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Acteurism: Joel McCrea, An American Life

The Museum of Modern Art’s series dedicated to actor Joel McCrea concludes with three titles spanning the pre-Code to pre-war era.
Continuing the tradition of brisk pre-Code films, Joel McCrea’s occasional appearances in Gregory La Cava’s 1933 Bed of Roses serve as strange moral medium between the wanton hedonism of the lead Constance Bennett and the upcoming censorship of the era. Screenwriter Wanda Tuchock’s story of jail-hopping prostitutes-on-the-side seems like a victory lap for vice-ridden cinematic world of the early 30s, including flippant talk of suicide, heavily implied sex, liberal boozing, and poking fun at previous attempts of government sponsored moral judgment (“The Eighteenth Amendment is a law, and as a law should be enforced until it stops being a law”). The film begins in a prison as Bennett’s Lorry Evans and partner-in-crime Minnie (Pert Kelton) walk out of their cells, trash-talking life outside in radio-ready cadence and street-ready slang. They have short hair, hats tipped on the side of their head (I assume gravity worked differently in the early 30s to sustain this style), and slouched shoulders. Now free agents, Lorry and Minnie seek sanctuary in New Orleans, the city version of their immediate characterizations. Lorrie’s antics aboard a luxury cruiser put her in danger, leading to a rash jump overboard, only to be picked up by Joel McCrea’s Dan as his small cotton barge floats by (also en route to Nola).
The rest of the film bounces Lorry between settling down with brawny romantic Dan and mistressing with John Halliday’s Stephen, a prominent New Orleans publisher who promises an opulent lifestyle in exchange for sex. The outcome – big surprise – takes her away from her free agent life of debauchery to become Dan’s barge wife, but not before “straightening up” as a store clerk. As much as the film steps on the toes of censors (or at least people calling for censorship), it also affirms traditional moral terms: a life of sexual sin must be “redeemed” before beginning a new life. Although even this won’t be the film’s final word: McCrea’s Dan, having reunited with Lorry for the last time, admits that he’d simply overlook any misdeeds in her prior life as long as she’d pledge her allegiance to him now. Though it might seem unnecessarily finicky to point out each ethical position the film takes, such a blunt retreading of pre-Code tropes this close to the Hays Code warrants a bit of prodding. With social conservative Joel McCrea not only in the position of ethical nonchalance but as settle-down material instead of romantic fling, Bed of Roses may point to a complicated turning point in his career.
To reiterate, the film sends hints that the following are morally unacceptable: 1) most censorship by film studios or laws, 2) wanton sexual activity with intent of deception or “getting ahead” (likely directed only to women), and 3) mistress-master relationships. Completely within the boundaries of moral acceptability are: 1) sex outside of wedlock for those who “deserve” it, 2) a Catholic sort of guilt, leading to a lifetime of work for redemption, and 3), despite Dan admitting that redemption isn’t necessary, his explicit phrase of “overlooking” her past speaks to an equally religious sense of forgiveness.
Aggregating these points, Bed of Roses appeals to an overall conservative view of how women should behave, despite its prodding at explicitly sexual subject material. There’s a sort of romanticism associated with pre-Code material that values them for being more forward-thinking and titillating than their Coded successors, but Bed of Roses and films like it still only reach so far into their cultural zeitgeist. They’ll show the sexually active woman but feel the need to tame her with marriage.
