The red-haired 'girl next door' of Hollywood's golden age whose career suffered after she sued Warner Bros
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
Joan Leslie, who has died aged 90, was a petite, red-haired Hollywood star of the wartime years who blotted her copybook by taking on the might of Warner Bros.
It once looked as though she might be destined for superstardom. When she was 15, Warners cast her opposite Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1941), as the girl with a deformed foot with whom Bogart's gangster falls in love, although she was unimpressed by her co-star, describing him as "generally surly".
The same year she played Bogart's sister in the circus thriller The Wagons Roll at Night. For her 16th birthday, Warner Bros gave her a new Buick and cast her in Sergeant York (1941) as the First World War hero Gary Cooper's child bride (Cooper gave her a doll). The next year, aged 17, she was dancing opposite James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) as the prompter who marries Cagney's songwriter.
In 1943, she partnered Fred Astaire in The Sky's the Limit ("He said I could dance better than Ginger"); Eddie Cantor in Thank Your Lucky Stars; and Ronald Reagan in This Is the Army. She recalled the future president of the United States as "nice, charming, well-prepared, easy to rehearse with", feeling he might have "proven himself" had he been given better roles.
Many considered her best film to be The Hard Way (1943), in which she played the younger, prettier, sister of Ida Lupino, for whom Lupino's character brawls to secure stardom.
Joan Leslie's fresh good looks and innocent demeanour often led to her being cast in forces sweetheart and girl-next-door roles. But by the mid-1940s she had proved that she could play anything, from comedy (The Male Animal, 1942, with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland), to heavy drama (The Hard Way) and musicals (This Is the Army).
In 1946, Motion Picture Herald voted her the Most Promising Star of Tomorrow. But she was beginning to tire of the roles she was being offered, and the same year sued to get out of her contract with Warners, claiming that it was invalid since she had been a minor when she signed it. The case was bitterly contested and dragged on for two years, during which time she was unable to work.
Although Joan Leslie finally won, she found that the big studios had lost interest. She only made one more major film, The Skipper Surprised His Wife (1950), for MGM, then found a berth at Republic Studios, where she recalled that the horse Trigger was a bigger star than she was. After appearing in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), with Jane Russell, she retired from the big screen.
Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel was born into a devout Roman Catholic family in Detroit on January 26 1925. Her father was a bank clerk and her mother a pianist who encouraged her children, Joan and her two older sisters, Betty and Mary, to play musical instruments.
When their father lost his job during the depression, the three sisters, billed as the Three Brodels, became vaudeville performers to help support the family, singing, dancing and performing sketches in theatres across the eastern US and Canada. "Wherever we were playing we'd take a house and the kids would go to the local school," she said. "We'd be at school during the day and dancing on the stage at night."
By the age 10, Joan Brodel's good looks had caught the attention of New York model agencies. In 1936, aged 11, she was picked by George Cukor to make her (uncredited) Hollywood debut in his melodrama Camille, playing Robert Taylor's young sister opposite Greta Garbo. "The white clapper-board school house on the [MGM] lot was awash with pint-sized stars," she recalled in 2010.
Her stint at MGM was short-lived, however, and her big break came when Warner Bros signed her to a contract, changing her name to Joan Leslie, when she was 15.
As well as appearing in numerous wartime films, Joan Leslie was a big contributor to the war effort, touring defence plants and army bases.
She was a regular at the Hollywood Canteen, where GIs home on leave could meet the stars, and in 1944 starred in a morale-boosting film (Hollywood Canteen) in which homesick "soldier" Robert Hutton loses his heart to film star Joan Leslie, playing herself.
She became unhappy with being typecast as the "nice girl", though she admitted some truth in the stereotype: "I really was a nice girl. My family sheltered me. I rode my bike on to the lot every day from the house where we lived, just a few blocks away."
She recalled that the director Teddy Goulding refused to test her for the lead in The Constant Nymph (1943) because he could only think of her on a bicycle eating an apple. Joan Fontaine got the part instead.
Once, when Joan Leslie was photographed alongside Errol Flynn at a reception, Jack Warner ordered the pictures be destroyed, fearing they might damage her reputation.
In 1950, she married William Caldwell, an eminent Los Angeles obstetrician, with whom she had identical twin daughters.
After appearing in her last major film, she abandoned her screen career to devote herself to her family and raise money for Catholic charities. Later on, she appeared in television commercials and took cameo roles in series such as Murder, She Wrote, Charlie's Angels and The Incredible Hulk.
Her husband died in 2000. Their daughters survive her.
Joan Leslie died on October 12.