With little prompting, I could wax enthusiastic about Glynis Johns (b. 1923) to an unseemly degree. In her youth she was often cast as a sexpot; in middle-age there remained more than a hint of a libidinous nature despite the fact that she was frequently cast in family films, incentive enough for dad to take the kids to the movies. Her breathy voice and delicate manner give her an innocent quality seeingly at odds with worldly wisdom, which makes for an intriguing screen presence. I write about her in the present tense because she is still with us at this writing, approaching the century mark.
Johns is a second generation thespian. Her father, Mervyn Johns (1899-1992), a Welshman, was in such films as Jamaica Inn (1939), Dead of Night (1945), Scrooge (1951, as Bob Cratchit), The Master of Ballantrae (1953), Moby Dick (1956), The Devil’s Disciple (1959), Day of the Triffids (1963), and the 1963 remake of The Old Dark House. Father and daughter appeared together in numerous films including: The Halfway House (1944), Helter Skelter (1949), The Magic Box (1951), and The Sundowners (1960).
Glynis was born in Pretoria, South Africa while her parents were on tour. She began appearing on stage and screen in the mid ’30s while she was in her tweens. Peter Pan (1943) was one of her first starring stage roles, making her one of a long list of females who have played that coveted stage role. In 1947 she was in a screen adaptation of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
Miranda (1948) was the turning point in her career. She played the title character, a gorgeous mermaid, in a cast that also included Googie Withers and Margaret Rutherford. She also starred in the 1954 sequel Mad About Men. The Weak and the Wicked (1954) paired her with Diana Dors. Josephine and Men (1955), The Chapman Report (1962), Don’t Just Stand There (1968), and Lock Up Your Daughters! (1969) were other films that explored her sexual image.
But Johns had other arrows in her quiver and she played many types of roles over the decades. Her films of horror and mystery included The Spider’s Web (1960), The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), The Vault of Horror (1973) and Three Dangerous Ladies (1977). There were Medieval costume pieces like The Sword and the Rose (1953), Roby Roy, the Highland Rogue (1953), and Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester (1956). There was a brief “nostalgia” phase, when she appeared on the tv show The Roaring ’20s (1961) and in the films Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963, with Jackie Gleason, based on Corinne Griffith’s memoir) and Mary Poppins (1964, handily her best known role). In 1965 she co-starred in Dear Bridgette with Jimmy Stewart, whom she had first acted with 14 years earlier in No Highway in the Sky (1951). Another interesting film was a 1972’s adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, et al. It must have been a labor of love for Johns and Burton, both of whom were Welsh.
Johns’ first starring Broadway vehicle, Gertie (1952) played only three days. She had much better luck starring in revivals of two Shaw plays, Major Barbara (1956-57) and Too True to be Good (1963) and the most luck of all staring in the original production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1973-74), for which she won a Tony. She returned to Broadway in 1989 for a successful run in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Circle.
In 1963, Johns had her own sitcom Glynis, which lasted for a single season on CBS. She guest-starred on no fewer episodes of Batman, playing a villainess named Penelope Peasoup. Another interesting tv project was the made-for-tv Gloria Vanderbilt bio pic Little Gloria…Happy at Last (1982), which cast her in the company of Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer, Bette Davis, Barnard Hughes, Maureen Stapleton, Martin Balsam, John Hillerman, and Michael Gross. In the ’80s you could see her on such shows as Cheers, The Love Boat, and Murder She Wrote. She was also cast as a regular on a show about a retirement community called Coming of Age (1989-1990) which also featured Paul Dooley and Alan Young.
Johns’ played funny grannies in her last three screen roles: The Ref (1994) with Dennis Leary, Judy Davis, and Kevin Spacey; While You Were Sleeping (1995) with Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Peter Gallagher, Peter Boyle and Jack Warden; and Superstar (1999) with Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell.
At this writing, Glynis Johns is the oldest living Oscar nominee (for The Sundowners, 1960).
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