An Interview with Peter McCrea

 

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What is it like to watch your parents' films?

It's like having incredibly beautiful home movies, taken by some of the world's greatest cinematographers. In addition, so much of who they were came through in their roles, in their choice of roles and the way they played them.

... so much of who they were came through in their roles, in their choice of roles and the way they played them.

Watching them when I was really young was kind of strange and interesting. My brothers, Joel Dee and David are about twenty years older than I, so they saw our folks actually making films. I didn't, because Mom had me after she retired, and Pop retired when I was about five. So I just saw them on the screen, and that was a different experience. I remember, when I was maybe six, watching Colorado Territory with my dad. At the end he gets shot, and I started crying really hard. I was sitting right on his lap and he was holding me saying, "It's okay, I'm right here." But I really took it seriously and it was terribly upsetting to me.

When I was eight or so, I remember seeing Mom in a movie with John Wayne—A Man Betrayed. It was very strange seeing her with another man. It was the first time I had ever seen her in a movie with another man, so it was not a pleasant viewing. I kind of got used to it, and I talked to her about it and got past it, but it was strange the first time, as I remember.

Do you have favorites of their films?

I would say that The More the Merrier and Ride the High Country are two of my favorites of my father's, and The Gay Deception and If I Were King are two of my mother's. I think my parents would pick those as well. I also admired Union Pacific and Four Faces West (known to be the only western ever made where no gun was fired throughout the entire film).

My parents didn't absorb themselves in their roles, the way some actors do. They really were more performers, in fact Pop always called himself a performer. He chose roles that he could believe himself in and films that he believed in from a message standpoint. He didn't want to take anti-hero roles or downbeat pictures. He felt he had developed an image on the screen and he didn't want to undermine that.

Mom was a little more interested in the pure acting side. If she saw a great part she would want to take it. Pop was more careful in his analysis of the overall situation: the story, the script, the director, producer, co-star.

 

I've heard that your mother's favorite role was Mirabel Miller in The Gay Deception. Why did she like that one so much?

First of all, she loved William Wyler—a terrific director—and it was a pretty wide-ranging part, she had to cover a lot of territory emotionally. I think Mom really identified with Mirabel because, like her, Mom was raised very poor. She and her family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago. She and her sister slept on the floor of the living room. Her father was in the military; they had no money. I think she kind of felt like Mirabel Miller herself, especially when she got to Hollywood and Maurice Chevalier picked her to star in Playboy of Paris.

When Mom and Pop were engaged, she was in Washington D.C. making Keep 'Em Rolling with Walter Huston. She had some time off so she went to New York and stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, just like Mirabel did. She called Pop and said, "I'm in a room on the twenty-ninth floor, looking out at the most exciting city in the world!" I think she really felt like Mirabel in her real life at that moment.

From the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, Joel McCrea and Frances Dee announce their engagement to the press. October 20, 1933.

Pop said, "I miss you too much and I can't wait till you come back. I'll fly back east and let's get married right away." So he got on a plane. It was a big deal to fly across country in those days and Pop hated flying. He used to say, "I never like to be higher off the ground than on a horse." It was a big sign of how much he was in love with her that he flew across the country.

They borrowed a car and drove up to Rye, New York. They got married at nine o'clock at night. They woke up the minister at the Methodist church. His wife was the witness. They honeymooned driving around New England and staying in inns and Bed and Breakfasts.

 

In the film Happy Land, there's a lovely moment where your mother's character places a cornstalk in her hair and plays Indian with her little boy. Did your parents ever play "dress up" games like that with you when you were little?

They didn't do that with me. I think they had enough of it in their careers! But they loved it when my little neighbor friends and I would play Tarzan, cowboys and Indians, and army games.

Since we lived on a ranch, my dad and I would take horseback rides or walks in the hills. We would go out in the hay field and throw the baseball or football in the evening before dinner. Even when I was as young as six, Mom allowed me to build small bonfires—with her supervision. I would also create play cities with my toy trucks and bulldozers, with roads and "rivers" (from the hose) in the sand pile that Pop made for me under the trees. When I was in fourth grade, Pop and I built a great tree house that I loved. I would sometimes sleep up there.

Mom got rid of the television when I was about six years old, (Pop had an old black and white in the bunkhouse where he would watch football games) so after dinner Pop would read books to me. Some were western stories by O. Henry, Zane Grey or Charles M. Russell. I had only books until I went to college. I read books like Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and the Greek myths. I read Swiss Family Robinson thirteen times. I didn't miss TV then, and I look back at growing up without it as a great benefit now.

