Born as Madonna Josephine Davis in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Davis was a performer since childhood. She appeared with her husband Si Wills in vaudeville.
Her first film was a short subject for Educational Pictures called Way Up Thar (1935), featuring a then-unknown Roy Rogers. Educational's parent company, Twentieth Century-Fox, signed Davis for feature films. Tall and lanky, with a comically flat speaking voice, she became known as one of the few female physical clowns of her time. Perhaps best known for her co-starring turn with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hold That Ghost (1941), she had a reputation for flawless physical comedy. Her pantomime sequence in Beautiful but Broke (1944) was a slapstick construction-site episode.
She co-starred with Eddie Cantor in two features, Show Business (1944) and If You Knew Susie (1948). Cantor and Davis were very close offscreen as well.
Radio and Television
Joan Davis entered radio with an August 28, 1941 appearance on The Rudy Vallee Show and became a regular on that show four months later.
Davis then began a series of shows that established her as a top star of radio situation comedy throughout the 1940s. When Vallee left for the Coast Guard in 1943, Davis became the host of his show. With a title change to The Sealtest Village Store, Davis was the owner-operator of the store from July 8, 1943 to June 28, 1945 when she left to do Joanie's Tea Room on CBS from September 3, 1945 to June 23, 1947. Sponsored by Lever Brothers and Swan Soap, the premise had Davis running a tea shop in the little community of Smallville. The supporting cast featured Verna Felton. Harry von Zell was the announcer, and Abe Burrows---formerly the head writer (and co-creator) of Duffy's Tavern and eventually a legendary Broadway playwright---was her head writer.
The tea shop setting continued in Joan Davis Time, a CBS Saturday night series from October 11, 1947 to July 3, 1948. With Lionel Stander as the tea shop manager, the cast also included Hans Conried, Mary Jane Croft, the Choraliers quintet and John Rarig and his Orchestra.
Leave It to Joan ran from on July 4 to August 22, 1949 as a summer replacement for Lux Radio Theater and continued from September 9, 1949 to March 3, 1950. She was also heard on CBS July 3–August 28, 1950. She was a frequent and popular performer on Tallulah Bankhead's legendary radio variety show, The Big Show (1950–52).
When I Love Lucy premiered in October 1951 on CBS Television and became a top-rated TV series, sponsors wanted more of the same with another actress who wasn't afraid of strenuous physical comedy. I Married Joan premiered in 1952 on NBC, casting Davis as the manic wife of a mild-mannered community judge (Jim Backus) who got her husband into wacky jams with or without the help of a younger sister, played by her real-life daughter, Beverly Wills. The series continued until 1955.
On May 22, 1961, Davis died of a heart attack at the age of 53. She was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery mausoleum in Culver City, California. On October 24, 1963, Davis' mother, daughter, and grandchildren were all killed in a house fire in Palm Springs, California.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Joan Davis has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1501 Vine Street.
A quarter-century after her signature series left the air, Davis re-entered the American television viewer's consciousness. The original CBN cable television network began showing the old episodes of I Married Joan in 1981–82, as part of a late-night hour that also included episodes of My Little Margie. This resurrection of I Married Joan remained on the air almost as long as the show's original run.
Since 2004, various episodes of I Married Joan and have become available on budget DVD releases and through Netflix. I Married Joan also became available on the Retro Network.