Broadway audiences know and love Angela Lansbury especially for her turns as Mame (in the 1966 musical of that title) and that meatpie entrepreneur Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. The more knowledgeable date Lansbury's prominence to her appearance as the iron-willed Mayoress in Stephen Sondheim's earlier musical Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted merely an instant — nine performances, if you will — in the spring of 1964, while the crowds flocked to see Carol Channing's Dolly across the street.
But this was not Lansbury's first Broadway spotlight. The lady — whose career started at 19 in Hollywood with back-to-back Oscar nominations for "Gaslight" (1944) and "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945) — attracted attention as foil to Bert Lahr in the 1957 farce "Hotel Paradiso." More to the point was her searing portrayal of an alcoholic mother in the 1960 Broadway production of Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey." Lansbury did not get to recreate her role on film, alas, so this performance seems to have disappeared into the ether.
However, John Frankenheimer — a TV director who had just made a splash with his 1961 feature "The Young Savages" — seems to have taken notice. He immediately cast Lansbury in his upcoming film, "All Fall Down." (This 1962 family drama, with a screenplay by William Inge, starred Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint and Karl Malden.) Next up was the thriller "The Manchurian Candidate." Top-billed star Frank Sinatra apparently wanted Lucille Ball to play the key role of the villainess, but Frankenheimer knew what Lansbury was capable of. As the mother of brainwashed assassin Laurence Harvey — who at 34 was only two years younger than Angela — Ms. Lansbury gives what must be one of the most chillingly evil performances in the history of the American cinema. From our dear Angela!
Ms. Lansbury's performance demonstrates yet another facet of her talent, and would be reason enough to watch "The Manchurian Candidate." But there are many other reasons as well; I needn't enumerate them, or describe their effect. If you haven't seen this film, I daresay you should; if you have seen it, it's probably time for another look. Jonathan Demme filmed an updated remake in 2004, with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep, no less; but I say, accept no substitutes. This discussion is brought on by the recent release of the John Frankenheimer Collection [MGM/Fox]. Given the director's extensive resumé — including titles like "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Seven Days in May" — the films chosen to accompany "The Manchurian Candidate" make a rather unlikely quartet. They are "The Young Savages" (1961, starring Burt Lancaster); "The Train" (1964, starring Lancaster); and "Ronin" (1998, starring Robert DeNiro).
If it's one of those big-screen '50s tearjerkers you're looking for, you can hardly do better than An Affair to Remember [20th Century Fox]. This is the one where boy meets girl on shipboard, they "fall in love" — in capital letters — and vow to meet six months later on the observation platform of the Empire State Building. The boy in this case was Cary Grant (at 53!) while the girl was Deborah Kerr (a mere lass of 36). The title song, with music by Harry Warren to lyrics by Harold Adamson and Leo McCarey, rode the airwaves, and the film set audiences weeping across the nation.
This was a remake, in actuality; I myself have always preferred the original 1939 version, "Love Affair," which starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. But "An Affair to Remember" holds its place in the Hollywood echelon, and was given new life when Nora Ephron incorporated clips and the theme song into "Sleepless in Seattle."
Perhaps the most surprising thing one finds here is in the billing, with director Leo McCarey credited in type double the size of Grant and Kerr. (The official title of the film seems to be "Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember" — a testament, I suppose, to how much the 1957 producers wanted the remake rights!) McCarey is pretty much forgotten today, but he was at one time a major presence; take the 1944 Bing Crosby vehicle "Going My Way," which he produced, directed and wrote, and which was the first film (and one of not very many) to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. McCarey, back in 1926, was responsible for pairing two small-time comedians into the team of Laurel & Hardy. He won his first Oscar for directing the 1937 Cary Grant/Irene Dunne classic "The Awful Truth." McCarey's best film, perhaps, is the 1933 Marxian-fest "Duck Soup." He directed the original "Love Affair" in 1939, and pretty much reused the screenplay — although with contemporary locations — for "An Affair to Remember." A 1994 remake — also called "Love Affair," starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening — was the weakest of the three.
Katharine Hepburn played the hero's grandmother in the Beatty remake. This role had been played in 1957 by Cathleen Nesbitt, just finished with her Broadway stint as Henry Higgins' mother in the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. Marni Nixon — who sang for Ms. Kerr in the 1956 film version of The King and I —also sang for Kerr in "An Affair to Remember," and is featured on the audio commentary accompanying the two-disc 50th anniversary edition release (which also includes a bunch of featurettes and an AMC feature on the film). Ms. Nixon is just now touring the states in Ms. Nesbitt's role of Mrs. (or should it be Ms.?) Higgins, which ties things up very nicely.
For Python fans, Monty Python's Life of Brian [Sony] has been re-released in a two-DVD set that they call "the immaculate edition." Immaculate it is, indeed. This was a follow up to the 1975 "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," and is thought by many to be superior. ("Life of Brian" regularly shows up on British lists of the best comedies.) Let it be added that what might be the highest spot of musical hilarity in Spamalot, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," was first used in the final scene of "The Life of Brian."
The special features are presumably sure to enthrall Pythonites, one of which I myself am not. These include "An All-New Hour-Long Revelation: The Story of Brian from Monty Python"; an illustrated 110-minute recording of the early screenplay in progress; commentaries by Gilliam, Idle & Jones, on the one hand, and Cleese & Palin on the other; and five deleted scenes.
In last July's column I lavished extravagant praise on the Canadian TV series "Slings & Arrows," which over three seasons took us inside the workings of a major regional theatre company (not unlike the one at Stratford, Ontario). This is a delectable world, at least for those of us who have worked in — or are keenly interested in — nthe so-called roar of the greasepaint. And in addition to Hamlet and Lear, they do a big Mackintoshian musical as well! As Stephen Ouimette (who plays the extravagant Oliver Welles) puts it, this is not a satire of the Stratford Festival but a love-letter to the theatre.
The only drawback to "Slings and Arrows," I found, was that it ended in 2006 after a mere 18 episodes. Eighteen brim-filled, engrossing and delicious episodes, that is. Having dutifully issued the three seasons on DVD, Acorn Media has now given us Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection. What we get are the three seasons on six DVDs, as already released, plus a new bonus disc containing an additional 69 minutes. This is comprised of "A Look Behind the Scenes"; separate interviews with stars Ouimette, Martha Burns, and featured actor Graham Harley (who portrays the piano-playing featured man who plunks out "Chin Up, Hamlet"); a piece showing the cast and crew on the set; and another showing director Peter Wellington at work. Finally, there is a portrait of the late William Hutt, the celebrated Canadian actor who contributed a phenomenal performance during the final season as a dying actor struggling to get through Lear.
One expects a few complaints from people who have already bought all three seasons individually: How can they do this to us, their faithful customers? All I can say is, you've gotten to enjoy the 18 episodes for all these months, or years, haven't you? That's your reward! Should fans who own them all buy the new box set, just to get the bonus disc? Perhaps not, although it makes a valuable addition to your "Slings & Arrows" shelf. Rather, you might want to buy the new set for a devoted friend and then borrow the bonus while they are watching Season One. Or maybe, give your previously-purchased copies of the three seasons to three valued friends — they'll love you for it, and they can switch and trade amongst themselves — and buy this new box for yourself. You deserve it, don't you? Anyway you look at it, you should certainly look at it. "Slings & Arrows," that is.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)