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(Image courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
Joan Woodbury

Full name:
Joan Elmer Woodbury

1915 - 1989

Above are screen captures of Woodbury as "Lolita Maria Dolores Del Valle" in SONG OF THE GRINGO (Grand National, 1936), Tex Ritter's first starring oater.

Want to see Joan's Spanish dance specialty? She has a lengthy dance routine beginning around the 43 minute mark in SONG OF THE GRINGO.

She did her dance routine in other films including Roy Rogers' IN OLD CHEYENNE (Republic, 1941).

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above - Joan and Allan Lane in a pressbook ad for NIGHT SPOT (RKO, 1938). When she was selected as one of the "Lucky 13" starlets in 1938, Joan was under contract to RKO.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above - Joan and James Dunn in a pressbook ad for THE LIVING GHOST (Monogram, 1942).
Joan Elmer Woodbury was born December 17, 1915 in Los Angeles to hotel manager / owner Elmer Woodbury and stage / vaudeville actress Joan Meta Hadenfeldt Woodbury. Father Elmer was involved in the hotel and restaurant / catering business and his early years were spent in Maine, New York, and Washington D.C. Circa 1907, Elmer acquired the Hotel Pepper in Pasadena, California, and that was followed by part ownership in the La Casa Grande and Maryland Hotels in Pasadena. Later, he managed the Richelieu Hotel in San Francisco. Mother Joan Hadenfeldt was the 1907 Queen of the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena.

The Woodburys were members of "high society" in Los Angeles, Pasadena and San Francisco. And the Library of Congress, Chronicling America newspaper website has several dozen papers from 1890 - 1922 with articles on the Woodbury family entertaining guests, arranging parties, and father Elmer's involvement in hotel ownership and management.

As a youngster and teenager, Joan danced at various Hollywood events. Her first movie job was at age six - from the September 4, 1921 New York Tribune newspaper (from the Library of Congress newspapers website):

"The Oliver Morosco production 'The Half Breed' will be released through First National. In the cast are Wheeler Oakman ... (followed by lots of names in the cast) ... Joan Elmer Woodbury ... "

Her parents divorced in 1925 and Joan became a live-in student at the Notre Dame Convent school in San Francisco. She later attended and graduated from Hollywood High School.

The Agua Caliente Casino and Resort in Tijuana, Mexico opened in the late 1920s and was a playground for Hollywood elite. Dancers in Agua Caliente shows in the 1930s were Woodbury and Rita Cansino (who became Rita Hayworth). Joan was also selected as the premier ballerina for the Corps de Ballet at the "Opera Under the Stars" at the Grand Opera Festival in June, 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl.

With her sultry looks and a Spanish dancing specialty, Joan was spotted by a talent scout and her first major screen appearance - billed as "Nana Martinez" - was in the second Hopalong Cassidy film, THE EAGLE'S BROOD (Paramount, 1936). Alas - brains heavy Addison Richards shoots and kills her at about the half way mark.

More western leading lady roles followed - she was the heroine in Tex Ritter's first starrer, SONG OF THE GRINGO (Grand National, 1936) and two with Tim McCoy, BULLDOG COURAGE (Puritan, 1935) and THE LION'S DEN (Puritan, 1936). Tradepapers from December, 1936 - January, 1937 have blurbs on Joan doing a (brief) personal appearance tour with actor Francis Lederer.

In the 1920s through early 1930s, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers selected promising starlets in their annual WAMPAS Baby Stars competition. After WAMPAS was discontinued, a few similar contests were held by other organizations. In 1938, movie studios selected their "Lucky 13" starlets and the actresses were: Joan Woodbury, Mary Maguire, Jane Bryan, Mary Russell, Jacqueline Wells (later, Julie Bishop), Phyllis Brooks, Betty Jaynes, Helen Troy, Olympe Branda, Barbara Read, Sigrid Gurie, Franciska Gaal, and Margaret Tallichet.

She and actor Henry Wilcoxon met in late 1938 while both were working on CHASING DANGER (20th Century Fox, 1939). A whirlwind courtship followed and they tied the knot on December 17, 1938, Joan's twenty third birthday. The marriage lasted 30+ years and they had three daughters: Wendy Joan, born December 28, 1939; Heather Mary, born May 8, 1947; and Cecelia Dawn, born May 25, 1950. Family Trees on note that Wilcoxon and Woodbury divorced in 1969.