What did your parents read themselves?

My dad liked biographies and histories of people like Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and other historical people. When I was born, Pop was fifty, and by that time he wasn't as much into reading novels. I don't remember him reading too many novels other than John Steinbeck, who is one of my favorite authors. He read O. Henry, and loved his western short stories. When he was younger, he read several books that ended up becoming movies like The Ox-Bow Incident and Magnificent Obsession, and some others that he played in. I remember him mentioning he had read The Most Dangerous Game as a young man, and then later he was in the film.

Mom was fascinated by philosophy. She read a lot of religious books on various subjects from various denominations. She read Buddhist authors, she read Eastern philosophy authors, she read Christian authors; she read Biblical studies. She read more novels and plays than Pop—I remember her loving George Bernard Shaw. And Mom had a lot of books on art history.

 

What values have your parents impressed upon you?

A lot of things... Just by their example. They felt that how you lived your life was important. They didn't preach to me or my older brothers much. They would just say what they believed, but they weren't heavy handed about it.

Both of them were very philanthropic. They were both very charitable with the YMCA and with the Boys' Club and with charities oriented toward kids. Mom was always fighting for the little guy. When she was first starting out she would work on, sometimes, three movies simultaneously. They'd have her working all night on one while she would be shooting retakes on another in the morning and then shooting another in the afternoon. There were no restrictions on what the studios could do, and so she was part of the early days of getting the Unions together and protecting the people who had less power. Pop was always someone who had respect for working people. He started doing manual labor when he was eleven or twelve, working on a farm near his home where he grew up in Hollywood, and driving teams of horses in the hay fields.

Pop really believed in honoring your word and keeping your commitments; being on time, being professional, being prepared, doing things with your full attention and intent. He also believed in not procrastinating: "Do it now. Whatever needs to be done, do it now, don't procrastinate." And he always talked about thinking ahead. He was great at living in the moment and enjoying the moment, but at the same time, when it came to work or things that demanded responsibility, he always thought ahead.

Mom was incredibly big hearted and generous and would literally invite people off the street to dinner.

Mom was incredibly big hearted and generous and would literally invite people off the street to dinner. In fact, one night she was driving back from L.A. to the ranch and she saw some soldiers hitchhiking—this was on a Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. So she gave them a ride and then invited them to stay at the ranch. They spent the night and had Thanksgiving dinner with the family. That was just the way she was. Even when she was a widow in her eighties and she wasn't even driving anymore she would get a ride with me or a friend into Los Angeles from the ranch and then she would take the bus downtown and work in a soup kitchen. I would say, "Mom, what are you doing riding the bus?" And she would say, "I like it, I really like it. I don't want to be driven everywhere."

She would always wear old clothes when she was going down to the soup kitchen, and one time a homeless guy got on the bus and sat next to her. He had a loaf of bread, and as they were riding along he kept looking at her. She wasn't dressed up, she had no makeup on. He thought she was poor too, so he offered her his loaf of bread. She was so touched! She thought that was so kind of him. They had a nice conversation and she never let on who she was.

 

A friend sent me a newspaper article that said the McCrea ranch would be available for touring ...

Yes, the ranch will be a 300-acre public park, but I'm not sure what the schedule is going to be. It's not open yet—their budget was reduced by the state—they were going to fix up the property and do quite a bit of work, so it may be some time. [Note: As of 2011, the McCrea Ranch is indeed open to the public. The official website can be found here, and there is also a Facebook page.]

This photograph of the McCreas at the ranch in 1937 was their favorite of themselves.

I've seen pictures of dogs around the ranch. Were there family pets?

Yes, both Mom and Pop were absolutely nuts about animals. And animals loved them. Mom hadn't grown up with any animals. Pop had a burro and a dog and a cat as a young boy. He bought his first horse when he was in high school. He was an unbelievable horseman. Pop had horses in his blood from day one, and Mom loved to ride too.

At one time on the ranch, we had twenty-six cats. In those days, people would see a ranch and if they couldn't keep their cat they wouldn't always take them to the pound. They would just drop them off at the ranch figuring they would be taken care of, and they were. We had six stray females and they all had kittens...tons of cats! We had as many as nine dogs at one time...rescue dogs. Mom and Pop liked rescue dogs or dogs that were given to them, so there were a lot of mutts running around.

