Joan Leslie

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

Joan Leslie
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, dancer, vaudevillian
Years active1934–1991
Dr. William G. Caldwell
(m. 1950; died 2000)
AwardsGolden Boot Awards
2006 Lifetime Achievement
Hollywood Walk of Fame
1560 Vine Street

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 and Mary Brodel, 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 like 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 thirteen 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]

Success at Warner Bros.

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, and 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 Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. 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 Academy Awards 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]

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 loaned to RKO for The Sky's the Limit (1943), 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 (1943) with Ronald Reagan.[32] The fourth movie was Thank Your Lucky Stars.

She was considered for the role of Tessa in The Constant Nymph (also 1943), wherein she would play opposite Errol Flynn.[33] However, studio executive Jack L. Warner 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. Her sister, actress Betty Brodel, briefly played herself in the film as well. In 1946, an exhibitors' poll conducted by Motion Picture Herald voted Leslie the most promising star of tomorrow.[35]

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.[36] With the help of her lawyer Oscar Cummings, she took Warner Brothers to court in order to get released from her contract.[37]

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."[38]

As a result of this, Jack Warner used his influence to blacklist her from other major Hollywood studios.[39] 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.[40] The other was Northwest Stampede (1948) in which she performed with James Craig.[41]

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 in which she began her film career in 1936.[42]

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 which primarily produced western pictures.[39] 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.[43] 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."[44] Her last film was The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). However, 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][45]

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.[46] Both daughters eventually became teachers.[47]

Leslie was a Democrat who supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential election[48].

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.[49] A devout Catholic, she was involved with charity work for the St. Anne's Maternity Home for more than 50 years.[50]


Leslie died on October 12, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. She was 90.[51] Her survivors include her two children and one sister, Betty. Her older sister Mary died on June 3, four months before her own death.[52]

Awards and honors

Complete filmography

For TV movies, see the following section.
1936Signing OffJoan BrodelShort film
CamilleMarie JeanetteMGMUncredited
1938Men with WingsPatricia Falconer at age 11ParamountUncredited
1939Nancy Drew... ReporterMayme, journalist studentWarner Bros.Uncredited
Love AffairAutograph seekerRKOUncredited
Winter CarnivalBetsy PhillipsWalter Wanger ProductionsAs Joan Brodel
Two ThoroughbredsWendy ConwayRKOAs Joan Brodel
1940LaddieShelley StantonRKOAs Joan Brodel
High SchoolPatsy20th Century FoxUncredited
Young as You FeelGirl20th Century FoxAs Joan Brodel
Alice in MovielandAlice PurdeeWarner Bros.Short film
Star DustCollege girl20th Century FoxUncredited
Susan and GodParty GuestMGMUncredited
Military AcademyMarjorie BlakeColumbiaAs Joan Brodel
Foreign CorrespondentJohnny Jones' SisterWalter Wanger ProductionsUncredited
1941High SierraVelmaWarner Bros.
The Great Mr. NobodyMary CloverWarner Bros.
The Wagons Roll at NightMary CosterWarner Bros.
Thieves Fall OutMary MatthewsWarner Bros.
Sergeant YorkGracie WilliamsWarner Bros.
Nine Lives Are Not EnoughNewspaper receptionistWarner Bros.Uncredited
1942The Male AnimalPatricia StanleyWarner Bros.
Yankee Doodle DandyMary CohanWarner Bros.
1943The Hard WayKatie BlaineWarner Bros.
The Sky's the LimitJoan ManionRKO
This Is the ArmyEileen DibbleWarner Bros.
Thank Your Lucky StarsPat DixonWarner Bros.
1944Hollywood CanteenHerselfWarner Bros.
I Am an AmericanHerselfWarner Bros.Short film, Uncredited
1945Where Do We Go from Here?Sally Smith / Prudence / Katrina20th Century Fox
Rhapsody in BlueJulie AdamsWarner Bros.
Too Young to KnowSally SawyerWarner Bros.
1946Cinderella JonesJudy JonesWarner Bros.
Janie Gets MarriedJanie ConwayWarner Bros.
Two Guys from MilwaukeeConnie ReedWarner Bros.
1947Repeat PerformanceSheila PageEagle-Lion
1948Northwest StampedeChristine "Honey" JohnsonEagle-Lion
1950The Skipper Surprised His WifeDaphne LattimerMGM
Born to Be BadDonna FosterRKO
1951Man in the SaddleLaurie Bidwell IshamColumbia
1952HellgateEllen HanleyCommander Films
Toughest Man in ArizonaMary KimberRepublic
1953Woman They Almost LynchedSally MarisRepublic
Flight NurseLt. Polly DavisRepublic
1954Jubilee TrailGarnet HaleRepublic
Hell's OutpostSarah MoffitRepublic
1956The Revolt of Mamie StoverAnnalee Johnson20th Century Fox


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

Radio appearances

1942Screen Guild PlayersYankee Doodle Dandy[56]


