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Glynis & Angela: Ninetysomething Marvels

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Two of Oscar's four oldest living acting nominees are British. They were born when moving pictures were still silent and have over 150 years of screen experience between them. In addition to occasionally working together, the pair also have much in common in their private lives. Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury are a credit to their profession and Cinema Paradiso is proud to profile them.

Following the death of Olivia De Havilland (see Cinema Paradiso's Getting to Know article in 2020, Glynis Johns became the oldest living Academy Award-nominee in any acting category. At 98, Johns is half a year senior to Eva Marie Saint, whose Best Supporting win for her debut performance as Edie Doyle in Elia Kazan's On the Waterftont (1954) makes her the earliest surviving Oscar winner.

A still from Shampoo (1975)
A still from Shampoo (1975)

Lee Grant has made a good job of keeping her precise date of birth quiet. It's presumed she was born in 1925, but it could be either of the next two years. Whatever the truth, the winner of the Best Supporting Actress award for Hal Ashby's Shampoo (1975) is still older than Angela Lansbury, who is part of an exclusive club with James Dean and Julie Andrews, as they each secured Oscar nominations for two of their first three screen appearances.

Dean was cited for Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) and George Stevens's Giant (1956), while Andrews was recognised for Robert Stevenson's Mary Poppins (1964) and Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965). But Lansbury earned her nominations before she turned 21, making her the youngest dual nominee ahead of Sal Mineo for Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Otto Preminger's Exodus (1960) and Saoirse Ronan for Joe Wright's Atonement (2007) and John Crowley's Brooklyn (2015).

By going on to be nominated for Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), Ronan became the second-youngest four-time nominee behind Jennifer Lawrence (who is some four months younger), who had reached the grand old age of 24 when she was nommed for Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2011) and David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook (2013), American Hustle (2014), and Joy (2016).

But back to Glynis and Angela...

Chips Off the Old Block

Glynis Johns was born in the South African capital, Pretoria, on 5 October 1923 because her Welsh parents were on tour. Actor Mervyn Johns and pianist Alys Maude had been advised to take the trip by the latter's Australian violinist mother, Elizabeth Steele. However, Glynis was raised in the Welsh tradition, even though the family was based in London, where her father's growing stage reputation led to him making early film appearances in Tom Walls's Foreign Affairs (1935) and Pot Luck (1936), which can be found on Volumes 3 and 4 of Aldwych Farces.

A onetime medical student who served with the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War before training at RADA, Johns became one of British cinema's most dependable character actors. Over 50 of his credits can be rented from Cinema Paradiso. But, before you type his name into the Searchline, let us recommend such choice performances as the church warden in Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942), the spiv fireman in Basil Dearden's The Bells Go Down (1943), the forbidding father in Robert Hamer's Pink String and Sealing Wax (1946), Bob Cratchit in Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge (1951) and Friar Lawrence in Renato Castellani's Romeo and Juliet (1954).

It's a bit trickier tracking down the features made by Angela Lansbury's mother, Moyna Macgill. Born in Belfast, Charlotte McIldowie was spotted on the London Underground by film director George Pearson, who renamed her and starred her in Garryowen and Nothing Else Matters (both 1920) before she started appearing on the West End stage. Divorced from actor-director Reginald Denham, Macgill married timber merchant Edgar Lansbury, whose father was the future leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury. His granddaughter later claimed: 'I'm eternally grateful for the Irish side of me. That's where I got my sense of comedy and whimsy. As for the English half - that's my reserved side...But put me on stage, and the Irish comes out. The combination makes a good mix for acting.'

Macgill already had one daughter, Isolde (who would go on to marry Peter Ustinov), when she gave birth to Angela Brigid Lansbury in the Regent's Park district of London on 16 October 1925. Twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar, arrived in 1930, prompting the family to leave their flat in Poplar for a larger house in Mill Hill. Among the quartet's cousins was Oliver Postgate, who became one of the bastions of British animation. Several of the enduringly popular TV shows that he and Peter Firmin made for Smallfilms are available from Cinema Paradiso, including Ivor the Engine (1959-77), Clangers (1969-71) and Bagpuss (1974).

