Travel: McCrea Ranch

Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

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McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.

Movie Review: The Virginian (1946)

Movie Review: The Virginian (1946)

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Almost any movie starring Joel McCrea (1905-1990), who’s known for his Westerns as well as leading roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific, George Stevens’ The More the Merrier, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels, is worth seeing just for him.

As host Robert Nott explained before a recent screening of The Virginian (1946) at The Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park, Southern Californian McCrea carried an easygoing way about him; he was a true gentleman and horseman—a rancher, not merely a movie star, as he informed the IRS when they came after him (and lost, by the way)—and he was a proud Western rancher. Nott says his family still runs one of the original ranches in New Mexico. McCrea, Nott asserted, captures “Americanism, realism and romanticism.”

Yes, indeed, he does, in all of those movies and especially in The Virginian, not to be confused with other fine versions and the later TV adaptation. It’s a fine story, based on the Western novel by Owen Wister, about an individualist in the West. McCrea plays the title character, which is what he goes by in a Wyoming town that’s on the cusp of civilization but still in the Wild West. In from the East comes a feisty schoolteacher (fetching Barbara Britton) to bring the growing town into the modern age and, predictably, her presence puts the whole town off on opposing sides of law and order. In this way, The Virginian is deft and raucous at once, letting the joy of courting the pretty new woman in town test each man’s character and bring his true nature to the fore.

Three men represent the good, the bad and the mixed and this is what powers the movie. Sinister Trampas (Brian Donlevy) is the standard Black Bart type, a scoundrel from the outset who’s as intent on stealing cattle as he is in first trying to steal the teacher at the saloon. He’s a rat, to be sure, and a coward when it comes to backing up what he’s done. Donlevy nails the type with the right amount of slime. The man in the middle of the road, Steve (well played by Sonny Tufts) provides the moral of the film. Steve’s the jolly fellow who goes along with the Virginian without much thought, a true ‘pardner’ to a point and a cheerful rival for the pretty teacher’s affections.

Steve’s all smiles throughout the boiling of the coming conflict between Trampas and the Virginian, who expertly rides a horse, thinks in advance and sweeps the lady off her feet, which upsets her uppity Eastern sensibilities. But Steve’s good time cattle rustling with the Virginian ends when Trampas raises the stakes and, in a line about the West that applies today as much as ever, “times are changin’ and a man’s got to figure out who he’s lined up with.” What happens next is heartbreaking, particularly for the benign but uncompromising Virginian, whom someone says “takes life too serious.”

This the Virginian does, which is why he is the movie’s hero, taking account of the townspeople, the conflict and the lady and factoring what’s likely and what’s right by reason and setting the town on the right track by his best effort. Strong and handsome Joel McCrea shines in the role and this picture displays why he is one of the screen’s greatest stars. His Virginian rides fast and endures the results of his mistakes with grit. He winces when there’s pain and strives to understand the new West but he is supremely self-confident when he acts, including when he takes Britton’s fresh-faced sophisticate, who is too much the conformist to deserve him, into a dazzling dance.

Look for I Love Lucy‘s William Frawley as a crusty cowhand. Fay Bainter steals every scene with crisp, true lines as the teacher’s hostess and would-be mentor; some of the film’s best moments come when she instructs the dainty Easterner in what being a Western woman means in practice and principle and puts Britton’s silly objections in perspective. The Virginian was adapted by Howard Estabrook from Wister’s novel and stage play by Kirk La Shelle and Wister and written by writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, directed by Stuart Gilmore and produced by Paul Jones for Paramount.