Cooking with the Stars: Joel McCrea’s (and Frances Dee’s) Boot Kicking Range Top Casserole
As the leaves have started to fall from the trees and I’ve begun bringing out the autumnal decorations in the house, my mind has been wandering towards comforting fall dishes made by the stars.
Of course classic Hollywood came out in full force in the cookbooks and magazines of yesteryear, and many recipes are still available that revolve around Thanksgiving and fall. However, I knew that I was onto something when I discovered that my newest classic film star crush, Joel McCrea, celebrates his 114th birthday on November 5th and that I had a delightful and homey-looking recipe of his in my archives!
While you might not feel compelled to make this western-style dinner when you’re surrounded by your family and friends on Thanksgiving, I do feel like this would make quite the dish to cook at home when you want a full belly and some food to put you at ease, and to me, that’s what this season’s all about. I hope you read on and learn more about this hunk of an actor and find out all about his dish fit for the strapping cowboy of the silver screen!
Joel McCrea was born on November 5, 1905, in Pasadena, California to Thomas McCrea, an executive with the Los Angeles Gas & Electric Company, and Louise “Lou” Whipple, a Christian Science practitioner. From an early age, Joel mingled with those in the entertainment industry, as one of his first jobs was maintaining a paper route which included the homes of stars and filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille. Throughout his youth, he had many opportunities to find himself in Hollywood as he not only witnessed the filming of D.W. Griffith‘s famed Intolerance (1916), but also starred as an extra in various features and serials.
By the time he graduated from Hollywood High School, which he attended alongside future director of his work Jacques Tourneur, Joel stood tall at 6’2½” and worked as a stunt double and horse handler for some of the most prominent western stars in the business such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix. He also attended Pomona College, the alma mater of fellow leading men like Randolph Scott, Robert Young, and Victor Mature, and acted on stage, took classes in drama and public speaking, and appeared regularly at the Pasadena Playhouse.
It was during one of his jobs as an extra that McCrea got the chance of a lifetime, as he was chosen out of the crowd for a major role in The Jazz Age (1930). That opportunity only led to greater ones, and it wasn’t long before multiple studios took notice of the promising newcomer.
MGM was the first to sign the budding actor and gave Joel his first leading role in The Silver Horde (1930), but at first, Joel was difficult to place in any one studio or character type. His time at MGM lasted less than a year, and from there he dabbled in westerns at Fox with Will Rogers, who became one of his closest friends in Hollywood and one of his greatest supporters.
However, what really gave Joel’s career the chance to skyrocket were his portrayals of sexy leading men in a variety of steamy pre-codes such as Girls About Town (1931) at Paramount along with Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman and Bird of Paradise (1932) at RKO with Dolores del Rio, the latter of which caused great controversy over its nude scenes yet at the same time gave him some much-needed and deserved notoriety.
From there, McCrea established himself as a handsome leading man capable of excelling in a variety of roles, and he maintained a steady career doing just that throughout the remainder of the 1930s in films like The Silver Cord (1933), which introduced McCrea to Frances Dee, who would become his wife of fifty-seven years until his passing in 1990.
While he continued to be a moderate box office success and delightful onscreen presence throughout this decade, it was the 1940s which would associate him with some of the most influential movies and directors of his era, starting with his collaboration with Gregory La Cava in the heartfelt drama Primrose Path (1940) with Ginger Rogers. The peak of his career continued with another dramatic role in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Foreign Correspondent (1940), but by 1941 director Preston Sturges discovered McCrea’s knack for comedy and cast him in what I believe is one of Hollywood’s greatest takes on itself: Sullivan’s Travels (1941). That feature was soon followed up with the even more successful The Palm Beach Story (1942), and soon George Stevens decided to use his talents for Joel’s third popular comedy of the decade: The More the Merrier (1943).
The remainder of the 1940s bounced McCrea around from genre to genre, by the decade’s end he had found his true calling and what he loved best: westerns.
