Glynis Johns: 10 essential films

On her 100th birthday, we raise a toast to one of the last surviving stars of classic British and Hollywood cinema – British actor Glynis Johns.

5 October 2023

By David Parkinson

Mary Poppins (1964)

Happy 100th birthday to Glynis Johns, the oldest living Academy Award nominee. Born in South Africa, where her showbiz parents were touring, she started dancing at five and had appeared in several plays before making her screen debut in the Yorkshire drama South Riding (1938) at 14. Another 90 credits would follow, although at one point she enrolled at a secretarial school when the roles dried up.

She teamed three times with Robert Donat and twice with James Stewart, as her husky voice, expressive eyes and assured sense of style came to embody postwar British womanhood opposite stars like Dirk Bogarde, Alec Guinness, David Niven and Sean Connery.

Mostly seen in dramas and comedies, Johns had a quirky approach to picking projects that saw her feature in two horror anthologies, guest as Lady Penelope Peasoup in three episodes of the 1960s TV series Batman, and play a nun in Nukie (1987), the much-derided E.T. knock-off that made headlines at the start of 2023 when the last video copy sold on eBay for $80,600.

Oh, and she also won a Tony for A Little Night Music (1973), for which Stephen Sondheim wrote ‘Send in the Clowns’ specially for her. Many happy returns!

49th Parallel (1941)

Director: Michael Powell

49th Parallel (1941)

Glynis Johns was not originally cast in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s propaganda thriller about a U-boat crew crossing Canada to claim asylum in the neutral United States. However, when Austrian-British star Elisabeth Bergner quit the arduous production after an altercation while shooting in the Hutterite settlement, Powell cast the 17 year-old Johns, who had appeared briefly in his 1940 fantasy The Thief of Bagdad (co-directed by Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan). Bergner can still be seen in the location long shots, but Johns was so effective as Anna, the teenager who takes pity on reluctant Nazi Vogel (Niall MacGinnis), that she was named best actress by the National Board of Review.

The Halfway House (1944)

Director: Basil Dearden

The Halfway House (1944)

Mervyn and Glynis Johns acted together on film for the first time in Basil Dearden’s poignant adaptation of a Denis Ogden play called The Peaceful Inn, to which screenwriters Angus MacPhail and Diana Morgan deftly added details of the Luftwaffe bombing of a hostelry near the Welsh village of Cwmbach. Anticipating the ensemble ethos for which Ealing Studios would become renowned, the action centres on the problems of the guests. But father and daughter prove a reassuring presence, with the softly spoken Gwyneth offering solace to a young girl with bickering parents (Sally Ann Howes) and a terminally ill classical conductor (Esmond Knight).

Miranda (1948)

Director: Ken Annakin

Miranda (1948)

The first of the four films Johns would make with director Ken Annakin was inspired by a play by Peter Blackmore. Sporting a tail made by Dunlop, she is effortlessly playful and capricious as Miranda Trewella, the Cornish mermaid who dupes Dr Paul Martin (Griffith Jones) into taking her to London in the guise of a wheelchair using patient. Wide-eyedly coquettish, Miranda seduces a manservant and an artist with the compliance of the enchanted Nurse Carey (Margaret Rutherford). Consistently amusing in her reaction to everyday occurrences and hilarious while catching fish at the zoo, Johns reprised the role in Helter Skelter (1949) and Mad About Men (1954).

The Weak and the Wicked (1954)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

The Weak and the Wicked (1954)

Falling between the widow who empathises with a German war bride in Frieda (1947) and the femme fatale in Third Time Lucky (1949), Jean Raymond may be in jail, but she’s more a victim of her own folly than a criminal. Joan Henry, whose autobiographical bestseller Who Lie in Gaol inspired this often hard-hitting drama, considered Johns too “goody-goody” compared with co-star Diana Dors, who had recently been convicted of stealing alcohol. But the upper-crust Jean learns about the grimmer realities during her stay in Blackdown, while Johns would also get entangled with gambling in the ‘Gigolo and Gigolette’ episode of Encore (1951) and in Loser Takes All (1956).

