Her Mother Was Joan Davis

The Hilarious Joan Davis, mother of Beverly WillsOne of the things the Morlocks do best is remember.  We remember performers we loved, movies we watched, and so many other things.  Today I’m remembering Beverly Wills, the comic actress whose mother was the talented comedienne Joan Davis.  Beverly was born on August 5th back in 1933, but the end of her story is rather a sad one, like many told here by the Morlocks.

Aging Baby Boomers no doubt will remember Joan Davis probably best from her 1950s TV situation comedy I Married Joan, an I Love Lucy-esque madcap romp which was quite popular in its day but had nowhere near the staying power of Lucy in syndication, where trueA lovely Joan Davis legends are spawned.  Born in 1907, Joan honed her talents in vaudeville after starting out life as a child performer, and after playing a stop in Los Angeles managed to nab a part in a Mack Sennett short.  Stints at various studios, none very successful, led her back onto the vaudeville stage, where she was again tapped for the movies, this time by 20th Century Fox who used her as comic relief for their more refined musical stars like Sonja Henie or Alice Faye.  She became a star in radio on Rudy Vallee’s show, and later had a series of her own which became one of the top-rated shows on radio and made her rich. 

The Talented Joan DavisAt this point Joan was able to migrate between movie studios, choosing her roles, none of which were perhaps A-level pictures but all of which showcased her athletic hilarity.  Particularly memorable is her appearance in 1942’s Hold That Ghost with Abbott and Costello.  She was also a favorite of Eddie Cantor, and in fact legendary performer Fannie Brice, when asked who should play her in a Brice biography, could only come up with one possible choice:  Joan Davis.  Joan was that well-regarded and beloved in her profession and by the public. 

In the early 1950s Joan turned to TV, where she teamed with her ex-Judge and Mrs. Bradley J. Stevenshusband Si Wills to create I Married Joan, the story of the bird-brained wife of Judge Bradley Stevens (played by Jim Backus) and her misadventures.  (You probably remember the I Married Joan theme song, even if you don't recall anything else.) Joan tapped her own daughter, Beverly Wills, to play her adult sister, named Beverly.  Beverly had been appearing in small parts in movies and TV since her childhood, and was an able partner in her mother’s comic antics.  The show lasted two years, at which point  the hard-working Joan Davis essentially retired from show business, tired out from her long and successful career.  She divided her time between homes in Bel Air and Palm Springs, where her time was often filled with her two grandchildren from Beverly, and Joan’s elderly mother. 

In 1959 Beverly had a role as one of the supporting musicians in Marilyn Monroe’s all-girl band in the comedy classic Some Like It Hot.  Her personal life was also fascinating; she had been involved with William Bast, one of James’ Dean’s best friends, and reportedly Dean at one point was also closely (possibly romantically) connected with Beverly during their time at UCLA, socializing with her and her famous mother in Hollywood. 

Joan Davis in I Married JoanBut the conclusion of the story of Joan Davis and her daughter Beverly Wills is nothing less than tragic.  In late 1960, Joan’s home was hit by a fire, destroying family photographs and many souvenirs of her long show business career.  The memorabilia of a lifetime went up in smoke.  This shock behind her, in May 1961, while at her Palm Spring’s home, Joan Davis complained of severe back pains and her mother rushed her to Palm Springs’ Desert Hospital.  Those pains were symptoms of a severe heart attack, and Joan died there at the age of 53.  (A word of warning to all women:  we tend to get pains in our backs instead of chest or the left arm, like men do, when we’re having heart attacks. So noted!)   Beverly continued to make occasional film and TV Beverly Wills on the right, with Marilynappearances in the years after the sudden and early death of her mother, including roles in Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man and Disney's Son of Flubber.

And if there hasn’t been enough distress in this story so far, here’s how it ends.  In late October of 1963, while staying at her late mother Joan’s Palm Springs house, with her 7-year-old and 4-year-old sons, and Joan’s mother Nina, a house fire broke out and Beverly, her two sons, and Nina were killed.  That’s it.  Joan Davis’ incredible show business and personal legacy was gone, wiped out. 

Thank goodness that some of the work of Joan Davis and Beverly Wills is easily accessible.  I Married Joan occasionally surfaces on TV, and a few episodes are now on DVD; the same is true for some of Joan’s motion picture output.  There's also a biography available on Joan Davis, written by Ben Ohmart.  You’ll have to look harder for Beverly, but do look for her alongside her mother in I Married Joan and you’ll end up thinking she’s a chip off the old block.  These two talented ladies who lived to make people laugh deserve to be remembered. 

And they are. 

Joan Davis in I Married Joan

 

15 Responses Her Mother Was Joan Davis
Posted By JC Loophole : August 6, 2007 6:35 pm

Thank you for this article about the sad story of such a talented lady. I also love her in Hold That Ghost among her other films.

Posted By JC Loophole : August 6, 2007 6:35 pm

Thank you for this article about the sad story of such a talented lady. I also love her in Hold That Ghost among her other films.

