Sunday, January 12, 2014

Friday Dance Party: There Is Nothing Like A Dame, She Wrote

This week's star appeared a long while ago in these pages, singing with her bosom buddy Bea Arthur.  Here's a peek at an earlier musical appearance.
All hail Angela Lansbury!  She's certainly considered a national treasure, so much so that it was a bit of a surprise when it was announced that she was to receive the DBE in the new year.  As a Commander of the British Empire, she can now be addressed as Dame;  because of her 7 or so decades of work in the United States, some of her fans forgot she was a Brit.
This is not Angela Lansbury, nor is she Lansbury's most famous character, Jessica Fletcher, but she might have been.  Once she completed her years with All In The Family, television producers were anxious to get beloved Jean Stapleton back on the tube.  She was offered Murder, She Wrote, and turned it down, thinking it was dreck.
Our newest Dame had some early success in Hollywood, snagging juicy roles in two MGM films back to back.  Both Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray are better known today than when they were first released back in the early 40s, but Angela earned Oscar nominations for both pictures. 
This is not Angela Lansbury, but she deserves a mention.
She is Penelope Keith, who has maintained a substantial
career in Britain, and is known in the US as the star of
several Britcoms presented on PBS.  She is a particular
favorite of mine, and she was Damed along with Angela.

The majority of her film career, at the time, though, was comprised of small supporting roles which annoyed the heck out of our gal.  The Three Musketeers and National Velvet are among her films of the period, but the rest of her performances during the 40s were in movies we don't remember today.  Though throughout her career she made a relative buttload of theatrical films, we remember only a handful, including another Oscar nominated turn as the politically manipulative Mother From Hell in The Manchurian Candidate.
The Manchurian Candidate was a political thriller with psychological overtones set in the paranoid period of the Cold War.  Lansbury's rigid poise lent her an air of maturity which allowed her to convincingly play Lawrence Harvey's mother, though she was only 3 years older.  The film's star was Frank Sinatra, who did not want Angela in the part.  He lobbied heavily for the role to go to (are you ready?) Lucille Ball.  Director John Frankenheimer shot down that idea, but 12 years later, the tables turned, and our dame lost her most loved role, Mame Dennis, to Lucy.  It was not a fair trade.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks earned the
Oscar for Special Effects, but did not
measure up to Mary Poppins.
There is a generation of kids who first came across Angela Lansbury in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a 1971 musical which is often unfavorably compared to Mary Poppins. There was a mix of animation and live action, and the score was once again provided by the Sherman Brothers. 

Forget Disney, my favorite Angie film is the barely remembered
Peter Sellers item, The World of Henry Orient, in which he
played a philandering concert pianist stalked by two teenaged
girls.  Lansbury played the mother of one of the girls. Rent it if
you can: Paula Prentiss is a scream.
Mame, Mrs. Lovett, Jessica
Fletcher, and a teapot. She's a
Dame with Range.

Disney and Lansbury had much, much better luck together with Beauty and the Beast, the animated blockbuster which became the first cartoon to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.  Our gal introduced the title song, which won the Oscar and became an international bestseller.
Murder, She Wrote turned our dame into an international celebrity.  It was a family-friendly whodunit and a mainstay on the powerful CBS Sunday night lineup.  Lansbury was nominated for the Emmy all 12 years of the show's run, and lost every year (she is in the record books for this stat).
This week's Dance Party comes from one of those forgettable films of Angela's early career, and though she is singing and dancing in this one, her musical talents had been forgotten by the early 60s. 
Stephen Sondheim's most prestigious
failure remains 1964's Anyone Can Whistle,
in which Angie played a corrupt mayor.

It was a surprise to everybody that she could handle the leading role in a Broadway musical;  unfortunately, her first foray into theatrical musical comedy was in the notorious flop Anyone Can Whistle
Angela was a smash as Mame; sadly, only grainy
clips of her performance remain. But on her 84th
birthday, she appeared in this Dance Party,
filmed while she was packing houses on Bway;
it gives a good indication of what her
Mame must have been like.

Lansbury emerged from that debacle unscathed;  when she turned in a stellar performance in Mame, she cemented her reputation as a musical star.  Back to back Tonys, for Mame and Dear World, followed.  She was to win two more Tonys for musical roles, and I was privileged to see her in both.

When I was 17, a group from my high school in Atlanta spent three weeks touring Europe, devoting the first full week to seeing London's sights. 
Other than Roz Russell in the film, this
was the first time I ever saw Mama

That included a trip to Stratford to see some Shakespeare.  We saw As You Like It, set in a forest made of chiffon, and Timon of Athens, set among a motorcycle gang.  Things were a little more palatable in the West End, where we caught Angela Lansbury taking Rose's Turn in Gypsy.  Our dame had to be persuaded to take on that iconic part, which was still regarded as the exclusive property of Ethel Merman.  Producers attempted to present the show in London for almost 15 years before Lansbury took the role. And re-energized it. 
My high school trip to Europe was not
strictly a Theatre Jaunt, though we saw
Shakespeare at Stratford and Gypsy in
London. After the Follies Bergere in
Paris, we hit Athens and Rome. This
is me.  At the Acropolis.

I remember her performance vividly, and after seeing it, could not imagine that battle ax Merman in the part.  After an American tour, Angela took the production to Broadway and won her third Tony.

I was also privileged to see the performance which many believe to be Lansbury's finest stage work, as that villainous Kewpie doll who baked people into pies, Mrs. Lovett, in Sondheim's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd
Lansbury was the undisputed comic relief in the gruesome
grand guignol tale of Sweeney Todd. Who knew "popping
pussies into pies" could be so funny?

After playing the show in New York for a while, Angela left the production in the hands of Dorothy Loudon, and opened a touring production in Los Angeles.  It was there that the show was videotaped, over a period of three days.  I was present in the audience one of those days, and was again bowled over by our dame's work.
Flanked by Charles Durning and Michael Jeter, Angela was pegged to play Mrs. Santa Claus in Jerry Herman's attempt to create a Christmas perennial cash cow.  Our dame had won two Tonys singing Herman's songs, so in 1996, he wrote this TV movie for her, in hopes that it would be run every year.  Nobody's seen it since.
Lansbury has continued her stage work as she has aged.  She was well-received in a recent revival of A Little Night Music, playing a role created decades earlier by Hermione Gingold, and a year later, she spent some time in a starry revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man.
Lansbury won her only non-musical Tony for this performance as the psychic Madam Arcati in Coward's Blithe Spirit.  The award ties her with Julie Harris as Broadway's top Tony winning actress (Audra McDonald has since joined that group as well).  Angela is scheduled to reprise this performance in London this year;  it will be her first stage performance in London since I saw her there in Gypsy 40 years ago.
In the past year, Lansbury has toured Australia in Driving Miss Daisy, opposite James Earl Jones.  The old gal certainly isn't slowing down.

This week's clip is from Till Clouds Roll By, a fictionalized biography of Jerome Kern.  The film includes several big production numbers by stars in cameo, including Lansbury;  this number comprises her entire performance in the movie.  But it does include some dancing, a rarity on the Dance Party these days.  Let's go spooning with Dame Angela Lansbury.