Buy your favorite Joyce Compton films on DVD!
ay back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, movie producers could rely on a pool of excellent character actors to play certain types, again and again. You know: Nat Pendleton as the Dim-Witted Hood. Edna May Oliver as the Prissy Old Maid. Franklin Pangborn as the Flustered Hotel Clerk. It was during this period that Joyce Compton established herself as the Dumb Blonde. With her good looks and honey-dripped Southern accent, the actress has left an indelible impression in the hearts of film fans everywhere.
Miss Compton was born on January 27, 1907 in Lexington, Kentucky. An only child, she traveled often with her parents throughout the Midwest before the family landed in Hollywood. It wasn't long before the lovely teen was winning beauty contests and the attention of the film studios, then at their silent-era peak.
Although at first she scored bit parts in various movies, her career didn’t really get a boost until she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926. This yearly ritual, a list of the most promising young actresses by motion picture exhibitors, has faded into the dustbin of history - but it was a big deal in the ’20s. Having the honor was considered an enormous coup for an aspiring actress. Several of the other women named that year - including Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, Dolores Del Rio, and Janet Gaynor - went on to movie stardom.
The Baby Star exposure didn't immediately lead to more film roles, but Miss Compton kept busy. Posing for alluring photos had her often in the pages of numerous fan magazines. Small but memorable supporting roles in two Clara Bow vehicles - Dangerous Curves and The Wild Party - led to a contract offer from Paramount Pictures. She turned them down and instead accepted a contract with Fox Pictures.
It was during the heady, hype-filled Fox period where she made 11 pictures between 1929 and 1931 that her career really should have taken off. But it didn’t. Instead, she was perpetually cast in unchallenging ingenue roles which sealed her fate as a beautiful but talented supporting player.
Even though she proved adept at playing every kind of role at this point, it was Miss Compton’s flair for comedy that left an impression with casting agents. This led to her being hired at the Mack Sennett Studios for several shorts produced in 1933. The pace and long hours were exhausting. In a later interview, she recalled that “it took all my strength and my parents’ constant care to keep me going. Sennett’s was haphazard and not very well organized.”
Difficult as the work was, things were looking up. As a free agent in the mid-’30s, she found gratifying roles in several hit pictures. Highlights included supporting Loretta Young in The White Parade, Carole Lombard in Love Before Breakfast, and Mary Astor in Trapped by Television. By this point, she graduated to leading lady roles in several Westerns and B-movies. In 1935, she also appeared in a batch of MGM short subjects with comedian Charley Chase - although in these films little was required of her besides pretty window dressing. If the part required a combination of appealing ditziness and vivacious sex appeal, Miss Compton was likely to fit the bill.
These small but showy culminated in her most memorable role - that of Dixie Belle Lee in the screwball classic The Awful Truth. As the Southern-fried showgirl which Cary Grant dates on the rebound after separating from his wife (Irene Dunne), Miss Compton’s easygoing charm complimented the magnetism of her better-known costars. While performing the number “My Dreams Have Gone with the Wind,” blasts of air would shoot up her flimsy dress. It stole the show.
High-profile appearances followed in lavishly mounted movies such as Artists and Models Abroad, Trade Winds, Balalaika and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. One of her best roles occurred in 1940, playing scatterbrained detective Christine Cross in MGM’s entertaining “B” mystery Sky Murder, opposite Walter Pidgeon.
During the ’40s, Miss Compton’s onscreen time was split evenly between tiny bits in big-budget, major studio productions and leads or supporting roles in the products of second-tier studios such as Republic and Monogram. The roles may have been smaller, but they took on a darker, more interesting tone perky chorines and sassy stenographers gave way to dancing gals, barflies, prostitutes and other blue-collar types. She often worked at Warner Brothers, where director Raoul Walsh cast her in two of his gritty, male-bonding melodramas: They Drive By Night and Manpower. She appeared (briefly) as a waitress in Mildred Pierce and as a gossipy chorine in Night and Day. Indeed, Miss Comptons output during this decade reads like a sampler of typical ’40s film genres: Horror (Scared to Death); Western (Silver Spurs); Musical (Let’s Face It); Mystery (Dark Alibi); Film Noir (Sorry, Wrong Number).
As Miss Compton approached the age of 40, she found herself less in demand as an actress. She was signed to play a hat check girl in the classic The Best Years of Our Lives, but that part ended up on the cutting room floor. Playing a flirtatious Southern Belle in the Red Skelton vehicle A Southern Yankee offered a charming respite but roles like this were more the exception than the rule. It was time for her to find a new direction in life. What she wound up doing came from an unexpected place: nursing. She had already played nurses in several films, including the Barbara Stanwyck comedy Christmas In Connecticut. The nursing profession fulfilled Miss Compton’s desire to help people in a meaningful way. She delighted in the career change, especially when patients recognized her from her movies.
The ’50s were a time of constant change for Miss Compton. Always close to her parents, the death of her mother in 1953 was difficult. Three years later, she married for the first and only time in a union that lasted only three months. A brief acting comeback came late in the decade, resulting in two low-budget programmers (The Persuader and Girl in the Woods), a John Wayne vehicle (Jet Pilot, filmed in 1950 but not released until 1957), and a handful of television appearances. With that, her showbiz career ended as quietly as it began.
Miss Compton spent her retirement years in the comfort of her own custom-designed Tudor home. Never content with idleness, she threw herself into a variety of hobbies - gardening, painting, dress designing. All the while, she was very accomodating to her fans, always willing to sign autographs and share a story or two. Even when her movies only showed up on the Late Late Show, she was never completely forgotten. In the ’60s, Miss Compton was among the first actors to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she played the part of the ex-screen star with graciousness and humility. One writer who met her during these years described her as “a nice person down-to-earth, compassionate, devout, and happy.”
Joyce Compton died on October 17, 1997, at the age of 80. Her passing was barely mentioned by the media, escaping the notice of Variety and several other entertainment news outlets. Still, to this day she is remembered fondly by movie buffs everywhere. A quote from one obituary shed some light on Miss Compton’s sunny appeal: “I made some movies, but lucky for me, I made even better friends.”
Copyright 2004-2011 Matt Hinrichs. All rights reserved.