November 5, 1905 - October 20, 1990
The Joel McCrea Blogathon is hosted by Toby Roan of 50 Westerns of the 50s. Click HERE to enjoy all the contributions to the celebration.
Handsome and athletic Joel McCrea entered the movies as an extra in the late 1920s and by the early sound era he was proving himself a valuable and versatile young leading man. Dramas include The Lost Squadron, These Three and Dead End. Adventure films such as The Most Dangerous Game and Bird of Paradise. A leading man adept at comedy, McCrea showed his chops in Woman Chases Man, The More the Merrier and the Preston Sturges classics Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story. Along with Sturges, top flight directors George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, C.B. DeMille and William Wellman knew what a treasure they had in Joel McCrea.
The man who listed his profession as "rancher" instead of actor was also particularly at home in the western. Early in his career the opportunities in that genre were surprisingly few, but of top quality including Barbary Coast, Wells Fargo co-starring wife Frances Dee, Union Pacific, The Great Man's Lady and Buffalo Bill. Today's focus is on The Virginian. After playing the title character McCrea would turn his attention exclusively to westerns. Even his cameo in Hollywood Story indicated by costume that actor McCrea was involved in the making of a western.
Owen Wister's 1902 novel The Virginian is a story, as they say, with legs, creating template basis for many of the western based stories which followed. Shortly after its successful debut the story was adapted as a play by Wister and Kirk LaShelle that ran on Broadway twice, in 1904 and again in 1905, both times starring Dustin Farnum in the title role. Farnum would recreate that role on screen in 1914 in one of Cecil B. DeMille's early directing forays. The film packs the story of the maturing of a good-natured youth through love and tragedy into a brisk 54 minutes. Less than a decade later, the story would again hit the screen starring Kenneth Harlan and Russell Simpson (The Grapes of Wrath) as villain Trampas.
Sound came to the movies in 1927 and to The Virginian in 1929 with Victor Fleming directing a dream cast of Gary Cooper as The Virginian, Richard Arlen as the feckless and doomed Steve Andrews and Mary Brian as Molly Wood. Walter Huston is an outstanding Trampas. Sounds of a cattle drive and singing are heard over the opening credits, but the rest of the film is scoreless. There is however some nice use of sound in touches such as the clicking of a gun barrel and the whistle of a quail.
PS: There's a George Chandler sighting for those into that sort of thing.
It is not a surprise that Paramount would revisit the story in 1946 and feature McCrea in the lead. The screenplay was by the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the well-regarded team behind It's a Wonderful Life, The Dairy of Anne Frank, The Thin Man and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Their version was adapted from Howard Estabrook's screenplay for the 1929 film. Estabrook was a former actor and prolific screenwriter who won the Oscar for Wesley Ruggles' 1931 version of Cimarron. Other notable titles include Hell's Angels, David Copperfield, The Shopworn Angel and The Human Comedy.
McCrea was 40 when he was cast as the Virginian. His maturity shows, but not to a disadvantage. While we don't see the onscreen antics that bond this "man with no name" and his friend Steve we understand it through their interactions. Sonny Tufts plays Steve and, as he could from time to time, acquits himself quite well in this important supporting role. A dreamer and a follower, Steve is led into a life of crime by Trampas which leads to tragedy for the Virginian and his friend.
The "smile when you call me that" scene.
Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy
Brian Donlevy often played sympathetic or comical characters, but when he came up against McCrea there was always onscreen conflict in Barbary Coast, Union Pacific, and The Great Man's Lady. Donlevy as Trampas is as nasty and craft as they come, and dressed all in black just so we don't miss it.
Molly and The Virginian
Barbara Britton, Joel McCrea
Barbara Britton makes an attractive and feisty Molly Wood, the Vermont born schoolteacher who travels west for adventure. Her stubborn pride almost gets in the way of the romance that comes her way, but the Virginian is just as stubborn so this part of the plot plays out as it should. Barbara Britton would find herself a TV pitchwoman in the 1950s as well as starring in Mr. and Mrs. North with Richard Denning. Her film career includes Champagne for Caesar, the 1955 version of The Spoilers, I Shot Jesse James, Cover Up and Gunfighters, Albuquerque and Captain Kidd with Randolph Scott.
The Virginian was the first feature directed by Stuart Gilmore, Oscar-nominated editor for The Andromeda Strain, Airport and The Alamo. He would return to that career after directing four other films in the early 50s, four westerns and the B sci-fi classic Captive Women. Gilmore directs a who's who of supporting players including Fay Baiter, William Frawley, James Burke, Joe Crehan, Henry O'Neill, Tom Tully, Paul Guilfoyle and Marc Lawrence.
The Virginian was filmed in startling Technicolor, as was Paramount's way at the time. It makes for an almost hypnotically beautiful film, but in some ways also sanitizes the grit that could be found in the story. Nonetheless, The Virginian always holds interest for an audience no matter how familiar with the tale. Joel McCrea is particularly appealing in the role and the movie holds a special place in his filmography as the stepping off to years of satisfying western entertainment for generations of fans.
PS: There's an Esther Howard sighting for those into that sort of thing.
I mentioned the story had legs, didn't I? We can also enjoy a 2000 Made-for-TV version directed by and starring Bill Pullman. James Drury, star of the popular television series adapted from the novel (1962-1971) makes an appearance in this one. There is a 2014 video re-imagining starring country singer Trace Adkins and Ron Perlman as Judge Henry. The IMDb also has the title listed in development.