Glynis started dancing as soon as she could walk and, at the age of five, she joined the London Ballet School, where she was quickly adjuged a remarkable talent. During the course of her 11-year training, she qualified as a teacher. But her hopes of studying with the Sadler's Wells Ballet were dashed when she had to enrol at Clifton High School. She would later reflect, 'They were situations that were hard for parents to turn down. It's difficult to turn down a chance to star with Laurence Olivier, to say, "No, she has to go to school." They had a big decision to make…As a youngster, I was interested in everything. I wanted to be a scientist. I would've loved to go on to university. But you can't do everything in life.'

Nevertheless, she spent two hours a day at the Cone School of Dancing and amassed 20 medals during her student days. She also made her stage debut, as a child ballerina, in Buckie's Bears (1935) at the Garrick Theatre. Moreover, she was spotted while dancing in a children's play over the Christmas holidays and offered the role of Hortense Bertrand in St Helena (1936) at the Old Vic. The same year, Ursula Jeans cast her in the Gate Theatre production of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. The role of trouble-making Mary Tilford would be memorably played by Bonita Granville in William Wyler's These Three (1936) and by Karen Balkin in the director's 1961 remake, The Children's Hour, which was headlined by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine.

A still from Pygmalion (1938)
A still from Pygmalion (1938)

Johns appeared in five more plays over the next three years, during which time Moyna Macgill landed an uncredited role as a bystander in Anthony Asquith's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1938). Having been widowed in 1935, she had taken up with Scottish colonel, Leckie Forbes, and moved into his Hampstead home. Angela spent the next four years at South Hampstead High School, although she was far more interesting in films and plays. She also became something of an attention seeker. 'I did want people to notice me as a child,' she told one reporter. 'At the age of 11 or 12, I remember sitting on buses and trying to look interesting. Or I would get people's attention by saying something kind of outlandish that simply sounded as if I knew something they didn't know.'

Lansbury also took up the piano and studied at the Ritman School of Dancing before moving to the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art. It was here that she made her first stage appearance, as a lady-in-waiting in the school production of Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland, which was brought to the screen by John Ford in 1936. However, her education was interrupted by the outbreak of war and the death of her grandfather. With Moyna no longer willing to tolerate Forbes's manipulation, she landed a job supervising 60 evacuees aboard the Duchess of Atholl in order to take Angela and her brothers to North America, leaving Isolde behind with her new husband, Peter Ustinov, who had just started his screen career in the documentaries, Hullo, Fame! and After Mein Kampf? (both 1940).

Like Father/Mother Like Daughter

There's a distinct possibility that Angela Lansbury might have caught sight of a young Glynis Johns on the big screen before she was evacuated. She had made her debut at the age of 14 as Midge Carne, the daughter of Ralph Richardson's aspiring politician in Victor Saville's adaptation of Winifred Holtby's South Riding (1938), which has twice since been reworked as a British TV serial, in 1974 and 2010, with both versions being available from Cinema Paradiso. She reunited with Richardson in another gritty melodrama, Brian Desmond Hurst's take on F.L. Green's bestseller, On the Night of the Fire (1939), before demonstrating a lighter side as Winnie in Maurice Elvey's version of the hit musical comedy, Under Your Hat (1940), which sees the husband-and-wife team of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge seeking to keep a revolutionary carburetor out of the hands of enemy agents.

Between films, Johns did her bit for morale in the capital by appearing in such stage shows as Quiet Weekend (1939) and Peter Pan (1943). Her role as Miranda Bute in the former was taken by Barbara White in Harold French's 1946 interpretation, by which times Johns had moved on to bigger things. However, her role had been cut from The Prime Minister, Thorold Dickinson's 1940 biography of Benjamin Disraeli, and she had only received an uncredited part as a handmaiden in Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad (1940) because of her father's connections.

Similarly, it was Mervyn's friendship with Laurence Olivier that led to Glynis replacing Elizabeth Bergner as Anna in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's war adventure, 49th Parallel (1941). Indeed, things went so quiet for a while that Johns considered quitting show business and even took lessons at a secretarial school. However, her faith was restored when she lined up alongside Robert Donat as Romanian resistance fighter Pavla Palacek in Harold S. Bucquet's Adventures of Tartu (1943). Moreover, she got to work with her father for the first time, as Welsh innkeepers Rhys and Gwyneth, in The Halfway House (1944), Basil Dearden's timelessly poignant adaptation of Dennis Ogden's play, The Peaceful Inn.

