Leslie and the Professor

Little-known fact: Joan Leslie got her start with a bit part in Garbo's Camille in 1936 at age 11.

Little-known fact: Joan Leslie got her start with a bit part in Garbo’s Camille in 1936 at age 11 under her real name, Jane Brodel.

Joan Leslie passed on last week at the age of 90. I met Joan only once for a brief conversation that I wish had been a whole lot less-brief given that her first picture under Warner Bros. contract was with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, and within two years she had appeared with Gary Cooper in Sgt. York (he won a Best Actor Oscar for it) and then with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (he won a Best Actor Oscar for it as well). If you ask me, Joan Leslie helped these two legends win the big prize because she was that damn good.

How good was she? Well, when she played opposite Cooper she was 16 and he was 40, yet she was entirely credible as Coop’s girl. When she played opposite Cagney she was barely 17 and he was 42, but she was believable as his wife—the episodic storyline called for Joan to age 50 years as Mrs. George M. Cohan. In later scenes she was 17 playing 70, which for those times was kind of crazy. But the Oscars for her leading men in successive years don’t lie–this woman had talent. In fact she was a triple threat who could act, sing, and dance (with no less than Fred Astaire).

With Coop in Sgt. York at age 16 versus his 40. What a charmer as Gracie.

With Coop in Sgt. York at age 16 versus his 40. What a charmer as Gracie.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Next year, with Cagney at age 17.

I get the feeling from the progression of her career and from speaking with her that Joan Leslie was a little too sane for Hollywood. One year after Olivia de Havilland took Jack L. Warner to court and gained freedom from her Warner Bros. contract, Leslie did the same thing. But while Livvie prospered from freedom and snagged two Best Actress Oscars in four years, Joan went to work for impoverished studios PRC and Eagle-Lion and ended up in obscurity. But it really didn’t matter to her so much because she married in 1950 and gave birth to twin girls soon thereafter. She made some minor pictures in the 1950s and did some TV all the way into the 1980s before calling it quits. By then, she had become a powerhouse in the fashion industry with her Joan Leslie line of women’s dresses.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Just Errol’s type.

My meeting with Joan took place in 2008 while I was writing Errol Flynn Slept Here with Mike Mazzone. I asked for her recollections of Errol because they were under Warner contract at the same time in the 1940s. Boy did her eyes light up at the mention of the bad boy’s name. As related in EFSH, Joan wanted to meet Errol in the worst way, but since she was 15 when she signed and didn’t turn 18 until January 1943, the brass at Warner Bros. had to practically put her under guard to keep Flynn away. It was no secret he liked his women young; in fact, he was on trial for statutory rape when Joan finally did meet him. She had managed to give her handlers the slip at a party and felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and there stood the king of adventure, smiling his dazzling, devilish smile. “Hi, I’m Errol Flynn,” he said and she told me that she sort of melted as she stood there. “Oh, I’ve been wanting to meet you for the longest time, Mr. Flynn!” she gushed. Encouragement was the last thing Flynn needed, but before he could deliver his next line, which presumably would have been something to the effect of, “How about we go someplace quiet where we can talk?” Joan’s bodyguards caught up with her and were, like, “No no no no no no,” and whisked her away to safety. I can imagine they used everything short of crucifixes and holy water to keep Flynn at bay during the rescue.

I asked Joan if they had met up again during their time at the studio, and she gave me a polite, enigmatic no. To this day I’m not sure if no really meant no.

Errol Flynn Slept Here by Robert Matzen

Now a free agent, Joan tried her hand at film noir with Repeat Performance.

A year and a half prior to her meeting with Flynn, Joan had nearly ended up as his co-star in They Died with Their Boots On. She was Hal Wallis’s backup plan for the role of Mrs. George Armstrong Custer if Olivia de Havilland wasn’t available to play the part. Mind you, Joan was all of 16 at the time, but considering her success in Sgt. York and Yankee Doodle, she would have done fine as Libby Custer. Not to mention the off-screen education she was sure to have received in the hands of Professor Errol Flynn.

Wedding

Joan married Dr. William Caldwell in March 1950. The union would last 40 years until his death in 1990.

9 comments

  1. When reading “Errol and Olivia” I understood from your writing that Joan Leslie had actually slept with Flynn. Now you say she denied…were you just trying to spice things up?

    1. Priscila, I haven’t read E&O for a while, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have implied that Joan Leslie and Errol had tangoed horizontally because Joan had told me no in person and I’ve never found any evidence to the contrary. As for spicing things up, Hollywood was plenty spicy already without me adding to the pot. I always find myself going the other way and toning things down for a general readership.

    1. I can’t say, Priscila. I don’t have any evidence about that, either. I may have been ambiguous about Errol and Joan Blondell or about Errol and Joan Fontaine–two stars who enjoyed the social aspects of Hollywood life and also liked Errol. Errol and Joan Leslie–I didn’t go there because she said no and also because there is zero evidence they saw each other socially after that first party.

      OK, I went back and double checked because maybe I was the one on drugs when I wrote it, but please see pages 155 and 156. No insinuation about Flynn and Leslie.

  2. I always found the perky wholesomeness of Joan Leslie very appealing and, during the war years, at least, she had quite the run in some major Warners films. Along with the titles that you provided, Robert (like you I found her particularly charming in Sergeant York), she also played Ida Lupino’s show biz wonder kid sister in The Hard Way, as well as one of George Gershwin’s love interests (strictly of the fictional variety) in Rhapsody in Blue.

    From what little I’ve seen of her post-Warners career, it was Eagle Lion’s Repeat Performance that I found to be the most interesting and intriguing. Its memorable film noirish opening leads to a Twilight Zone-type follow up in which Leslie’s character gets to relive a year in her life to see if the repeat of that year will end as the film had began, shooting her husband to death.

    You mentioned her escape (thanks to others) from the studio’s Big Bad Wolf which brings to mind that fact that both, I believe, had been considered for roles in 1943’s The Constant Nymph. I’m not certain if they had been casting considerations at the same time, however. That might have been quite the experience for Leslie if it had happened.

    I wonder if Leslie had been re-cast because of studio concerns about her spending too much time with the wicked, wicked one. In any event, I find it interesting that the equally wholesome Joyce Reynolds is cast in a role as one of the sisters in The Constant Nymph. Reynolds bore a striking resemblance to Leslie, thus the reason for her casting, I assume (even though Leslie would be replaced by Joan Fontaine).

    Considering the fact that 1943 had begun with Flynn’s statutory rape trial, he was still a valuable star for Warners but remained quite incorrigible, it’s hardly a surprise that the studio would want to keep the two apart. But what a far more interesting anecdote you may have had from Miss Leslie if those studio executives had not put up their protective shields around the lovely lady.

  3. Joan Leslie was another one of my departed dad’s crushes. Livvy was the other — he couldn’t resist an apple-cheeked, brown-eyed girl. Regarding Joan’s age, Fred Astaire actually expressed concerns about working with her because she was so young — I think 19 at the time. He was always a bit squeamish about romantic scenes and did remark on their age difference being so great. Also, although she was talented, she was not up to par with some of his other dance partners. I found Leslie delightful in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Sergeant York, but I think she’s cloying and rather irritating in Thank Your Lucky Stars, where she has to carry the “plot” such as it is, herself. I’ve never seen The Hard Way, but always wanted to, as I’m a great Ida Lupino fan.

    1. Leslie was talented but I agree with you that her talent had its limits. She wasn’t a dancer per se and so there was no way she’d hold her own against a Fred Astaire. I thought Curtiz did a fine job featuring Leslie without exposing Leslie–that’s an underrated aspect of Curtiz.

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