Joan Leslie dies at 90; actress of Hollywood's Golden Age

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.

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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.

"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.

But by the mid-1940s, Leslie had had it with the roles Warner Bros. gave her, and when the studio refused to offer her meatier parts, she sued, claiming the contract she signed as a teenager was invalid. She won her case in lower courts, but the studio won in the state Supreme Court.

Leslie pushed on, saying she would file a $2-million civil suit against Warner Bros. The studio gave in, canceling her contract. "I hope this will present me as an entirely new personality," she said in the Times interview.

But the damage was done to her career, in part because she had been out of the public eye while the court battle dragged on. "I couldn't work those two years, not even on radio," she told the Toronto Star. "It was a huge setback for me."

She was born Joan Brodel in Detroit on Jan. 26, 1925. Her father was a bank teller and her mother a pianist and homemaker. When times got tough during the Depression, Joan and her two older sisters hit the vaudeville circuit. "My sisters and I were billed as the Brodel Sisters and I did an imitation of Jimmy Durante," she told the Toronto Star, recalling an incident when she was 9.

"One night, there was a knock on the dressing room door and it was Durante himself. He said I was doing him all wrong and showed me how."

In Hollywood, she first signed with MGM at 11, doing small parts until she went to Warner Bros.

After getting out of that contract, she mostly appeared in films for minor studios, such as Republic, and took roles in early television series. She also did commercials, including one for dog food. "This lovely lady is Cindy," Leslie said, petting a sleek Dalmatian. "We girls know that what we eat has a lot to do with staying trim and youthful."

Leslie married in 1950. After the birth of her twin daughters, she almost entirely gave up acting. After her daughters were grown, she occasionally appeared in series — such as "Charlie's Angels," "Murder She Wrote" and "The Incredible Hulk" — and she did charity work.

Her husband, physician William Caldwell, died in 2000. Leslie is survived by her two daughters.

david.colker@latimes.com

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