I was saddened to hear of Joan Leslie’s death earlier this week at the age of 90. She was one of my favorite interviews in recent years. She was incredibly nice, yet at the same time she belied her screen image as a sweet young thing, as you’ll see in this excerpt from our conversation. She had savvy and ambition, and it was no accident that she succeeded in Hollywood. (You can read the complete interview in the book Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy, compiled from back issues of my newsletter of the same name.) She even endured a studio blackballing in the 1950s after leaving her longtime home at Warner Bros. and was forced to work at Republic Pictures—which she did, without complaint.
In 1940 the pretty, adolescent Joan Brodel won the leading role in a Warner Bros. short-subject called Alice in Movieland about a girl’s dreamlike experience in Hollywood: spotted on the set, given the lead in a major movie, becoming a star and winning an Academy Award. Never was casting more ironic—or prophetic—because Brodel’s real-life story wasn’t so different from that piece of fluffy fiction. After several years of appearing in tiny roles she was signed by Warner Bros. and, as Joan Leslie, costarred with Gary Cooper in Sergeant York, Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra, James Cagney inYankee Doodle Dandy, and Fred Astaire in The Sky’s The Limit—all before she turned eighteen! (Not so incidentally, Warner Bros. reissued Alice in Movieland and re-filmed the main titles to feature Leslie’s “new” name as well as her star billing. You can see the short on Turner Classic Movies, or on the Warner Home Video DVD of The Sea Hawk)
Joan Leslie gave many interviews about her career and her notable costars—she adds a great deal to the hour-long DVD documentary on the making ofYankee Doodle Dandy—but I was curious about her earliest experiences in Hollywood, and I wanted to learn more about day-to-day life as a contract player under the studio system. She was happy to oblige, in 2006, although when I made the mistake of referring to her as a onetime extra she politely but firmly corrected me.
LM: Please explain the difference between an extra and a bit player.
JL: I had lines; I had scenes in films like Men With Wings and that little picture at Columbia, Military Academy. If you have lines, you’re not an extra. And at that time, I don’t think you were in the union if you were an extra. I had an agent, you see.
LM: Would you go for readings?
JL: Yes. I remember one picture out at Fox, for instance. [My agent] said, “There’ll be others there up for the same part; it’s a Jones Family series [picture].” That’s all they told me. I got there and there were two or three other young ladies there, and the producer and director were sitting at their desks. We were standing in front of them and they were looking at us and they said, “We would like somebody with a Southern accent.” And nobody said anything, so I said (in Southern accent), “Well, y’all, you come to the right gal. You want to talk to me?” I talked as Southern as I could come up with and that’s all I needed to do, to show initiative.
JL: You had to sense a lot of it. When you’d go to makeup, then they’d say, it’s on Stage 12. You go down there and report to the first assistant. You’d just look around until you found who the first assistant was; you’d feel your way out, trying not to make mistakes. Then, [it’s] the second assistant [who] would call you, so you’d get to know his name. And in a nice, open way, you’d get to know people’s names. I remember that when I’d come back from lunch, I’d always bring a couple of packs of gum and I’d give anybody that I’d made acquaintance of that morning a stick of gum. It was casual so that they’d kind of remember me.
On the set you just have to listen very closely, listen to everyone around you, absorb everything and try to be what they want you to be with the little bitty line that you’d have to say. If it was a good line, it would be such fun to say it with vigor, you know. In Winter Carnival, when they asked me what school I went to, I wasn’t a college student, so I had to lie; I pretended to be a French girl and said it was the Sorbonne in Paris! And oh, they were surprised at that and let me “go” in the scene, so that was fun to do. Then [my character] said “Jeepers!” all the way through. Whenever something exciting or happy happened I would say “Jeepers!” with such vigor that it knocked them over. You’re so glad when you get a line like that, that you can play with and do something interesting with. That’s the way it is: you have to show your initiative, you have to show talent and availability, and still have an awful lot of luck.
LM: Yes, but you had smarts, too. The way you were open and friendly and you picked up on things and followed through…that was smart.
JL: You have to do that. It was just part of the game, though…
LM: Well yes, but you understood the game. There may have been other lovely young girls who may have had talent but they didn’t get it. Or they may have been too assertive and off-putting in that way. That’s a delicate balance, I’m sure.
JL: Yes, because everybody on the set is very sensitive and very with-it. Every person is there doing their job and they’re aware of their importance and the importance of new people coming along ,and the big guys and how they should be treated—they all know it.
LM: Tell me about working in Camille.
JL: That was an experience. You know, I was signed at MGM just to do that bit, and I was only there six months. I had one line in the picture, which was cut out. I played Robert Taylor’s little sister and it was in the scene where he comes home to see his father, Lionel Barrymore, and wants to seek his approval of him going with Camille, which, of course, he never got. He came home and I was being confirmed– a very Catholic service. That was to emphasize the straight-and-narrow of his life and how it had changed when he met Camille. I had a beautiful dress to wear; I had this one line and I had two coaches to tell me how to say it. Two! They worked with me for a couple of weeks before the shoot. I had to say, “Armand, so you did come all the way from Paris?” I had a French teacher telling me how to say Armand and an Englishman telling me how to say Paris, for about twenty minutes every day for a couple of weeks. Can you imagine that they would have coaches like that? Then that particular scene was cut out, but I had another scene and another dress and another occasion with Lionel Barrymore, in which I had no lines.
