January 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, Joan Leslie!

Born today, January 26th, 1925. Happy 85th birthday, Miss Leslie!

She wasn't what we would call a "big star," but she worked opposite some of Hollywood's biggest stars, in some of their biggest movies. YANKEE DOODLE DANDY with James Cagney; SERGEANT YORK with Gary Cooper; HIGH SIERRA with Humphrey Bogart; THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS with Fred Astaire -- and she was the female lead in almost all of them! (she was the second female lead in HIGH SIERRA; Ida Lupino was the top-billed star -- male or female -- in this 1941 gangster pic).

I've always liked Joan Leslie. Partly because she was born in Detroit (hometown shout out!), but mostly because of her natural charisma and likability. She could do a little bit of everything -- sing, dance, comedy, drama -- and was one of those "troopers" who worked hard in every movie she did, always competent and professional. She was a beautiful young starlet (and by young, I mean, *young* -- she was only sixteen when she made SERGEANT YORK!) whose gifts as an actress I think got misused by Warner Brothers (the studio she was under contract to for most of her career). They often put her in light comedies and musicals -- and she was always fine in these, with a natural charm and pretty good comic timing.

But I think her performance in 1943's THE HARD WAY hinted at a dramatic depth that Warners never seemed interesting in developing. In this showbiz melodrama starring Ida Lupino, Leslie plays the kid sister that Lupino pushes into stardom. Leslie has to go from star-struck kid dreaming of the big time to egotistical diva and yet she has to make sure the audience never turns completely against her -- even when she does some pretty awful things to poor Jack Carson. And Joan Leslie was only eighteen when she made this movie. Think what she could do after a few more years to develop her dramatic talents!

Sadly, Warners kept sticking her with mediocre scripts and never really provided her with another meaty role like the one she had in THE HARD WAY, so eventually she got out of her contract with WB and went freelance. Freelancing didn't turn up anything better (except for a little known film noir called REPEAT PERFORMANCE, which has been praised in some film noir circles as a forgotten gem, though I've never seen it).

Miss Leslie continued to work during the 1950s both in movies and TV, but after her marriage in 1950 and the children which soon followed, she eventually slowed down her acting output in order to take care of her family.

She appeared on television sporadically in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, including a guest spot on "Murder She Wrote" along with another of my favorite classic movie actresses, Teresa Wright. They played a couple of daffy old-maid sisters who may or may not be murderers. Both ladies are a hoot in this ep, and I only wish Miss Leslie would do more of these kinds of supporting roles.

Happy birthday to a beautiful and talented lady!

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