Joan Leslie

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Joan Leslie
Joan Leslie 1946.jpg
Leslie in Too Young to Know (1945)
Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel

(1925-01-26)January 26, 1925
DiedOctober 12, 2015(2015-10-12) (aged 90)
OccupationActress, vaudevillian
Years active1934–1991
Dr. William G. Caldwell
(m. 1950;died 2000)
Awards Golden Boot Awards
2006 Lifetime Achievement
Hollywood Walk of Fame
1560 Vine Street

Joan Leslie (born Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel; January 26, 1925 – October 12, 2015) was an American actress and vaudevillian, who during the Hollywood Golden Age, appeared in such films as High Sierra , Sergeant York , and Yankee Doodle Dandy .


Early life

Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel was born on January 26, 1925, in Highland Park, Michigan, [1] the youngest child of John and Agnes Brodel. John was a bank clerk [2] and Agnes was a pianist.

Joan's two older sisters, Betty (born 1919) and Mary Brodel (1916–2015), shared their mother's musical interest and started to learn how to play instruments, such as the saxophone and the banjo, at an early age. They began performing in front of audiences in acts that included singing and dancing. [3] Leslie joined the duo at two and a half years of age. She was soon able to play the accordion. [4]

With her father losing his job in the mid-1930s, the Great Depression caused financial difficulties for the family. As a result, the three sisters entered show business as vaudeville performers to support the family. They began touring in Canada and the United States. Collectively, they were known as The Three Brodels. As an attempt to bypass child labor laws at the time, both Mary and Joan pretended to be older than they were. When Leslie was nine, she told child labor investigators that she was 16 years old. [5] Joan proved to be the scene stealer of the three sisters because of her impersonations of figures such as Katharine Hepburn, Maurice Chevalier, and Jimmy Durante. [3] [6] Coming from a family of Irish ancestry, Leslie was raised as a Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools in Detroit, Toronto, and Montreal. [4] [7]

Early Hollywood career

In 1936, Leslie caught the attention of a talent scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) when the three Brodel sisters were performing in New York. She was given a six-month contract with the studio, earning $200 per week. [6] While working at the studio, she attended MGM's Little Red Schoolhouse with other child actors such as Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Freddie Bartholomew. [8]

Her first film role was in Camille (1936), a romantic drama starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. [9] She played Taylor's younger sister Marie Jeanette, but her speaking scenes were deleted and she was uncredited. MGM had trouble finding suitable roles for her, and she was let go by the studio along with Deanna Durbin. [3] [10] Leslie returned to New York, working on the radio and as a model. During this time, her older sister Mary was signed to Universal Studios. Leslie returned to Hollywood with the rest of her family, working for different studios as a freelancer. [6] She mainly worked for RKO Pictures. [11]

Leslie was selected to play a small role in Men with Wings (1938). While shooting the film, director William A. Wellman discovered that Leslie's mother had lied about her daughter's age and that she was only 13 years old. For the remainder of the filming schedule, Wellman replaced her with Mary. [12]

Leslie gained her first credited role in Winter Carnival (1939) as Betsy Phillips. She was chosen for the part because the director was searching for an actress with a southern accent. [5] She was billed as Joan Brodel. Later that year, she co-starred with Jimmy Lydon in Two Thoroughbreds , in which she played the daughter of a horse owner. [13]

At age 15, Leslie was selected by a group of Hollywood directors as one of 13 "baby stars of 1940." [14] That same year, she appeared in the Warner Bros. film short, Alice in Movieland , about a starlet trying to make her mark in Hollywood. One of the first films directed by Jean Negulesco in Hollywood, it was based on a story by Ed Sullivan.[ citation needed ]

Success at Warner Bros.

Joan Leslie in The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) Joan Leslie in The Wagons Roll at Night trailer.jpg
Joan Leslie in The Wagons Roll at Night (1941)

Her big break came when she signed a contract with Warner Bros. in 1941. [4] At the time, actress Joan Blondell's name was considered too similar, so Brodel's acting name was changed to Joan Leslie. [15]

Two weeks later, [16] the then-15-year-old actress was asked to do a screen test while unaware which movie it was for. She got the part because she could cry on cue. [5] The movie was High Sierra (1941), starring Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart. Leslie played the crippled girl, Velma. [17] Film critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "a newcomer named Joan Leslie handles lesser roles effectively." [18]

Later that year, Warner Bros. produced a biopic of Alvin C. York, a decorated American World War I soldier, Sergeant York (also 1941), starring Gary Cooper. Jane Russell was initially suggested for the role of Gracie Williams, York's fiancée, but York wanted an actress who neither smoked nor drank. [19] Leslie eventually got the part. [20] Sergeant York was a critical and financial success, becoming the highest-grossing movie of 1941. It received 11 Oscar nominations and Cooper won the Best Actor award. [21]