While Johns's husky tones were soothing wartime audiences, Lansbury was coming to terms with life on the other side of the pond. Having docked at Montréal, Moyna Macgill had landed a role in a touring production of Noël Coward's Tonight At 8:30, which was filmed as Meet Me Tonight by Anthony Pelissier in 1952. Meanwhile, the 16 year-old Lansbury had added three years to her age in order to earn $60 a week singing Coward songs at the Samovar Club in Montréal. Her mother had bigger fish to fry, however, and moved to New York, where she was taken in by Wall Street businessman, Charles T. Smith. Lansbury won a scholarship to the American Theatre Wing and took classes at its affiliate, the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. By the time the family had settled into digs in Greenwich Village, she had played in William Congreve's The Way of the World and Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. She had also sung at the Blue Angel and Roseland.

But her restless mother was keen to resurrect her film career and moved to Hollywood, where she secured a role as a woman in an air-raid shelter in the multi-directored flagwaver, Forever and a Day (1943). More walk-ons would follow in Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1943) and Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944), as well as a couple alongside her daughter, who was in the process of taking Tinseltown by storm.

In order to pay the rent on the family's bungalow in Laurel Canyon, Moyna and Angela took Chistmas jobs at the Bullocks Wilshire department store in Los Angeles. Despite being fired, Moyna decided to invest her daughter's $28 weekly salary in a house party. Among the guests was playwright John van Druten, who had just adapted Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play, Gaslight.

This had already been filmed in Britain by Thorold Dickinson in 1940, with Anton Walbrook playing the man who tries to drive his wife mad with the help of their maid. But George Cukor was about to direct Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the remake and Van Druten was convinced that Lansbury was perfect for the role of the Cockney maid, Nancy Oliver.

Two days later, Lansbury was hired and resisted a front office bid to change her name to Angela Marlowe in signing a seven-year contract at $500 a week. As she was underage, she required a chaperone on set. But Cukor knew right away that he had unearthed a star. 'On the first day of shooting,' he later recalled, 'even though she was only 17 and had no experience, she was immediately professional. She became this little housemaid - even her face seemed to change. Suddenly, I was watching real movie acting.'

As Variety proclaimed her Hollywood's 'latest Cinderella' for going from unknown to starlet in the twinkling of an eye, Lansbury remained poised in the presence of her renowned co-stars. Bergman would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress, while Cedric Gibbons and William Ferrari were also recognised for their atmospheric sets. But Lansbury would be pipped to Best Supporting Actress by Ethel Barrymore for her performance opposite Cary Grant in Howard Hawks's None But the Lonely Heart.

A still from National Velvet (1944)
A still from National Velvet (1944)

Working in Technicolor for the first time, Lansbury found herself in support again in Clarence Brown's National Velvet (1944), as Edwina, the older sister of Elizabeth Taylor's 12 year-old who is convinced her Sussex horse can win the Grand National at Aintree. Anne Revere would win the Best Supporting Oscar as the pair's mother, beating Lansbury for her sparky turn as Sibyl Vane, the music-hall singer who falls for Hurd Hatfield's deceptively dashing hero in Albert Lewin's version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). With it's shocking colour coda, this film isn't currently available on disc in this country, but it really ought to be, if only for Lansbury's Golden Globe-winning display of chirpy vulnerability.

In September 1945, Lansbury married Richard Cromwell, who had become an artist and interior decorator after a fitful 39-film career that had seen him co-star with W.C. Fields (Poppy, 1936), Bette Davis ( Jezebel, 1938) and Henry Fonda (Young Mr Lincoln, 1939). It soon became apparent that Cromwell was gay, however, and the couple separated after a year. Ironically, Johns would have a similar experience with first husband, Anthony Forwood. Despite fathering her son, Gareth, he left her after six years of marriage and became Dirk Bogarde's close confidante.

Shortly after her divorce, Lansbury met Peter Shaw, a Reading-born actor who had appeared fleetingly in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and John Cromwell's Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936). He was also under contract to MGM and had recently ended a relationship with Joan Crawford. They became inseparable companions following their marriage in 1949 and settled in Rustic Canyon in Malibu after they became naturalised US citizens with dual nationality.

