Queenie Leonard

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The Independent Online

Pearl Walker (Queenie Leonard), actress and singer: born Manchester 7 April 1905; married 1936 L.P. Williams (marriage dissolved 1947), 1958 Tom Conway (marriage dissolved 1963); died Los Angeles 17 January 2002.

Queenie Leonard had already amassed 20 years of stage and screen experience when, in 1941, she made the first of more than 30 Hollywood films. In the course of her life, she also appeared in cabaret in England and in the United States, starred in a one-woman show, acted in television sitcoms, and provided voices for Disney cartoons.

Born Pearl Walker in Manchester in 1905, she was nicknamed "Queenie" from an early age. Her father, John Leonard Walker, was an entertainer, and they appeared together in cabaret when she was only 14. After training for the stage, she combined her nickname with her father's middle name, and was soon appearing in Charlot revues and in Cole Porter's West End musical Nymph Errant (1933), which starred Gertrude Lawrence.

Leonard was already making British films; in 1937 alone she acted in The Show Goes On, starring Gracie Fields; Limelight, starring Anna Neagle; and Moonlight Sonata, starring the pianist Ignace Paderewski. She appeared in cabaret at Claridge's and Ciro's, and made several 78 records, including such songs as "Time on My Hands" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea".

In 1936 she had married the set designer L.P. Williams. They came to Hollywood in 1939, when RKO hired Williams to recreate Rugby School for their film Tom Brown's School Days (1940). When her husband returned to Britain for wartime service in the RAF, Leonard remained in California. After playing a nun in Columbia's Ladies in Retirement (1941), she was cast as a switchboard operator in 20th Century-Fox's Confirm or Deny (1941).

Fox next hired her to teach the New Jersey-born Joan Bennett a cockney accent for her role in Fritz Lang's thriller Man Hunt (1941). Three years later she helped the Canadian actor Hume Cronyn with his cockney for Hitchcock's Lifeboat. She also tutored Alan Ladd for his role as an RAF flier in the 1942 film Joan of Paris. ("It wasn't easy!", she later said.)

During the 1940s, Fox cast Leonard as Joan Fontaine's Waaf friend in This Above All (1942), as one of Jack the Ripper's victims in The Lodger (1944), and as an equally ill-fated maid in the Agatha Christie whodunit And Then There Were None (1945). Not that Leonard's work was confined to one studio: she appeared at Republic in Thumbs Up (1943); at Paramount in The Uninvited (1944); at Columbia in the cult thriller My Name is Julia Ross (1945); and at Universal in Eagle Squadron (1942), in which she assumed the accent of her home county as a Lancashire blonde.

Along with Merle Oberon, Charles Laughton, Ida Lupino, Ray Milland and some 70 other members of Hollywood's British colony, she acted unpaid in RKO's Forever and a Day (1943), an episodic tribute to England which raised an estimated $1m for war funds. Time magazine felt the film bore "all the traces of having been composed by a well-intentioned but mediocre committee".

Leonard's marriage to L.P. Williams ended in divorce in 1947. In 1958 she married the British actor Tom Conway. They both provided voices for Disney's animated feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Leonard's Disney work also included Alice in Wonderland (1951), Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). During the 1950s she made her American night-club début at the Deauville in Los Angeles, later appearing at New York's Blue Angel. Although she made such big-budget films as Esther Williams's Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Alan Ladd's Thunder in the East (1953), her best film of the 1950s was the suspenseful B-movie The Narrow Margin (1952), in which she played a nanny to an obnoxious little boy.

Her television career, which began in England before the Second World War, included such 1960s sitcoms as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. She and Conway divorced in 1963. The following year she made her final film, the appropriately named What a Way to Go!

In the 1970s Queenie Leonard began suffering from muscular degeneration and failing eyesight. Although declared legally blind in the early 1980s, she regularly returned to Britain to visit her sister. In the late 1980s she was invited to the newly opened Theatre Museum at Covent Garden to place her handprints on their prestigious Wall of Fame.

Dick Vosburgh