Joan Leslie, a celebrated actress from Hollywood’s golden age of film who once shared the screen with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and James Cagney, has died.
Born Joan Brodel in Detroit, Michigan, in 1925, Leslie and her two older sisters began performing at an early age. To bring home some extra money for the family during the Depression, the three sisters put together a Vaudeville singing and dancing act. Billed as “The Brodel Sisters,” Joan and her older sisters Mary and Betty, eventually began touring the U.S. and Canada performing their act — a part of which saw Leslie doing an imitation of Jimmy Durante, she told the Toronto Star in an interview in 1990, reports the Los Angeles Times.
“My sisters and I were billed as the Brodel Sisters and I did an imitation of Jimmy Durante. One night, there was a knock on the dressing room door and it was Durante himself. He said I was doing him all wrong and showed me how.”
When Joan’s older sister Mary was signed to a contract with MGM, Leslie and her family moved to Burbank, California. When Joan was 11-years-old, she, too, signed with MGM and had many small, often uncredited roles. At just 15-years-old, she signed a contract with Warner Bros. and began billing herself as Joan Leslie. It was then that Joan’s luck would begin to change. In 1941, Joan Leslie landed the role of Velma — a partially disabled young girl who runs into Roy “Mad Dog” Earle while travelling with her family and ultimately becomes his love interest — alongside Ida Lupino, and Humphrey Bogart, who played Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, in High Sierra.
Just after she turned 16-years-old in 1941, Warner Bros. gave Joan Leslie a brand new Buick and the leading role alongside Gary Cooper in Seargent York. Despite being given the car as well as adult-like roles, Joan Leslie told the Toronto Star that she was still often treated as a child, and it was incredibly frustrating.
“Gary gave me a doll on the set. That’s how he saw me.”
In her heyday, Joan Leslie starred in over 30 films in the 1930s and 40s. When Joan was 17-years-old, she was James Cagney’s wife in Yankee Doodle Dandy. At 18-years-old, Joan Leslie was dancing with Fred Astaire in The Sky’s The Limit. By the mid-1940s, however, Joan Leslie was fed up with the fluff-filled roles Warner Bros. insisted on giving her.
When they refused to offer her better roles, young Joan Leslie sued the company to be released from a contract she described as “slavery.” The lawsuit went on for two years — during which Leslie wasn’t allowed to work in Hollywood — but eventually Joan Leslie won the lawsuit in lower courts. However, Warner Bros. ended up winning in the state Supreme Court. Not to be put down any longer, however, Leslie then threatened to file a $2 million civil suit against Warner Bros. The studio eventually gave in and cancelled her contract, and she was rewarded with no longer being seen as the naive little girl she played in her films, Leslie said in a 1949 Los Angeles Times interview.
“They know I put up a fight for what I believed as right. They know I didn’t weaken, and they don’t consider me now a perpetual ingenue. I hope this will present me as an entirely new personality.”
Sadly, by the time the lawsuits were over, Joan Leslie had already been out of the public eye for two years and had been all but forgotten in a business where fame is fleeting and everyone gets their 15 minutes.
According to Joan’s obituary written by her daughter Ellen, following her marriage to Los Angeles physician William G. Caldwell, Joan Leslie left acting to focus her attention on her identical twin daughters, Ellen and Patrice, as well as on her charitable activities. When her daughters had grown, Joan returned to acting, occasionally appearing in television series like The Incredible Hulk, Murder, She Wrote, and Charlie’s Angels.
Joan Leslie passed away on October 12, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 90-years-old. Joan is survived by her two daughters.
[Image Credit: Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]