Meeting Amidst Contrasting Fortunes

There are only so many Cockney waifs an actress can play, especially after two Oscar nominations, and MGM struggled to find worthwhile things for Angela Lansbury to do after her initial success. She held her own against Judy Garland, as Em, the saloon chanteuse prepared to slap faces in order to secure the affections of John Hodiak in George Sidney's The Harvey Girls (1945), and descends prettily on a giant swing before being attended by a Pearly King during her rendition of 'How Would You Like to Spoon With Me?' in Richard Whorf's Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).

But too many Lansbury projects from this period have been allowed to fade into obscurity. 'I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles,' Lansbury remembers, 'and Mr Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches.' In addition to mean girls, Lansbury also found herself being cast in roles for which she was too young, such as Walter Pidgeon's scheming spouse in George Sidney's The Red Danube (1949). Titles like Norman Taurog's The Hoodlum Saint (1947) and George Sidney's The Three Musketeers (1948) should be available, as they contain fine performances by William Powell and Gene Kelly. But it is possible to see Lansbury striving to lead presidential candidate Spencer Tracy off the straight and narrow, as newspaper proprietor Kay Thorndike in Frank Capra's adaptation of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, State of the Union (1948).

While learning a harsh lesson ('You play and play and play; you don't play, you were finished.'), Lansbury tried her hand at radio and played Catherine Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1949) and made an early excursion into television in The Citadel (1950). She even agreed to loan outs to take supporting roles like Semadar, the Philistine sister of the heroine (Hedy Lamarr) who is impaled to a door with a spear on what should have been her wedding day to Victor Mature's Danite in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949).

Back in Blighty, Glynis Johns was developing into a major star. She had exuded spirit and gaiety, as Deborah Kerr's fun-loving cousin, Dizzy, in Alexander Korda's Perfect Strangers (1945), a story about reacclimatising to peace that co-starred Robert Donat and earned Clemence Dane the Oscar for Best Story. Come on someone, this important snapshot of a key time in our history should be on disc in its homeland. Equally important is Basil Dearden's Frieda (1947), in which Johns plays a war widow who extends a warm welcome to her German sister-in-law, Mai Zetterling, while others are bitterly hostile. This can be rented from Cinema Paradiso on Volume 3 of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection.

A still from An Ideal Husband (1947)
A still from An Ideal Husband (1947)

Yet, while Johns seemed to epitomise modern British womanhood, she proved her costume mettle as Mabel Chiltern in Korda's take on Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1948), in which she helps Lord Arthur Goring (Michael Wilding) prevent Laura Cheveley (Paulette Godard) from destroying the reputation of her politician brother, Sir Robert Chilton (Hugh Williams). This was Korda's last film as a director and, by a curious coincidence, Johns also starred in his final outing as a producer, Ken Annakin's Graham Greene original, Loser Takes All (1956), in which Johns plays a newlywed who loses patience with husband Rossano Brazzi on their honeymoon when he becomes hooked on gambling in Monte Carlo.

By the time this was released, Johns was a top box-office draw and the film that made her a pin-up, Miranda (1948), was also directed by Ken Annakin. Wearing a specially made tail, Johns enchants as a playful Cornish mermaid who persuades holidaying fisherman Griffith Jones to take her to London, where he passes her off as an invalid in order to wheel her around in a chair. However, Miranda refuses to go home after the agreed three weeks and her further adventures were related in Ralph Thomas's colour sequel, Mad About Men (1954). It beggars belief that this is on disc and its monochrome predecessor isn't. But there's a bonus glimpse of Miranda Trewella in Thomas's Helter Skelter (1949), a gleefully scattershot comedy in which Mervyn Johns plays the guardian of Carol Marsh, an heiress with a persistent case of hiccups.

Fortunately, Gordon Parry's Third Time Lucky (1949) is available, as it reveals that Johns was a capable femme fatale, as receptionist Joan Burns comes between rival gamblers, Lucky (Dermot Walsh) and Flash (Charles Goldner). She remained in noir territory in Sidney Gilliat's State Secret (1950), as Lisa Robinson, a half-English singer who helps American surgeon John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) escape the European republic of Vosnia after he is duped into operating on its dictatorial ruler, who dies under the knife.

As unflappable stewardess Marjorie Corder, Johns rubbed shoulders with two more Hollywood stars, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, in Henry Koster's adaptation of Nevil Shute's thriller, No Highway in the Sky, in which an expert's misgivings about a plane's air-worthiness are ignored. She also abetted David Niven, as ATS cook and Channel Islander Nicola Fallaize, in Ralph Thomas's Appointment With Venus (both 1951), which recreates a wartime mission to rescue a pedigree cow from the Nazi-occupied island of Amorel.

