Joan Leslie: Golden Age Actress Dies
Published: October 16, 2015
Joan Leslie: Golden Age Actress Dies, In the 1941 film noir classic “High Sierra,” Humphrey Bogart plays a tough guy who falls in love with a seemingly sweet, naive teenager played by Joan Leslie.
The Bogie character later finds out, to his dismay, that the girl is not as naive as he thought.
The film industry made the same mistake about Leslie.
Though demure in most of her teen roles, as a young woman Leslie filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. to get her out of a contract she described as “slavery.” And she persevered for years until studio executives finally gave in.
Photos of leaders, stars and other notable figures who died in 2015.
“They know I put up a fight for what I believed as right,” she said in a 1949 Times interview. “They know I didn’t weaken, and they don’t consider me now a perpetual ingenue.”
Leslie, 90, who was in several other well-known films of the 1940s including “Sergeant York,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Hollywood Canteen,” died Monday in Los Angeles, according to a obituary notice submitted by her daughter, Ellen Caldwell.
Leslie was a show business veteran by the time she got the role in “High Sierra.” When she was child, she and her two older sisters had a vaudeville singing and dancing act that toured widely in the U.S. and Canada. And she had several small, mostly uncredited parts in movies.
But getting that plum role in the film that also starred Ida Lupino (then a bigger star than Bogart, and thus top billed), directed by Raoul Walsh and co-written by John Huston, was a life-changer.
“I was only 15, you know,” she said in a 1994 interview with a fan, Barry Iddon, while in London to support a children’s hospital. “I wish I had gotten it a little bit later in my career. I think I could have done better by it.”
But she was entirely believable as Velma, a partly disabled small-town girl traveling west with her family in a beat-up car when they have an encounter with Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, played by Bogart.
In a memorable, tender scene early in the film, the two gaze at the stars and he talks about how the earth feels “like a little ball that’s turning through the night, with us hanging on to it.”
“Why that sounds like poetry, Roy,” she tells him. “It’s pretty.”
When Leslie was 16, Warner Bros., which had her under contract, gave her a new Buick and more importantly, the female lead part opposite Gary Cooper in the biopic “Sergeant York,” about an unlikely World War I hero.
Despite the car, she was still treated by some, including Cooper, as a child. “Gary gave me a doll on the set,” Leslie said in a 1990 Toronto Star interview. “That’s how he saw me.”
Her screen persona was even immortalized in song. In the wartime “Hollywood Canteen” (1944), the Andrews Sisters sang “Corns for My Country” about the condition of their feet after dancing long hours with soldiers on leave. One line of the song:
We’re not petite as sweet Joan Leslie.
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