Brenda Joyce played Tarzan's mate, Jane, in five films, and was the only actress in the sound era to play opposite two Tarzans.
She starred opposite Johnny Weissmuller in four films, then made her final appearance as the former Jane Parker in the first feature to star Lex Barker as the muscular jungle man. Joyce projected a wholesome, feminine athleticism and fresh-faced charm that made her an appealing mate for Tarzan – she and her predecessor, Maureen O'Sullivan, were the only two actresses who became identified with the character.
Born Betty Leabo in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1912, she was raised in Los Angeles. A pretty blonde, she took work as a photographer's model to help pay for college tuition, and on the strength of her image in a fashion magazine's layout, she was signed to a contract with 20th Century Fox. The studio renamed her Brenda Joyce and publicised her as their "Star of Tomorrow" for 1939.
She made her screen debut with a leading role in Fox's impressive version of Louis Bromfield's novel, The Rains Came (1939), the climax of which was a spectacular recreation of a destructive earthquake that breaks a dam – the flood effects won an Oscar. As feisty young Fern, she made an auspicious debut, winning plaudits for her wholesome appeal, though the film was dominated by its two superstars, Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy. She had a sizeable role in Little Old New York (1940), a fanciful account of Robert Fulton's invention of the steamboat, and she photographed splendidly in sumptuous Technicolor for Maryland (1940), in which she had her finest starring role, as a horse-breeder's daughter who falls in love with a rider (John Payne).
Joyce's subsequent leading roles at Fox were in B-movies, such as The Postman Didn't Ring (1942), as one of the people whose life is affected by the discovery of a sack of letters mislaid 50 years earlier, and Little Tokyo (1942), in which she was an intrepid radio reporter helping unearth a spy network in pre-Pearl Harbor California. She later stated that the studio lost interest in her career in 1941, when she married a former college sweetheart, soldier Owen Ward, and after starring in a musical at Republic, Thumbs Up (1943), she semi-retired in 1943 after the birth of the first of her three children. She did not return to the screen until offered the role of Tarzan's mate, Jane.
Author Elmo Lincoln's literary creation of 1912, the tree-swinging jungle man Tarzan, who was raised by a female gorilla after his English aristocrat parents perished, made his screen debut in Tarzan, the Ape Man, in 1918, one of the first silent films to gross over a million dollars. MGM produced the first sound film to feature the character, also titled Tarzan the Ape Man, in 1932, with their contract player O'Sullivan playing Jane to the Tarzan of the former Olympic swimming champion Weissmuller. Most critics concurred that the pair were perfectly cast, but O'Sullivan was increasingly unhappy as the series progressed, fearing that she would be too identified with the role (which she was, even though the studio gave her varied assignments between Tarzan epics). At her request, she was to be killed at the end of the fourth film in the series, Tarzan in Exile, with a son being introduced in the same film, but when word leaked out, fans protested so heartily that MGM gave O'Sullivan a raise in salary and re-wrote the script so that Jane survived her near-mortal wound and the movie was retitled Tarzan Finds a Son (1939).
When MGM relinquished the rights to the Tarzan stories in 1942, producer Sol Lesser at RKO picked them up, along with Weissmuller's contract, but O'Sullivan firmly refused to participate. The first two RKO movies did not feature Jane (in the first she was said to be visiting relatives in England, and in the second she was away nursing soldiers), after which Lesser, aware that Jane was being missed, offered the role to Joyce, with the approval of Weissmuller, who stated, "I don't know what the kids are going to think when they see me with a blonde Jane. Kind of looks like Tarzan's been playing the jungle a bit."
Joyce made her debut as Jane in Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), in which a group of archaeologists want Tarzan to guide them to a hidden valley. Joyce then supported Lon Chaney Jnr in two of Universal's thrillers in their Inner Sanctum mystery series, Strange Confession and Pillow of Death (both 1945) before playing Jane again in one of the best of the Tarzan series, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946); said Variety, "There isn't a dull moment in it."
Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), in which Patricia Morison played an animal trainer seeking beasts for a zoo, was also judged superior, but Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) was overly ambitious and was the last Tarzan movie to feature Weissmuller, who was getting older and heavier. After parting from Lesser "by mutual agreement", Weissmuller was replaced by a tall, handsome contract player, Lex Barker, who was enthusiastic about Tarzan's progress. "I have more dialogue than my predecessors," he stated. "Two-syllable words, too. No more of the 'You Jane – me happy' stuff."
He and Joyce made an attractive couple in Barker's first Tarzan film, Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949), in which Tarzan guides explorers to a hidden valley in which there is a fountain of youth, but it was the last to feature Joyce as Jane, and her final movie. Beset by personal problems and going through a painful divorce, she wanted more time to spend with her children, and stated that she would never act again, a vow she kept.
She worked for a decade for the Department of Immigration in Washington, briefly married for a second time, and in 1971 she appeared as herself in two episodes of the acclaimed children's television show on PBS, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. She suffered from dementia for her last decade. For the rest of RKO's Tarzan series, Lesser cast a new Jane in every film, trying unsuccessfully to find an actress with the "elusive quality" possessed by O'Sullivan and Joyce.
Betty Graffino Leabo (Brenda Joyce), actress: born Kansas City, Missouri 25 February 1912; twice married (two daughters, one son); died Santa Monica, California 4 July 2009.