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British actress Glynis Johns, who played Mrs. Banks in 'Mary Poppins,' is dead at 100


British actress Glynis Johns has died at the age of 100. Best known as the exuberant suffragist mom Mrs. Banks in "Mary Poppins," she brought wit and charm to stage and film characters for more than six decades. Critic Bob Mondello offers an appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: She arrived at the bank's household at the start of Mary Poppins, positively bursting with populist enthusiasm.


GLYNIS JOHNS: (As Mrs. Banks) We had the most glorious meeting. Mrs. Whitbourne-Allen chained herself to the wheel of the prime minister's carriage. You should have been there.

MONDELLO: This role made her a known quantity to audiences for the first time in a career that had started when she was 12. She'd performed opposite actors ranging from Laurence Olivier to Robert Mitchum to Jackie Gleason, and made a bit of a splash opposite Danny Kaye in "The Court Jester." She played the sultry spy who tries to make sure Kaye's medieval knight knows the pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle.


DANNY KAYE: (As Hubert Hawkins) The pestle with the vessel.

JOHNS: (As Maid Jean) The vessel with the pestle.

KAYE: (As Hubert Hawkins) What about the palace from the chalice?

JOHNS: (As Maid Jean) Don't you see? The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle.

MILDRED NATWICK: (As Griselda) The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.

JOHNS: (As Maid Jean) It's so easy, I can say it.

KAYE: (As Hubert Hawkins) Well, then you fight him.

MONDELLO: Johns alternated between films and stage work throughout her career, and though not a trained singer, when she was cast as the lead in Broadway's "A Little Night Music," she inspired Stephen Sondheim to write her a second act number that would be his only song to become a popular hit. She sang it sitting beside her character's long lost love, the man she'd been chasing after for an act and a half, but had just realized she was unlikely ever to catch.


JOHNS: (As Desiree, singing) One who keeps tearing around, one who can't move. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns.

MONDELLO: Sondheim liked to recount for audiences how he composed the song specifically for his leading lady.


STEPHEN SONDHEIM: She had a lovely, sweet, bell-like voice which was breathy and short-winded. So it's written in short phrases. Isn't it rich? Pause, pause. Take your breath. Are we a pair? Pause, pause. Take a breath. (Vocalizing). Now she's got a sustained line. (Vocalizing).


JOHNS: (As Desiree, singing) Me here at last on the ground.


SONDHEIM: Breath. (Vocalizing). Pause, pause. Breath. So, you know, it's not hard to sing.

MONDELLO: For which reason plenty of others sang it after, though perhaps never better, said the composer, who also remembered how she nailed the song on the first take when they recorded the cast album, taking those short, breathy phrases he'd created and turning them into poetry. I'm Bob Mondello.


JOHNS: (As Desiree, singing) Don't you love farce? My fault, I fear. I thought that you'd want what I want. Sorry, my dear. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.