The younger daughter of Francis "Frank" Marion Dee and his wife, the former Henriette Putnam, Frances Marion Dee was born in Los Angeles, California, where her father was working as a civil-service examiner.
When Dee was 7 years old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois. She attended Shakespeare Grammar School and Hyde Park High School, where she went by the nickname of Frankie Dee.
After graduating from Hyde Park High in 1927, of which she was vice president of her senior class, as well as voted Belle of the Year, she spent two years at the University of Chicago, where she participated in dramatic activities, before returning to California.
Following her sophomore year in 1929, she went on summer vacation with her mother and older sister to visit family in the Los Angeles, California area. She began working as a movie extra as a lark. Her big break came when, still an extra, she was offered the lead opposite Maurice Chevalier in Playboy of Paris.
The audience appeal established in two films opposite Paramount stars Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen, led to the co-starring role as Sondra Finchley, opposite Phillips Holmes and Sylvia Sidney, in Paramount Pictures's prestigious, and controversial, production of An American Tragedy, directed by Josef von Sternberg.
Dee's additional screen credits included June Moon, Little Women, Of Human Bondage, Becky Sharp, and Payment on Demand. She co-starred with her husband Joel McCrea in the Western Four Faces West (1948).
Dee met actor Joel McCrea on the set of the 1933 film The Silver Cord. The attractive couple married on October 20, 1933, after a whirlwind courtship, and remained married until McCrea's death in 1990. During their lifetime together, the McCreas lived, raised their children, and rode their horses on their ranch in what was then an unincorporated area of eastern Ventura County, California. They ultimately donated several hundred acres of their personal property to the newly formed Conejo Valley YMCA for the city of Thousand Oaks, California, both of which celebrated their 40th anniversaries in 2004. She like, Joel, was a Republican.
Joel McCrea died on their 57th wedding anniversary. Their three sons, including the actor Jody McCrea, and many grandchildren, also survived McCrea. In 2004, Frances Dee McCrea died in Norwalk, Connecticut due to complications from a stroke at the age of 94. Jody McCrea died in 2009.