Have you ever had a favorite actress who every time you see or think of them you also think of a song from one of their pictures? In my mind there are only two actresses who share this distinction. Like many of you, I will always think of Gene Tierney to the strains of Laura from her 1944 film of the same name. That very same year another perhaps lesser known film was made, Hollywood Canteen with the song, Sweet Dreams Sweetheart. For me this melody will always be associated with Joan Leslie.
Joan Leslie was born Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel on January 26, 1925 in Detroit, Michigan. When the depression hit, her father, a bank clerk, lost his job and the family lost their house.
Joan had two sisters and they were all very talented dancers. They started winning prizes in amateur shows. They called themselves “The Brodel Sisters”, and were finding bookings on the vaudeville circuits. The Brodel Sisters act consisted of all three sisters performing an opening song and dance number, followed by two of the sisters doing a dance number, and then Joan would come out with either a song or doing her impressions. She would impersonate popular stars of the time including Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Zasu Pitts, and Maurice Chevalier, among others. This was during the era when Vaudeville was dying, and the “Talkies” were becoming more popular. During the summer the sisters were booked on a tour of Southern cities.
The family decided to move to New York in hopes of receiving better bookings. They did, including their own hometown of Detroit at the Fox and Apollo Theaters. However it was at The Riviera Night Club, in New Jersey that Joan got her first break! An MGM talent scout happened to be there and Joan received a small part in the Greta Garbo film of Camille. Although she was uncredited, if you watch the film, you can easily spot her.
It was around this time that her mother could see that writing on the wall of the death of Vaudeville. The Brodel Sisters act broke up. Joan’s oldest sister, Mary, moved to Hollywood and started getting small parts in films. Joan followed soon after and also began picking up small parts. Some of these films where you might be able to spot a young Joan Brodel are Men with Wings, Nancy Drew Reporter, and the 1939 Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer classic, Love Affair.
Also in 1939, Joan received one of her first minor-billed roles in Walter Wanger’s production for United Artists Winter Carnival, starring Ann Sheridan, Richard Carlson, and Helen Parrish. Joan’s role was that of “Betsy Phillips”, who was a girl who skipped out of her private girls’ boarding school to attend the Winter Carnival at Dartmouth College, enter the contest for Queen and pretend that she was a college student. She was still being billed under Joan Brodel.
Joan Brodel continued to appear in films in small parts or as an uncredited role. It was around 1940 or 1941 that she was signed by Warner Brothers, who changed her name to “Joan Leslie.” She was soon cast into a short called Alice in Movieland, where you can see her doing some of her impressions. She was then cast in the role of Velma in 1941’s High Sierra starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. She played a crippled girl whom Bogart’s character falls in love with and pays for the surgery to make her walk again. However, her character does not feel the same way about him. Also in 1941, Joan made The Great Mr. Nobody, The Wagons Roll at Night, and Thieves Fall Out.
Joan was then cast opposite Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, as Gracie Williams, his love interest and future bride. This was her breakthrough role! In 1942 came the role Joan is probably most remembered for, Mary, George M. Cohan’s girlfriend and eventual wife, in what I consider to be the greatest movie musical of all time, Yankee Doodle Dandy! So much has been said and written about this film that I really do not know what I can add. However I will say this, though it is clearly Jimmy Cagney’s film and he gives an Academy Award winning performance as George M. Cohan, Joan Leslie is his equal in every way. Her voice in this film as well as other musicals she was in was dubbed by “Sally Sweetland.” According to Joan, Sally had a voice similar to hers but with a finer, professional finish. I really do not think in this article that I could convey my feelings about this movie into words.
