Frances Dee, 94; Actress and Wife of Actor Joel McCrea

Times Staff Writer

Frances Dee, an actress of the 1930s and 1940s whose 57-year marriage to the late actor Joel McCrea was one of Hollywood’s most durable, has died. She was 94.

Dee died Saturday in Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Conn. She had been visiting her son, Peter McCrea, in Westport, Conn. He said Monday that she suffered a stroke, fell and broke her leg and died of pneumonia.

Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, who had known Dee since she signed with the studio as a contract player in 1929, a year after he joined the staff, said Monday that Dee was one of the most beautiful women ever to grace Hollywood.

Lyles said the ingenue, who had appeared as an uncredited extra in a half dozen films, was lunching with actor Stuart Erwin in the Paramount commissary when Maurice Chevalier saw her. Dazzled by the young brunet, Chevalier demanded that she be cast as his leading lady in “Playboy of Paris,” which was released in 1930. The film made her a star.


Dee appeared in more than 50 motion pictures in a career that lasted a quarter of a century. Her better-known husband appeared in 86 films. Among her best-known roles were as Meg, opposite Katharine Hepburn, Jean Parker and Joan Bennett in the 1933 version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” and as the nurse and narrator of the 1943 cult film “I Walked with a Zombie,” based on Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”

“I just thought it was a terrible name,” Dee told The Boston Globe in 2003 before appearing at a screening of the “Zombie” film at Tufts University. “I would turn away every time I said it. The reason I did the movie was that they offered me a sum that could buy my mother a new car. We got her the car and it turned out to be a cult kind of picture.”

Dee played second leading lady to Bette Davis in the 1934 version of “Of Human Bondage,” and Mirabel, her favorite role, in the 1935 comedy “The Gay Deception.”

She also auditioned for the role of Melanie in “Gone with the Wind,” but reportedly was rejected by producer David O. Selznick, who feared her striking beauty would upstage Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.


Dee was born Frances Marion Dee on Nov. 26, 1909, in South Pasadena, but she was reared in Chicago. She met her future husband when she was taken to the beach for studio publicity photos, and the photographer asked a tall man engaged in a nearby volleyball game to pose with her. His name was Joel McCrea.

The couple married on Oct. 20, 1933, after starring together in “The Silver Cord.” McCrea died on their 57th wedding anniversary in 1990.

Of Dee’s performance in “The Silver Cord,” film historian Leonard Maltin wrote: “She delivered a first-rate performance as a sensitive, lovesick girl dominated by her fiance’s possessive mother.”

At the time of their Depression-era wedding, McCrea bought the initial 1,000 acres of what would become a 2,600-acre spread near Thousand Oaks for $14,000. Whittled over the years to 300 acres, the ranch was donated by Dee in 1995 to the Conejo Recreation and Park District as a public park.


“She wanted to see kids running around the ranch, just as we had,” said Peter McCrea.

The McCreas had three sons -- Joel Dee, known as “Jody,” an actor and a rancher in Roswell, N.M.; David, also a rancher near Roswell, N.M.; and Peter, a real estate consultant and writer in Westport, Conn. Dee had been living near her sons in New Mexico in recent years.

After Peter’s birth -- 19 years after her second son was born and when the actress was 44 -- Dee abandoned her career to become a full-time mother and rancher’s wife.

Dee is survived by her three sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


Services will be private. The family has asked that memorial donations be made either to the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Woodland Hills or to Save the Children, c/o Steve Bornemeier, 54 Wilton Road, Westport, CT 06880.