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).
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.
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.
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.