In 1943, Joan portrayed Katie Blaine in The Hard Way. She is from the industrial town of Greenhill. As Katie prepares for her High School graduation, she realizes that all the girls will be wearing new white dresses. She and her older, married sister, Helen Chernen (played by Ida Lupino) see a beautiful white dress for $10 in a store window, but they cannot afford it. Helen begs her working class husband to buy it, but he refuses. So Katie wears an old flower printed dress and when it is time to take class pictures, is pushed off to the side of the other girls wearing their new white dresses. Feeling defeated, Katie goes out on a date that night to a vaudeville theatre and is mesmerized by the act Runkel and Collins (played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson.) After the show, Katie goes to the Soda Fountain with her friends and begins doing imitations of the act. Helen wants to escape her dull, monotonous life and sees an opportunity with her sister. She pushes Katie into the act and into a marriage with Runkel (Jack Carson.) Not to give everything away but Helen begins to manipulate and ruin everyone’s life to the point where they want nothing to do with her. I hope I gave you enough information for you to want to see the movie. In this film you get the opportunity to see Joan Leslie’s dancing and performing skills, and a fine dramatic performance.
Also in 1943, Joan appeared with Fred Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit. Joan is actually 17 years of age in this film and Fred is 44 years old. But Fred had actually asked for Joan to co-star in this film with him. She had danced for him previously for another movie, Holiday Inn but Warners would not lend her out to Paramount. Although there was a huge age difference, in watching the film you would never know it. Joan does look older than a teenager, and she and Fred have a natural chemistry. Joan sings a Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer song, My Shining Hour (once again dubbed by Sally Sweetland.) She and Fred also do a duet called A Lot in Common. I consider this to be one of the best movie musical duets.
One of my favorite Joan Leslie movies besides Yankee Doodle Dandy, is the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen. Joan plays herself in this movie and meets a soldier named Slim (Robert Hutton) on leave at the legendary Canteen. He always dreams of meeting Joan Leslie and when he ends up at the Canteen, she is all he can talk about. The stars hear about this and go around asking each other if they know when Joan will be coming. Many Warner Brothers stars make cameos in this film and it is definitely not to be missed. Some of the stars were Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Joan Crawford, The Andrews Sisters, Jack Carson, Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman and of course the founders of the Hollywood Canteen, John Garfield and Bette Davis. At first Slim gets a chance to kiss Joan Leslie, then he runs into her at the farmer’s market and they strike up a friendship. On the third night at the Canteen, Slim turns out to be the millionth man and picks Joan as his date. They run into too much publicity and decide to make it a quieter evening and end up at Joan’s house. They are so innocent that Joan and Slim will not go into the house until her parents come home. Slim eventually gets invited to a family dinner at Joan’s and he meets the family. The parents in the movie are not actually Joan Leslie’s but her sister is, Betty Brodel. It is just a charming movie and I thought it really happened until I looked it up later.
In 1945, Joan starred with Fred MacMurray and June Haver (years before they were married) in Where Do We Go From Here. The 20th Century Fox picture is probably one of the most bizarre movie musicals ever made! Fred MacMurray wants to enlist into a branch of the service, but is constantly turned down because he is 4F. He comes to a USO Canteen where he meets up with June Haver, but she does not want to have anything to do with him because he is not a soldier. Joan Leslie’s character, Sally Smith, likes him but he is too dim-witted to notice. Fred gets in possession of a magic lamp which of course contains a genie. The genie grants him a wish to be in the army; however the genie misunderstands and sends Fred to Washington’s army at Valley Forge. What happens next is a series of misadventures where Fred ends up with Christopher Columbus, after which he buys Manhattan Island from the Indians. He then goes to Dutch New York which is New Amsterdam and in the funniest part of the movie, thinking he is finally in the army, Fred discovers he is marching with the WACS! Both Joan and June Haver also appear in his adventures. Some of the funniest moments for Joan are her name changes (such as Prudence at Valley Forge, and Katrina in New Amsterdam where she talks in backward sentences.) Joan Leslie, I believe, was using her real voice in some nice duets with Fred MacMurray.
These are only a small selection of the movies of Joan Leslie. There are many more including westerns such as 1948’s Northwest Stampede and l954’s Jubilee Trail.
In 1950, Joan married Dr. William Caldwell and later had twin daughters Patrice and Ellen. He died in 2000.
It was through Joan’s daughter Professor Ellen Caldwell that I was able to ask Miss Leslie some questions about her career, which contributed greatly to this article.
This blog article is respectfully dedicated to Joan Leslie on the occasion of her 86th birthday.
All Pictures courtesy of Fanpix.net except for the Hollywood Canteen sheet music which is from the author’s personal collection.