Maureen O’Hara is not the only movie star from Hollywood’s Golden Age who has recently passed away. Not long before, we lost another beautiful and talented actress, Joan Leslie, whose death on October 12 was a sad event for the many people who throughout the past seven and a half decades have enjoyed her performances and screen presence.
Born in Detroit to a Catholic family on January 26, 1925, Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel began her acting career very young and soon signed a contract with Warner Brothers, appearing from the early Forties onwards as Joan Leslie.
It is notoriously hard to make “good girls” appealing on-screen, and that is especially the case in older films. Often enough, the flashy villainesses or amoral screen sirens are far more interesting to watch (and more skilfully played) than the ingenuous and innocent girls who at the close of the film either welcome home the prodigal hero or weep picturesquely beside his grave.
A few actresses, however, could imbue onscreen “good girls” with the charm and goodness they so often possess in life off-screen. Teresa Wright, Coleen Gray, and Olivia De Havilland are often cited as the greatest examples of the actresses who achieved this difficult feat. But Joan Leslie should also be given her due. In roles that sometimes consisted only of a few brief scenes, Joan Leslie managed to make the characters she played come alive, projecting a sincerity and wholeness that made her riveting.
Leslie’s ability to create in the audience an impression of a complete and wholly likeable character is all the more surprising when we consider how the two roles for which she is perhaps most famous are almost peripheral to the main plot of the films. In the 1941 film Sergeant York, she plays the country girl who marries York (Gary Cooper), and her role in the latter part of the film is limited mainly to close-ups of her fondly reading his letters home while he is in the army, performing the feats which gave him his fame. And in the 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, her role as George Cohan’s wife is limited not only by the script but also by the exuberance of her costar James Cagney, who vigorously dances, sings, and acts his way through the entire picture.
Yet here as in her other films, Joan Leslie manages to give an impression of reality and verisimilitude that is achieved through the skillful use of little actions and subtle mannerisms as well as the force of her personality. And when she left Warner Brothers and obtained more nuanced roles, such as her part in the 1950 drama Born to Be Bad, she never disappointed those critics who insisted (and still do insist) that she deserved larger roles.
Her talent and the fresh all-American, girl-next-door looks which she kept throughout her whole life led her to be cast in a wide variety of films, and she worked with an impressive range of actors. She may be the only one of Humphrey Bogart’s leading ladies who also danced opposite Fred Astaire–her role opposite Bogart in High Sierra (1941) was followed in 1943 by the Astaire musical The Sky’s The Limit.
Joan Leslie’s image as a nice girl continued to be used in such patriotic WWII films as Hollywood Canteen (1944) and This is the Army (1943), which costarred Ronald Reagan.
The 1940s were in fact her most productive decade in the film industry; after her marriage in 1950 to the obstetrician Dr. William Caldwell and the birth of their twin daughters, she appeared less often on-screen, devoting herself to her family, and continuing the charitable work which marked the whole of her adult life, as did her devout Catholicism.
Joan Leslie unfalteringly displayed a graciousness to the film community which demonstrated that the warm characters she played so memorably on celluloid were more than matched by her own off-screen personality.
May she rest in peace.