  1. "Gala Musical Due at Eckel" (PDF). Syracuse NY Journal, 1943. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  2. Joan Leslie. Life Magazine. October 26, 1942. Retrieved February 20, 2014.
  3. Joan Leslie profile at. The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  4. "Joan Leslie, an update". Toledo Blade. June 26, 1986. p. 28. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  5. "Detroit's outlaw Brodel sisters go straight in Hollywood". The Sunday Morning Star. August 10, 1941. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  6. Joan Leslie. "Movies Were Always Magical": Interviews with 19 Actors, Directors, and ... Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  7. "Joan Leslie's Ego Isn't Inflated by Film Fame". Tampa Bay Times. January 6, 1946. p. 37. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  8. "Tutoring kid stars was an exciting challenge". The Lowell Sun. October 8, 1972. p. 65. Retrieved August 29, 2015. - via
  9. "Child actress prefer cooking to acting". The Liberty Vindicator. November 3, 1937. p. 2. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
  10. "One film puts Joan Leslie on brink of stardom at 16" (PDF). PM. August 24, 1941. p. 44. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  11. "Joan Leslie - She's acted every age but her own; has kept Fred Astaire waiting". Oakland Tribune. August 20, 1944. p. 55. Retrieved May 12, 2014.
  12. "Hollywood Highlights". Ottawa Citizen. July 13, 1938. p. 21. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  13. "Two-Thoroughbreds". The New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2014.
  14. "Directors Favor Brunettes". Arizona Independent Republic. October 19, 1940. p. 50. Retrieved March 13, 2015 via
  15. "Most stage folk take new names". The News and Courier. March 8, 1942. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  16. "Warner Bros. turns 75". Kentucky New Era. June 22, 1998. p. 18. Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  17. Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Directors. The University Press of Kentucky. Retrieved February 20, 2014.
  18. "Review: High Sierra, January 25, 1941". The New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  19. "Hollywood Chatter". The Daytona Beach News-Journal. July 12, 1941. p. 4. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  20. Sergeant York: An American Hero. The University Press of Kentucky. Retrieved February 20, 2014.
  21. "Sergeant York (film by Hawks [1941])". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  22. Bernstein, Adam (2015-10-15). "Joan Leslie, girl-next-door movie star of the 1940s, dies at 90". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2016-01-07.
  23. "The Male Animal". Heppner Gazette-Times. August 6, 1942. p. 5. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  24. "Joan Leslie gets part". Deseret News. July 11, 1941. p. 4. Retrieved February 28, 2014.
  25. "Joan Leslie Happy to Be Just 18". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. December 27, 1942. p. 70. Retrieved February 21, 2014.
  26. "Whatever Happened to...Joan Leslie". Melbourne Observer. March 14, 2012. p. 22. Retrieved February 21, 2014.
  27. "Yankee Doodle opens at three theaters today". The Miami News. February 19, 1942. p. 17. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  28. "Yankee Doodle Dandy". Archived from the original on February 23, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2014.
  29. "Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan in The Hard Way". The Spokesman-Review. February 16, 1944. p. 21. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  30. "The Hard Way (1942)- At the Strand". The New York Times. Retrieved August 28, 2015.
  31. "Meet the Stars". Big Spring Daily Herald. January 27, 1944. p. 3. Retrieved August 29, 2015. - via
  32. "This is the Army". Youtube upload. Public domain film. Retrieved February 28, 2014.
  33. "Errol Flynn-Joan Leslie to make Constant Nymph". Schenectady Gazette. p. 6. Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  34. "The Constant Nymph". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  35. "The Stars of To-morrow". The Sydney Morning Herald. NSW: National Library of Australia. September 10, 1946. p. 11 Supplement: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine. Retrieved April 24, 2012.
  36. "Joan Leslie ostracized for turning down roles against her principles". =The Canadian Register. June 14, 1947. p. 5. Retrieved February 28, 2014.
  37. "Joan Leslie Pleased At Adult Roles After Leaving Warners". The News and Courier. March 2, 1947. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  38. "Joan Leslie Honoured". Catholic Herald. May 20, 1949. Retrieved February 21, 2014.
  39. "Joan Leslie Interview". Western Clippings. Retrieved 10 February 2014.
  40. "Repeat Performance". UCLA film and television archive. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  41. "Headed for Paramount". Toledo Blade. December 2, 1948. p. 40. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  42. "Joan Leslie on her way to big screen comeback". Toledo Blade. November 24, 1949. p. 43. Retrieved 23 February 2014.
  43. "Lillian Kinkella Keil, 88; 'an Airborne Florence Nightingale'". LA Times. July 10, 2005. Retrieved August 28, 2015.
  44. "Joan Leslie, Forrest Tucker in Flight Nurse". Kingsport Times-News. November 29, 1953. p. 14. Retrieved May 12, 2014.
  45. Kathleen Steen (October 4, 1991). "Television Reviews 19911992". Variety.
  46. "Joan Leslie Has Twins". The Sunday Herald. January 7, 1951. p. 4. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  47. "Meet the board". University of Louisville alumni club of California. Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  48. Motion Picture and Television Magazine, November 1952, page 33, Ideal Publishers
  49. "Caldwell's legacy endures with $1 million endowment". Archived from the original on February 27, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2014. (cached)
  50. "Art Council Hopes the Sun Will Shine, April 18, 1986". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  51. "Joan Leslie Caldwell: Obituary". Los Angeles Times. October 15, 2015. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  52. Mary Brodel Russom (1916–2015)
  53. "Joan Leslie". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  54. "A compendium of the 500 stars nominated for top 50 'Greatest Screen Legends status" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  55. "Eastwood honoured with Golden Boot Award". USA Today. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  56. "Players to Open Season With 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 17, 1942. p. 19. Retrieved May 28, 2015 via
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