Cooper was 24 years her senior. "Gary gave me a doll on the set," Leslie later told the Toronto Star . "That's how he saw me." [22]

Leslie had a supporting role in The Male Animal (1942). [23] She played Olivia de Havilland's younger sister, Patricia Stanley, a role Gene Tierney had played in the original Broadway production. [24]

The Hard Way Joan Leslie in The Hard Way trailer.jpg
The Hard Way

She auditioned for Paramount's Holiday Inn (1942), but Warner Bros. decided to cast her in Yankee Doodle Dandy (also 1942) with James Cagney. [25] The film is a musical depicting the life of Broadway entertainer George M. Cohan. [26] Leslie portrayed his girlfriend/wife Mary, an aspiring singer. [27] The film received eight Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor award for James Cagney. [28] By now, Leslie had become a star whose on-screen image was described as "sweet innocence without seeming too sugary." [2]

Leslie was in four motion pictures released during 1943. The first was The Hard Way , starring Ida Lupino and Dennis Morgan. A New York Times reviewer described Leslie as "just as deft and versatile a lady as the character she is supposed to be." [29] [30] For the second, she was lent to RKO for The Sky's the Limit , starring with Fred Astaire. Leslie's character introduced the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song "My Shining Hour". [31] In the third movie, Leslie co-starred in the wartime motion picture This Is the Army with Ronald Reagan. [32] The fourth movie was Thank Your Lucky Stars .

Leslie in This Is the Army (clip)

She was considered for the role of Tessa in The Constant Nymph (also 1943), wherein she would play opposite Errol Flynn. [33] Studio executive Jack L. Warner, though, felt she was unsuitable and the part went to Joan Fontaine. The Australian-born actor Flynn was rejected because the director wanted a British actor. [34]

During World War II, she was a regular volunteer at the Hollywood Canteen, where she danced with servicemen and signed hundreds of autographs. She was featured with Robert Hutton, among many others, in the Warner Bros. film Hollywood Canteen (1944). Like most of the other Hollywood stars appearing in the film, she played herself, but the fictionalized plot had her falling in love with a soldier (played by Hutton) frequenting the canteen. [35] Her sister, actress Betty Brodel, briefly played herself in the film as well.[ citation needed ] In 1946, an exhibitors' poll conducted by Motion Picture Herald voted Leslie the most promising star of tomorrow. [36]

Later career

By 1946, Leslie was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the roles offered to her by the studio. She sought more serious and mature roles, and wanted to break out of her ingenue image, which was partly due to her young age. Her decision was also based on moral and religious grounds. [37] With the help of her lawyer Oscar Cummings, she took Warner Bros. to court to get released from her contract. [38]

In 1947, the Catholic Theater Guild gave Leslie an award because of her "consistent refusal to use her talents and art in film productions of objectionable character." [39]

As a result of this, Jack Warner used his influence to blacklist her from other major Hollywood studios. [40] In 1947, she signed a two-picture contract with the poverty row studio Eagle-Lion Films. The first one was Repeat Performance (1947), a film noir in which she played a Broadway actress. [41] The other was Northwest Stampede (1948) in which she performed with James Craig. [42]

After her contract with Eagle-Lion Films expired, she was cast in The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950), appearing with Robert Walker. The film was distributed by MGM, the studio with which she began her film career in 1936. [43]

In the early 1950s, Leslie chose to focus on raising her daughters, which resulted in a more irregular film career. In 1952, she signed a short-term deal with Republic Pictures, the low-budget studio that primarily produced Westerns. [40] One of the films she made for Republic was Flight Nurse (1953). Leslie's character, Polly Davis, was based on the successful flight nurse Lillian Kinkella Keil's career in the Air Force. [44] It was described by the newspaper Kingsport Times-News as a thrilling film that "honors the courageous women who performed miracles of mercy above the clouds in evacuation of wounded GIs from Korean battlefields." [45] Her last film was The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), but she continued making sporadic appearances in television shows while her children were at school. [6] She retired from acting in 1991, after appearing in the TV film Fire in the Dark. [3] [46]

Personal life

In March 1950, she married William Caldwell, an obstetrician. [6] Their identical twin daughters, Patrice and Ellen, were born on January 7, 1951. [47] Both daughters eventually became teachers. [48]

Leslie was a Democrat who supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential election. [49]

Leslie was in the business of designing clothes, with her own eponymous brand. William died in 2000. A year later, she founded the Dr. William G. and Joan L. Caldwell Chair in Gynecologic Oncology for the University of Louisville. Leslie was an adopted alumna of the university for over 32 years. [50] A devout Catholic, she was involved with charity work for the St. Anne's Maternity Home for more than 50 years. [51]


Leslie died on October 12, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. She was 90. [52]

