What Happened to Joan Rice?

Joan Rice (1930-1997) played Maid Marian in Walt Disney's live-action film The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, which was filmed in England in 1951. Thirty years later she captured my heart when I first saw that movie in my local cinema. So my blog is dedicated to her memory and for over nine years I have attempted to piece together Joan's life-story.

Joan Rice as Maid Marian

Many of Joan's family and friends have contacted me with anecdotes about her life and career, while fans of the film have sent magazine articles from the height of her fame. These can all be seen by following the Joan Rice link on this blog.

As always, I am indebted to Neil, a regular contributor and owner of the fantastic web site Films of the Fifties, who has discovered another very interesting article about Joan from the August 1955 edition of the film-fan magazine Photoplay. 

This piece by Philip Parrish, attempts to answer the question many of us have asked. What happened to the film career of Joan Rice?

Below is the text from that article, with some pictures of my own:

Joan Rice was groomed for film fame like a filly for a big race, what did she do wrong?

"There's a notion, probably spread by jealous and thwarted repertory actresses that Great Britain is seething with disregarded, potential stars.

It is true that good-lookers abound, that actresses more capable than Joan Collins can be found in Oldham or Oswestry. But the essential, conquering mystery of personality that cleaves through to the clammy hand-holders at the back of the cinema - that is a rare as Reds on Rhode Island.

Which brings me, surprisingly to the strange case of Joan Rice, "Miss Lyons, 1949."

Mention that name around the Rank Organisation four years ago, and eyes would light up and hands be rubbed gleefully together. Faces that had been haggard and down ever since Jean Simmons was lured to Hollywood by Howard Hughes cracked into bonny smiles. "Miss Rice," they said, "will be the new Jean Simmons." And one or two critics, not wholly blinded by the dark, were prepared to agree.

Joan Rice

Zoom forward to 1955. What has happened to the all promising super-curving Joan Rice, pride of the Nippies? She is sadly decorating B-minus pictures like Police Dog- not for the Rank boys. Her tidy little contract wasn't renewed last summer. Her Pinewood swan song was the thankless chore of keeping a stiff upper lip while Norman Wisdom laughed himself hoarse in One Good Turn. 

A new batch of up-and-comings have swept on to the payroll-Eunice Gayson, Jill adams, Josephine Griffin, Julia Arnell.

Horrid warning
Now I find that pathetic, stupid, and a horrid warning to all those girls who might win beauty contests and believe all the big talk handed out to them.

Joan Rice started with nothing but a flashing smile and a certain plump physical assets. She was polished and refined into a suitable leading lady for Burt Lancaster, with a nice little £50-a-week coming in steadily.

Joan Rice with Burt Lancaster

All that after a bleak, sordid, and love-starved childhood, during which she'd slaved as a kitchen-maid in a Nottingham orphanage and then came to London as a £3-a-week Corner House waitress.

She might have still been juggling tea-trays contently if the Welfare Officer hadn't insisted she entered for the sups-nippy competition.

Not interested
"I wasn't really interested," she says, "but they were short of entrants. One of the prizes was a camera-and that decided me."

The reluctant heroine was awarded first prize. She was encircled with a sash and congratulated by two film personalities provided by the Rank Organisation, John McCallum and Anne Crawford.

Well that was that. Joan Rice got her camera and a free week in Torquay, and was softened up for a sales-talk. She soon got it- from a film extra who used to sup at one of her tables. "You ought to be in films," he chattered.

So one day she wandered incoherently into Wardour Street, and was found on the stairs by an agent. And that agent, called Joan Rees, gave birth to a hunch. "I looked at her," she says, "and had faith in her."

Joan Rice at that point, was unpolished, and unrefined. Her voice echoed the worthy wood-notes of Nottinghamshire, her figure was promising, but ample. Her acting according to one Pinewood wiseacre was 'a pale imitation of an amateur giving an impression of Lillian Gish." The material, in fact, was not so much raw, as completely unquarried.

Then the agents took a hand. Joan Rees's boss George Routledge asked her measurements - and he looked at her feet. Joan Rice said she took "size six shoes." This was rather daunting, but then Garbo went far on a similarly broad basis.

Routledge decided to give her five pounds a week, a personal contract, and training with a dramatic coach called Helen Goss. He bought her some more flattering shoes, and Miss Rees dropped everything to devote her talents to selling Miss Rice.

Joan Rice with Joan Collins arriving for her first screen test

So an unwieldy teenager began to be transformed into a young lady who can air fluent, if unoriginal, views on the topics of the day without undue strain.

She as given public poise, being made to walk up and down a long flight of stairs fifty times until she could do it without touching the wall or the banister.

She was taken to smart restaurants to eat, and her Midland accent was worked upon. They didn't want to give her the standard R.A.D.A. voice, so they just softened the rough edges.

On view
Then she was introduced to Harold Huth, an ex-start of the silents, who now makes the speaking variety. And six months after she'd served her last plate of baked beans, Joan Rice was given her first film part, a tiny bit as a maid in One Wild Oat. Aims began to soar. Joan Rice was touted round the studios. She was even interviewed for the part in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, subsequently filled by Ava Gardner.

