Monday, May 10, 2010

Glynis Johns: “We've got to remember to grab onto our perks”

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.
Displaying a natural, not to say precocious talent for performing at an early age, she was appearing on the London stage by the mid-thirties (notably as the malicious school pupil in The Children’s Hour), was a leading ballerina at twelve (incredibly, she qualified as a ballet instructor at the age of ten!) and a hit as Peter Pan at nineteen. She burst on to the movie screen with a scene-stealing supporting role in South Riding (1938).
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:
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 and on and on at the university. But you can't do everything in life.
Yet she found film work inexplicably hard to come by for a few years after her auspicious debut, even resorting to the considerable comedown of accepting unbilled work, such as a walk-on in Korda's Thief of Bagdad (1940). Notwithstanding her successes in the theatre and expertise at ballet, she went so far as to attend a night school to learn shorthand typing, but luckily, after her first day on the course she received the offer to appear in Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) when the actress originally cast dropped out. The film was a success and her career was back on course.
The 1944 Ealing film Halfway House was one of those lucky otherworldly roles that didn't oblige her to hide her true identity. It was also notable in casting her and Mervyn as onscreen daughter and father, owners of a remote country inn in wartime Wales, visited by a group of travellers with a variety of secrets and troubles. One is a black marketeer profiting from the war, another, travelling with his young daughter, plans to divorce his wife, while another couple have recently lost their son and their relationship is crumbling under the weight of the loss. Slowly, the guests become aware of a strange atmosphere in the house, and begin to notice inexplicable things about it, such as the fact that all the newspapers are a year old, as are the broadcasts on the radio: the revelation, of course, is that the inn had been destroyed by a Nazi bomb exactly one year earlier, and Glynis and her father had been killed; but their wise counsel allows the travellers to leave with a brighter future.
If you only see her once, see Miranda (1948).
A mischievous Cornish mermaid causing confusion and consternation in London after a vacationing society doctor on a fishing trip visits her cave and decides to show her the sights of a big city, she tortures men and destroys their relationships with a blithe, faux-naive sexiness, a demoniac force of which she is neither innocently oblivious nor maliciously in control.
Miranda Has Everything, claims the poster, and yes, Miranda has everything.
For Britain, it was a rare excursion into fantasy comedy, with something of the flavour of Hollywood films like René Clair's I Married A Witch (1942) or the Topper series (1937-41).
Clair had made The Ghost Goes West in Britain in 1935, but it was the Second World War, which made confronting the reality of death a daily necessity, that is generally credited with increasing popular interest in otherworldly subjects. Much of Michael Powell's wartime work reflects this shift; Lean's Blithe Spirit (1945) certainly does, and so, of course, did Halfway House. Miranda, then, is a post-war experiment: a comedy of manners with an outright fantasy premise.
. As well as surprisingly frank sexually - she's a mermaid so the rules needn't apply - the film is full of delightfully bizarre ideas and images: we see Johns gorging on a street-vendor's entire stock of cockles, and there's a great scene in which she catches a fish in her mouth during feeding time at the zoo. Then of course there's that tail - is it an impediment to the wild desire she causes or is it somehow a part of the attraction? It's certainly convincing, specially designed for the film by Dunlop. “I was quite an athlete, my muscles were strong from dancing, so the tail was just fine,” Glynis later recalled; “I swam like a porpoise.”
There was a sequel -Mad About Men - in 1954, benefiting from attractive Technicolor photography, seen to best effect in some eerily lit undersea cave sequences. But it was generally less well received - of the original cast, only Johns and Margaret Rutherford returned - and the original's light touch is mainly absent. (Rutherford, as Miranda's devoted nurse in both movies, is another who is thoroughly at home in this parallel world: "I could see no reason why mermaids should not exist," she states happily in her memoirs.)
She was seen to good advantage alongside Danny Kaye and Angela Lansbury in The Court Jester (1954), and for a while she attempted to maintain her British and American careers simultaneously. Though she once said, “I would sooner play in a good British picture than in the majority of American pictures I have seen,” by the mid-fifties she had relocated fully to the States. She tried television (her own starring sitcom Glynis proved short-lived in 1963) and at the movies secured an Oscar nomination for The Sundowners (1960). Then there was Mary Poppins, the wallpaper of every child's cinematic bedroom.

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.”