Joan Leslie: Devoted to “Mary”

I first became interested in Joan Leslie (Joan Agnes Theresa Sadie Brodel, 1925-2015) when I noted that she was one of the few key cast members of Yankee Doodle Dandy I knew nothing about! (She portrayed Mary, George M. Cohan’s fictionalized wife, supposed inspiration for the eponymous song). It turns out that Leslie, like many others in the cast of that film, had a real life vaudeville background.

As a child, Detroit native Leslie was in a vaudeville trio with her two older sisters called The Three Brodels. The girls sang, danced, and played musical instruments. Joan’s specialties were the accordion and the banjo, and she also did impressions of Jimmy Durante, Maurice Chevalier, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn. Leslie’s first screen appearance was in a 1936 musical short called Signing Off with the trio. She began working as a child actress at age 11, her first feature being MGM’s Camille with Garbo. For her early juvenile parts she was still billed as Joan Brodel. Her two sisters Betty and Mary, also had movie careers for a time, but strictly as bit players.

In 1941, still only 16, she was signed by Warner Brothers, at which her name was changed to Joan Leslie to avoid confusion with Joan Blondell, who was also at the studio. Here she was cast in such things as High Sierra (1941), Sergeant York (1941), The Male Animal (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), This is the Army (1943), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Hollywood Canteen (1944), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), Cinderella Jones (1946) and Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), among others.

At this point Leslie left Warner Bros due to Leslie’s religious objections to some of the roles that she (a devout Catholic) was asked to play. She continued appearing in films for another decade, although usually for minor studios like Eagle-Lion and Republic. Her best remembered one is Andre de Toth’s Man in the Saddle (1951) with Randolph Scott. Throughout the 1950s she appeared in live television drama. After a break of a decade she returned to TV in 1975, after which time you could see her on such shows as Police Story, Charlie’s Angels, The Incredible Hulk, and Murder She Wrote. Her final screen credit was the 1997 tv movie Fire in the Dark with Olympia Dukakis, Lindsay Wagner, Jean Stapleton, and Ray Wise.

For more on vaudeville history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.