Joan Leslie, an actress whose versatility and wholesome allure — opposite leading men such as Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire — elevated her to movie stardom by 18 but whose career plummeted after a contract dispute with a Hollywood mogul, died Oct. 12 in Los Angeles. She was 90.
A daughter, Patrice Caldwell, confirmed the death but did not disclose a cause.
On the vaudeville and nightclub stage from childhood — she once performed with dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — Ms. Leslie debuted onscreen at 11 in the Greta Garbo melodrama “Camille” (1936).
Four years and a dozen films later, Ms. Leslie began her rapid ascent when Warner Bros. signed her and started grooming her for stardom. Her fresh-faced good looks, accented by red hair and hazel eyes, often led to girl-next-door roles, but she proved to be a nimble performer in more demanding parts.
In “High Sierra” (1941), she gave a compelling performances as a girl with a deformed foot who brings out a tender side in Bogart’s hoodlum-on-the-lam. It was a pulsing and suspenseful gangster drama, co-written by future director John Huston, and elevated everyone associated with it.
Soon promoted to ingenue, Ms. Leslie received her first screen kiss (by Eddie Albert) in “The Great Mr. Nobody” (1941). She was Cooper’s mountain-girl love interest in “Sergeant York” (1941), a smash-hit biopic of the World War I hero.
Cooper, who won an Academy Award for best actor, was 24 years her senior. “Gary gave me a doll on the set,” Ms. Leslie later told the Toronto Star. “That’s how he saw me.”
She continued her rise with good supporting roles in the circus drama “The Wagons Roll at Night” (1941), starring Bogart and Albert, and “The Male Animal” (1942), a college-set comedy with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.
In “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), starring James Cagney as entertainer George M. Cohan, Ms. Leslie played his supportive wife. It was one of the year’s biggest hits and was mostly a showcase for Cagney, who won the best actor Oscar. But Ms. Leslie, then 17, showed she could hold her own with a screen personality as dynamic as Cagney, with whom she sang and danced.
For “The Hard Way” (1943), as the younger sister of the ruthlessly scheming and destructive Ida Lupino, Ms. Leslie ran the gamut from wide-eyed innocent to sullied party-girl. Director Vincent Sherman later described her performance as “remarkable” given her age and what she described as her sheltered off-screen life as a good Catholic girl.
That same year, Ms. Leslie went on loan to RKO for “The Sky’s the Limit” (1943), a dark-themed musical and one of the least-known Astaire vehicles. Astaire played a fighter pilot on leave who wants to forget the war, disguises himself as a civilian and tries to seduce the comely Ms. Leslie.
It was not a critical or commercial success when it came out, but it developed a devoted following over the years, both for the handful of jazz standards it produced, including “My Shining Hour” and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” and its somewhat daring plot about the futility of romantic attachments amid war.
A Time magazine critic wrote that Ms. Leslie showed a certain aplomb in her duets with Astaire, noting that she “imparts the double impression in their dance numbers that she is hanging onto his thumb and that she is doing remarkably well in view of the fact that she is not Fred Astaire. At less strenuous moments . . . Leslie is so nice to look at that her feet are the last thing anybody is likely to notice.”
From there, she was featured in a run of popular and patriotic musicals as the nice girl with pin-up looks. She was Ronald Reagan’s girlfriend in “This Is the Army” (1943) and appeared in “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943) with Eddie Cantor. In “Hollywood Canteen” (1944), she essentially played a version of herself who attracts the attention of a shy serviceman on leave (Robert Hutton).
Ms. Leslie endured a run of other lightweight confections, including “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945), a heavily fictionalized biography of composer George Gershwin, and the comedy “Cinderella Jones” (1946), both opposite Robert Alda.
Increasingly dissatisfied with born-to-be-good parts, she agitated for more mature roles, such as the town tramp in “The Corn in Green” (1945). But studio executives and influential directors could not quite imagine her making the transition from frothy sweetheart roles.
“Maybe it’s because, so much of the time, I see you bicycling around the lot with an apple in your mouth,” director Edmund Goulding once told her.
As her unhappiness mounted, Ms. Leslie challenged provisions of her contract, which had been signed when she was a minor. She won a settlement, freeing her from Warner Bros. but incurring the wrath of studio chief Jack Warner.
She later told an interviewer that Warner had her “blackballed” all over town. She was relegated to lackluster dramas and westerns at poverty row studios, and her career, once so promising, was largely over when she was 25.
Joan Agnes Brodel was born in Detroit on Jan. 26, 1925. Her father was a bank teller who lost his job during the Depression.
Musically gifted, Joan and her two older sisters began to support the family on the small-town theater circuit. The siblings eventually made their way to New York, where they won nightclub bookings and, eventually, screen tests. She appeared under her real name until Warner Bros. signed her and decided it was too similar to that of the established actress Joan Blondell.
Ms. Leslie was married to William Caldwell, an obstetrician-gynecologist, from 1950 until his death in 2000. Survivors include their twin daughters, Ellen Caldwell of Los Angeles and Patrice Caldwell of Portales, N.M.; and a sister.
After raising her daughters, Ms. Leslie appeared in guest spots on television series such as “Murder, She Wrote.” She devoted much of her time to volunteering at a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Los Angeles and socializing with actress peers such as Ann Blyth and June Haver.
“We’re busy in the same charities,” Ms. Leslie told the Toronto Star in 1990, “but, once in a while, we’ll joke about being such dull copy. We’ve only had one husband each and we never slashed our wrists or took drugs. I came from a vaudeville family where you picked yourself up and kept going.
“And do you know what? I can still ride a bicycle and I still eat apples.”