As I have said of a few in my posts so far, I suspect most of you have not heard of Joan Leslie. More or less she stopped making films in the mid-50s. You might have had a problem recalling her if she had started in the 50s, but stopped? Prior to 1941, she'd made a dozen or so films but she was either uncredited or she used her real name of Joan Brodel. Warner Bros. took notice of her and starting in 1941, she had some darned good parts in quite a number of rather famous films. You have more than likely seen one or more of these films, so see, you do know her. Maybe you've just forgotten.
She was born in Detroit in 1925 and raised in the enclave of Highland Park and before long she was dancing, singing and playing instruments with her two sisters as part of a vaudeville act. The family moved to New York and the girls not only continued their musical talents, they were enhanced by the lustre and mentoring of people who took them under their wings. Leslie always said she just evolved into show business. While still just a kid (10 or 11), she was discovered by an MGM scout, whisked off to Culver City and soon found herself playing Robert Taylor's kid sister in 1936s Camille with Greta Garbo in the lead. It was heady stuff but MGM found no use for her.
She knocked around doing small parts in mainly mediocre films when Warners took notice of her and signed her to a contract. At 15 she was signed as the second female lead in 1941s High Sierra which is the film that also put Humphrey Bogart on the Hollywood map. Leslie played a crippled girl who first cared about Bogie's character and later turns on him when she thinks he's rude to her boyfriend.
She then did three films in a row with sexless Eddie Albert and I wonder how her career survived at all. Let's not even mention them. Then came five films for which she will always be remembered. She became an actress who displayed a dazzling versatility with the singing and dancing and was in equal measure a good dramatic actress and a deft comedienne. I thought she could do it all and with a lovely face framed by red hair, she was something. Interestingly, she was only 16 and 17 years old when she was playing the wives of some real-life heroes and opposite some of movieland's biggest stars.
What Joan sold was a girl-next-door image. She was decent and kind, earnest and forgiving. It's what Warners wanted but it wasn't so far from who she really was. She became a part of some wonderful films that endure to this day. She was a part of Hollywood's Golden Age and one of the few who are still alive. (Two others who are still around are those DeHavilland sisters, Olivia and Joan (Fontaine), and Leslie would work with both of them.)
In 1941 she came out in Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper as the hillbilly sharpshooting pacifist who ends up becoming a WWI super hero. Leslie would play his wife. Cooper would win his first Oscar. In 1942 she appeared opposite DeHavilland, Henry Fonda and Jack Carson (with whom she would work four more times) in The Male Animal, a piece about a college professor who upsets everyone around him because he's going to read a controversial piece in class. Leslie handled comedy nicely as DeHavilland's younger sister.
Next came the film for which Joan Leslie is most remembered... yes the one you saw her in... Yankee Doodle Dandy. She was James Cagney's wife and he played George M. Cohan. She was such a delight but it's hard to buy that she was only 17. Cagney would also win an Oscar. She was a good luck charm for sure. Did you miss the movie? It was on the tube just yesterday. Had you but known.
In 1943 she costarred as Ida Lupino's exploited young sister in The Hard Way. I think of it as one of those must-see films. Lupino wanted to have a career as an actress but couldn't make it. So she does all she can (and boy oh boy what she can do) to see to it her sister has the fame even though the sister would rather settle down and have a family. It was a gem and showcased Leslie as never before.
That same year she became Fred Astaire's youngest dancing partner (I'm guessing that record still stands) in The Sky's the Limit. Leslie always considered herself a dancer first and she handled her chores with the master quite nicely and managed some nice acting as well.
In 1944 she made one of my all time favorite Leslie films, Hollywood Canteen. She was the focal point of the story about GIs who flocked to the Hollywood nitery to dance and schmooze with movie stars. We won't say more because the joint was a subject of its own posting some weeks back.
In 1945 she starred opposite Robert Alda as George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue. Along with Alexis Smith, they were part of a love triangle that was fraught with despair because music was more important to the composer than romance. Gershwin had died in 1937 at age 38 and the film was eagerly anticipated. The music didn't hurt.
