Dancing Dames & Slapstick Showgirls – Remembering Joan Shawlee (1926 – 1987)

Posted in Remember by - March 24, 2015
Dancing Dames & Slapstick Showgirls – Remembering Joan Shawlee (1926 – 1987)

Bubbly, funny and extroverted, Joan Shawlee was a versatile actress and comedienne, who went from being a nightclub singer to excelling in memorable character parts.

Born in New York on March 5th, 1926, Joan began modelling in her teens and would later have a spell singing in New York nightclubs. Moving into film and billed as Joan Fulton, she had notable appearances in several pictures including ‘House of Murder’ (’45), a cult thriller famous for the casting of Rondo Hatton as ‘The Creeper’. Joan looked sexy sashaying around and before long Lou Costello had spotted her and she got her big break in the Abbot & Costello comedy ‘Buck Privates Come Home’ (’47), followed by a lead role in their sequel ‘Rookies Come Home’ the same year.

The Fifties began with the part of a cave girl in the camp classic ‘Prehistoric Women’ (’50), and then Joan had minor spots in the big studio pictures ‘From Here to Eternity’ (’53) and ‘A Star Is Born’ (’54). A couple of years later and now billed as Joan Shawlee, she landed her own short-lived British sit-com; ‘The Adventures of Aggie’ (’56-7), in which she played an American fashion-buyer in London who unwittingly gets herself caught up in various escapades. After a minor role as a nurse in Charles Vidor’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (’57), Joan landed the part that she will forever be associated with.

Playing loudmouth bandleader “Sweet Sue” in my desert-island comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’ (’59), Joan could say more with one of her knowing looks than any of her brash and bellowing remarks. Her look of horror at the sight of Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis (in drag) kissing at the end of the movie, is priceless! Director Billy Wilder would give Joan decent though smaller roles in his next two comedies. First, she was the dim-witted switchboard operator Sylvia, in ‘The Apartment’ (’60), and then brassy streetwalker “Amazon Annie” in ‘Irma La Douce’ (’63). Joan also kept busy in television around this time with recurring roles on ‘The Betty Hutton Show’ (as Goldie’s close friend Lorna), and ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ (’63), as former showgirl “Pickles”.

After a fun role as Lucille Ball’s sister in the enjoyable Bob Hope vehicle ‘Critic’s Choice’ (’63), Joan was a showgirl once again, this time stranded in the Philippines, in George Montgomery’s obscure 1964 adventure ‘Guerillas in Pink Lace’ (’64). As the Sixties wore on Joan was reduced to playing overbearing mother types or aging bimbo’s. One memorable part was that of middle-aged biker Momma Monahan in Roger Corman’s ‘The Wild Angels’ (’66), after which she was a barfly in the Don Knotts comedy ‘The Reluctant Astronaut’ (’67). Other notable roles at the time were as a prostitute in the fashionable Frank Sinatra detective picture ‘Tony Rome’ (’67), and a motherly role in the Elvis Presley vehicle ‘Live a Little, Love a Little’ (’68).

The Seventies began with the George Peppard western ‘One More Train to Rob’, and was Ernest Borgnine’s secretary in the cult horror ‘Willard’ (both ’71). Other than a fun but tiny bit in ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ (’75), the remainder of the decade was confined to television with guest spots on such shows as ‘Columbo’, ‘Matt Helm’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’. Billy Wilder brought Joan back into cinema with the sporadically funny farce ‘Buddy Buddy’ (’81), playing an uptight receptionist. After popping up in the obscure Susan George comedy ‘Kiss My Grits’ (’82), Joan’s final movie was the Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds comedy ‘City Heat’ (’84).

Sadly, Joan Shawlee died of cancer on March 22nd, 1987, aged 61. From Forties pin-up to streetwise dame Joan had impeccable comic timing and, in spite of her typecasting, managed to turn small roles into memorable ones and, in one particular case, unforgettable.

Favourite Movie: Some Like It Hot
Favourite Performance: Some Like It Hot

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