WEIRDLAND: R.I.P. Joan Leslie - The Girl Next Door

Thursday, October 15, 2015

R.I.P. Joan Leslie - The Girl Next Door

R.I.P. Joan Leslie (January 26, 1925 - October 12, 2015)

Joan Leslie, who made an impact in such classic films as “High Sierra” (1941) with Humphrey Bogart and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) with James Cagney, has died. She was 90 years old. Her death was first reported on October 15, 2015, but she passed on October 12. Born Joan Brodel, the actress was discovered by a talent scout while performing on stage with her two sisters. She was first signed to MGM, but later signed with Warner Brothers. Joan was only in her teens when she appeared in “High Sierra” and then “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper. In fact, she celebrated her 17th birthday during the filming of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Her other films include “The Sky’s The Limit” (1943) with Fred Astaire, and the all star films “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943) and “Hollywood Canteen” (1944). In 1946, Joan Leslie had become dissatisfied with the limited supporting roles she was being placed in by Warners, and sued to get out of her contract. Jack Warner was influential enough to keep her from obtaining work at the other major studios, so she worked in low budget films at Eagle-Lion and Republic Pictures. Many of her films for these studios were westerns, so she remains popular with western movie fans.

Joan married William G. Caldwell, a physician, in 1950, and her roles in movies became less frequent, as she chose to spend more time at home raising her twin daughters. Along with her acting career, Joan was also involved in a business designing clothes, and did extensive charity work for the St Anne’s Maternity Home. When her husband died in 2000, she founded the Dr. William G. and Joan L. Caldwell Chair in Gynecologic Oncology for the University of Louisville. Joan died of natural causes in Los Angeles. Source:

Joan Leslie: “The Girl Next Door”: Joan Leslie was Warners’ ingenue in residence, a pretty and perky actress with a pleasant demeanor who photographed well, could sing and dance when called for, and could emote effectively against the likes of Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart.

Every studio had at least one actress under contract who personified the wholesome, all–American girl next door, Jeanne Crain at Fox or Anne Shirley at RKO. As far as Jack Warner was concerned,
he expected Joan’s private life to be just as sweet and squeaky clean as her screen persona. And then when she had the nerve to defy him, he, in effect, grounded her—by making sure that no other studio would hire her. Joan ultimately got the last laugh by leaving show business in the 1950s and enjoying a successful marriage.

After "High Sierra," Joan’s next appearance was in a rarely seen short subject called "Alice in Movieland" (1941), produced by Jack Warner, Jr., and directed by Jean Negulesco. Joan played a starry-eyed miss on her way to Hollywood. When an assistant director berates her, she gives him a solid tongue lashing, which the director sees as the emotional fire of a great actress. She then gets a starring role and wins an Academy Award before waking up from her dream. Joan remembered it as a delightful story that she had fun performing.

Prior to leaving for New York on a publicity tour, Jack Warner advised her, “I don’t want to see you smoking or drinking.” At a lavish studio party honoring visiting Army dignitaries, she was accidentally put next to Hollywood’s leading womanizer, Errol Flynn. “How do you do, Joan?” he asked. “I’m afraid we never met.” In the room, which was brimming with photographers, it was only a matter of time before someone took notice of Joan’s encounter with Flynn. “Cameras went off and flashed pictures of us smiling at each other in a most cordial, but rather formal way,” Joan recalled. “And in no time at all, a publicity man, of which there were an enormous number at that time, came in and separated us, and pulled Flynn off one way and pulled me off another way. Then I heard that the pictures were killed.”

Joan’s hard work paid off with her first leading lady role in "The Great Mr. Nobody" (1941), an amusing B co-starring Eddie Albert as an accident-prone reporter. Warners thought they worked so well together that they were paired up two more times, in "The Wagons Roll at Night" (1941) and "Thieves Fall Out" (1941).

"The Wagons Roll at Night" also is interesting for its subliminal incestuous themes that seem to be evident in Bogart’s character. His jealousy over the relationship between his sister (Joan Leslie) and the lion tamer smacks more of the spurned lover than the protective older sibling.

Then Warner finally saw to it that Joan appeared in a production of the level of "High Sierra." She was chosen to appear opposite Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York" (1941), director Howard Hawks’ stirring biography of World War I hero Alvin York. The movie, in which York served as technical advisor, began with a look at his early years as a Tennessee farm boy before moving on to his military service career. Joan played Gracie, the backwoods girl he romances and later marries. Their original script was penned with Hawks’ original choice, Jane Russell, in mind, and depicted Gracie as something of a sexpot.

Also successful was "The Male Animal" (1942), the film version of James Thurber’s topical stage comedy that used football and campus politics to parody government. Joan played Olivia de Havilland’s kid sister whose biggest concern is keeping a hulking quarterback (Don DeFore) away from the campus vamp, nicknamed “Hot Garters.” Joan’s role was small and undemanding.

As Mary Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942), Warners’ flag-waving musical, Joan was required to age roughly thirty years over the course of one hundred and twenty-six minutes. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" was essentially the typical Hollywood musical biography of the ’40s. The difference in this case was James Cagney’s exuberant performance, the high point of his career. The movie opened with Cohan meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a device that opened the door for a flashback tour of Cohan’s life. The movie was Warners’ first attempt to do a big-budget musical since its Busby Berkeley extravaganzas of the early to mid–1930s. Joan was nicely spotlighted in several numbers, including “She’s the Warmest Baby in the Bunch” and “Mary.” Bosley Crowther raved that Joan was “excellent as Mrs. George M. Cohan” in The New York Times.

Publicists generally found Joan to be unusual among the crop of starlets and glamour girls that populated Hollywood at the time. Joan still lived with her parents and her sisters in their Toluca Lake home, and as such seemed uncorrupted by the many temptations of Hollywood. Her off hours were spent palling around with Jeanne Cagney, whom she met on the set of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and Jane Withers. In keeping with her wholesome image, Joan was not prone to hitting the night spots frequently or wearing a lot of makeup. On-screen, though, she yearned for the glamour girl treatment her contemporaries, like Alexis Smith and Faye Emerson, were receiving. —"The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies" (2001) by Daniel Bubbeo

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