She played Liz Taylor's older sister in National Velvet, Hurd Hatfield's girl friend in Picture of Dorian Gray, Charles Boyer's maid in Gaslight, the wayward Queen in The Three Musketeers, the Other Woman in State of the Union, Elvis Presley's mother in Blue Hawaii, Warren Beatty's mother in All Fall Down, and Laurence Harvey's mother in Manchurian Candidate.
With a record like that, Angela Lansbury surely must have been heading for a truly climactic Hollywood rolemaybe as Bette Davis' grandmother in Son of Elizabeth and Essex. Certainly no sane Broadway producer could have thought of her as a high-stepping, pratfalling, ageless kook of an Auntie Mame who believes that "life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death." But that is just what she's doing. She is playing the title role in Mame, the musical-comedy version of Patrick Dennis' novel-play-movie. Mame is Broadway's top musical hit of the season, and 40-year-old Angela Lansbury, the woman all moviegoers remember as a worn, plump old harridan with a snake pit for a mouth, is the liveliest dame to kick up her heels since Carol Channing opened in Hello, Dolly! three years ago.
One of These Days. What fooled producers about Lansbury all these years was that old bugaboo, typecasting. She actually had the goods all the time. In 1940, she was a blooming bundle from Britain, packed away from the blitz with her actress mother and sent to study drama in New York. She was, she says, "16, going on 95" when she got her first jobas a nightclub singer and impressionist in Canada. "I did Bea Lillie, Gracie Fields and a Wagnerian opera singer," she recalls. "I wasn't awfully good." True, but her nightclub spot earned enough money to pay her passage to Hollywood, and it was there, at 17, that she got her first movie role, and there that casting directors decided that Angela Lansbury was the girl to play everybody's old lady.
All told, she made more than 60 movies, was nominated for an Oscar three times (and three times missed). And all the while, the typecasting was burning her up. "People are always telling me that I must be 50 if I'm a day," she complained last year. "I must stop playing bitches on wheelsand people's mothers. One of these days I'd like to get my hands on a part in which I can hit many chords." She did at last, with Mame, but only after the producers wrote off a pack of other candidates Mary Martin, Patrice Munsel, Jane Morgan, Tammy Grimes, Ann Sothern.