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 98th Birthday, Anne Shirley!

We’re tardy by a day, but it’s still worth noting that actress Anne Shirley was born Dawn Evelyeen Paris 98 years ago yesterday in Manhattan. Her father died while she was an infant, and her mother, struggling to provide for her family, turned to her photogenic child, then 16 months, to help pay the bills, making young Dawn available as a photographer’s model.

From there, it was on to motion pictures. Dawn made her feature debut at the age of four and was soon showing enough promise in her film work that she and her mother made the move from New York to Hollywood, where she eventually played female stars of the pictures as young girls, among them Janet Gaynor in 4 Devils (1928), Frances Dee in Rich Man’s Folly (1931) and Barbara Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). She also appeared in a series of short subjects for Vitaphone.

As the years passed, she grew into a lovely young teenager and her roles grew in size and importance. Eventually, she emerged from hundreds who were tested to play the role of Anne Shirley in the 1934 film adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables. In the years prior, Dawn had worked primarily under the name of Dawn O’Day, but she now adopted the name of the character that had made her a star, Anne Shirley. (We can think of just one other example of an actor adopting the name of a character he or she played: Byron Barr had been acting for some years under his own name when he was cast in the 1942 film The Gay Sisters as a character named Gig Young; he was known professionally by that name for the rest of his life.)

Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley kept busy throughout her adolescence, but wasn’t given another truly standout role until, at age 19, she was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter in Stella Dallas (1937). Both Shirley and Stanwyck were nominated for Oscars for their work in that picture (Best Supporting Actress and Best Leading Actress, respectively), though neither would go on to win.

Shirley was now more in demand than ever, though her career has now entered a “one step forward, one step back” phase, with her films—and the roles she played in them—being of uneven quality. Her heart had never really been in her career—she had stuck with it largely to please her mother—and after appearing opposite Dick Powell in the classic film noir Murder, My Sweet (1944), she retired at age 26, never to return to the screen.

Anne Shirley remained in Hollywood for the rest of her life. She was married three times and had two children. She died on July 4, 1993, at 75.

Happy birthday, Ms. Shirley, wherever you may be!

Happy Birthday, Claudette Colbert!

We’ve had the good fortune to meet a few stars from the Cladrite Era—Esther Williams, Gloria Stuart, Margaret Whiting, Cab Calloway, Kitty Carlisle—and we’ve enjoyed relatively close encounters (but not personal meetings) with others, among them Benny Goodman, Richard Widmark, Fay Wray, Dickie Moore, Jane Powell, Farley Granger and Francis Dee.

Our greatest regret in this area involves Claudette Colbert, who was born 112 years ago today. In 1985, we got see Ms. Colbert, costarring with Rex Harrison, in a Broadway revival of Frederick Lonsdale‘s 1923 drawing-room comedy Aren’t We All? It was an enjoyable production, and Ms. Colbert, whom we greatly admire, was delightful. So what was the issue?

For some reason, we didn’t wait by the stage door following the show to meet Ms. Colbert. As we said, we’re big fans, and we honestly don’t know what we were thinking in passing up that opportunity, but we’ve regretted it ever since, and ever more so as we became more and more immersed in the cinema of the 1930s and ’40s, when Ms. Colbert was in her glorious prime.

Perhaps in the next life, Ms. Williams or Ms. Carlisle will help us to rectify this misstep and introduce us to Ms. Colbert. But in the meantime, we’re thinking of Claudette Colbert on her birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, wherever she may be.

Claudette Colbert quote