Angela Lansbury started her career in 1944 in the film Gaslight. She played a conniving maid who was helping to make Ingrid Bergman’s character think she was insane. She would go on to play many other roles at MGM in many important and memorable films such as The Harvey Girls, Blue Hawaii and The Manchurian Candidate. Though relatively young she was often cast as the mother of an adult child and never the star of the movie always the back up. At least in the films she is most well known for.
I came to know of Angela Lansbury in 1971 when Disney released its now classic film Bed knobs and Broomsticks. The film was a musical adaptation of the book with the same title written by Mary Norton. The title was slightly altered by Disney. The book is called Bed knob and Broomstick which is more accurate as there is only one of each in the book.
The score and the songs for the film were written by Richard and Robert Sherman the same two men who gave us the music for Mary Poppins.
The story centered around an apprentice witch, Miss Price, played by Lansbury, who is coming to the end of her mail in course on witchcraft. At the same time she is forced to take in three war refugees from London. The film is set during WWII. They find out she’s a witch and threaten to expose her unless she gives them something magical. She enchants a bed knob which will enable the bed to take the children anywhere they wish to go. At about this time Miss Price receives a letter from her instructor telling her that the school of witchcraft is closed. Miss Price needs the next spell in the course, as she believes she can help the war effort with it. She asks the children to allow the bed to take them all to London so she can get the spell she needs, and the adventures begin.
I was ten when this film came out and it was a delight. My imagination understood more about good witches than bad witches. I had grown up on Glinda from The Wizard of Oz and Samantha from Bewitched. I could easily understand a witch wanting to help with the war effort. I was also reading comic books at the time and Dr Strange from Marvel and Dr Fate from DC were both powerful sorcerers. I reveled in the magic of Bed Knobs and Broomsticks, so much so that as soon as I got home, I tried out the spell that Miss Price used to bring inanimate things to life. Much to my disappointment the spell did not work.
With in a few years of this, in the bargain bins at the Bazaar Record Shop I found the soundtrack for the musical Mame starring Lucille Ball. Now I loved Lucy. Still do, and though I knew nothing about the movie I bought the album and brought it home. I loved the music and I loved hearing Lucy sing. I had no idea of the story, that would come later, but I loved that album and wore it out. Soon I was able to find a copy of the book the movie was based on Auntie Mame. I had to special order it. It may have been a best seller in the 50s but by 1977 it wasn’t sought after much. I gobbled that down and then bought the original Broadway cast Album of Mame and Angela Lansbury was back in my life.
Angela opened in Mame in 1966 at The Winter Garden Theater in New York City. She electrified crowds with her performance of Mame Dennis and brought the house down. Miss Lansbury stayed with the Broadway production for 1500 performances and would head up two national touring companies. In the 1980s she would bring the show back to Broadway for its first revival.
I love Lucy and I love Angela, but the truth needs to be written here. As much as I love Lucy and was enchanted by the album of Mame because it was her. She had no business playing that part, Lucille Ball was 62 when she played Mame. To make her look younger they used filtered lenses on the cameras. Mame could be played by a fifty something woman believably but not by a 62-year-old woman who was in fact showing her age.
Angela Lansbury should have taken the role to the big screen. She had over 20 years of movie credits to her name when she opened Mame on Broadway. People knew who she was and would have gone to see her. The problem was Lucille. Miss Ball bought the rights for the movie for herself and had every intension of playing the role on her own. She basically stole that from Lansbury and the resulting film, though not totally horrible was mediocre at best. When VCRs and VHS tapes became popular Mame was the first one I bought and though I love Lucy the film proved to be a disappointment.
Miss Lansbury was not in any way finished with her career. Her next big stop would be, as far as I was concerned, as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. She would engross audiences in song while she baked dead human bodies into pies. Miss Lansbury would receive her 4th Tony Award for her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett. The other three were for Mame, Dear World and the Revival of Gypsy.
After taking on the big screen and Broadway it was in 1984 that Miss Lansbury would conquer the small screen in the role of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. It was at this time that Angela Lansbury’s career became a main interest to me. I was able to watch her in all of her movie roles including Blue Hawaii which starred Elvis Presley. Never being a Presley fan this one was hard for me. I watched Murder; She Wrote every week. It was one of the few shows my parents and I agreed on.
Murder, She Wrote became an important show for many reasons. I think the first is that it settled around older adults. The over 50 population had few shows they could relate to on TV. Angela’s character of Jessica Fletcher was the first in a line of shows that spotlighted older adults as stars. The Golden Girls would follow in 1985, Matlock with Andy Griffith in 1986 and Diagnosis Murder with Dick Van Dyke in 1993. Angela paved the way for all of these shows to become hits. All though Murder, She Wrote would go off the air in 1996 after 12 season Angela would reprise the role of Jessica Fletcher for four made for TV movies.
In 1991 Angela would come back to big screen but this time as an animated teapot in Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast. Miss Lansbury would sing the title song and generation of children would grow to love her character as the motherly Mrs. Potts.
Angela kept going. So many wonderful projects would follow. The Shell Seekers for The Hallmark Hall of Fame. Mrs. ‘arris Goes To Paris where she plays a char woman who dreams of owning a designer gown and sees her dream come true. And Mrs. Santa Claus where she plays the wife of the great man himself in a musical with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman the man who wrote Mame.
She would go back to the theater and win awards for her supporting role in A Little Night Music and Blythe Spirit. In her 90s Miss Lansbury toured Australia with James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy. She would come back to the United States to play Aunt March in The BBC/PBS adaptation of Little Women and then play the small role of The Balloon Lady in Mary Poppins Returns.
I don’t know where Miss Lansbury will turn up next. I do know that she has inspired me for years. Her songs that are so heart felt have comforted me as she sings Beauty and the Beast or inspired me as she sings Open a New Window or It’s Today both from Mame.
Rosalind Russell played Mame first on stage in the n the non-musical version Auntie Mame. She was the first to emphasize this life philosophy. “LIVE LIVE LIVE, life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” But Angela would repeat that same philosophy over and over and then go on to live it. She has proven that life is a banquet if we choose to see that way. She has proven that at any age you can meet any challenge and still come out the victor. She has proven that every day is a gift and to squander that gift is perhaps the greatest of sins.
I’m grateful for the talent of Angela Lansbury and I hope you are too. I hope that her films and recordings will fill you with the same joy they fill me with. And though in her 90s I hope that we will still see her grace our screens large and small.