Is your correspondent a sexist? I fear as much when I realize that I used to think of I Married Joan as that tv show where Jim Backus plays some woman’s husband. Somehow, Joan Davis had become a footnote in her own show. Oh, it’s not strictly my fault. Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo…Mr. Howell...James Dean’s dad in Rebel Without a Cause) is as awesome as it is possible for awesome to get. And, while I’ve only ever seen an episode or two of I Married Joan, it is perhaps not unfair to say that she trails somewhat behind Lucille Ball and Gracie Allen in making an impression. Yet her resume is so impressive, it led me to check out many of her films, and I have begun to know and appreciate her work.
Davis started out (like so many) in amateur contests at age 6 in her native St. Paul. Soon she was booked on the Pantages circuit, where she worked as the “Toy Comedienne” until puberty took its toll, and she retired briefly to finish high school. After a brief stint working in a department store, she returned to the biz, eventually teaming up with (and marrying) baggy pants comic Si Wills. By the early 30s they had a child and vaudeville had dried up, so they moved to Hollywood. Her first break was in a Mack Sennett picture with Myra Keaton and the Sons of the Pioneers. She continued to make films for the next 20 years or so, including classics like On the Avenue (1937), Sally Irene and Mary (1938), Hold That Ghost (1941) with Abbott and Costello, Show Business (1944) and If You Knew Susie (1948) both with Eddie Cantor, George White’s Scandals of 1945 with Jack Haley, and Harem Girl (1952). The Joan Davis Show began on CBS radio in 1945; the name changed to I Married Joan in 1949. It moved to television in 1952, where it ran until 1955.
Davis died of a heart attack in 1961. She was only 53 years old. Her early death was merciful, it turns out, for she was spared news too horrible for most of us to bear. In 1963, Joan’s daughter 30 year old Beverly Wills, also an actress, fell asleep while smoking in bed. The resulting fire killed her, her two young children, and her grandmother (Joan’s mother Nina).
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
Joan Davis was an accomplished physical comedian–one of my top diozen–and very popular of radio as well. But she wasn’t at peak in her post WWII films or her sub-par TV show (what judge would marry a whacko?), Watch Hold That Coed with JD & John Barrymore, Hold that Ghost (Abbott & Costello) or Life in College with the Ritz Brothers to appeciate her ability and characterization–indeed, most of her 1930s film work is proof of her skill. By the 1950s JD was trying to look glamorous yet doing her awkwark plain Jane schtick in her flat twanfy accent. She looked glamorous, but she was middle-aged and relying too much on formula. One could day the same for many young comics that didn’t adjust professionally to mid-life.
Thanks Frank. This post is about five years old. I’ve seen a bunch of her movies since it was posted, it’s probably due to be spruced up. At some point, I may investigate her work further but at the moment I’ve got higher (or other) priorities. Thanks for writing!
Eddie Cantor was the key to Joan Davis’s success. Rumored lovers for several years, he mentored her into her film and radio career…
Hi Travis —
I loved your book and your site. I thought I was the only person under the age of 102 who is fascinated by vaudeville (something I leave out of my personal ad). I have a book from the ’50s called “Vaudeville” — the author was Joe somebody…can you recommend any others (besides your own) that are worth reading? Thanks and keep it up!
Thanks for the nice words, Brad. “Joe Laurie Jr” is the guy you’re thinking of. In the back of “No Applause” you’ll find a comprehensive list of other vaudeville books. My favorite is probably the one by Douglas Gilbert. Also, there is a new one called “Vaudeville Wars” by Arthur Frank Wertheim that is excellent on the business end of things. Happy reading!