It would be the last A picture she would make for Warners. They put her into four not-so-impressive films after Rhapsody in Blue and for the first time she balked. Warners was the studio where big stars got sick and tired of playing the flunky for headstrong Jack Warner. Cagney, DeHavilland and Bette Davis all took their issues into the courtroom with varying results. Leslie decided to do the same thing. She wanted better roles, dammit, not like the drek she'd just been doing... or she wanted out of her contract. She would use an old law that a minor could disaffirm a contract. She won some points along the way but ultimately lost her case.
She lost more than that. She wasn't a big enough star to threaten the Brothers Warner and they ultimately found a way to get her off the lot for good. And of course they badmouthed her to all the other studios and through the press as being difficult. She found it difficult to find work.
She would ultimately hire on for two pictures at a little ramshackle company called Eagle-Lion. The first is the sadly neglected Repeat Performance where she actually got to play a murderess... I'm sure the only time that ever happened. She was 22 and looked more grown-up and glamorous than she ever had. The second film was her first western called Northwest Passage. It was "B" all the way but she had the lead as a sassy ranch woman.
In 1950 she got a gig at RKO with Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott in Born to be Bad. It was a soaper with a wonderful Fontaine performance but Leslie had the supporting female part.
Around this time, she married... an OB-GYN and they remained that way for 50 years. She would ultimately have twin daughters and her own life far overshadowed her professional life.
But before the movie career came to a halt, she got a four-picture deal through Republic Pictures, only a few notches above Eagle-Lion, but there she made two of my favorite westerns of the day. The first was actually my introduction to Leslie. The film had the horrible title of Woman They Almost Lynched (1953). It was not really a good film, certainly cheaply made, but I loved it because it was a slugfest between two strong women, Leslie and another actress I quite liked, Audrey Totter. I was a sucker for the eyebrow that Leslie always raised to express any number of emotions. It was a Civil War plot in that tricky state, Missouri, with the ladies on opposite sides of the law. You know what side Leslie was on if you've been keeping up.
Then came my beloved Jubilee Trail, my favorite of all Joan Leslie's films. She played a strong pioneer woman in the settling of California. Sure it was "B" but a damned good one.
I think her role in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) was probably chopped up in the editing room. It not only fit solidly into the supporting arena, but it was fairly insignificant to the main story (the romance of Jane Russell and Richard Egan). Pity. It would be her last theatrical film.
For a long while, it seemed to me, we didn't hear of Joan Leslie at all. But ultimately she started doing more television. And she became the owner of a dress designing business.
Since I was over the moon for her for years, it was a particular joy that I ran into her three times. The first was in the mid-60s when I was a very young newspaper reporter for a paper in the San Fernando Valley. The paper's owner was a philanthropist and loved charity work. Leslie was invited on site to be part of something involving gardening. I was standing at my city editor's desk waiting for him to line through everything I wrote when I heard her unmistakable voice. I didn't know she would be there but I knew some charity event for women was underway. Our eyes did meet when I turned to look at her but we did not speak. She did give me a smile.
Several years later I was getting out of a car in Hollywood and looked up and saw her waving at a car that was looking to collect her. It was a brief glance but dizzying. A bit longer and several more years later was a time in Los Feliz. She was the passenger in a car and I was the driver in mine when we were stopped at a light across from the entrance to Griffith Park. I did manage a hello and she nodded and smiled sweetly. My heart is racing again now so I must close and go rest.
Well, alright, one last paragraph. She did it for me. Despite my being enamored of two of her "B" films from the 1950s, I do think of her as a 40s actress, part of that glittering, golden time. Certainly her best films were made then. While everyone else was wacky over the Davises, Crawfords, Stanwycks, Hepburns, Bergmans and others, I took leave of my senses over that adorable little redhead from Warners who could sing and dance and act and be part of some awfully good films.
This is Joan Leslie.