Very much in demand, Johns guested as May Jones, who gets a guided tour from Jack Carter (Richard Attenborough) of the laboratory of cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene (Robert Donat) in John Boulting's The Magic Box (see Cinema Paradiso's 10 Films to Watch article). She also appeared in 'Gigolo and Gigolette', the Harold French-directed episode in the W. Somerset Maugham portmanteau, Encore (both 1951), in which Stella Cotman goes on a gambling jag in Monte Carlo after losing the nerve needed to plunge each night from a high platform into a small tank of water as part of her nightclub act.

Cinema Paradiso users can also rent the other two parts in the Maugham trilogy, Quartet (1948) and Trio (1950). They can also relish the chemistry between Johns and Alec Guinness in Ronald Neame's The Card (1952), in which the socially ambitious Denry Machin keeps bumping into spendthrift ex-fiancée Ruth Earp in this droll adaptation of Arnold Bennett's Five Towns novel. Moreover, they can see the 29 year-old Johns playing teenager Barbara Vining in Anthony Pelissier's Personal Affair (1953), as she is confronted by dismayed wife Gene Tierney after developing a crush on her Latin-teaching husband, Leo Genn,

Sadly, neither of Johns's first two outings for Disney, Ken Annakin's The Sword and the Rose and Harold French's Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (both 1953) are on disc at the moment. But she contributed another display of misguided fragility on being teamed with Diana Dors and Rachel Roberts in J. Lee Thompson's The Weak and the Wicked (1954), an adaptation of Joan Henry's autobiographical novel, Who Lie in Gaol, which sees Jean Raymond being framed by her friend after she runs up debts through her gambling addiction.

A still from The Beachcomber (1954)
A still from The Beachcomber (1954)

Johns was more of a paragon as Marion Southey and Martha Jones, as she respectively seeks to bring Christianity to the people of 1820s New Zealand and the Welcome Islands in the Indian Ocean in Ken Annakin's The Seekers and Muriel Box's The Beachcomber (both 1954). But her soft spot for an underdog gets her in trouble as Jo Luton in Roy Boulting's Josephine and Men (1955), a flashbacking romcom in which Uncle Jack Buchanan reflects on his niece's relationships with playwright Peter Finch and toff Donald Sinden.

While Johns was going from strength to strength, Lansbury was stuck in the post-MGM doldrums. Having played the gold-digging Leslie in Edward Dmytryk's 1812 war adventure, Mutiny (1952), Lansbury had terminated her contract and focussed on raising children Anthony, Deirdre and Shaw's son, David. On returning to work, however, she found that the studios still wanted her to play older characters (hence, her later contention that 'Hollywood made me old before my time.'). But H. Bruce Humberstone's The Purple Mask (1955) proved to be the last straw, as Lansbury branded this Napoleonic Pimpernel swashbuckler, in which Madame Valentine sides with the Royalist rebels against Tony Curtis's hero, as 'the worst movie I ever made'.

However, she retained fonder memories of another period romp, Melvin Frank and Norman Panama's The Court Jester (1956), in which Lansbury plays Princess Gwendolyn, the daughter of King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker), who orders Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) to crush the resistance of the Black Fox, whose band includes Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye), a minstrel beloved of Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), a rebel captain whom he tries to impress by impersonating Italian jester, Giacomo (John Carradine). Despite being the most expensive comedy made to that time, it flopped at the box-office, only to become a cult classic that comes complete with its own fiendish tongue-twister: 'The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!'

Disney to the Rescue

Rather surprisingly, Lansbury was absent from the all-star cast of Michael Anderson's Oscar-winning adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days (1956), but Johns can be glimpsed alongside Hermione Gingold as the ladies strolling along a London pavement in the closing scenes. The year would also see Johns return to Broadway (after a disastrous five-performance debut in Gertie in 1952) in Charles Laughton's 1956 version of Shaw's Major Barbara, while Lansbury would make her bow on the Great White Way a year later in the French farce, Hotel Paradiso.

