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, Mary Carlisle!

There are precious few stars of the 1930s who are still with us today, but Mary Carlisle, born Gwendolyn Witter in Boston, Massachusetts, 102 years ago today, is still going strong, bless her heart.

The last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars (an annual promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers from 1922-1934 that honored 13 young actresses [the number was 15 in 1932, the year Carlisle was honored] whose careers showed great promise), Carlisle was discovered in 1928 by studio executive Carl Laemmle, Jr. while dining at the Universal Studios commissary. She was just 14.

Mary Carlisle

In 1930, Carlisle signed a one-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, appearing mostly as a dancer in musical shorts, but it was with Paramount Pictures that she would achieve her greatest success. She appeared opposite Bing Crosby in three films—College Humor (1933), Double or Nothing (1937) and Doctor Rhythm (1938)—and would go on to appear in more than sixty pictures in the course of her 14-year career, most of them “B” pictures with titles reminiscent of the early scene in Preston SturgesSullivan’s Travels, in which successful but artistically frustrated director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is reminded of some of his greatest successes: Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Hey Hey in the Hayloft, and So Long, Sarong.

Think some of Carlisle’s pictures couldn’t have been plugged right into that dialogue, titles like Hotel Haywire (1937), Ship A Hooey! (1932), and Handy Andy (1934)? But we’d pay good money and line up early to see that triple feature tonight, if only some bijou were screening it.

Carlisle was wed to actor James Edward Blakeley (he would go on to become an executive producer at 20th Century-Fox) in 1942 and retired from motion pictures soon thereafter. But more than five dozen pictures is nothing to sneeze at, nor is being vital and alert at the age of 102, which, by all reports, our Mary is.

Happy birthday, Mary! We hope you enjoy a truly grand day!

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!