There's something a bit alien, ever so slightly absurd, about Glynis Johns in British movies: it's why she's always best in slightly absurd roles.
Where could she possibly have come from? In all her best films she seems to have landed rather than arrived. An accomplished dancer, pianist and singer as well as actress, her brief contribution to the British cinema of the forties and fifties is a small part of a career that also takes in Hollywood, Broadway and TV. But it is, I think, where her claims to indelibility rest.
Remember her as Mabel Chiltern, the sweet heroine of Korda's very nice adaptation of An Ideal Husband?
Supposedly she's the film's core of youthful innocence around which Paulette Goddard's duplicitous Mrs Cheveley pirouettes, but the camera simply will not and cannot co-operate with the narrative's insistence that she is not the most fascinating thing to be seen.
Fascination was hers to command, with her huge eyes, flirtatious manner and uniquely melodic, purring voice, but the price of her mesmerism was the persistent difficulty of finding worthwhile things for her to do.
Her performances are always events: she cannot blend into the curtains; has to be the centre of attention - and British cinema in the forties was a pretty prosaic place. The audience knows immediately she's too exotic for her surroundings: if the film tries not to acknowledge there's a martian in its midst then it has a massive job of work to do; just come clean and cast her as a mermaid, that seems to be the lesson.
But how many stories are there for pretty ghosts, or coquettish mermaids? At least they knew to give her the ones that did come by. Who else in Britain in the forties could have played Miranda?
But if she didn't act like your average British actress and she didn't look like your average British actress, that's nothing compared to how little she sounded like your average British actress. When I nominated that amazing voice as my all-time favourite in Kate and Millie's recent survey a number of readers expressed agreement. It's a hard thing to forget.
Part of its secret is the delicate undercurrent of Welsh: Glynis was the daughter of the excellent Welsh actor Mervyn Johns (ill-fated Walter Craig in Dead of Night, the cheerfully murderous Grimshaw in My Learned Friend, Bob Cratchit to Sim's Scrooge and the church warden who tells us the events of Went the Day Well?) However, she was actually born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1923, where her father and mother, pianist Alys Maude Steele-Payne, were touring.
Not that her career had been entirely her own decision. Later in life, she looked back at her parents’ influence on her early choices with mixed memories:
Once in a while she still found a part that allowed her to be the biggest thing in the room, or was put in a scenario that made sufficient room for her, but it was rarely when everyone was watching. The price of a free hand seemed increasingly to be a low budget. She led in Robert Bloch's bizarre, name-only revival of The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), too rarely seen; in Vault of Horror (1973) she's Terry-Thomas's wife, so harassed by his pernickety, everything-in-its-place fastidiousness that she snaps, bludgeons him with a hammer, dismembers him, and stores the resultant parts in neatly arranged and labelled jars. A little domestic sitcom. In Under Milk Wood (1971) she's a nice idea, and only the fact of her participation is required.
Her greatest successes in America were to be found on the stage. She was the original Desiree in A Little Night Music: Sondheim wrote ‘Send In The Clowns’ during rehearsals to suit her voice and delivery. This was Glynis the warhorse: she fell ill during the previews and was expected to pull out of its New York run; instead she won the Tony Award for Best Lead in a Musical. As late as 1991 she was playing Desiree’s mother in a Broadway revival, and still in movies too: she's sweet and noticeable in the Sandra Bullock comedy While You Were Sleeping (1995).
She'll be eighty-seven this year; she seems to have retired, though I'll bet not officially. Around the time of her last few movies, she told an interviewer:
“In classical theatre in Europe, everybody plays all kinds of parts. Juliets go on to play the Nurses; they don't want to play Juliet again. I think we've got to remember to grab onto our perks, whatever is the good thing about each age. Each stage of life should be a progression.”