Thursday, October 15, 2015

Joan Leslie Passes On

Joan Leslie, who started her acting career as an ingénue in such films as High Sierra (1941), Sergeant York (1941) , and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), died on October 12 2015 at the age of 90.

 Joan Leslie was born Joan Brodel on January 26 1925 in Detroit, Michigan. Her two older sisters,  Betty and Mary Brodel, were both talented musicians who performed in front of audiences as The Brodel Sisters. Eventually young Joan joined the act and The Brodel Sisters became professional performers on Vaudeville. In fact, Joan would make her film debut as a member of The Brodel Sisters in the 1936 Biograph short "Singing Off". Her sisters Mary and Betty would both have short lived film careers.

Joan Leslie made her feature film debut in an uncredited role in Camille in 1936. Over the next several years she would appear in small parts in various films. When she was credited it was under her given name, Joan Brodel. Following Camille in 1936 she appeared in such films as Men with Wings (1938), Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939), Love Affair (1939), Two Thoroughbreds (1939), Young as You Feel (1940), Military Academy (1940), and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

At age 15 she was signed to Warner Bros. whereupon she adopted the stage name "Joan Leslie".  Her first film with Warner Bros. would be the classic High Sierra (1940), in which she played Velma, a young lady with a a limp who attracts the attention of professional thief Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart). Joan Leslie would appear in some of Warner Bros.' most important films of the Forties. In Sergeant York (1941) she played Gracie Williams, the love interest of the title character. In Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) she played George M. Cohan's wife, Mary. In Rhapsody in Blue (1945) she played Julie Adams, a fictional woman in the life of Ira Gershwin (played by Robert Alda). While at Warner Bros. she also appeared in such films as Thieves Fall Out (1941), The Male Animal (1942), The Hard Way (1943), This Is the Army (1943), Hollywood Canteen (1944), and Cinderella Jones (1946).

While many of the movies Joan Leslie made at Warner Bros were very successful, she was nearly always cast as the ingénue or the girl next door. Unhappy that she was not receiving more mature roles, she took Warner Bros. to court to get out of her contract. Unfortunately, Jack L. Warner saw to it that the other major studios would not hire her. After around a year she signed a two movie deal with poverty role studio Eagle-Lion. There she starred in the film noir Repeat Performance (1947) and the Western Northwest Stampede (1948). She finished out the decade appearing in The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950) for MGM and Born to Be Bad (1950) for RKO.

In 1950 Joan Leslie married Dr. William G. Caldwell, to whom she remained married until his death in 2000. She had twin daughters, Patrice and Ellen, in 1951. Afterwards she slowed down her career in order to concentrate on her family, although she continued to appear on television and in films. She made her television debut in an episode of Family Theatre in 1951. In the Fifties she appeared on such TV shows as Fireside Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, The Ford Television Theatre, The 20th Century Fox Hour, and G.E. Theatre. The films she made in the Fifties included a number of Westerns, among them Man in the Saddle (1951), Hellgate (1952), Toughest Man in Arizona (1952), Woman They Almost Lynched (1953),  and Jubilee Trail (1954). She also appeared in the films Hell's Outpost (1954) and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).

From the Sixties to the Nineties Joan Leslie made only a few more appearances on television. She guest starred on the shows Branded; Police Story; Charlie's Angels; The Incredible Hulk; Simon & Simon; and Murder, She Wrote. She appeared in the TV movies The Keegans (1976), Shadow of Sam Penny (1983), Charley Hannah (1986), Turn Back the Clock (1989), and Fire in the Dark (1991).

In many respects Joan Leslie was a very underrated actress. Quite simply, she had much more depth and versatility than her sheer number of roles as ingénues and girls next doors would reveal at first glance. Indeed, even many of her ingénues actually had some steel in them to go along with the sweetness. In High Sierra her character Velma actually stood up to Roy Earle, something many men of the time probably would not have done. As Gracie Williams in Sergeant York she refuses to have much to do with Alvin York until he mends his ways. In The Hard Way Miss Leslie's character Katie eventually becomes a party girl, losing her career as a successful singer and actress in the process. While best known for playing girls next door, Joan Leslie was capable of playing women who were not so nice. A prime example is in the Randolph Scott Western Man in the Saddle, in which she played the overly ambitious Laurie Bidwell.

Ultimately Joan Leslie had much more versatility than she has often been given credit for. Not only was she fully capable of playing roles other than "good girls", but she was also capable of lending depth to roles that in the hands of a lesser actress might be too saccharine. It is fully understandable why she wanted to leave Warner Bros. While she was very good at playing ingénues, she was capable of playing so much more. 

No comments: