On Wednesday, April 26, 1950, Easton’s Avalon Theatre (c.1921) held a premiere showing of MGM’s Stars in My Crown starring one of the screen’s great cowboys, Joel McCrea (1905-1990). The movie is about a Civil War cavalryman turned preacher who, according to the local newspaper, the Star Democrat, “brought law and order, love and laughter to a small southern community” in an “action-filled story of a two-fisted parson whose whisper spoke louder than his six-guns.” The picture’s advertising tagline was: “Take your choice…either I speak…or my pistols do!”

Of all his 90+ movies, Stars in My Crown, with a bold-for-its-day anti-racist theme, was one of McCrea’s personal favorites.     

Tall, tight-lipped, and handsome with an easygoing good humor, McCrea was mostly known for his westerns, but he was a versatile actor and the star of such diverse productions as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 spy thriller Foreign Correspondent, 1941’s difficult-to-classify classic Sullivan’s Travels, and 1942’s standout screwball comedy Palm Beach Story as the romantic interest of the sophisticated beauty, Claudette Colbert. McCrea had grown up in Hollywood and went to high school with the likes of Carole Lombard, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Stars director Jacques Tourneur, son of Maurice Tourneur, the director of 1917’s The Whip, the first ever film that was at least partially filmed on the Eastern Shore.

The Avalon’s advertisement promoting the Easton premiere also reminded locals that the film was based on a widely read and well-loved novel by Joe David Brown (1915-1976), who was, at the time, a county resident.

A tall, broad-shouldered guy with, according to the Star Democrat’s Harold Kathman, “bronze-red hair and mischievous blue eyes,” Joe David Brown, originally from Alabama, was a freelance writer, a foreign correspondent, a war hero, and a writer who sold his first short story, based on remembrances of his minister grandfather, to the Saturday Evening Post. The story was a hit, so Brown decided to develop the concept into a full-length book. He and his wife Frances happened to be visiting friends in Talbot County when they saw a cottage near the town of Newcomb that appealed to both their sensibilities and their limited budget. Stars in My Crown, the resulting novel, with an old hymn as inspiration for its title, took the Browns, working together in overnight sessions where he’d write and she’d critique, two months to complete.

Next stop Hollywood.

On that Wednesday 73 years ago, the town of Easton celebrated the premiere of Stars in My Crown with Joe David Brown Day. Mayor Joseph S. Barnes presented Brown with a key to the city. James Mitchell, who played a young doctor in the picture, and would later become known for playing Palmer Cortlandt on the soap opera All My Children for over 30 years, flew in for the event and was made an honorary citizen. Well-wishing telegrams from Joel McCrea, co-star Ellen Drew, and director Jacques Tourneur were read to attendees. Harking back to his leanest of Eastern Shore days in a speech, Brown remarked that the local hospitality was beyond reproach and that he’d “rather be poor in Talbot County than rich anywhere else.”

Brown’s second novel Kings Go Forth was made into a 1958 film starring Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood, and his fifth, Addie Pray, was turned into Paper Moon starring Ryan O’Neill and his ten year old daughter, Tatum, who would be rewarded for her performance as Addie by becoming the youngest Academy Award winner in history.

My book STARDUST BY THE BUSHEL: HOLLYWOOD ON THE CHESAPEAKE BAY’S EASTERN SHORE is still available online and at local retailers.

Photos Courtesy of the Star Democrat, the Avalon Foundation, and Scott Anthony.

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