I haven’t written in several weeks. Pain kept me away, and Pain has brought me back. Angela Lansbury passed away on October 11, 2022. Just a few days ago and just a few days before celebrating her 97th birthday on October 16. I have already done a blog on her life, so I will refer you back to that. I want to make this a memorial of sorts.
When I think of Angela’s death or hear on my Amazon Echo device speak of it, the tears come. I’m trying to figure out why. How did a woman who wouldn’t know me from Adam get deeply embedded in my heart? I know it’s not only me; NASA dedicated a Cosmic Rose in her honor. I’ve seen pictures of this rose, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. One had to wonder why? NASA does not often align itself with the entertainment industry. They use Snoopy as a mascot from time to time, but that’s about it. Angela Lansbury and Snoopy seem an odd combination. But NASA knew that everyone loves Snoopy, and I guess they came to realize that everyone loves Angela Lansbury too.
In my family Miss Lansbury delighted at least five generations, possibly six. My great-grandparents immigrated to this country early in the 20th century. I don’t know much about them as they died when I was very young. I don’t know if they went to the movies or even watched TV. If they did, they might have enjoyed Miss Lansbury in her film work, the opportunity was there, but I don’t know. My grandmother did love Murder She Wrote, as did my parents and I. My nieces and nephews grew up on Beauty and the Beast, and they are showing that movie to their children along with Bed knobs and Broomsticks. That tallies to a definite five generations.
In my previous blog, I concentrated on the films Miss Lansbury was in, not the roles she played. Today, I want to talk about her characters. I first met Angela on the screen in 1971. I was ten, and Angela played the role of Eglantine Price in the Disney feature film Musical Bed Knobs and Broomsticks. Eglantine was a spinster determined to become a witch to help England win the 2nd World War. Her studies get interrupted when three children from London come to stay with her to escape war-torn London. This is where the fun in the film begins.
Eglantine Price was a great role for Angela. In an interview, she stated that she enjoyed playing the part and the process of creating the character. In her first appearance, Eglantine seems stern and unapproachable; as the movie progresses, you learn that she is warm, caring, and not afraid to take on a challenge. These were great lessons for a ten-year-old. I loved this movie and so did my friends who went with me to see it.
Mame Dennis. Five years earlier, Miss Lansbury landed the role of Mame Dennis in the musical version of Auntie Mame. In the 50s, no one could have touched Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of the aunt every child would love to have. In 1966 however, Lansbury made that role her own, and with the words and music of Jerry Herman, she made a mark on Broadway that would, in some ways, compel the rest of her career. She went from being a second banana to being a true star in every way possible.
Mame would be considered a person who thought outside of the box in every conceivable situation. Her solution to problems was to get involved in outlandish schemes that would both court disaster and triumph. But all through the character is the essence of life is meant to be lived. “Live, live, live, life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” This was her motto for life rain or shine.
Angela made the character her own and played her differently than Rosalind Russell of course, I can only tell this from the songs, but I think Angela was a bit more of a gentle Mame. Russell tore thru like a tornado, whereas Angela gracefully swept through, winning people to her side as she went.
Salome Autobahn was a supporting character in the first of the three filmed versions of Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile. The star of the film was Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poitot, the great Belguin detective. Some of the rest of the supporting cast boasted Bette Davis and Maggie Smith, so Angela was in good company. Salome Autobahn is a drunk author who is a suspect in the murder. Angela is a delight as she romps through this movie, outshining all the other cast members through her crazy antics. Basically, Angela gets all the laughs in this film. It’s not a comedy, but the light-hearted moments made up for the gruesome tale. This movie was made in 1978 right on the tail of Murder on the Orient Express, another Christie book, but this was not the end of Angela and Miss Christie.
In 1980 Miss Lansbury took the lead role as Miss Marple Agatha Christie’s other leading detective. Lansbury was 55 when she made this film. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster with a mind like a steel trap. Nothing gets past this old lady, and Lansbury plays her well, undoubtedly setting the stage for what was to come to her in four short years.
In 1979 Lansbury again made a hit on Broadway as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Playing opposite Len Cariou as Sweeney, Angela was a delight as the pie shop lady that baked Sweeney’s murdered corpses into meat pies. The show found a way to make an otherwise appalling legend humorous and a little fun. Everyone, in the end, gets their just desserts, pun intended, and Angela walked away with that year’s Tony Award for best actress in a musical.
On October 7, 1984, Angela began her twelve-year run on Murder, She Wrote. The weekly murder mystery series starred Angela as Jessica Fletcher, a retired school teacher from Cabot Cove, Maine, who globe trotted her way into a different murder every week. When she wasn’t in some distant place solving a murder, one would pop up in Cabot Cove. Between Jessica Fletcher and Stephen King, Maine is not the safest place to live. Angela was nominated every year the show was on for an Emmy award, and the sad truth is she never took one home. It makes you wonder if the award shows aare more about politics than talent?
On November 22, 1991, Angela would again make a stamp on childhood. This time a symbol that, I believe, at least for the next several generations, will never go away. Much like adults in the past love to share Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz with their children. Parents now share the magic of the animated film Beauty and the Beast with Angela Lansbury as the lovable Teapot Mrs. Potts singing the title song. And like Judy’s unforgettable rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Angela’s singing of Beauty and the Beast brings to hearts sheer beauty and hope to the soul.
There is so much more to say about Angela Lansbury’s brilliant career. I didn’t touch on the villains she played; she played more than a few brilliantly; for proof of this, watch the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. Honorary mention must go to her portrayal of Ada Harris in the original film version of Mrs’ arris Goes to Paris, Penelope Keeling in The Shell Seekers, Aunt March is the BBC/PBS version of Little Women and her wonderful cameo appearance as The Balloon Lady in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns.
I want to talk about one more role of Angela’s before I end this memorial. In 1996 Angela would again team with Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics to Mame to bring to life and finally give center stage to one of legend’s most unrecognized characters Mrs. Santa Claus. I loved and still love this musical that takes place in turn of the century New York City where Mrs. Santa Claus finds herself stranded just a few days before Christmas. In 90 or so minutes, she reunites families, makes a stand for women’s suffrage, and thwarts the plot of a nefarious toy manufacturer. All the while singing some of the best songs ever. My favorite is Almost Young, an anthem for always staying young at heart.
My bones are often racked up,
They often act up each time it rains.
But arthritis and fleabites are simple growing pains.
So let them say I’m past my peak,
That I’m a million years from hide and seek,
But when my dirge is sung,
I’ll still be struttin and kickin,
Like some little chicken,
And tough as a riddle,
And fit as a fiddle
And almost young.
Last night October 16, 2022, the lights dimmed on Broadway for Angela Lansbury. The lights went dark on NYC’s most prominent street, and an image of Angela shown for a few seconds. Now it’s time for us to say goodnight too.
“Back to the cupboard with you now chip.”
“It’s past your bedtime.”