On screen, Lansbury had a moment to savour locking horns with Orson Welles in Martin Ritt's The Long Hot Summer (1958), as longtime mistress Minnie Littlejohn scheming to steer Mississippi plantation owner Will Varner to the altar. She also drew appreciative notices as Mabel Claremont in Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (1958), a London society comedy that was remade by Dennie Gordon as What a Girl Wants (2003).

A still from Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)
A still from Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)

As the decade ended, however, Lansbury was doing more television. For her part, Johns appeared with Ol' Blue Eyes (see The Frank Sinatra Shows, 2008), either side of features with Lana Turner and Sean Connery (Lewis Allen's Another Time, Another Place, 1958) and James Cagney, with whom she appeared in Michael Anderson's Shake Hands With the Devil (1959), as Kitty Brady, a supporter of the IRA against the Black and Tans in Dublin in 1923.

Johns had claimed, 'I would sooner play in a good British picture than in the majority of American pictures I have seen.' But, notwithstanding such homegrown efforts as Godfrey Grayson's little-seen Agatha Christie adaptation, The Spider's Web, she kept returning to Hollywood and was rewarded with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mrs Finch, the landlady of the pub in the Australian town of Cawndilla who takes a shine to refined English sheep farmer Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov) in Fred Zinnemann's The Sundowners (both 1960), which is very much worth a UK outing on DVD and Blu-ray.

Despite being scripted by Robert Bloch (who had just written Psycho (1960) for Alfred Hitchcock), Roger Kay's The Cabinet of Caligari (1962) wasn't a patch on the 1920 Robert Wiene original that is discussed at length in Cinema Paradiso's article, 100 Years of German Expressionism. But Johns remained busy on stage and screen, cropping up in an episode of Burke's Law (1963-66) opposite Gene Barry. However, her own mystery series, Glynis (1963), was cancelled after just 13 episodes, even though the idea of an author who solves crimes would be revived more profitably with Lansbury in the lead two decades later.

Lansbury had also been Down Under with John Mills and Ernest Borgnine for Leslie Norman's take on Ray Lawler's play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959). But she was spending more time on Broadway, notably playing Helen in Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1960). Dora Bryan took the role in Tony Richardson's 1961 film, which also starred Rita Tushingham as Jo. Lansbury was only three years older than stage daughter Joan Plowright and helped her elope to marry Laurence Olivier during the run of the play.

The age gap with her co-star was similarly negligible in two of Lansbury's best-known films of the period. At 36, she was only nine years older than Elvis Presley when she played his overbearing mother, Sarah Lee Gates, in Norman Taurog's Blue Hawaii (1961), a picture she admitted taking because she was 'desperate'. Typically, that's available on disc when fine performances in Delbert Mann's The Dark At the Top of the Stairs (1960) and John Frankenheimer's All Fall Down (1962) are not. But the latter led to Lansbury being cast as Eleanor Iselin in Frankenheimer's gripping adaptation of Richard Condon's Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

She was a mere three years older than Laurence Harvey, who plays her son, Richard Shaw, a POW from the Korean War who has been brainwashed into becoming a sleeper agent. However, Eleanor is made his handler and uses his killing skills to boost her husband's chances of becoming vice-president. All those years of playing villains served her well, as Lansbury received her third Osccar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Once again, she lost out and admitted her disappointment at being beaten by Patty Duke for her performance as Helen Keller in Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962).

A still from The World of Henry Orient (1964)
A still from The World of Henry Orient (1964)

She played another callous mother in George Roy Hill's The World of Henry Orient (1964), as Isabel Boyd doesn't seem to care a jot that her teenage daughter, Valerie (Tippy Walker), has started stalking concert pianist, Henry Orient (Peter Sellers). By contrast, Johns was cast as Winifred Banks in Robert Stevenson's Mary Poppins (1964), who is so busy campaigning for Votes for Women that she requires a nanny to help raise children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber). Although Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke get all the best songs as Mary and Bert the chimney sweep, Johns had 'Sister Suffragette' written specially for her by the Sherman brothers, who are played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak in John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr Banks (2013).

Johns followed this triumph with another crowd-pleasing turn as the villainous Lady Penelope Peasoup, who commits crimes in cahoots with her brother, Lord Marmaduke Ffogg (Rudy Vallee), in three final season episodes of Batman (1966-68). Lansbury had similarly guested as flamboyant actress Elfie van Donck in a 1965 episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68) after having seen much of her performance as Claudia in George Stevens's gospel saga, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), hit the cutting-room floor. But she made few films during a decade in which she focussed on her family and stage roles like Mame Dennis in Jerry Herman's musical smash, Mame (1966).