Awards and honors

Complete filmography

For TV movies, see the following section.
1936Signing OffJoan BrodelShort film
Camille Marie Jeanette MGM Uncredited
1938 Men with Wings Patricia Falconer at age 11 Paramount Uncredited. Shared role with sister, who replaced her when Joan's real age discovered. [12]
1939 Nancy Drew... Reporter Mayme, journalist student Warner Bros. Uncredited
Love Affair Autograph seeker RKO Uncredited
Winter Carnival Betsy PhillipsWalter Wanger ProductionsAs Joan Brodel
Two Thoroughbreds Wendy ConwayRKOAs Joan Brodel
1940 Laddie Shelley StantonRKOAs Joan Brodel
High School Patsy 20th Century Fox Uncredited
Young as You Feel Girl20th Century FoxAs Joan Brodel
Alice in MovielandAlice PurdeeWarner Bros.Short film
Star Dust College girl20th Century FoxUncredited
Susan and God Party GuestMGMUncredited
Military Academy Marjorie Blake Columbia As Joan Brodel
Foreign Correspondent Johnny Jones' SisterWalter Wanger ProductionsUncredited
1941 High Sierra VelmaWarner Bros.
The Great Mr. Nobody Mary CloverWarner Bros.
The Wagons Roll at Night Mary CosterWarner Bros.
Thieves Fall Out Mary MatthewsWarner Bros.
Sergeant York Gracie WilliamsWarner Bros.
Nine Lives Are Not Enough Newspaper receptionistWarner Bros.Uncredited
1942 The Male Animal Patricia StanleyWarner Bros.
Yankee Doodle Dandy Mary CohanWarner Bros.
1943 The Hard Way Katie BlaineWarner Bros.
The Sky's the Limit Joan ManionRKO
This Is the Army Eileen DibbleWarner Bros.
Thank Your Lucky Stars Pat DixonWarner Bros.
1944 Hollywood Canteen HerselfWarner Bros.
I Am an AmericanHerselfWarner Bros.Short film, Uncredited
1945 Where Do We Go from Here? Sally Smith / Prudence / Katrina20th Century Fox
Rhapsody in Blue Julie AdamsWarner Bros.
Too Young to Know Sally SawyerWarner Bros.
1946 Cinderella Jones Judy JonesWarner Bros.
Janie Gets Married Janie ConwayWarner Bros.
Two Guys from Milwaukee Connie ReedWarner Bros.
1947 Repeat Performance Sheila Page Eagle-Lion
1948 Northwest Stampede Christine "Honey" JohnsonEagle-Lion
1950 The Skipper Surprised His Wife Daphne LattimerMGM
Born to Be Bad Donna FosterRKO
1951 Man in the Saddle Laurie Bidwell IshamColumbia
1952 Hellgate Ellen HanleyCommander Films
Toughest Man in Arizona Mary Kimber Republic
1953 Woman They Almost Lynched Sally MarisRepublic
Flight Nurse Lt. Polly DavisRepublic
1954 Jubilee Trail Garnet HaleRepublic
Hell's Outpost Sarah MoffitRepublic
1956 The Revolt of Mamie Stover Annalee Johnson20th Century Fox


1951 Family Theater Claudia ProclesEpisode: " Hill Number One: A Story of Faith and Inspiration"
1951 The Bigelow Theatre Episode: "Flowers for John"
1951–52 Fireside Theater IlseEpisodes: "Black Savannah," "The Imposter"
1952 Schlitz Playhouse of Stars Episode: "The Von Linden File"
1953Summer TheaterAda JordanEpisode: "Dream Job"
1953–54 Ford Theatre Marie Pasquin/Susan FarringtonEpisodes: "The Old Man's Bride, Wonderful Day for a Wedding, Girl in Flight
1954 Lux Video Theatre Vanessa CookEpisode: "Pick of the Litter"
1955 Studio 57 Jane MerlinEpisode: "Vacation with Pay"
1956 The 20th Century Fox Hour PegEpisode: "Smoke Jumpers"
1956 Chevron Hall of Stars Episode: "Conflict"
1958The ChristophersEpisode: "Find the Good Within You"
1959 General Electric Theater Sarah OwensEpisode: "The Day of the Hanging"
1965 Branded Emily CooperEpisode: "Leap Upon Mountains"
1975 Police Story Mary DevereuxEpisode: "Headhunter"
1976The KeegansMary KeeganTV movie
1978 Charlie's Angels Catherine CalhounEpisode: "The Jade Trap"
1979 The Incredible Hulk Lily BeaumontEpisode: "My Favourite Magician"
1983 Simon & Simon Toni MeyersEpisode: "Shadow of Sam Penny"
1983Shadow of Sam Penny
1986Charley HannahSandy HannahTV movie
1988 Murder, She Wrote Lillian AppletreeEpisode: "Mr. Pennroy's Vacation"
1989Turn Back the ClockParty GuestTV movie
1991Fire in the DarkRuthieTV movie, (final film role)

Radio appearances

1942 Screen Guild Players Yankee Doodle Dandy [56]

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