Joel McCrea

By: Brian Berger
November 5, 2014


Renowned as one of Hollywood’s great horsemen, JOEL MCCREA (1905–90) the actor — handsome, quick-witted and casually virtuous — distinguished himself more often than his spotty filmography suggests. Howard Hawks’ California Gold Rush drama Barbary Coast (1935) and Cecil B. DeMille’s railroad epic Union Pacific (1939) set McCrea against vigorous historical tableaux, while the rough but bristling Espionage Agent (September 1939) and Alfred Hitchcock’s slick but tedious Foreign Correspondent (August 1940) found him negotiating current events in war-torn Europe. Of McCrea’s three films for Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Palm Beach Story (1942) are characteristically brilliant comedies (“Who’s Lubitsch?” indeed), and while The Great Moment (1944), a dental biopic, is a brilliantly flawed anomaly, the Sturges touch remains cherishable. If William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill (1944) is sometimes workmanlike, powerful moments abound, such as McCrea shirtless, telling Cheyenne Indian Anthony Quinn “A debt is a debt, Yellow Hand.” Save The Unseen (1946), a misbegotten mystery, the rest of McCrea’s pictures were westerns, some exceptional: André de Toth’s savage Ramrod (1949); Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory (1949), a superior remake of the director’s own High Sierra (1941); Jacques Tourneur’s subtly transgressive Wyatt Earp saga Wichita (1955). Appearing briefly in the movie was its uncredited dialogue director, Sam Peckinpah, who would recognize in McCrea — and Randolph Scott, soon to embark on a superb series of Budd Boetticher oaters — the twined anti-heroes of Ride The High Country (June 1962), an elegiac masterpiece that bears comparison with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released two months earlier.

Barbary Coast

Sullivan’s Travels


Ride The High Country


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Sam Shepard, Jim Steranko, Eugene V. Debs.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).


HiLo Heroes, Movies