Joan concentrated on raising a family and by the late 1940s, was only doing an occasional film. She was a founder of the Wilcoxon Group Players in Santa Monica, California circa 1950. A highlight of the Wilcoxon Players was an annual Christmas Nativity play which was a fund raiser for charities. And circa 1963, Joan formed the Valley Players Guild in Palm Springs and over the next 20+ years, she produced, directed and acted in over a hundred plays.

In 1971, she married actor and radio personality Ray Mitchell, and he became involved in Valley Players Guild productions.

The Desert Theater League (DTL) is headquartered in Palm Springs, California and mission is to support local theater. They have a Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award, which was "named for a woman who founded and 'did it all' for the old Valley Players Guild."

Bob Pontes had an interview with Joan in the January, 1983 issue #8 of Favorite Westerns magazine. A few Woodbury quotes follow:

Joan's movie career spanned about 30 years and 80 films. However, the bulk of her work occurred during 1935 - 1946. She was a frequent B movie leading lady ... and sometimes the second or third woman in A grade features. Her most remembered role is starring in the 13 episode cliffhanger BRENDA STARR, REPORTER (Columbia, 1945). Other movies included four Charlie Chans, one Whistler with Richard Dix, and the last of the Chester Morris / Boston Blackie series.

Joan did about a dozen westerns with William Boyd/Hoppy, Johnny Mack Brown, Randolph Scott, Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, Cesar Romero (Cisco Kid), Roy Rogers, and Tim McCoy. She also appeared in several comedies with wild west backdrops: the Marx Brothers GO WEST (MGM, 1940) and SHUT MY BIG MOUTH (Columbia, 1942) with Joe E. Brown.

Joan was a good rider and demonstrates that skill in the Cinecolor NORTHWEST TRAIL (Action Pictures/Lippert, 1945) which stars Bob Steele as a Royal Canadian mountie. She spends a good deal of time on horseback, and in medium and closeup shots, you can see her riding at full speed. The opening of this northwoods adventure reminds me of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers Republic oaters in which they encounter a strong-willed and / or cantankerous leading lady. In NORTHWEST TRAIL, Steele finds Joan napping in her stalled convertible. Then comes a verbal sparring match between the two, and Joan is the winner with lots of barbs aimed at Steele (about mounties always getting their man ... is he capable of fixing her car ... how about tieing his horse to the car and pulling her to a repair shop, etc.).

In the Johnny Mack Brown FLAME OF THE WEST (Monogram, 1945), Joan shows off her considerable acting skills - including a comedic touch and lots of toughness and swagger - as bad / good dance hall queen "Poppy Rand".

First husband Henry Wilcoxon was a close friend of Cecil B. DeMille, and Joan had an unbilled role in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1956). That was a DeMille production ... and Wilcoxon had an acting part and was associate producer.

In the Golden Calf orgy in COMMANDMENTS, Joan played "Korah's wife", the High Priestess of the Golden Calf, and she dances and rubs her face, hair and body on the idol. In one of the next scenes, you get a better view of her in a drab green / olive colored dress standing to the right of Edward G. Robinson.

Katherine Orrison authored two books on DeMille and Wilcoxon: Lionheart in Hollywood: The Autobiography of Henry Wilcoxon (1991, Scarecrow Press) and Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic The Ten Commandments (1999, Vestal Press). When Wilcoxon passed away in 1984, Orrison met Woodbury and they became friends.

In a chapter devoted to Joan in Written in Stone, Woodbury recalled the difficulties and chaos in staging the Golden Calf orgy in COMMANDMENTS. The initial shoot was scrapped as it was too restrained ... not enough orgy. DeMille brought in dancers and stunt people for a second shoot and Joan was in both versions which took several weeks to complete during a very hot streak of California weather in Summer, 1955. Wearing a wig and dark makeup as the High Priestess, she danced and caressed the Golden Calf. But some type of oil was used to make the idol appear slick and shiny and it rubbed off on her, aggravating her emphysema and leaving her nauseous and gasping for breath. Evenings were spent soaking in a hot tub and scrubbing off the dark body makeup.