Cast after Rosalind Russell (who had headlined Morton DaCosta's 1958 film, Auntie Mame) had declined, Lansbury threw herself into her first Broadway lead. In addition to singing 10 songs, she had to cope with numerous costume changes and became something of a gay icon en route to winning a Tony Award for Best Actress. Yet, when Gene Saks (who had directed the show) inherited the film from George Cukor, he chose Lucille Ball for the lead and Mame flopped at the box office.

Lansbury described the snub as 'one of my bitterest disappointments'. But she remained on a Broadway roll, as she took a second Tony for Dear World (1969), a musical adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. However, all was not well at home and, in order to wean Anthony off drugs and Deirdre away from Charles Manson's notorious Family, Lansbury and Shaw relocated to Knockmourne Glebe, a farmhouse in the County Cork village of Conna. It was here that she was offered the role of Eglantine Price in Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), which was adapted from the Mary Norton novels, The Magic Bedknob; or, How to Become a Witch in Ten Easy Lessons and Bonfires and Broomsticks. This was Lansbury's first screen musical lead and, under the direction of Robert Stevenson, she rose to the challenge of dealing with evacuated children, invading Nazis and some unruly animated animals with a twinkle in the eye.

The Golden Girls

Always protective of her image, Lansbury had turned down the roles of June Buckridge in Robert Aldrich's The Killing of Sister George (1968) and Nurse Ratched in Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), which respectively earned Beryl Reid a Golden Globe nomination and Louise Fletcher the Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Actress. Instead, Lansbury stayed on stage and won further Tonys for Gypsy (1973) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979). A film record of her performance in the latter was released in 1982 and is available from Cinema Paradiso. In Tim Burton's 2007 screen version, the role of Mrs Lovatt went to Helena Bonham Carter.

After an eight-year absence, Lansbury returned to features as crime writer Salome Otterbourne in John Guillermin's Death on the Nile (1978), although the character had transmogrified into an African American blues singer by the time Sophie Okonedo played her in Kenneth Branagh's 2021 remake. Lansbury also inherited the role of Miss Froy that Dame May Whitty had played for Alfred Hitchcock in The Lady Vanishes (1938) in Anthony Page's 1978 remake (Selina Cadell would do the honours in Diarmud Lawrence's 2013 BBC version).

A still from The Mirror Crack'd (1980)
A still from The Mirror Crack'd (1980)

Moreover, Lansbury played Miss Jane Marple in Guy Hamilton's Agatha Christie adaptation, The Mirror Crack'd (1980), and she was frustrated when a pair of sequels were cancelled. However, after she had voiced witch Mommy Fortuna in Jules Bass and Alfred Rankin's The Last Unicorn (1982), compensation came in the form of Jessica Fletcher, the novelist with a nose for crime in the long-running TV series, Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).

Jean Stapleton and Doris Day had turned down the part, even though the series had been created by William Link and Richard Levinson, who were still riding high with Peter Falk in Columbo (1971-94). Convinced that Jessica was a role model for older women, Lansbury made 264 episodes and several teleplay spin-offs, latterly ensuring greater control over the content by becoming an executive producer. According to reports, she commanded $400,000 an episode. Yet, while she won four Golden Globes from 10 nominations, she failed to covert any of her 12 Emmy nods and Lansbury retains the award's record losing streak, with 18 nominations.

While Lansbury was cementing her place in television history, Johns was concentrating on the theatre. She continued to make occasional films, notably playing Myfanwy Price alongside Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Andrew Sinclair's adaptation of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (1972). She also showed her sporting side by teaming with Terry-Thomas in 'The Next Job', a tale of marital unbliss that featured in The Vault of Horror (1973), a ghoulish anthology directed by Roy Ward Baker for Amicus. Indeed, Johns would return to the dark side in 'Mrs Amworth', a vampiric episode from the 1977 chiller, Three Dangerous Ladies, which is available from Cinema Paradiso on Rare Chills.

