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Acteurism: Joel McCrea in “Business and Pleasure”

The earliest film in MoMA’s series dedicated to actor Joel McCrea sees him playing second fiddle to more masculine Will Rogers.
The earliest Joel McCrea appearance in the “Acteurism” series features roughly fifteen minutes of screen time for the up-and-coming actor. It would be released the same year as his pivotal appearance in The Most Dangerous Game, but McCrea’s physical hesitancy and manner of speech make him appear a good ten years younger. He’d been underbilled by the enormously popular Will Rogers, appearing as a mere “with” in the poster and opening credits (though appearing above the equally huge character actor Boris Karloff, just one year after his role as Frankenstein’s monster). His role in Business and Pleasure (1932) accordingly consists of reacting to Fox Studio’s head comedic talent, a kind of “working actor” job that he’d keep accepting even at the height of his fame. RKO had experimented with McCrea as a leading man with a seven-reel Lloyd Bacon romantic drama Kept Husbands (1931), but he seemed more comfortable playing his handsome, boyish interest for the leading women as seen in this picture. Out of this comes an even more neutered McCrea, not yet flaunting the sort of economic authority he’d gain after The Most Dangerous Game, nor the all-American machismo from revealing his body on screen. Here, McCrea plays a narrative device that could have been filled by any relatively handsome actor. Perhaps a sad position in retrospect, but it was completely manageable by the actor-for-hire ranch hand.
Will Rogers, his big name taking up a fifth of the poster and his big personality filling most of the screen time, plays big razor entrepreneur Earl Tinker. Tinker is traveling to the Middle East (or, as most of the characters rather nondescriptly call it, “the desert”) for pleasure, not business—or so he tells his buddies in thick Midwestern drawl. One of these friends has learned not to trust such claims from the proud capitalist and he sicks fortuneteller Madame Momora (Jetta Goudal, in equally thick Romanian / gypsy garb and speech) to trick Tinker into revealing his true plans. Indeed, he’d been planning to buy out Damascus Steel from a local sheik (Boris Karloff with no cartoon accent) in order to corner the razor market. While Tinker learns of the conspiracy to ruin him, Joel McCrea’s Lawrence Ogle, a playwright, takes up a different goal: to win the affection of Tinker’s daughter. When the tables turn on Tinker, it’s up to effete writer Ogle to take charge and rescue him from certain death at the hands of warring, suspicious Arab tribes. 
The first shots of the film feature McCrea’s Ogle in nauseated pain from seasickness on a cruise ship, already in the position of a wimp while an unfazed Will Rogers barges in to sell him razors. That a match cut places McCrea in the same visual position as the women in the neighboring room (Dorothy Peterson and Peggy Ross, playing Tinker’s wife and daughter, respectively) would certainly not sit well with any conservative masculine audience of 1932. Some of Ogle’s first words are a whiny pair of “Oh, good heavens!” to Tinker’s offer, with subsequent oohs and ahhs to announce pain. That Rogers stands tall over McCrea in the opening scene signals both the power play of their characters in the film as well as their real-life positions in Hollywood.
Later, in the ship’s bar, what should be a channeled feeling of ill-will from the failing playwright nearly comes out as misplaced jealousy. McCrea should be playing Lawrence Ogle, Manhattan-living coastal elite, who actively despises the homespun aggressive friendliness and lowbrow taste of the proud Hoosier Tinker. Rogers channels his amiable condescension at the “show without music: a play!” he’d attended just before the trip—Ogle’s play—and chastises it for not being populist enough. McCrea’s Ogle, having previously made the remark that Tinker belongs to a group of people that “make Europeans hate Americans,” now hears Tinker’s personal assault and can only feign a sort of overemphasized anger. Will Rogers stands as the plain-spoken leading man, just a few steps away from a sympathetic idiot savant full of power-grabbing insults (“Your face is as green as pea soup!”) and Americanisms (“We’re Americans! Got our minds on our business. We advertise.”). Meanwhile, McCrea tries his hand at pretension: “Oh please, movies are the lowest form of art.” Our boy scout would come to resemble a more chiseled-face version of personal friend Will Rogers’s persona when he started calling his own shots at the studios. This history, combined with this dressy Manhattanite role, gives a clue to his rebellious overacting, something he’d correct later by doing just the opposite.
That being said, the film doesn’t necessarily take Tinker’s side. His secret meetings with Madame Momora replace the dry language of business with the seedy language of sexuality and fear of infidelity—even if he’s not literally sleeping with her, he’s still betraying his family’s trust. Without the Hays Code, this allows screenwriters William M. Counselmen and Gene Towne to fit as many euphemisms as possible into Rogers’s mouth with a running gag of “eating couscous” to shock his wife at every mention. Not only does Rogers have to balance his clownish representation of Middle America with constant power plays over Ogle, but also he’s complicated by being a clear source of relatability and shifting his moral habits. Sadly, he’s also granted such lazy lines as “Me no Baptist! Me Muhammad! Sheik in Oklahoma!” when captured by the faceless Arab tribes in the third act. His idiot savant act loses the savant bit at this point—the film’s judgment for economic adultery. Now McCrea, incentivized by winning Peggy Ross’s Olivia and claiming a straight-man authority over Rogers’s blubbering prisoner, can finally put on his camera-ready smirk and earn his merit badges. “If anyone touches Olivia, I’ll kill him!” he bellows, throwing off that high-pitch impotency for cowboy drawl. This is the man that RKO would hire back for that sure-fire actioner leaking testosterone, The Most Dangerous Game.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching these few Joel McCrea films, it’s that the quality of his performance shoots up the second his character has no interest in culture or hoity-toity intellectual exercises. Give him a girl or a horse or a gun or a knife and he’s suddenly the Joel McCrea—distant, devoid of personality (yet vaguely friendly and easygoing), not exactly progressive, but infinitely mesmerizing. Give him a book or a suit and he’ll shrivel in sight of any relative authority. Olivia Tinker affirms McCrea’s rocky performance and failure at sexual politics with a line right in the center of the film: “My father’s more of a man than any New York intellectual I’ve ever met!” McCrea would spend the rest his entire career trying to be this “more of a man.”
Part of our on-going series covering the Museum of Modern Art's series Acteurism: Joel McCrea.

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