Years later, Joan came out of retirement for a minor role in the Sci-Fi THE TIME TRAVELERS (American-International, 1964) for producer Samuel Z. Arkoff.

73 year old Joan Woodbury Mitchell passed away from respiratory failure at her home in Desert Hot Springs, California on February 22, 1989, and her death was reported in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers. Some additional details were found on the Newspaper Archive which had the February 25, 1989 issue of the Orange County (California) Register. Excerpt: "... died Wednesday of respiratory failure caused by an avian strain of tuberculosis, the Riverside County Cornoner's Office said."

While you and I remember this talented lady for her many movies, Joan's legacy is mentoring scores of actors and actresses during her years with the Wilcoxon Players and the Valley Players Guild.

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on:
          Joan Woodbury:
          Henry Wilcoxon (1905 - 1984):

The Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen website includes extensive timelines and details on the Hollywood career and personal life of Joan Woodbury:

Several films with Woodbury can be streamed / downloaded from the Internet Archive. Included are: NORTHWEST TRAIL with Steele; KING OF THE ZOMBIES with Dick Purcell; BULLDOG COURAGE with McCoy; SONG OF THE GRINGO with Ritter; and GANGS, INC. which has a small role for a young Alan Ladd:

Joan's mother, Joan Hadenfeldt Woodbury, was the 1907 Pasadena Rose Parade Queen:

There's photos and memorabilia of Joan's mother and father on Flickr:

Desert Theater League (DTL) website:
Article about the Desert Theater League and their Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award, which was "named for a woman who founded and 'did it all' for the old Valley Players Guild.":

The California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC) has an April, 1977 article on a Valley Players Guild comedy and includes a photo of Woodbury and hubby Ray Mitchell:

Photo of Joan Woodbury and noted conductor / music creator Elmer Bernstein during the filming of DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS:

Article on artist Heather Wilcoxon, the middle daughter of Henry Wilcoxon and Joan Woodbury:

(From Old Corral collection)

Above are William Boyd and Joan Woodbury (here billed as "Nana Martinez") in a lobby card from the second Hopalong Cassidy film, THE EAGLE'S BROOD (Paramount, 1936).

(From Old Corral collection)

Above - Tim McCoy and Joan Woodbury in a scene from BULLDOG COURAGE (Puritan, 1935), which is generally regarded as one of McCoy's better westerns from his post-Columbia period.

Below - Tim McCoy is protecting Joan in this lobby card from her second film with Tim, THE LION'S DEN (Puritan, 1936).

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

"Millions are waiting to see this nationally syndicated comic strip on the screen!" according to this 1945 tradepaper ad touting Joan as "Brenda Starr, Reporter".

On the trail of Joan Woodbury.
The Family Search website (free), (subscription), California Death Index, Social Security Death Index (SSDI), and newspapers provide more on Joan Woodbury and family.

Lots of Woodbury family mentions in old newspapers at the Library of Congress, Chronicling America website.

Above from an April, 1922 newspaper at the Library of Congress newspapers website:

More Woodbury articles from the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, newspaper website:

1890 - Elmer F. Woodbury is managing the Normandie Hotel in Washington, D. C.:

1900 - large photo of Joan Meta Hadenfeldt as San Francisco Mardi Gras Carnival Queen:

1903 - Elmer F. Woodbury is managing the Cadillac Hotel in New York City:

1903 - full page photo and article on San Francisco society gal Joan Hadenfeldt:

1905 - article on a social gathering at the La Casa Grande hotel in Pasadena. Includes a photo of Mrs. Elmer Woodbury:

1907 - Father Elmer F. Woodbury buys the Hotel Pepper in Pasadena, California:

1907 - Mrs. Elmer F. Woodbury performing at the Hotel Pepper in Pasadena. Includes photo of her and husband Elmer F. Woodbury:

1907 - articles and photo on Tournament of Roses Parade and Queen Mrs. Elmer F. Woodbury:

1920 - photo of 4 year old Joan Woodbury, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Woodbury of San Francisco:

1922 - youngster Joan Woodbury is 'Queen of the May' in San Francisco (center page photo):

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