3 Joel McCrea Westerns

cattledrive

Looks like a Joel McCrea binge is in the works; I’ve just watched five of his 1950s westerns and really enjoyed them all. Thoughts on the first three:

frenchie

Frenchie (1950) is an enjoyable alternate universe version of Destry Rides Again, where the title character (Shelley Winters) returns to her hometown of Bottleneck and opens a fancy casino. When she was a little girl, her father was murdered by Paul Kelly and his mystery partner. Frenchie’s search for that man’s identity and her quest for revenge put her at odds with Sheriff Tom Banning (McCrea), who’s already cleaned up the town and doesn’t appreciate her snooping, her intentions, or her busy new gambling establishment. Banning stays close, watching and whittling and warning Frenchie, in the form of stories that all begin with “I once knew a man…” But Banning can’t keep the peace or stop the inevitable violence, and it’s complicated by an old love triangle and conflict with the anti-gambling townspeople, so that he ends up a wrongly accused fugitive from a lynch mob. Frenchie’s friend and mentor The Countess (Elsa Lanchester) encourages the young lady’s spunk and ambition but draws the line at shooting, John Russell is good as Frenchie’s loyal but hotheaded right-hand man, and Marie Windsor plays Banning’s old girlfriend, now married to the banker threatening to close down Frenchie’s casino. Conflict and misunderstanding includes a fun Winters-Windsor brawl, and speaking of Windsor, one odd scene is worth mentioning. When she confesses to killing her husband, she keeps her back turned to the the camera; it looked like something added or repaired in post, and deflated a good moment.

cattledrive2

In Cattle Drive (1951), spoiled little Chester Graham, Jr. (Dean Stockwell) terrorizes everyone on the train that his father (Leon Ames) is taking out West to finalize a big business deal. When he goofs off too long off at a water stop, Chester gets left behind and after some wandering is picked up by cowboys on a cattle drive. “Chet” as they call him, becomes a responsible and caring young man, thanks to the lessons he learns from tough-love mentor Dan (McCrea), jolly cook Dallas (Chill Wills), competitive and snarky Currie (Henry Brandon) and others (including Bob Steele). Loved this coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water story that breaks down the bratty know-it-all’s ego, and builds up his character through hard work and physical trials, stinging scoldings and the new-to-him experience of facing the consequences of cheating and various other disasters caused by his disobedience. The subplot, of Dan chasing his retirement dream in the form of a wild stallion he calls Midnight, nicely mirrors, marks and emphasizes “Chet’s” growth. Midnight is the reason the boy first shows some honour, when he defends Dan against insults from Currie, around the horse he learns kindness and sense, and catching Midnight is the common goal that proves Chet has become Dan’s valued and earnest companion. Nice touch when McCrea shows off a picture of his girl and it’s Frances Dee, and nice touching twist at the end when Ames, admitting his failings as a distant widowed father, adapts to take part in his boy’s enriching new interests and reclaim his role as father figure.

lonehand

The Lone Hand (1953) is another coming-of-age tale, this time with McCrea as the poor widowed father, Zachary, who arrives with his son Joshua (Jimmy Hunt) to a new town to try his hand at farming. Income and success are hard to come by, and the area is also plagued by crime thanks to a gang that includes James Arness and Alex Nicol. Father and son eke out a living, make friends, and Zach remarries, to Sarah Jane (Barbara Hale). Little Joshua is disillusioned when his father inexplicably keeps silent about a murder on their land, but he’s downright devastated when a desperate, penniless Zack joins the outlaw gang. Joshua grows more betrayed and confused as he loses both his beloved role model and his new step-mom, when her suspicions cause the couple’s split. In this role, McCrea nicely combines his usual noble, caring qualities with a startling cruelty. He seems mean, defensive and troubled by his choices and the alienating effect they’re having on his son, but the big plot twist is that he’s lying to protect the boy from the truth of his real identity and mission in that community. Beautiful Colorado scenery, action that includes a chase and fall by a gorge, surprise reveal of the evil mastermind, nice mistaken identity surprise involving Arness, another good villain turn by Nicol, and a bonus cute doggie. 

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6 thoughts on “3 Joel McCrea Westerns”

  1. You’ve just strayed way into ”Jerry’s Top Favourites” country here, Kristina!!

    Joel McCrea’s westerns have been with me all my life. They are still today among my most enjoyed movies.
    “FRENCHIE” has never seemed one of his best to me. Like Laura, Shelley Winters has never appealed strongly to me and that could be the reason. However, it has been a good few years since I saw it so I think it could be timely for a re-watch.
    McCrea is right there in his comfort zone with “CATTLE DRIVE” and “THE LONE HAND”. He is perfectly cast as the laid-back, soft-spoken cowpoke who mentors the young lad through growing pains to become a worthy trail companion in “CATTLE DRIVE”.
    If this is going to be the next Kristina ‘binge’ then please just bring it on!!

    1. Good to hear! I’ve seen so many of Joel’s “plain clothes” movies but once I started browsing through the westerns I was kind of surprised at how many I haven’t got around to seeing! So I’ll be fixing that with a few more posts like this. Really great stuff, I’m not a big Winters fan myself but enjoyed that movie otherwise, it was an interesting twist on the Destry story. But I did like the other 2 a bit better, especially Cattle Drive, what a great cast there and tough little Stockwell.

  2. McCrea’s six Universal Fifties Westerns are all
    a pretty strong set.
    I guess the best of the bunch is SADDLE TRAMP.
    My own personal second favorite is the very underrated
    FRENCHIE.
    Great mix of action and humor,stunning scenery,
    and good chemistry between McCrea and Winters.
    Most unusual shoot-out between McCrea and Paul
    Kelly,which the two actors play beautifully.
    Furthermore there is a great scene between Hank Worden and
    Paul Burns,two of the biggest scene stealers in film history.
    Lovely post,I’d love to hear your comments on the other three
    McCrea Universal’s.

    1. Many thanks John! Liked them all! This type of role is a good fit for Winters, and I’m a big Paul Kelly fan, so always fun seeing him. I have to get to Saddle Tramp in one of these batches, I’m pretty much going to run through all his 50s westerns that I can. Pretty sure I’ve seen Border River but if I can’t recall much about it then it counts as “new to me” 🙂

  3. Cool, another “binge” series! I haven’t gone through a Joel McCrea phase yet but perhaps one is in my future. 😉 These are intriguing. And a young Dean Stockwell is just delightful in any movie!

    1. And I still need to fit in the last few Ladd pics too, I haven’t forgotten! Highly recommend these 3, lots of fun and some drama with the two kid-centered ones. Stockwell did a great job in CD!

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