When October began, my plan was to fill the month with the history of spooky Disney songs. Then Dame Angela Lansbury died on October 11, and things changed. Next week, we’ll get back into the seasonal posts, but this week I wanted to spend a little time paying tribute to one of the true icons of stage and screen.
I have indistinct memories of encountering Lansbury as the indefatigable Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote as a child in the 80s, but I didn’t truly come to appreciate the genius and charm of the show until I was an adult. Instead, like most people my age, I first fell in love with her work in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. She provided the voice of Mrs. Potts, a resident of Beast’s castle who performed the show-stopping titular song.
Tale as Old as Time
As Kevin Fallon noted in his tribute in The Daily Beast, “To the child version of me, she was warmth personified. Her mumsy tenderness exuded from this singing, talking teapot, like the steam from a drink the character herself might pour. She created a Mrs. Potts that was on our level and familiar, but Lansbury brought with that an awe-inducing gravitas. She reassures Belle. She dotes on Chip. She calms the Beast. But make no mistake about the regality she’s earned: When Mrs. Potts starts singing the first bars to “Beauty and the Beast,” it was clear that she was ushering in something important.”
There are so many little moments in her performance that became unforgettable. Her delivery of the line, “Goodness sakes is that a spot?” in Be Our Guest is hilarious. Then there is the end of Something There when she patiently says to Chip, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” It’s so gentle and maternal that you can’t help but feel like everything is going to be okay.
In hindsight, there’s something especially poignant about this, given that the lyrics to the songs were written by Howard Ashman in the final days before his death. Lansbury took his beautiful words and brought them to life, and without her performance it seems unlikely that the film would have made the history it did, becoming the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture.
Lansbury performed Beauty and the Beast at the Academy Awards, alongside Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson. As producer Don Hahn remembered, “We tried to guide voters to the title song. Celine Dion, who was unknown at the time, was drafted out of Canada to sing the song because we couldn’t afford a big singer. Actually, we were worried about her singing it alone, so we paired her with Peabo Bryson, who was a bigger star at the time. So that song was put front and center in the run-up to the awards, and that’s the one that won.”
With due respect to both Dion and Bryson, Lansbury’s voice and Ashman’s lyrics were all that the song needed, and it went on to win the award. It was a stunning accomplishment, which owed no small debt to the love that Lansbury had for her family. As noted by ClassicFM, Lansbury “considered her role in the Disney film, as a gift to her three grandchildren.”
Eglantine, Eglantine Oh How You’ll Shine…
Beauty and the Beast was not Lansbury’s first performance in a Disney film. That came in the form of Miss Eglantine Price in the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
To be honest, I didn’t see this movie until college, when my then-girlfriend (and now wife) showed it to me. We watched a VHS copy in her bedroom, and I fell instantly in love with it.
It is, without question, a strange film. Olivia Truffaut-Wong summed it up perfectly in her tribute to Lansbury when she wrote, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks is full of horrifying problems solved by silly solutions. Three orphans have to leave London to escape the war, but they’re taken in by a woman who takes witch classes by correspondence. They magically travel to the cartoon Isle of Naboombu only to find themselves lost underwater in the lagoon, but the fish there dress in three-piece suits and go clubbing, so it’s really not so bad. And the Nazis try to invade England but are beaten back by an apprentice witch on a broomstick and an invisible army of animated armor. To recap: In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Lansbury plays a single, childless, singing-and-dancing, Nazi-fighting witch.”
While it never attained the widespread adoration and critical acclaim of Mary Poppins, it remains a delightful bit of whimsy with brilliant animation and endlessly singable songs written by the Sherman Brothers.
In 1969, Lansbury wrote a note to producer Bill Wash to describe her excitement about the prospect of being in the film, stating, “I think the script has so many marvelous facets, character, humor, heart and an opportunity for rare inventiveness in so many areas . . . . And the songs Dick and Bob have written for Eglantine are charming and just what was needed. So, all things being equal, do hope I’m ‘Your Girl’.”
It was a role that carried special emotional significance to Lansbury, who left London as a teenager to escape Nazi bombing. She later recalled, “Like Miss Price, I was in England when World War II broke out. My mother gave me a choice of being evacuated from London to a boarding school in the country or studying acting at home. I chose the latter without hesitation.”
In another of the many tributes written after her death, David Sims cited her performance in Bedknobs and Broomsticks as the definitive example of her genius for acting and charm as a performer. He wrote, “Released to mixed reviews, it was at best a modest success, but I watched it constantly on VHS as a child. Lansbury might’ve been one of the first actors I could immediately recognize. On rewatch, it’s certainly a strange hodgepodge of a children’s film, but it succeeds on the back of Lansbury’s unique charm: She’s steely but somehow warm, playing an oddball who’s nonetheless instantly lovable…part of what made Lansbury such an exquisite performer was her commitment to utter silliness…Eglantine Price is a surprisingly complex character for a kids’ film laden with special effects and animated sequences: She’s frosty and resistant to intimacy, but not written off as a sad spinster or a dotty loner. Lansbury makes her both funny and sympathetic, giving a fantastical, high-energy movie some needed emotional grounding.”
Life’s a Balloon
If I were to pick a single Lansbury performance that holds the greatest emotional resonance to me, it would have to be her brief cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. She appears in the film’s closing moments, portraying the Balloon Lady, who sells balloons in the park.
Speaking of the role, Lansbury said, “There’s a lot more to Balloon Lady than just selling balloons. She’s a sort of a magical character and I think she knows what’s gone on and when she sends people up with a balloon she knows where they’re going, if they should go up or if they shouldn’t. So in that respect there’s something a little bit mysterious and interesting about her and that’s an appeal to me. A mystery is my business as you know.”
It’s impossible to watch without feeling emotional. When she tells the character of Michael Banks that he’s forgotten what it feels like to be a child, you get the sense that it is something that Lansbury never lost and that regaining it is as simple as reaching out and taking a balloon.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting swan song to her Disney career, and one that seems to encapsulate the warmth, grace, and charm that defined her entire career. As we all remember Dame Angela Lansbury, I’ll leave you with a few lines from the Mary Poppins Returns song Nowhere To Go But Up:
Life’s a balloon
That tumbles or rises
Depending on what is inside
Fill it with hope
And playful surprises
And oh, deary ducks
Then you’re in for a ride
Look inside the balloon
And if you hear a tune
There’s nowhere to go but up
Choose the secret we know
Before life makes us grow
There’s nowhere to go but up
If your selection feels right
Well then deary, hold tight
If you see your reflection
Your heart will take flight
If you pick the right string
Then your heart will take wing
And there’s nowhere to go but up…