If you’re a classic movie fan, you’ve probably seen Joyce Compton in dozens of minor film roles–she played a wide variety of nurses, waitresses, and random girlfriends in almost two hundred movies throughout her three-decades-long career. But she wasn’t merely relegated to these type of blink-and-you’ll-miss-her roles. In the heyday of her career in the 1930s and 40s, Compton starred opposite some of the greatest actors and actresses in Hollywood history, sometimes as the romantic rival to the film’s leading lady. These more notable supporting parts, however, typically involved some play on the “dumb blonde” stereotype, which ultimately served to pigeonhole Compton, never really allowing her to break out as a performer despite a charming on-screen persona and a gift for comic timing.
Compton started out as a bit player in the silent picture era, making memorable appearances in two films with eventual close friend Clara Bow, The Wild Party and Dangerous Curves (both in 1929). In the 1930s, she would go on to make nearly 100 films–many of them “B” pictures–but her career never reached the heights of some of her contemporaries (in fact, the actress sometimes appeared uncredited in her smaller roles). Still, in these films, Compton was able to share the screen with such big names as Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart, Carole Lombard, and Gary Cooper, among others.
Her most notable role during the decade came in 1937, when she appeared opposite Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth. In the film, Compton plays Dixie Bell Lee, Grant’s nightclub-singer girlfriend, who performs a racy rendition of “My Dreams Are Gone With the Wind” in which her gauzy skirt blows up with every lyrical mention of a breeze (the song is also performed later in the film by a masquerading Dunne). Compton is charmingly ditzy and unabashed in this small but memorable part, more than holding her own opposite comedy veterans Grant and Dunne.
As the 1940s dawned, Compton appeared in two films directed by Raoul Walsh and co-starring George Raft: 1940’s They Drive By Night, also featuring Bogart, and the following year’s Manpower. Again, Compton’s roles were small in these pictures, though Night featured an entertaining courtroom scene in which a confused Compton testifies at the murder trial of Raft’s character. As she swivels her head between the judge and the district attorney, unsure of whom she was to refer to as “your honor,” Compton encapsulates the essence of the pretty “dumb blonde,” a persona she had, largely against her will, perfected over the years.
In 1945, Compton appeared as the drawling Southern belle Nurse Mary Lee in Christmas in Connecticut. In this movie, the actress stars opposite Dennis Morgan and the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as Morgan’s purported fiance. Though her role is still quite minor, Compton’s appearances nevertheless bookend the film, and her character both precipitates the plot and helps her two co-stars reach their inevitable happy conclusion.
In the late 40s, Compton appeared in minor parts in other notable films, including a stint with Joan Crawford as a waitress in Mildred Pierce (1945); as a chorus girl in 1946’s Night and Day, once again opposite Grant; and as blond arm candy, again opposite Stanwyck, in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number. Compton was uncredited for all three of these roles. She also played a bit role in the post-war classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), but her part was ultimately cut from the film.
When Compton’s career began to slow down in the 1950s, she moved into the nursing profession for a short while–a somewhat ironic move given her penchant for playing such roles on the big screen. She appeared in a handful of final roles throughout the decade, in both film and television, before retiring from acting completely. Still, she kept her hand in Hollywood pursuits, serving at times as a writer and clothing designer. In 1997, Joyce Compton passed away at the age of 90, leaving behind an extensive filmography that indicates, to viewers new and old, the depth of her talent and skill as a character actress.