More MacRae

Following on from my last post, I thought I’d share a bit more about my Gordon MacRae project. My wise best friend Ali has encouraged me not to give up and not to overthink the end game. Proper biographers probably wouldn’t approve of my emotional attachment to my subject (this, however, doesn’t blind me to his flaws) but I couldn’t do this if I didn’t really, really care.

Gordon MacRae: One Alone

Elevator pitch

My project is a biography of the American baritone and film star Gordon MacRae (1921-1986). MacRae is best known for starring in the film adaptations of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! and Carousel and five films with Doris Day.

I aim to fill a gap in the literature about Gordon MacRae. Two books were published in the 1990s: Bruce R. Leiby’s Gordon MacRae: A Bio-Bibliography is an invaluable research resource consisting of a short factual biography accompanied with lists of all his known media appearances but it lacks narrative and colour. In contrast, his first wife Sheila MacRae’s memoir Hollywood Mother of the Year is a highly personal account that is particularly valuable for its feminism and for illustrating the culture of toxic masculinity that enabled her husband’s alcoholism. 

I seek a middle ground by using archival sources to critically examine MacRae’s life and career in its historical context, using a traditional linear narrative structure. So far, I have only been able to access the invaluable and the digital Lantern Media History Digital Library of entertainment magazines. The features in these magazines are particularly interesting for the way in which MacRae’s apparently exemplary personal life was held up as an ideal for readers to aspire towards.

A key feature of this project is to give MacRae’s radio work equal weight to his film career. He began his career in radio and for six years alongside his Warner Brothers film contract, he performed in abridgements of musicals and operettas that were broadcast to the nation every week. As a non-visual medium, it’s easy to forget how influential radio was before television.

While I take an academic approach to research, I envision this biography first and foremost as a book for fans by a fan. These fans range from nonagenarians who saw MacRae’s films when they first came out to millennials like myself. However, I’m aware that the Gordon MacRae fan community is fairly niche and I hope to add to conversations on wider themes such as the definition of stardom, the questions of what makes a ‘great’ career, and masculine ideals in post-war popular culture. I hope this would be of interest to readers with a general interest in film and entertainment history in the 1940s and 1950s. My ambition is for this biography to be published by an academic press.

Some research questions:

  • How much agency did contract players have in negotiating the trajectory of their careers? (short answer: not much) To what extent were men under the same pressures as women regarding their appearance and image? Why did Warner Brothers make such an effort in making Doris Day their ‘princess’ but not MacRae their ‘Prince Charming’?
  • What makes a role model? How was MacRae depicted as a paragon of masculinity for both male and female fans? How did the media present his marriage to Sheila as an ideal for a post-WW2 society obsessed with marriage and the nuclear family (despite being presented alongside the constant Hollywood cycle of divorce and remarriage)? What do these articles tell us about gender roles and middle-class aspiration and consumer culture in the 1950s?
  • To what extent was MacRae, usually seen on screen in period pieces and specialising in operetta on the radio, seen as old-fashioned during his heyday? What was the status of operetta in post-WW2 culture? What was the status of radio stars before television?
  • How did attitudes towards drinking culture and addiction change between the 1950s and 1980s?
  • I have no doubt that MacRae had a ‘great’ career as ‘Five Letter Man’ of entertainment who achieved success in film, stage, records, radio and TV despite only starring in two true ‘classic’ films but how should greatness be judged? Why does a film career seem to be considered more prestigious than any other? How does his career and legacy compare with contemporaries such as Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Howard Keel, etc?

Does this sound like a convincing pitch? Would you be interested in reading a book about Gordon MacRae? Have you heard of Gordon MacRae?!