Joan Leslie: Actress who fought Warner Bros. and co-starred opposite Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire dead at 90
Among her best-known movies are Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), opposite Best Actor Oscar winner Gary Cooper; Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), opposite Best Actor Oscar winner James Cagney; and Curtiz’s militaristic musical This Is the Army (1943), opposite George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, and with songs by Irving Berlin.
All three movies were mammoth box office hits. And all three did their best to showcase Leslie, who was not even 18 at the time, as insipid young things; in the first two – and in The Sky’s the Limit (1943), opposite Fred Astaire – paired up with men more than old enough to be her father.
The fact that she made her potentially saccharine heroines genuinely appealing is a testament to what an appallingly underrated actress she was at the time – and remains so today.
At her best when sweet and sour
Off screen, Joan Leslie was an ambitious young actress who thought nothing of loudly complaining about and turning down roles while a Warner Bros. contract player. On screen, she was at her best when playing characters whose “cute and sweet” looks belied a steely interior.
Case in point, her disabled young woman in Raoul Walsh’s crime drama High Sierra (1941), the object of affection of (the much older) gangster Humphrey Bogart. Once able to walk normally – courtesy of the enamored gangster – she refuses his offer of marriage and swiftly turns against him after he abuses her boyfriend (John Eldredge).
In Vincent Sherman’s The Hard Way (1942), Leslie manages to mostly run away with this melodrama about two sisters in show business, despite stiff competition from New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress winner Ida Lupino. Initially all sweetness and light, we later discover how embittered Leslie’s young actress has become due to older “stage sister” Lupino’s relentless pressure for her to succeed.
In 1950, by then no longer a Warner Bros. player – she had taken the studio to court in the mid-’40s – a disillusioned Leslie memorably confronts scheming Joan Fontaine in RKO’s Nicholas Ray-directed psychological drama Born to Be Bad.*
Last film at age 31
A free-lancer at a difficult time for women in the American film industry – and reportedly blackballed because of the Warners lawsuit – Joan Leslie’s career rapidly derailed in the 1950s. At the mature age of 31, she quit films after supporting Jane Russell in Raoul Walsh’s The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), a good-looking but unremarkable programmer.
Later on, she switched to sporadic television appearances (Police Story, Charlie’s Angels, the TV movie Fire in the Dark), devoting some of her time to her clothing design business and various Catholic charities. She was married to obstetrician William Caldwell from 1950 to his death in 2000.
Joan Leslie vs. Warner Bros.
* Although some sources claim that Joan Leslie and Warner Bros. parted ways because the Roman Catholic actress didn’t want to star in films that went against her beliefs, in actuality she, at age 21, filed suit against the studio as a result of “a desire for mature roles” (and, quite likely, a desire for higher wages as well).
Leslie was hardly the first actress to fight Warner Bros. in court. Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland were two who preceded her – without being blackballed by the industry. Davis, in fact, lost her suit and was forced to stay on at Warners, eventually becoming the studio’s biggest female star. De Havilland won her suit, and, elsewhere, went on to take home two Best Actress Academy Awards (To Each His Own, 1946; The Heiress, 1949).