06 February 2023

Brenda Joyce

Brenda Joyce (1917-2009) was an American film actress, who starred in many B-movies of the 1940s. The buxom blonde, excellent athlete, and swimmer is best-remembered as the seventh actress to play Jane in the Tarzan films.

Brenda Joyce
West German collectors card in the Filmstars der Welt series by Greiling-Sammelbilder, series E, no. 171. Photo: RKO. Brenda Joyce as Jane in one of the Tarzan films.

Smiling in glossy magazines in new automobiles, using toothpaste, and modelling shoes

Brenda Joyce was born Betty Graftina Leabo in 1917 (some sources suggest 1912) in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and was known to family and friends as Graftina. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Grafton Leabo. When she was 5 years old, she moved with her mother to San Bernardino, California, staying there through her junior high school years.

They moved to Los Angeles, California, where she was educated at San Bernardino and Los Angeles High Schools, and attended one semester at USC and three more at UCLA. Between her years in college and those in film, Joyce was a model for photographers. She appeared smiling in glossy magazines in new automobiles, using toothpaste, and modelling shoes.

Then a talent scout from 20th Century Fox spotted her in one of these fashion magazine layouts, and she was signed to a two-picture contract. 20th Century Fox changed her name to Brenda Joyce after the silent screen actress Alice Joyce.

Joyce made her film debut as Fern Simon, the second female lead in the Oscar-winning earthquake epic The Rains Came (Clarence Brown, 1939) opposite Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power. The role won her good reviews and after Here I Am a Stranger (Roy Del Ruth, 1939), about a young Englishman (Richard Greene) in search of his alcoholic father (Richard Dix), Joyce was signed indefinitely.

She played Harriet Livingstone in the historical drama Little Old New York (Henry King, 1940); co-starred with Walter Brennan and Hattie McDaniel in Maryland (Henry King, 1940); tried her luck as a comedienne in Public Deb No 1 (Gregory Ratoff, 1940) with George Murphy; and walked up the aisle in Marry the Boss's Daughter (Thornton Freeland, 1941).

Brenda Joyce
Spanish postcard in the Hollywood (California) series. Photo: Universal International.

Brenda Joyce
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 1361. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Tarzan's Mate

Brenda Joyce was billed as a sexy 'available' blonde, but Fox's most favoured pin-up of 1940 married Owen Ward, an Army officer. The studio punished her by relegating her to a string of B-pictures. She was also cast as Maris Hanover in Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (Otto Brower, 1942) with Preston Foster, produced in the period immediately following Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II.

Little Tokyo, U.S.A. used a quasi-documentary style of filming and Twentieth Century Fox sent its cameramen to the Japanese quarter of Los Angeles to shoot the actual evacuation there. Little Tokyo, U.S.A. was meant to alert Americans to the dangers of foreign agents, but it is now controversial for its largely negative portrayal of Japanese Americans. More notable roles saw her star in such B-chillers as Pillow of Death (Wallace Fox, 1945) with Lon Chaney Jr., and The Spider Woman Strikes Back (Arthur Lubin, 1946) starring Gale Sondergaard.

Brenda Joyce is now best-remembered as the seventh actress to play Jane in the Tarzan film series. In Tarzan and the Amazons (Kurt Neumann, 1945), she succeeded Maureen O'Sullivan in the series and appeared in the role five times. Her first four appearances as Jane were opposite Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. However, her last performance as Jane, in Tarzan's Magic Fountain (Lee Sholem, 1949), was with Lex Barker as Tarzan. Joyce and Karla Schramm, from the silent era, were the only two actresses to play Jane opposite two different actors playing Tarzan.

It was to be her final film. According to the Daily Telegraph: "Away from the jungle sets at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Culver City lot, Brenda Joyce admitted to detesting the role of Jane, and of being scared of the MGM lion (which was brought out of retirement for Tarzan and the Amazons in 1945 and was by then toothless). Also, she was upset at Johnny Weissmuller's persistent sexual harassment."

In 1949, Joyce retired from acting to raise a family. Later, as Betty Ward, she became director of the Catholic Resettlement Office in Monterey, California, and helped refugees. She was married to Owen Ward, whom she had known since high school, from 1941 until their divorce in 1960. They had three children, Pamela Ann, Timothy Owen and Beth Victoria. In 1971, she appeared in two episodes of the PBS children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood before retiring for good.

Brenda Joyce died of pneumonia in 2009, in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California. She was 92. Colleagues at the Department of Immigration had no idea that she had once been Brenda Joyce and Tarzan's mate, as she decided not to tell. She also concealed her past from staff at the nursing home in Santa Monica where she spent her last years – although she did agree to a visit from the actor Johnny Sheffield, who played her adopted son Boy in the Tarzan series.

John Payne and Brenda Joyce in Maryland (1940)
British postcard in the Film Partners Series, London, no PC 320. Photo: 20th Century Fox. John Payne and Brenda Joyce in Maryland (Henry King, 1940).

Ralph Bellamy and Brenda Joyce in Public Deb No. 1 (1940)
British postcard in the Film Partners Series, London, no. P322. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Ralph Bellamy and Brenda Joyce in Public Deb No. 1 (Gregory Ratoff, 1940).

Sources: Daily Telegraph, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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