And the film boys were impressed with Joan Rice. She has a face that can look a camera straight in the eye. That, in itself, is quite something, for most faces have facets and angles that can be forbidding if captured by a careless cameraman.

Joan is prepared for her next scene

Most important, she has a direct and lustrous appeal - a kind of untroubled gaiety and enthusiasm - that photography, which can be very searching, seeks out.

Off the screen, she seems the acme of ordinaries; on it, she appears deliciously super ordinary, when she gets the right handling.

The budding "oomph" was apparent to everybody. Joan Rice was cast as a girl who became a corpse in the first reel of Blackmailed. Second thoughts found her too promising for early death, so she was promoted to the larger footage of an artist's model, to be painted by Dirk Bogarde.

And she was a hit. Her unspoilt freshness - mainly displayed in natty black underwear - brought her such praise as "sensitive," "tremulous" and "Bergman-like."

Joan with Dirk Bogarde in 'Blackmailed'.

And the Rank Organisation stepped smartly in, bought out Harold Huth, and gave houseroom to Joan Rice.

Big plans
It seemed that Joan Rice had made it. Up and down the country she went on personal appearances. "A Cinderella story come true" - that's how they spoke of it. And Miss Rice, demurely clad in white taffeta, lived up to it.Big plans were mulled over in board-rooms. For a time it looked as if the Rice fortunes were on a soaring spiral. She landed the lead opposite Richard Todd in Walt Disney's version of Robin Hood. She was chosen by an American company to go to Fiji and Hollywood for His Majesty O'Keefe, opposite beefy Burt Lancaster.

Joan Rice in 'His Majesty O'Keefe'

In four years she made nine films, acquired a husband, David Green, and a baby called Michael. But early last year [1954] you could tell that temperatures were cooling. That early talk about taking over where Jean Simmons left off was forgotten.

Now I don't think Joan Rice is an earth quaker. I'm quite certain she'll never be squabbling with Grace Kelly over an "Oscar."

Film poster for 'Blackmailed'

But I stick to my original opinion. Potentially, she has a warm and effective personality that registers more than most. And all the hopes and efforts that went into grooming her should not be allowed to waste.

And the saddest fact of all? That Joan Rice, in danger of being forgotten when the parts are being dished out, is still only twenty five. Isn't that much too young for a pension?"

Philip Parrish (August 1955)

Well, Joan Rice will never be forgotten here!

Parrish gives some interesting details about Joan's start with Rank. Unfortunately they contradict details given by other magazines of the period. So perhaps we may never know exactly how Joan made those first steps to stardom.

There are now 82 pages about Joan Rice on this web site. They contain many photographs and articles about her life and film career. Just click here to see a lot more.

Disney's Robin Hood Comic Strip: 12

Here is the latest instalment of the comic strip, drawn by Jessie Marsh and based on Walt Disney's live-action film The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men which was released in 1952. Just click on the images to enlarge them.

To see the previous strips, please click on the label  Robin Hood Comic Strip. And to read about the illustrator Jessie Marsh, please click here.

Robin Hood Printed Fan Card

I have shown this image before, but Matt Crandall has managed to help me identify its original purpose. An online auction site describes the item above as:

"... full-color promotional card [10"x 8"] of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and two of the Merrie Men was produced by WDP to publicize the studio's 1952 feature film. The Story of Robin Hood was Disney's second all-live-action film, and it was made at Denham Studios in England with funds the could not be repatriated to the USA. Richard Todd, Joan Rice, Peter Finch, Hubert Gregg and Patrick Barr starred in the movie directed by Ken Annakin. 
Disney began producing these handsome prints in the 1930s, and they are called fan cards because they were generally sent to persons who wrote a "fan" letter to the studio or given out to those who attended a Disney promotional event."

Matt runs the excellent Disney's Alice in Wonderland blog which is well worth a visit.

Robin Hood's Curtains

Disney's Robin Hood curtains c.1952

Since starting this blog I have been astonished at the huge amount of promotion that went into Walt Disney's films. By clicking on the label Memorabilia you can see over 66 pages of merchandise connected to the live-action movie The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952).

Walt Disney was quick to realise the potential of selling various spin-offs. Back in the 1930's Herman 'Kay' Kamen had been hired by Walt to license his products and after the success of Snow White, there were 2,183 different items on sale. 16.5 million drinking glasses alone were sold. Kamen negotiated a fortune for himself and the Disney brothers.

We have seen newspaper articles from the time of the premiere of The Story of Robin Hood that show the window displays in London shops. Blog readers have sent in images of jigsaw puzzles, bows and arrows, projectors, books, comic strips, stamps, shirts and sweet ciggarettes - all connected to our favourite movie. But I was not expecting to see curtains!

The images of curtain remnants promoting Robin Hood were kindly sent in by Laurence from his personal collection. He wishes he could have had them hanging in his bedroom in the early 1950's. I am sure many of my readers will agree!