LM: So, you’re still visible in it.
LM: Susan and God with Joan Crawford…?
JL: I had lines in that and that was very interesting because it [was] a nice, long run. Rita Quigley played the daughter. Gloria De Haven had a very important part in it and I got to know her pretty well. There were some other nice young people, too, and we were all supposed to be the friends of the daughter of Joan Crawford. And they asked me if I had riding clothes and I said no. [They said] “We’ll fit you at wardrobe, that’s all right.” So there was a scene out at their estate where all the youngsters have to ride by in the distance. I liked to ride. I was not an accomplished rider but I was a courageous rider and I happened to have gotten this liveliest horse of the bunch. It was kind of fun to ride him but he was not controllable. All we had to do was ride by and I think somebody in the front waved to the daughter as they went by. We went through several times and I sensed that I could not hold this horse. When we started making takes he got wilder than ever and he threw me and dragged me. I recall Fredric March came over and helped me up, and I was quite thrilled about that. But it scratched my face quite badly—
LM: You’re lucky you got away with just a scratch.
JL: Yes, it was pretty scary, because that horse was very fast. If that happened later on, I’d have stopped and said, “I can’t ride that horse.” But I didn’t. I thought, “I’ll show them.” But they [applied makeup over] that scratch and put me right in scenes. I think they deliberately put me in scenes where I showed in the background of scenes and fixed up my face or turned me in a way that it didn’t show.
LM: And you were in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.
JL: In the first scene in that picture, I think, he’s leaving on a boat [and] all of his family and friends are there to see him off. I was just one of the family, maybe a cousin or something, and we were all trying out the beds and seeing what the ashtrays look like as they panned around the room, that’s all. I don’t even know if I showed. But it’s a good movie, and I thought Joel McCrea was just such a great actor, so sweet and so handsome. Like Cooper, you know, that quality.
LM: Were you observing? Were you soaking all this in when you were on a set?
JL: No, not only was I observing, but I was thinking, ‘I’m on my way, I’ll do better, I’m going to get better parts, I will be something some time.” I thought that. When I was little, at home in Detroit and going to dancing school and playing my accordion at benefits and at school and seeing Shirley Temple pictures, I thought, “I could do that.” We moved to New York when I was about nine or ten and then MGM signed me at ten or eleven and I got that taste and I thought, Mmm-hmm. [Then I went] back to New York and did modeling and radio work, all those things. Poor mama and dad, I wonder what they were thinking, because those were hard times. Then my sister came out under contract to Universal and she kept telling them they should have me out here because they were doing the [Deanna] Durbin pictures and I would fit in perfectly. Finally she brought me out, and mama, and I started to get little parts right away.
LM: You’ve talked so much about the classic films you’ve done, but I’m going to mention some of the great people you worked with and ask the first adjective that comes to your mind. Let’s begin with Jimmy Cagney.
JL: Well, let’s see… Dynamic, I think. Because when he’d come on the set, that’s when everything happened. The lights went on, the scene became live and you felt your part and he would make suggestions that would make everything better, you know. The set, the character actors, your part, everything would be improved because of what he brought to it with that style of his, his very strong style. You always see him pointing and doing things like this, because he was an indicator. He must have loved the business. But he really liked getting out of it, too. When he was in it, he was so at home in it and so good in it; he brought so much experience to backstage life, you know, in Yankee Doodle Dandy that he really made it come to life.
LM: Fred Astaire?
JL: Well, I’d say, elegance. Everything that he did had his individual touch to it, whether he was just looking down at his shoe to see if the laces were tied, or he was about to read a line, or to say, “Oh, that was terrible the way I did that. Let’s do it again. Can we do it again?” And, of course, in his dancing, his hand movements, his shoulders, the way he’d lead you, it was so easy to forget [about yourself].
LM: Gary Cooper?
JL: It’s hard to believe what a genuinely sincere and nice person he was and how kind he was to me. He didn’t talk down to me and he didn’t treat me like a child, but like a competent co-worker. But with a touch of humor in everything and with a twinkle, so that you were absolutely charmed all the time. We were not introduced ahead of time, but only met on a set and I was afraid of our personal relationship. I thought, “What the heck am I going to talk to him about and how am I going to meet him?” This, too, is a story that I’ve told before and I told it at the Cooper tribute the other day. I was so afraid of what to say, Mr. Cooper, I couldn’t call him that. I wouldn’t say Gary, that would be too presumptuous. But he set me at ease immediately, because when we first met, he said, “Well, how do you do, Miss Gracie?” Calling me by name in the picture. And I, of course, was delighted and I said, “Well, I’m just fine, Alvin, and how are you?” And that’s what we called each other from then on, and it was such a relief, you know, I didn’t have to worry about how to call him anything. He’d just twinkle and look down and maybe kick the dirt or something. He was playing his part, making me at ease and just everything he could be. And I gather from everyone that spoke that night at the tribute, that that’s what he did all the time. And his daughter said at the tribute, when he was dying, that he said, “It’s a shame, because I’m really just getting onto this acting business.” Oh, don’t you love that, after ninety pictures?