Born Madonna Josephine Davis in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 29, 1907, zany comedienne Joan Davis began her show business career in vaudeville as a child. Her comedy routines were a hit with audiences, but as Davis began to mature into a young woman, she was forced into retirement by audiences who were used to seeing her as preadolescent. After graduating from high school, she took a few menial jobs and, still longing for the stage, returned to vaudeville. But by the late 1920s, with the advent and acceptance of sound films, vaudeville was beginning to perish. In the summer of 1931, Davis married vaudeville veteran straight man Si Wills, with whom she had become a comedy act; two years later their daughter Beverly was born. By the mid 1930s, Davis made her way to California in an attempt to break into films. She was almost immediately successful, securing a role in the Mack Sennett short Way Up Thar in 1935. Upon the release of the short in 1935, RKO signed Davis to a contract, but Davis and RKO parted ways soon after. In 1937, 20th Century-Fox put her under contract with much greater success.

Joan DavisJoan DavisJoan Davis

LEFT: RKO still from 1936. CENTER: Late 1930s 20th Century-Fox still. RIGHT: Early 1950s photo of Davis, taken at about the time of the premiere of I Married Joan

Davis's contract at Fox lapsed in 1941, which allowed her to freelance at other studios. She also began building a radio following at this time, joining the cast of Rudy Vallee's radio show. When Vallee entered the service during World War II, Davis took over the program. In 1945, she went to CBS to star in her own radio show and was the highest paid female radio performer for a period of time. With the frantic pace of making films and doing radio, her marriage to Wills began to suffer, and the couple parted ways in 1947. Davis continued making movies through 1952, when her final film Harem Girl was released.

the films of joan davis

Life Begins in College (1937)

Joan Davis and Nat Pendleton

From the Ritz Brothers vehicle Life Begins in College with Nat Pendleton

Thin Ice (1937)

Joan Davis

As the orchestra leader in the Sonia Henie film Thin Ice

Time Out for Romance (1937)

Joan DavisJoan Davis

From Time Out for Romance. LEFT: 20th Century-Fox promotional photo. RIGHT: With Michael Whalen, Claire Trevor, and Chick Chandler

For Beauty's Sake (1941)

Cliff Clark, Joan Davis, Lotus Long, and Ned Sparks

From the 20th Century-Fox comedy For Beauty's Sake with Cliff Clark, Lotus Long, and Ned Sparks

Hold That Ghost (1941)

Richard Carlson, Bud Abbott, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis, and Lou CostelloJoan Davis and Lou Costello

From the hilarious Universal comedy Hold That Ghost. LEFT: With Richard Carlson, Bud Abbott, Evelyn Ankers, and Lou Costello. RIGHT: With Lou Costello

Sweetheart of the Fleet (1942)

Jinx Falkenburg, Joan Woodbury, Joan Davis, and Irving BaconJinx Falkenburg, Joan Davis, and Joan WoodburyTim Ryan and Joan Davis

From the wartime comedy Sweetheart of the Fleet. LEFT: With Jinx Falkenburg, Joan Woodbury, and Irving Bacon. CENTER: With Jinx Falkenburg and Joan Woodbury. RIGHT: With veteran comedian Tim Ryan

He's My Guy (1943)

Fuzzy Knight, Joan Davis, and Dick Foran

With Fuzzy Knight and Dick Foran in He's My Guy

She Gets Her Man (1945)

Joan Davis and Charles Korvin

With veteran actor Charles Korvin on the set of She Gets Her Man

She Wrote the Book (1946)

Joan Davis

Universal promotional photo from She Wrote the Book

The Groom Wore Spurs (1951)

Joan Davis and Richard Whorf

A behind-the-scenes photo with director Richard Whorf on the set of The Groom Wore Spurs

later years

Jumping ship from radio to television, Davis started her own production company, which produced Davis's NBC comedy I Married Joan from 1952 through 1955. Somewhat surprising is that she hired ex-husband Si Wills to write for the series. Davis also cast her daughter Beverly Wills in the role of Joan's younger sister. After I Married Joan left the air in 1955, the wealthy Davis more or less retired. She shot a few pilots for proposed TV programs, but these were not successful in finding a network. On May 22, 1961, Davis suffered a heart attack and died in Palm Springs at the age of 53. Her daughter and ex-husband made headlines after her death, wrangling over the million-dollar estate of Joan Davis, which was eventually settled in favor of her daughter. Tragically, on October 24, 1963, Davis's daughter Beverly Wills fell asleep while smoking a cigarette; her Palm Springs home caught fire, killing her, her two sons, and Davis's mother.