The Court Jester (1955)

Directors: Melvin Frank and Norman Panama

The Court Jester (1955)

In days of old, women didn’t get to play Hollywood action leads. But Johns swashes her buckler to excellent effect as Maid Jean, a dark-tressed captain in the Black Fox’s rebel band that seeks to remove the usurpative King Roderick (Cecil Parker) from the English throne. Her accomplice is Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye), a minstrel who convinces treacherous courtier Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) that he’s an assassinative jester. Engaging in daredevil combat sequences, seductive schemes and romantic clenches, as well as the tongue-twisting “vessel with the pestle” routine (with Kaye and Mildred Natwick), Johns not only holds her own with her scene-stealing co-star, she also comes close to upstaging him.

The Spider’s Web (1960)

Director: Godfrey Grayson

The Spider's Web (1960)

Among Agatha Christie’s plays, only The Mousetrap ran longer than this country house caper, which sometimes feels more like a farce than a whodunit. Originally tailored for Margaret Lockwood and later played on television by Penelope Keith, Clarissa Hailsham-Brown is the second wife of a diplomat whose tweenage daughter thinks she’s killed her mother’s odious new husband with a voodoo spell. As Clarissa also has a vivid imagination, Johns plays her as a beguiling mix of scatty and resourceful, as she strives to conceal the corpse with the aid of guardian Jack Hulbert and gardener Cicely Courtneidge, with whom she had co-starred in Under Your Hat (1940).

The Sundowners (1960)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

The Sundowners (1960)

Johns earned her Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of a 1951 Jon Cleary novel about a family living in the Australian outback in the 1920s. With the focus falling on the droving or domesticity tensions between sheepman Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum) and his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr), this can feel rather genteel for a ‘meat pie’ western. But Johns combines outback spirit with emancipated refinement as Mrs Firth, the car-owning Cawndilla publican, who not only gets drunk occasionally to encourage the customers but also invites English wool roller Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov) to share her bed. Curiously, among the other men Firth keeps dangling is the town mayor, who is played by Mervyn Johns.

The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

Director: Roger Kay

The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

Sex was clearly in the air in 1962. In addition to playing a bored housewife who tries to seduce a strapping college footballer in The Chapman Report, Johns also found herself fending off questions about her love life when stranded tourist Jane Lindstrom becomes the enforced guest of Dr Caligari (Dan O’Herlihy). Roger Kay’s reworking of the 1920 German expressionist masterpiece was scripted by Robert Bloch, who had recently written Psycho (1960) for Alfred Hitchcock. There are thematic and stylistic areas of overlap, as the increasingly overwrought Jane seeks ways of escape before coming to understand her nightmare in a twist ending. No classic, but Johns is compelling.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Mary Poppins (1964)

Despite the Disney period pictures The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (both 1953), Johns mostly portrayed thoroughly modern women. She squeezed that persona into Edwardian corsets in Disney’s much-loved adaptation of P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories, as Winifred Banks is not only the wife of a banker and mother of two but she is also active in Emmeline Pankhurst’s ‘Votes for Women’ campaign. Indeed, she gets the musical underway with ‘Sister Suffragette’, which the Sherman brothers wrote for her. She also amuses, clasping valuables rocked by neighbour Admiral Boom’s gun. Yet the well-meaning Winifred slips into the background and never actually speaks to Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews).

The Ref (1994)

Director: Ted Demme

The Ref (1994)

Johns played grandmothers in this pitch-black house invasion comedy, as well as in While You Were Sleeping (1995) and Superstar (1999). Plenty happens before Rose Chasseur arrives for Christmas dinner with son Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Caroline (Judy Davis), who have been taken hostage by fleeing cat burglar Gus (Denis Leary). A mean, manipulative matriarch who bankrolls Lloyd’s antique shop while charging interest on a previous loan, Rose doesn’t believe that Gus is a marriage counsellor and spits out her suspicions with impeccably timed venom while wearing a St Lucia crown of flaming candles. Clearly, Johns relished sending a lifetime of screen sweetness up in smoke.

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