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Joan Leslie, the dark-haired Hollywood ingenue who starred in High Sierra, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Sky’s the Limit — all before she turned 18 — has died. She was 90.
Leslie, who often played the sweetheart or the wholesome girl next door on the big screen, died Oct. 12 in Los Angeles, her family announced.
After signing with Warner Bros. at age 15, the Detroit native played the hobbled girl Velma in High Sierra (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, then was the love interest of Gary Cooper’s World War I hero in Sergeant York (1941).
She portrayed the wife of James Cagney’s George Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and frolicked with Fred Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit (1943) after being loaned out to RKO Radio Pictures. (Astaire once paid her a compliment when he said she “had brains in her feet.”)
Her other films at Warners include the circus movie The Wagons Roll at Night (1941), also with Bogart; The Male Animal (1942), starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland; Hollywood Canteen (1944), in which she played herself opposite her older sister, Betty Brodel; Where Do We Go from Here? (1945), with Fred MacMurray; and the Busby Berkeley musical Cinderella Jones (1946), also starring Robert Alda.
Looking for better parts, she took Warners to court to get out of her contract and in 1947 hooked up with Eagle-Lion Films and then Republic Pictures.
Born Joan Brodel in Detroit on Jan. 26, 1925, she and her two older siblings performed in a singing and dancing vaudeville act called The Brodel Sisters. She also worked as a child model, and when her sister Betty signed with MGM, the family moved to Burbank. At age 11, Leslie landed an uncredited role in George Cukor’s Camille, starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.
She then appeared in such films as Nancy Drew … Reporter (1939) and Two Thoroughbreds (1939) and had an uncredited role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) before she signed with Warners. Her first movie under her stage name was High Sierra.
She made Repeat Performance (1947) at Eagle-Lion, followed by such films as Born to Be Bad (1950), Man in the Saddle (1951) with Randolph Scott, Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), Jubilee Trail (1954) and The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).
Leslie married obstetrician William Caldwell in 1950, had twin daughters in 1951 and slowed her career to concentrate on her family.
In the 1970s, Leslie appeared on episodes of Police Story, Charlie’s Angels and The Incredible Hulk, and on a 1988 installment of Murder, She Wrote, she guest-starred opposite another 1940s starlet who starred opposite Cooper, Teresa Wright.
A funeral mass will take place at 10 a.m. on Oct. 19 at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Los Angeles.
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