Johns would hit the high point of her later career as Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music (1973), for which Stephen Sondheim (who compared her voice to 'a rumpled bed') wrote her the classic show tune, 'Send in the Clowns'. She won a Tony for her performance, only to lose out to Elizabeth Taylor in Hal Prince's misfiring 1977 screen version. Eventually, Johns would play Desiree's mother in various revivals and tours (as would Lansbury, who received a Tony nomination opposite Catherine Zeta Jones in 2010),

Having guested as Helen, the mother of Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), in the first season of Cheers (1982-93), Johns ran into Lansbury again in 1985, as Bridget O'Hara in the 'Sing a Song of Murder' episode of Murder, She Wrote. But, with the stage taking up most of her time, there wasn't much opportunity to take film roles, although she did voice Ms Grimwood in Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School (1988).

A still from While You Were Sleeping (1995)
A still from While You Were Sleeping (1995)

At the start of what has turned out to be the last decade of her screen career, Johns had a ball playing the rich and controlling Rose Chasseur (the mother of Kevin Spacey's character) in Ted Demme's The Ref (1994) and the canny Elsie, who sees through Sandra Bullock's ruse in Jon Turtletaub's While You Were Sleeping (1995). Having bowed out of features as the grandmother of Saturday Night Live character Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) in Bruce McCulloch's Superstar (2000), Johns made a surprise guest appearance in the 'Doctors Orders' episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-05), when a clip from The Court Jester appears on a screen.

The chosen sequence didn't feature Lansbury, but she has racked up plenty of credits of her own over the last four decades. Following a last screen teaming with Johns in the mini-series, Little Gloria...Happy At Last (1982), she also did grandmothering duties in The Company of Wolves (1984), Neil Jordan's adaptation of Angela Carter's variation on the Little Red Riding Hood story. Following a cameo as Jessica Fletcher in the 'Novel Connection' episode of Magnum P.I. (1980-88), Lansbury took two teleplay leads: as a woman seeking to discover why her son was killed aboard Korean Airlines Flight 007 in Michael Pressman's teleplay, Shootdown (1988) and as a mother who gets a chance to reconnect with her children after suffering a heart attack in Waris Hussein's take on Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers (1989).

She was directed by son Anthony Pullen Shaw in Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris (1992), a tele-adaptation of a Paul Gallico novel that sends a 1950s London charwoman to the French capital in search of her very own Dior dress. However, Lansbury's highlight of that particular year was an appearance at the Academy Awards to sing the title song from Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) after she had earned a new generation of fans for voicing Mrs Potts in Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's retelling of the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, which became the first animation to be nominated for Best Picture.

Having taken the title role in Terry Hughes's Mrs Santa Claus (1996), Lansbury returned to Disney to play Mrs Potts in Andrew Knight's Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997). Indeed, she can currently be heard in UK theatres as the narrator of a touring revival of the stage production. Back in 1997, she returned to the dubbing studio to voice the Dowager Empress in Don Bluth's Anastasia and later provided the uncredited voice of the woman appealing for people to adopt African orphans in Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (2002).

She appeared as herself in Disney's Fantasia 2000 (1999), as well as in the documentaries Sir John Mills: Moving Memories (2000), The Cockettes (2002) and Elvis Presley: Elvis: The King of Rock 'N' Roll (2007). Guest slots followed as Eleanor Duvall in Law and Order: Trial By Jury (2005) and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (2006), while she claimed a fifth Tony for her work as Madame Arcati in a 2009 revival of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit.

Lansbury has recently made a habit of providing scene-stealing support, as the formidable Lady Adelaide Stitch in Kirk Jones's Nanny McPhee (2005); as restaurant owner Mrs Selma Van Gundy in Mark Waters's Mr Popper's Penguins (2011); and as Aunt March in Vanessa Caswill's three-part BBC adaptation of Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women (2017). She was to have played mysterious owner Madame D. in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but had to relinquish the role to Tilda Swinton because she was starring on stage with James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy.

Jessica Tandy had earned the Academy Award for Best Actress in Bruce Beresford's 1989 screen version and Lansbury got her hands on an Honorary Oscar in 2013. A damehood arrived the following year to go with her two stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. Moreover, having voiced Mayor McGerkle in Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier's The Grinch (2018), she returned to Disney to play the balloon lady in Rob Marshall's Mary Poppins Returns (2018). What a pity Johns wasn't able to cameo as the mother of Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), perhaps casting a vote in a Depression-era election.

A still from Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
A still from Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
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