She was born of Irish ancestry as Joan Agnes Theresa Brodel, the daughter of an accountant and a pianist. She was educated at Catholic schools in Toronto, Montreal and Detroit. There were three sisters, her older siblings being Mary and Betty. Together, they made up a successful vaudeville act, the Brodel Sisters. Trained in singing, dancing and dramatics from early childhood, Joan began on stage at the age of nine. The Brodel’s entry into in show biz at such a tender age had much to do with supporting their impoverished parents during the Depression years. With her sisters, Joan performed on radio and in nightclubs. The most talented of the trio, she excelled at impersonations, her repertoire including Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Jimmy Durante and Maurice Chevalier. While Mary played the saxophone and Betty the piano, Joan was a wiz on the accordion and the banjo. One night, during a performance at the Paradise Club in New York, she was singled out by an MGM talent scout and promptly signed for six months with a salary of $200 a week. Her first role of note was as Robert Taylor’s young sister in the period drama Camille (1936). She did not last long at MGM, but, in 1940, was signed by Warner Brothers. Voice coaching smoothed her Midwestern accent and Joan Brodel became Joan Leslie, ostensibly ‘to avoid confusion’ with Warner’s star comedienne Joan Blondell.
Little Joan was all but 14 years old when her movie career began in earnest. Her ability to cry on cue proved instrumental in her selection for the pivotal role of Velma, the club-footed girl helped by gangster Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra (1941). This role, by her own account, put her on the map. In between working as a photographers model, Joan flourished in A-grade productions, playing Gary Cooper’s sweetheart in Sergeant York (1941) (despite a 24-years age difference), co-starring and dancing with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and featuring in the top half of the bill in the aptly named, star-studded musical extravaganza Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943). She did her bit for the war effort too, dancing with servicemen in Hollywood Canteen (1944) and being featured in the movie along with her sister Betty. By 1942, Joan had acquired a wholesome reputation as the all-American girl-next-door. Life Magazine described her as “looking every inch the schoolgirl she is” and her greatest asset being “a manner of projecting sweet innocence without seeming too sugary”. Before long, however, the relationship between Joan and her studio began to sour.
By 1945, the quality of her roles had begun to deteriorate. She made a couple of so-so pictures with Robert Alda, Rhapsody in Blue (1945) (an entertaining, but highly fictionalised biopic of George Gershwin) and Cinderella Jones (1946). After appearing in Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), Joan, demanding more mature roles, took Warner Brothers to court. Having made her point, her contract was dropped. Between 1947 and 1954, Joan freelanced, often for Poverty Row outfits like Eagle-Lion, Lippert and Republic. She became yet another fatality of Hollywood typecasting, another example of an attractive ingenue, a promising starlet and a potential major star who ended up as a low budget western lead. Still, later interviews suggested that she rather enjoyed acting in her handful of second-string westerns and they earned Joan a Golden Boot Award in 2006 for contributions to the genre. She finally had another co-starring turn, billed behind Jane Russell and Richard Egan in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), thereafter restricting her appearances to the small screen. Joan has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Vine Street.
In her later private life, Joan was devoted to various Catholic charities and to raising her identical twin daughters. As Joan Caldwell, an obstetrician’s widow, she founded a Chair in Gynecologic Oncology at the University of Louisville. Joan died in October 2017 at the age of 90.
She quit her acting career to raise her identical twin daughters Patrice and Ellen. Both daughters are now Doctors teaching at universities.
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