Age (1929) and earning his first lead role in The Silver Horde (1930). In 1930, he signed with RKO and began to establish his reputation as a handsome leading man.
  • McCrea was good friends with Will Rogers, and the Oklahoma cowboy did much to boost McCrea’s career. It was Rogers who encouraged McCrea to put his money into real estate, and that advice made McCrea a millionaire. In fact, he earned more money in real estate than he did as an actor over his 50-year career.
  • Katharine Hepburn, close friends with McCrea and his wife, actress Frances Dee, admired McCrea’s abilities as an actor, ranking him with Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy.
  • McCrea came by his affinity for all things western—roping, riding, ranching—naturally. His grandfather was a stagecoach driver who survived confrontations with Apache Indians.
  • McCrea turned down the lead role in The Postman Aways Rings Twice (1946) that eventually went to John Garfield.
  • McCrea got to meet Wyatt Earp in 1928 and had the chance to portray the western legend in Wichita (1955).
  • McCrea had the opportunity to reunite with his The More, The Merrier (1943) costars, Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, in The Impatient Years (1944), but declined the role, which would have found him playing a serviceman, saying, “If I’m too old to be called, I was too old for that kind of show.”

Happy birthday, Joel McCrea, wherever you may be!

Joel McCrea

Happy Birthday, Jean Arthur!

We recently read John Oller’s biography of Jean Arthur, who was born 115 years ago today, and it was a little disheartening. For all her success and acclaim, Arthur, born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York, seemed rarely, if ever, to find contentment. She was prickly in dealing with others and seemed generally dissatisfied with her lot, even if, to those of us assessing her life and career from the outside looking in, she had it pretty darned good (but of course, we’re in no position to truly know).

Eccentric and difficult as Arthur may have been, her voice was a comedic gift from the gods. Director Frank Capra once described it as “a thousand tinkling bells.” Susan King in the Los Angeles Times termed it “an almost undescribeable blend of a squeak and froggy croak.” And strange as it may seem, they’re both right—sort of.

Jean Arthur quote

Arthur developed a sense of comic timing that was nearly unparalleled, and we wish she’d been paired at some point with the great Preston Sturges (she did star in Easy Living [1937], a movie Sturges wrote, but Mitchell Leisen ably handled the direction of that delightful picture).

But seriously, consider the roster of comedy classics that Arthur starred in; few actors could top it: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), If You Could Only Cook (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Devil and Miss Jones, The Talk of the Town (1942), The More the Merrier (1943)…the list goes on.

Jean Arthur is one of the few actors whose name in a cast list is enough to convince us to watch a movie we know nothing else about. If you’re not familiar with her work, a fine place to start is George StevensThe More the Merrier, which has the added bonus of Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn starring opposite Arthur, and features the sexiest scene you will ever see in a 1940s romantic comedy. We won’t spoil the surprise, just watch it. You’ll know it when you see it.

Happy birthday, Jean Arthur, and thanks for the laughter!