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Harem Girl (1952) with Peggie Castle
The Groom Wore Spurs (1951) with Ginger Rogers and Jack Carson
The Traveling Saleswoman (1950) with Adele Jergens
Love That Brute (1950) with Jean Peters and Cesar Romero
Make Mine Laughs (1949) with Dennis Day
If You Knew Susie (1948) with Eddie Cantor
She Wrote the Book (1946) with Jack Oakie
George White's Scandals (1945) with Jack Haley and Phillip Terry
She Gets Her Man (1945) with Leon Errol
Show Business (1944) with Eddie Cantor and Nancy Kelly
Kansas City Kitty (1944) with Jane Frazee
Beautiful But Broke (1944) with Jane Frazee
Around the World (1943) with Mischa Auer and Kay Kyser
Two Senoritas From Chicago (1943) with Jinx Falkenburg and Ann Savage
He's My Guy (1943) with Dick Foran
Sweetheart of the Fleet (1942) with Jinx Falkenburg and Lloyd Bridges
Yokel Boy (1942) with Albert Dekker
Two Latins from Manhattan (1941) with Jinx Falkenburg and Lloyd Bridges
Sun Valley Serenade (1941) with John Payne, Sonja Henie, and Milton Berle
Hold That Ghost (1941) with Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Richard Carlson, Evelyn Ankers, and Shemp Howard
For Beauty's Sake (1941) with Marjorie Weaver
Manhattan Heartbeat (1940) with Robert Sterling
Sailor's Lady (1940) with Jon Hall, Buster Crabbe, Nancy Kelly, and Dana Andrews
Free, Blonde and 21 (1940) with Mary Beth Hughes, Lynn Bari, and Elyse Knox
Too Busy to Work (1939) with Spring Byington
Day-Time Wife (1939) with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell
Tail Spin (1939) with Alice Faye, Constance Bennett, Kane Richmond, and Nancy Kelly
Hold That Co-ed (1938) with John Barrymore, Jack Haley, Ruth Terry, and Glenn Morris
My Lucky Star (1938) with Sonja Henie and Cesar Romero
Just Around the Corner (1938) with Shirley Temple and Charles Farrell
Josette (1938) with Don Ameche, Robert Young, and Simone Simon
Sally, Irene and Mary (1938) with Alice Faye, Fred Allen, and Tony Martin
Angel's Holiday (1937) with Jane Withers, Sally Blane, and Lon Chaney Jr.
Life Begins in College (1937) with the Ritz Brothers, Nat Pendleton, and Tony Martin
Love and Hisses (1937) with Simone Simon and Ruth Terry
Thin Ice (1937) with Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power
Wake Up and Live (1937) with Alice Faye, Patsy Kelly, and Jack Haley
Sing and Be Happy (1937) with Tony Martin
The Great Hospital Mystery (1937) with Sally Blane, William Demarest, and Jane Darwell
On the Avenue (1937) with Dick Powell, Alice Faye, and the Ritz Brothers
Time Out for Romance (1937) with Claire Trevor
The Holy Terror (1937) with Jane Withers, Tony Martin, and Joe E. Lewis
Millions in the Air (1935) with John Howard and Robert Cummings

I Married Joan, 1952-1955 NBC TV series. Davis portrayed Joan Stevens. Davis's daughter Beverly Wills also made frequent appearances on the show, cast in the role of Joan's younger sister Beverly

joan davis now showing

Watch Joan Davis in a 1952 episode of I Married Joan entitled Dreams
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