She was another of those 40s actresses that were predominately cast as the relatively faceless female lead to an established star, or more often than not the junior female lead under the two main stars. I've previously written about my admiration for Priscilla Lane in such roles, and Joan Leslie fits into these parts in the same way. Like Miss Lane she always took a usually thankless part and managed to shine despite the often overpowering presence of the main star.
I think I first noticed her in High Sierra, which was her breakout role in Hollywood. It was also probably the film that made me a fan of Humphrey Bogart but though the film ultimately belongs to Bogart and Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie made herself known in the junior female lead. She had much more luck with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy as the proper female lead and did a great job in that she didn't let herself be in any way upstaged by Cagney's barnstorming and Oscar winning performance in the lead. I found her a very sympathetic character in an often stagy movie and upon watching her performance realised that she was a very skilled screen actress. Of course, Cagney is great in the movie, but it's Joan Leslie that holds it together.
She also gives sterling support in The Hard Way (a really underrated film by the way - I don't understand why it's not seen as a classic) and The Male Animal, as well as doing her bit for the war effort in Thank Your Lucky Stars. As I said, she generally exceeds the expectations of the part in every role I've seen her in, which makes me think that she could have been a truly great star if given the correct exposure. However, it wasn't to be as she had all but retired from movies by the early 50s to raise a family and only acted sporadically since then, mostly on television.
Despite her relatively short career, Joan Leslie is one of the few people around who can still tell us about life in Hollywood in the 40s and acting with the likes of Bogart, Cagney, Crawford and Fonda. Of course, that is not to the detriment of her own stellar career but voices like hers are few and far between theses days and should be supported and treasured by all film fans. So, to this end may I wish Miss Leslie a happy and healthy birthday, with many more to come.