What does this mean for our McCrea? Bed of Roses runs a brief sixty-seven minutes with Dan only appearing at pivotal, narrative-churning sections – likely only seven to ten minutes of screentime. With nothing to flesh out, his status as a sex symbol, boy scout, good guy, what-have-you, become stand-ins for personality, and it’s here that the cultural temperature of Mr. McCrea can be read. The future couple’s first encounter presents Lorry with a barrel-chested, rolled-sleeves barge captain – the same pragmatist from The Most Dangerous Game only now in control of his own vessel. Lorry throws Dan overboard for calling her a mermaid, only for him to climb back aboard and throw her over in revenge. It’s more of his childlike antics that’s made him endearing in the public eye, but here it also claims Lorry as a human playmate or equal rather than a problem that the system must be rid of. When she’s later seen as a deceptive harlot by publisher Stephen, she reminisces about the playful folk hero aboard the cotton barge. He’s her moral catalyst: aggressive but kind in intentions, a western lawman in the shoes of a romantic. He’s nearly as controlling as Stephen (“So help me if I ever get my hands on that dame!”) but young, wide-eyed, and keen on sweet-talking (“Everything good that’s come to me has come out of this river.”).
Most importantly, as opposed to the courting nature of previous roles in Most Dangerous Game and Business and Pleasure, McCrea’s Dan comes with intentions to wed. He’s still the adventure-prone boy from his early career, but from this point forward he must also prove that he can cover serious ground, culminating in explicit ring-bearing films (He Married His Wife,The More the Merrier). McCrea’s droll flirting and sex appeal that first made him a star must finally meet his self-serious line-reading platitudes of the grown-up lawman. The latter would steadily replace the former until any physical comedy would be seen as outliers in a personality that exudes a prototypical tough-but-fair “fiscal responsibility.” His later cowboy years were less Robert Ryan, more Ronald Reagan – noble heroism with no consequence on his public image.
1939: Joel McCrea appears in ten minutes of Archie Mayo’s 102-minute They Shall Have Music and stars in Lloyd Bacon’s pre-war Espionage Agent. For Mayo’s film, a social message movie as well as a vehicle for violinist celebrity Jascha Heifetz, McCrea dons a full drab suit (sleeves all the way down) and tends to a music instrument store. Even the stripped McCrea-isms from Bed of Roses would seem complex here as the star (he’s second-billed despite his sprinkled appearances) stands in as a symbol of socially-conscious businessman. Some of his few lines admit understanding the financial infrastructure of small businesses while still wanting to cut costs for the disenfranchised youth. All lines delivered in “aww-shucks” candor. All lines delivered while standing completely still. Opposite this, Bacon’s Espionage Agent uses a wider selection of the McCrea palette, albeit for similarly preachy purposes. As war in Europe transitioned from possibility to reality, several movie studios prepared paranoid warning films to stir the population out of isolationist comfort (even films like They Shall Have Music could be seen as a push for domestic concern). McCrea serves as the man abroad who in love with a spy (Brenda Marshall) and, through his usual aggressive nuzzling/courting, manages to reform her to the Yanks’ side. It’s a brutally straightforward, plot-intensive sort of affair with McCrea subdued in a dull suit and a long list of lines to be uttered in medium profile shot. Even with this much screentime, Warner Bros. used McCrea’s star power for a one-note symbol: nobody can resist the sex appeal of America.
The Museum of Modern Art’s “Acteurism” series focused on Joel McCrea before his ranch hand personality dominated his career, before André De Toth and Jacques Tourneur and Sam Peckinpah placed him in postwar westerns full of the political language of American reconstruction. He was a boy scout before he was a troop leader, able to branch out from bare-chested adventurer to dandy dilettante and everything in-between. Tall, tan, true-blue conservative Californian, too good-looking for his downplayed attitude to the air of celebrity, Joel McCrea became the shorthand for the ideal beer-and-game-and-God-on-Sunday sort of American. Acting for McCrea was more Protestant, patriotic duty than art form, possibly sparking all that late-career talk of not trying hard enough and caring more for his ranch and family. His particular brand of nonchalance would inform the hippie actors of the 60s looking to the mythos of Westerns for their Easy Riders and Two Lane Blacktops. His particular embarrassed approach to showbiz would warm the voting public to the political personae of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. He’ll always be known as the duty-bound, kind-hearted, all-American, sexed-up lawman. He’ll also always be the boy reading the funny pages to Charles Coburn, snickering at the very idea of doing something more adult.
Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.

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