They had a monkey too. I've forgotten how it happened, but Mom got this spider monkey, and the monkey just loved Pop. All animals loved Pop. When I was born, the monkey was jealous of me. So they took him to a local zoo, which was a very nice place. They put the monkey in the cage with a whole bunch of other monkeys; he was playing around and was quite happy. They went into the office to sign some paperwork, and when they came out to get in the car the monkey was reaching through the cage with his arms out, calling to Pop. It broke his heart; he couldn't give him away. So they took him back. They tried to keep him away from me, but he would get jealous and they were afraid he'd bite me. Eventually a friend took him and the monkey was happy with him.

Did the monkey have a name?

Chico. That monkey was probably the most exotic animal they had. Then they had goats, which would roam wild on the ranch. Part of the ranch has some high cliffs, and the goats used to live up in the rocks. My brother Jody, one time when he was little, was up there with the goats in the rocks, and the Billy goat started pushing him toward the edge of the cliff. Pop was way down below and he saw this happening, and Jody was wrestling with the Billy goat and finally got away. Pop thought, "We've got to give away that Billy goat." The next day, Pop rounded up the goats and brought them into the corral. Then he went into the house to have lunch. When he came out, Jody was sitting in the corral with the goats. He was crying and wiping his tears with the Billy goat's ears. So Pop said, "Well, we can't give away the Billy goat now."

 

There's a lot of discrepancy about your mother's birth year: Many sources list it as 1907 ...

I have her birth certificate and it's 1909. No question.

Do you know where the discrepancy started? Was that for publicity purposes?

I don't know, because it would make her older and she said, "I don't need to be older than I already am." I think it might have been a typo that just kind of got out there. Also there was that whole thing about her real name being "Jean Dee." She was not born Jean Dee. I think at one point they maybe wanted to change her name to Jean Dee. The studio wanted to change Pop's name too, and they wanted him to have a nose job, of all things. They also wanted him to have his widow's peak clipped and have his teeth straightened. He said, "Well, what you see is what you get. I'm not going to do anything."

What did they want to change your father’s name to?

I don't remember him saying what it was. They wanted to change "Joel" more than anything. Somehow they thought it was too unusual a name. It's a Biblical name, as you know. In fact, once when he was a little kid, he was sitting in the front row of church and his mother was at the podium reading from the Bible. He wasn't paying attention, and when she announced the book she was going to read from: "Joel," he answered, "Yes, Mama?"

 

I've heard that your aunt, Margaret Dee, has a small role in Becky Sharp. Do you know where she appears?

I don't remember where she shows up. The last time I saw the film was probably twenty years ago. I have a picture of Mom and Margaret together in Becky Sharp. Margaret is being made-up and Mom is next to her.

It is also rumored that your mother appears somewhere in the film Come and Get It ...

I've never heard of her being in Come and Get It. Neither Mom nor Pop ever mentioned it, so it may not have happened.

If you notice, though, there is a funny little touch in Sullivan's Travels. In the first big scene where Pop's arguing with the producers, if you look in the background, on the wall next to his desk there is a picture of Mom. Preston Sturges did that.

Your mother was considered for the role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind. What did she think of that?

I think she was flattered. There was a screen test done of her. I saw it one time. There was a TV special on the making of Gone with the Wind and they ran all of the various clips of the actresses who were up for it. A lot of top actresses were up for it. It's interesting when you see their screen tests and then when you see Vivien Leigh, you know why she got the part. She really was the best for Scarlett. Mom was terrific and could have pulled it off, but Vivien Leigh was better, and I think Mom agreed.

I believe she was also considered for Melanie pretty seriously.

George Cukor, who was the first director on it, was really an advocate for her. But I think both he and David Selznick thought she was too pretty, that she and Vivien Leigh were both beautiful and they needed just a little more contrast. Olivia de Havilland without makeup was just enough less striking than Vivien Leigh that it was a better match. And I think Olivia de Havilland was much better casting for Melanie than Mom would have been. She was perfect.

David Selznick, several years before, had tried to encourage Pop to go out with Mom before they knew each other. He said, "There's a great girl who would be a perfect match for you." But Pop didn't want to be set up. He said to Selznick, kind of jokingly, "David, you cast the movies. I'll cast my life." But a few years later, Mom and Pop worked together on a film and fell in love.

Looking at the IMDb, I see that your mother is listed as having appeared in a recent short subject titled Far as the Eye Can See (released in 2006). Did she?

Yes, she had about twenty seconds of screen time in a short film shot in New Mexico near my brother's ranch. She had roughly ten minutes worth in the script, but it was cut for reasons unrelated to her performance.

 

Did your parents go to the movies?

They loved going to the movies forever. They would go out to the movies all the time.

I wonder what they thought of modern movies.

