Joyzelle Joyner: Of Cooch and Courthouses

I first became aware of screen dancer Joyzelle Joyner (1905-1980) from her performance in the early talkie comedy short The Night Court (1927) directed by Bryan Foy for Vitaphone and starring William Demarest. The burlesque sketch premise is baked into the movie’s title. Joyner plays a cooch dancer named Irene Tabasco who is hauled off to court for indecency, defended by lawyer Demarest and then told by the judge to “recreate her act”. I know, I know, Judge: “I know indecency when I see it. Now let me see it again!”

The act Joyzelle performs in the short is clearly her specialty. She was in nearly three dozen movies in the decade between 1925 and 1935, usually in non-speaking roles as exotic specialty dancers, although on occasion she did have lines, and sometimes even starring roles. Only 20 at the time of her first screen credit as a slave girl in the 1925 version of Ben Hur, it is unknown what her background and training were, or even if she’d had any. It’s likely though that she’d had some experience in vaudeville, burlesque, night clubs, or in legit theatre (either as a specialty dancer of chorus girl) and/or as a photographic model. She definitely did the latter kind of work during her film career, and one can find many shots of her in risque poses (including topless) on the internet. There is also a 1926 publicity photo of her cavorting around with Norwegian pole vaulter Charlie Hoff at the L.A. Athletic Club, in which he is hoisting her up over his shoulders. She clearly loved the limelight, when she could get it.

Whatever she was into, her first husband, one Dudley V. Brand didn’t like it, for in August of 1927, he shot Joyner with a pistol through the bathroom door of their home. Her younger brother Clarence, who was living with the couple at the time, wrestled the gun away from him. Joyzelle was wounded in the arm, but one speculates that perhaps the scandalous publicity informed her casting in the Vitaphone short a couple of months later.

Joyner’s act seemed to be very much in the Eva Tanguay tradition. She did a lot of Salome dances and similar “Eastern” routines, but with less discipline and tradition than you might expect from someone trained in the art. Sometimes she is billed only as “Joyzelle” and on at least one occasion the crediting was “Laya Joy”. Originally from Alabama, she naturally divorced Brand after he put a hole in her. She then married B movie director Phil Rosen (who went on helm several Charlie Chan, Cisco Kid, Shadow, and East Side Kids movies as well as The Return of the Ape Man) in 1929. The name on her death certificate however reads “Joyzelle Brand”. It’s probably a good policy, superstitiously speaking, to keep the name of the man who shot you (for good luck).

Joyner’s list of credits is impressive even if her turns in the films are brief. Some of the movies she danced in include The Sea Beast (1926) with John Barrymore, Out of the Past (1927) with Robert Frazer and Mildred Harris, Beneath the Law (1929) with Clark and McCullough, One Hysterical Night (1929) with Reginald Denny, Glorious Vamps (1930) with Bobby Watson, and the sci fi musical Just Imagine (1930) with El Brendel and Maureen O’Sullivan. In a couple of shorts and B westerns in the early ’30s Joyzelle was actually cast as the leading lady. Today, she is best known for her sexy (and borderline lesbian) dance in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932) which was cut by censors in its day but was later restored. She then went on to do the same kind of fare she had always done, including Wild People (1933) with Jans and Whalen, The House of Mystery (1934) with Ed Lowry, the all star Jolson musical Go Into Your Dance (1935), and the amazing horror movie with Spencer Tracy, Dante’s Inferno (1935), her last.

For more on the history of show business, including vaudeville and burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous