Gordon MacRae will probably always be best known for his unforgettable role as Curly in Oklahoma! (1955). He was an incredibly handsome dark-haired man with a rich, strong baritone singing voice. His roles were usually those of the clean-cut boy-next-door. MacRae was born Albert Gordon MacRae in East Orange, New Jersey on March 12, 1921. When he was young he started participating in drama club and began learning how to play several musical instruments. During World War II, he served as a navigator in the United States Army Air Force. In 1942, Gordon made his Broadway debut in the show “Junior Miss”. By 1947, he was signed to a recording contract with Capitol Records when he was discovered by them. Starting in 1949, Gordon began starring in movie musicals. The first was Look for the Silver Lining, co-starring June Haver and Ray Bolger. In 1950, MacRae made the first of five successful musical films with co-star Doris Day- Tea for Two.
Since I was a little girl, Oklahoma! (1955) has been one of my favorite musicals. Starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, this film is set in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma territory. It tells the story of a cowboy named Curly (Gordon MacRae) and a farm girl, Laurey (Shirley Jones), two young adults who–despite being in love with each other–are too prideful and stubborn to admit it. It takes Curly awhile to finally win her over and to fight off Laurey and Aunt Eller’s ranch hand, Jud Fry (Rod Steiger), who is also romantically interested in Laurey–to a really creepy extent. The movie is led by a vivacious supporting cast including Gloria Grahame as Ado Annie, Eddie Albert as the smooth-talking peddler Ali Hakim, and Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller. If you’re like me and you love old romantic musicals, I highly recommend watching Oklahoma! if you’ve never seen it. Gordon MacRae’s performance is one that I personally believe made him a true talented heartthrob. I’m not sure how long I’ve had a crush on Curly, but I suspect I have since I was a little girl. Every time I watch the movie there’s no doubt I love him. Every time I hear him sing “People Will Say We’re in Love” and every time I watch him propose to Laurey, I get the “butterflies in my tummy” feeling. It must be true love.
Gordon and Shirley worked together again the next year for the second and last time in another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical- Carousel (1956). The tone is much different than in Oklahoma! but MacRae and Jones are wonderful together yet again. MacRae shines in his role.
* Side note: I’ve heard that there will be a showing of this Oklahoma at the TCM Film Festival this year–newly restored–which I’m sure will be fun to watch on the big screen. Unfortunately I will not be attending this year.
On Moonlight Bay
One of Gordon MacRae’s other films I want to highlight is called On Moonlight Bay (1951). This was the third film he made with Doris Day. The movie is set just before World War I in a small town in Indiana. MacRae plays William Sherman, an ambitious but money-loathing college student who lives across the street from tomboy teenager Marjorie Winfield (Doris Day). At the beginning of the movie, Marjorie only cares about baseball and doesn’t seem to even realize boys exist. This all changes when she meets William one day. When she realizes she may have feelings for William, Marjorie decides to ditch her baseball garb and opts to dress like a “proper” young lady. She even decides to take dancing lessons to impression William. There is a lot more that goes on in the movie, but I won’t give any more of it away for those who have not seen it. It’s worthwhile to mention that this movie has a great supporting cast. Perhaps my favorite screen father figure ever, Leon Ames, stars as the patriarch of the Winfield family. His character is very similar to the character he played in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): stern, and at times moody; but completely lovable and really funny. Rosemary DeCamp plays Mrs. Winfield, Billy Gray plays young Westley Winfield (a hilarious performance given by Gray), and Mary Wickes plays the family’s wisecracking maid, Stella. For fellow fans of Meet Me in St. Louis, On Moonlight Bay is comparable to that film in several ways (Leon Ames portraying the family father in both films is just one). It may not be quite as great as the latter, but for a light romantic comedy musical, it’s fantastic. For someone like me, watching 90 minutes of that stuff is heavenly.
Gordon was married to his wife Sheila (who actually just passed away about one week ago) from 1941-1967 and they had four children: Meredith, Heather, Gar, and Robert Bruce MacRae. After they divorced, Gordon married Elizabeth Lamberti in ’67 and they had one child: Amanda. They were married until his death. MacRae’s later life was unfortunately not an entirely happy one. In the late 1950s and 1960s, he began drinking heavily and eventually became an alcoholic. He went on to receive help and by the 1970s recovered from his alcoholism and even began helping others who were dealing with their own struggles. When he sobered up, he continued to record music and appear on television. In 1982, he suffered a stroke but kept performing when his health would allow him to. In 1986, Gordon MacRae died at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska from pneumonia, which resulted from complications from cancer of the jaw and mouth. He was 64 years old.
I wish there were more people today who knew the name of Gordon MacRae because he deserves to be remembered for being a great actor and–in my opinion–one of the finest singers in Hollywood history and one of the handsomest leading actors during the Golden Age.
Happy birthday Gordon. I’ll always love you.