They weren't too thrilled with a lot of them. What Pop looked for in a film was, "Did the picture have something to say?" Pop felt that every film had a message and he just wanted to believe in what it had to say. Not that he was "rose-colored glasses," or that it had to be a cheery, happy ending...

Ride the High Country, for instance.

Right. One of the strongest points of that film was that the so-called bad guys were made broader and more human than just typical villains. The fact was that the bad guys were given some humanity, some sense of honor as they say in one of the lines. Pop recognized that. A lot of pictures that he did weren't just simple good guy/bad guy black and white type things. Like Four Faces West, where he robs a bank but he's the guy that you care about. So, I think that what he looked for was, "Did the picture give you a sense of wanting to be a good person?" That was one of the key things. Did it give you an uplifting feeling? No matter what you see in the film or what happens in the film, do you walk away feeling enriched somehow? Films that wallowed in negativity or degrading things bothered him and Mom.

There were a lot of modern movies that they did love: Dances with Wolves and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Movies that they really loved back when they were still working were The Best Years of Our Lives, Dodsworth and Ben Hur; Gary Cooper films like Meet John Doe. Or You Can't Take it With You with Jimmy Stewart. There were so many great films that were made by directors they knew or had worked with: To Kill a Mockingbird, Roman Holiday, The Searchers, The African Queen, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, The Awful Truth, All About Eve.

One thing that Mom always said was, ‘Don’t overly glorify the old days, because when you look back you can mentally blot out the bad.’

One thing that Mom always said was, "Don't overly glorify the old days, because when you look back you can mentally blot out the bad. There were plenty of terrible movies made back then. And we say, 'Oh, the good old days!' Remember, each studio made about forty films a year, and there might have been only four or five really good ones."

Pop was a bit more glorifying of the "Golden Era," he knew it was a great time to be in the business and he loved it. I think they were both right in their own way. You know the Golden Era really was Golden. If you take the greatest films from, say, 1935 to 1945 and then from 1975 to 1985, or certainly from 1995 to 2005, I think that there were more classics in the early days than in the later years.

 

Did your parents speak often of their careers in their personal lives?

Not too often when I was young. But in his later years, after I went into the business and became a film editor, Pop loved to tell me stories about his career. I taped him over the last ten years of his life.

You've told me that there are books about both of your parents in progress. Is there any word of when the books will be published?

Mom's book is basically done. It's by a very good writer and close friend of Mom's. Pop's book will be done in about a year. There are about a thousand pages of transcript to edit.

 

Could you tell me a little bit about the tribute given your mother in Massachusetts in December of 2003?

Professor David Guss is a fan of Mom's and he decided he wanted to put together a tribute at Tufts. Mom had broken her leg a couple of years before and was living with my brothers, who are both ranchers down in New Mexico. She had been bedridden since she had broken her leg and could only get around in a wheelchair. Travel was a pretty big deal for her, especially across the country at the age of 94. It was winter, so it was cold. It wasn't an easy trip, but she made it. She loved the people and she was very appreciative, and kind of incredulous. She said, "I just can’t believe that all you people would come out on a frosty night to see an old lady like me!" She was very self-deprecating.

From the on-stage interview at Tufts University in December 2003. Said David Guss, "She was still radiant."

The film they showed was I Walked with a Zombie. She never was a huge fan of Zombie—she really liked doing it, and she loved the director and producer, but she was never that thrilled with the movie. She was always kind of embarrassed that it got so much attention. (I don't remember what Pop thought of Zombie, other than he liked the mood and photography. And, of course, he thought Mom was beautiful... )

The interview she did on stage at Tufts was terrific. She was very candid and very funny; she had the audience just howling. There were quite a few of our family members there. It was a great evening, and she loved it.

The best part of her whole trip, for me anyway, was to be able to spend so much time with her. She had been living in New Mexico for two years. I had been able to see her only on vacations in the summer and at Christmas. But when she got back east, she ended up coming to Connecticut where my wife and I live. Because she needed 24-hour care, she stayed at a Sunrise Assisted Living home very close to our house. She liked it and enjoyed staying there and I could see her every day. I got to spend time with her which I wouldn’t have had if she had stayed in New Mexico.

We didn't know it then, but those where the last few months of her life. I was with her when she passed away in March, 2004. On that morning, I had some classical music on the stereo in her room. Mystically, while my favorite piece of music happened to be playing, (The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams) Mom passed on. It was as though she had scored her own passing. She gave me the gift of life, and in a way, it seemed as though she was giving me a gift even in her death. Every time I listen to that piece, I can remember her. It was the most moving experience of my life.

Copyright © 2005, 2007 Carrie Gerringer