McCrea was later quoted as stating, in an interview from 1978: “I liked doing comedies, but as I got older, I was better suited to do Westerns. Because I think it becomes unattractive for an older fellow trying to look young, falling in love with attractive girls in those kinds of situations…. Anyway, I always felt so much more comfortable in the Western. The minute I got a horse and a hat and a pair of boots on, I felt easier. I didn’t feel like I was an actor anymore. I felt like I was the guy out there doing it.”
Thus, Joel made a career move similar to that of James Stewart and Henry Fonda and made a success of his western leading man image in works such as The Virginian (1947), Colorado Territory (1949) (my personal favorite), Frenchie (1950), Wichita (1955), and The Tall Stranger (1957).
He effectively remained in the western genre for the rest of his time in motion pictures, most famously reuniting with one of the other most well-known western performers in the business, Randolph Scott, for the critically acclaimed Ride the High Country (1962). It was one of his final films before his retirement in 1976.
For his work as an onscreen cowboy, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. McCrea ultimately lived the cowboy life offscreen as well, settling down in a ranch of his own that he maintained with his wife and sons. Even though Joel McCrea passed away from pneumonia on October 20, 1990, at the age of eighty-four, The Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation is still active, led by Joel’s descendants, and continues to welcome visitors.
Joel McCrea and Frances Dee’s
Boot-Kicking Range Top Casserole
This recipe is actually courtesy of the McCrea ranch and the McCrea family themselves, so you know it’s authentic! Both Joel and Frances are credited with the invention of this fry-up, so we’ll never know who cooked what, but it’s fun to imagine this couple horsing around their ranch’s kitchen, whipping this up in their cowboy boots!
- 1lb extra lean ground meat (I used beef)
- 1 onion
- 4 carrots
- 1 cup shredded cabbage
- 2 cans kidney beans
- 2 garlic buds
- Optional: Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, mushrooms, crushed red chili peppers (I used all of the above)
- Brown the meat.
- Add the onion and garlic.
- Add kidney beans, cut carrots to the mixture, add cabbage.
- Fry for 45 minutes.
I first gravitated toward this recipe for Joel McCrea, of course, but also for its comfort factor and simplicity. The brief list of ingredients and the directions that were even more brief made this casserole appealing. It’s basically a “toss these ingredients in a skillet and fry them up” kind of meal, which I hadn’t really tried in an Old Hollywood context before, so I was intrigued. The cabbage and the cooking time scared me a little bit, but I put all of my trust in Joel and Frances and made the recipe exactly as stated, with the exception of adding a little bit of butter in with the vegetables to avoid everything sticking together. Unfortunately, nothing could save these vague directions. While the combination of food worked well together, the fact that no cooking temperature or liquid is included in this recipe quickly turns Joel’s dinner idea from promising to disastrous.
Even the butter that I added on top of my constant stirring couldn’t keep this mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan and immediately burning on medium heat. It was simply impossible to cook this dish with no liquid, no oil, nothing, for forty-five minutes and not have a burnt end result. If you intend to recreate this, DO NOT replicate it exactly. It just doesn’t work as-is. If you want to make this and end up with something edible, add some chicken stock, tomato sauce, or even just plain water in with your vegetables and cook the whole thing for about twenty minutes, and I promise you’ll get a meal you can actually enjoy. I had such high hopes for this casserole, and I’ll very likely attempt it again with my own suggested improvements. The taste was still pretty good even after everything, but as it is I can’t in good faith give this recipe more than two Vincents.
–Samantha Ellis for Classic Movie Hub
Samantha resides in West Chester, Pennsylvania and is the author of Musings of a Classic Film Addict, a blog that sheds light on Hollywood films and filmmakers from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her favorite column that she pens for her blog is Cooking with the Stars, for which she tests and reviews the personal recipes of stars from Hollywood’s golden age. When she isn’t in the kitchen, Samantha also lends her voice and classic film knowledge as cohost of the Ticklish Business podcast alongside Kristen Lopez and Drea Clark, and proudly serves as President of TCM Backlot’s Philadelphia Chapter. You can catch up with her work by following her @classicfilmgeek on Twitter.