This week my travels in California continue with a visit to the Joel McCrea ranch and a chance to go behind the scenes at this property which is not yet open to the public.What I am learning and the contacts I am making hold great promise for my project.
Down The Road with the Original Buffalo Dale
Welcome back. In response to many requests this week and next I’ll be bringing you the in-depth story of a man I recently wrote about who despite his huge success in the golden age of film stayed true to his roots, living the simple life of a cowboy whenever he could.
Joel McCrea was born just outside Los Angeles, California on November 5, 1905. His paternal grandfather had been a Calvary officer and a stage coach driver and his mother’s parents were “49ers” who had come to California in a covered wagon. Growing up in a middle class family Joel went to grade school in Hollywood with the children of Louis B Mayer, Cecil B. Demille and Douglas Fairbanks. He got his first real job in 1914 delivering newspapers in the area and many of his customers were the silent screen stars of the time including William S. Hart. By the time he was in his teens McCrea was a strapping 6 feet 2 inches and very handsome. He also rode horseback very well and started doing double work for actors which led to small acting parts in films. In 1927 while portraying a football player in The Fair Co-Ed he was spotted by William Randolph Hearst who immediately took a liking to him and started telling all his movie friends that Joel personified an All-American boy.
Although he would rather have been on a horse with a rope in his hands working cattle, McCrea’s natural good looks and charm were more and more in demand in the film industry. The year was 1931 and fame was coming on fast. He was now always in the company of female stars such as Constance Bennett, Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford but he met his true love when a studio arranged a date with another upcoming star named Frances Dee. Joel never smoked or drank and in between movies he preferred to be in the country avoiding the Hollywood scene which was something he and Frances had in common. She had been an extra on the Paramount lot before a recent starring role in The Playboy of Paris with Maurice Chevalier made her famous. Then in 1933 when Joel and Frances co-starred in The Silver Cord the two fell madly in love and married on October 20, 1933 in Rye, New York where Frances was on location. Despite the Hollywood trend, their marriage lasted until Joel’s death fifty-seven years later.
Frances was a real perfectionist in her acting and encouraged Joel to take his craft more seriously. When his new friend Will Rogers recommended Joel for the juvenile lead in Lightnin it was the beginning of a long and successful career. His first big film for MGM was Wells Fargo followed by The Barbary Coast directed by Howard Hawks with Edward G. Robinson and a young Walter Brennan.
During these years Joel and Will Rogers became close friends and the pair rode together regularly on Will’s Santa Monica ranch. In later years after Rogers’ tragic death, Joel would credit Will for encouraging him to buy his own ranch. Will had told him “You need to get out of this town regularly to get a perspective on it and there’s no better place than the back of a horse herdin’ cows…”
Next week I’ll continue the story of Joel McCrea who always listed his occupation as rancher on his tax return and was proud to show the calluses on his hands to prove it. If you can’t wait to learn more about the ranch go to McCreaRanchFoundation.org. Till next week from his ranch I’ll see ya down the road.