Posted By RHS : August 7, 2007 1:13 am

Just when I think you can't break my heart any more, Medusa, crack

Posted By RHS : August 7, 2007 1:13 am

Just when I think you can't break my heart any more, Medusa, crack

Posted By Michael Fisk : August 18, 2007 8:32 pm

I really enjoyed your column on Beverly Wills.I would like to make note of her husband, Alan Grossman.  Mr. Grossman was my fifth grade teacher in 1965,  two years after Beverly Wills' death, and had a profound impact on my life.  While other 5th-grade students were learning about Betsy Ross and Abraham Lincoln, we were studying and performing Shakespeare, the Wizard of Oz and Walt Whitman.  Under his guidance, I wrote and performed in my own play, a story involving Greek mythology.  He had a rare silent film collection including the original Zorro and priceless Charles Chaplin films.  Every Friday, after reading poetry, we would get to watch one of these films.Intelligent, soft-spoken and always the gentleman, he was loved by all of his students.  Over forty years later, I still consider that one year as his student the finest in my life.I look back on how much he installed in my life: creativity, the magic of literature and movies, how learning is much more than reading a text book.Interestingly enough, my family moved the last month of that school year.  I was so far ahead of my new class in Math, English and History, the teacher told me it wasn't necessary for me to take any of her tests.  I'm not sure how this happened; it seemed like we were having too much fun in Mr. Grossman's class to concentrate on the basics.I just wanted to bring this extraordinary man to your attention.  I hope that he is still alive and I can tell him in person what I've written above.Michael M. Fisk  

Posted By Michael Fisk : August 18, 2007 8:32 pm

I really enjoyed your column on Beverly Wills.I would like to make note of her husband, Alan Grossman.  Mr. Grossman was my fifth grade teacher in 1965,  two years after Beverly Wills' death, and had a profound impact on my life.  While other 5th-grade students were learning about Betsy Ross and Abraham Lincoln, we were studying and performing Shakespeare, the Wizard of Oz and Walt Whitman.  Under his guidance, I wrote and performed in my own play, a story involving Greek mythology.  He had a rare silent film collection including the original Zorro and priceless Charles Chaplin films.  Every Friday, after reading poetry, we would get to watch one of these films.Intelligent, soft-spoken and always the gentleman, he was loved by all of his students.  Over forty years later, I still consider that one year as his student the finest in my life.I look back on how much he installed in my life: creativity, the magic of literature and movies, how learning is much more than reading a text book.Interestingly enough, my family moved the last month of that school year.  I was so far ahead of my new class in Math, English and History, the teacher told me it wasn't necessary for me to take any of her tests.  I'm not sure how this happened; it seemed like we were having too much fun in Mr. Grossman's class to concentrate on the basics.I just wanted to bring this extraordinary man to your attention.  I hope that he is still alive and I can tell him in person what I've written above.Michael M. Fisk  

Posted By Tom Freeman : March 15, 2008 1:23 am

I have only recently dicovered Joan Davis and Beverly Wills and have purchased all the available episodes of I Married Joan on DVD, which I am working my way through.  I don't recall them being shown here and I was only born in October 1963 so television from them is only a blurry memory for me.Joan was certainly a wonderful comedienne!The end of her life and that of her family is nothing but tragic.  What a great shame that her legacy was cut so finally.  It kinda chokes me up to think of it.Michael – your reminiscences of Alan Grossman are sweet.  A lovely tribute. 

Posted By Tom Freeman : March 15, 2008 1:23 am

I have only recently dicovered Joan Davis and Beverly Wills and have purchased all the available episodes of I Married Joan on DVD, which I am working my way through.  I don't recall them being shown here and I was only born in October 1963 so television from them is only a blurry memory for me.Joan was certainly a wonderful comedienne!The end of her life and that of her family is nothing but tragic.  What a great shame that her legacy was cut so finally.  It kinda chokes me up to think of it.Michael – your reminiscences of Alan Grossman are sweet.  A lovely tribute. 

Posted By Medusa : March 16, 2008 10:37 am

Everyone –Truly, Joan Davis and Beverly Wills should be remembered much more than they are.  And any teacher would be thrilled and honored to have a former student share such amazing memories as Michael did.  The special people must be remembered.– M

Posted By Medusa : March 16, 2008 10:37 am

Everyone –Truly, Joan Davis and Beverly Wills should be remembered much more than they are.  And any teacher would be thrilled and honored to have a former student share such amazing memories as Michael did.  The special people must be remembered.– M

Posted By yakofujimato : February 4, 2013 5:17 pm

I appreciate the article, but you are being charitable by omission by stating that the fire simply “broke out.” The truth is Beverly Wills was drunk and passed out smoking in bed! Beverly was responsible for the death of herself, her children and her grandmother. Don’t try be to be deceptive!

Posted By yakofujimato : February 4, 2013 5:17 pm

I appreciate the article, but you are being charitable by omission by stating that the fire simply “broke out.” The truth is Beverly Wills was drunk and passed out smoking in bed! Beverly was responsible for the death of herself, her children and her grandmother. Don’t try be to be deceptive!

Posted By medusamorlock : February 5, 2013 1:01 pm

Yakofujimato — I hadn’t read anything about the specific circumstances of the fire at the time I wrote this. Thanks for the update — I now see that there is more info on Joan and Beverly on a couple of websites — http://morethanyouneededtoknow.typepad.com/the_unsung_joe/2010/01/beverly-wills.html
http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com/2012/04/joan-davis-funny-and-tragic.html

Thanks again for this update, depressing as it is. I wasn’t trying to be “deceptive”!

MedusaMorlock

Posted By medusamorlock : February 5, 2013 1:01 pm

Yakofujimato — I hadn’t read anything about the specific circumstances of the fire at the time I wrote this. Thanks for the update — I now see that there is more info on Joan and Beverly on a couple of websites — http://morethanyouneededtoknow.typepad.com/the_unsung_joe/2010/01/beverly-wills.html
http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com/2012/04/joan-davis-funny-and-tragic.html

Thanks again for this update, depressing as it is. I wasn’t trying to be “deceptive”!

MedusaMorlock

Posted By Tommy Udo : December 9, 2013 10:29 pm

I just saw both Joan and Beverly in “George White’s Scandals” (1945). In a flashback scene, Beverly played Joan’s character as a child doing a comic musical number. She was fantastic, and I can’t imagine why she wasn’t a bigger star.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.