Legendary British actress Glynis Johns, best known for her charming portrayal of Mrs. Banks in the iconic 1964 musical film “Mary Poppins”, has died at the age of 100.
Johns’ death on January 4th, 2024 was confirmed by her family, who stated she “passed away peacefully at home”. The acclaimed performer enjoyed a decades-long career on stage and screen, endearing herself to audiences around the world with her wit, warmth and lively screen presence.
Her Iconic Role in ‘Mary Poppins’
Though she took on many memorable roles throughout her lengthy career, Glynis Johns remains most closely associated with her performance as Winifred Banks in “Mary Poppins”. As the ditzy but loving mother of Jane and Michael Banks, she delivered several of the film’s most amusing lines while showcasing her effortless comedic timing and musical talents.
Johns lit up the screen with her rendition of “Sister Suffragette”, a rousing ode to the women’s voting rights movement of the early 20th century. Her blend of humor and social commentary made Mrs. Banks an exceptionally multi-dimensional character and a true standout among Disney heroines.
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The actress greatly treasured her time working on “Mary Poppins”, regarding it as a career highlight. In a 2018 interview, she fondly recalled the “joyful experience” of collaborating with co-stars like Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews and forming a lasting camaraderie with her fellow cast members.
Early Life and Career Beginnings
Glynis Johns was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1923, the daughter of actor Mervyn Johns and his pianist wife Alys Steele. She inherited her parents’ creative talents, training extensively in dance and piano before making her screen debut at age 12 in the 1935 British film “No Funny Business”.
Additional child acting roles followed in movies like “Young and Innocent” (1937) and “Pygmalion” (1938), the latter of which starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Johns continued working steadily in British cinema throughout her teenage years while also honing her craft on the stage.
Hollywood Breakthrough in the 1940s-50s
Johns’ vivacious charm and vibrant screen presence captured the attention of Hollywood producers in the post-WWII era. She made waves with American audiences thanks to standout parts in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Sundowners” (1950) and the Danny Kaye vehicle “The Court Jester” (1956), the latter featuring her humorous turn as a princess who repeatedly falls for Kaye’s bumbling court jester.
The actress was also memorable as Deborah Kerr’s fun-loving fellow vacationer Lois Clarke in the 1957 romance “An Affair to Remember” opposite Cary Grant. Johns’ popularity surged throughout the 1950s thanks to additional comedic parts and musical performances in films like “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) and “All for Mary” (1955).
Stage Successes in the 1960s and Beyond
While films accounted for much of her professional output, Johns was highly acclaimed for her theatrical work as well. Shortly after filming “Mary Poppins”, she starred in the original 1964 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle”, earning stellar reviews as corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper.
The role solidified Johns’ reputation as a remarkably versatile performer with sharp comedic chops and powerful singing abilities. She later won praise from critics and audiences for creating the role of Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” (1973), Sondheim’s popular musical centered on an actress and the men in her past.
Johns went on performing regularly in theatre, television and film into the 21st century, appearing in projects like the 1999 HBO production of “David Copperfield” and a 2003 episode of the BBC drama series “Doctors”. She gave her final professional performance at the age of 85 in “The Dark Horse” (2008), demonstrating her lifelong passion for the craft of acting.
Reactions from Co-Stars and Hollywood Figures
The news of Johns’ passing prompted an outpouring of fond tributes from her former colleagues and generations of admirers.
Julie Andrews, Johns’ co-star in “Mary Poppins”, shared warm memories of their time working together, saying:
“A beloved member of the Mary Poppins family has left us…Glynnie was an original; her spirit and heart were immense. We spent many laughing hours together on the Disney lot getting ready for scenes. She was one of my dearest friends and I will miss her greatly.”
Composer Stephen Sondheim, who collaborated closely with Johns on stage musicals like “Anyone Can Whistle”, praised the actress as “delightfully daffy onscreen and achingly honest onstage.”
Dick Van Dyke, beloved for his performance as Bert the chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins”, posted a heartfelt video homage in which he credited Johns for “lighting up the screen” and described her as “a great actress who could do absolutely anything.”
Lasting Pop Culture Legacy
Over six decades after its initial release, “Mary Poppins” remains one of the most iconic and influential film musicals ever produced. Glynis Johns’ pitch-perfect performance as Mrs. Banks played no small part in establishing the movie’s longstanding mass appeal.
Generations of fans have grown up adoring the actress’s preoccupied yet good-hearted matriarch as she forgetfully leads the rousing feminist anthem “Sister Suffragette” and later sheds sentimental tears during the bittersweet finale. Johns imbued the role with such humor and empathy that Mrs. Banks emerged as the story’s most relatable and endearing adult figure.
While the versatile performer took on many exceptional parts in her long career, her beloved contribution to “Mary Poppins” stands out as her most legendary. The film continues introducing new viewers to Johns’ singular charm and ebullient screen presence decades after its release.
Thanks to beloved movies like “Mary Poppins”, Glynis Johns’ extraordinary talents will continue charming audiences around the world for generations to come. She will be dearly missed by many.
What’s Next for the ‘Mary Poppins’ Franchise
In the wake of its star’s passing, the future of the lucrative “Mary Poppins” film series has come into question. Disney produced an enormously successful sequel in 2018 entitled “Mary Poppins Returns”, which featured Emily Blunt taking over the iconic title role from Julie Andrews.
Blunt’s acclaimed performance and the sequel’s box office haul over $350 million worldwide make a second follow-up film seem probable. The role of Winifred Banks could again be recast, but replacing the indelible Glynis Johns would be a formidable challenge.
Rather than directly replacing Johns, Disney may choose to refocus the next installment on Mary Poppins herself and the young children under her charge. Regardless, it seems likely that the sequel will pay respectful homage to the late, great Glynis Johns and her legendary embodiment of Mrs. Banks.
While the future direction remains unclear, one certainty is that generations to come will continue enjoying Johns’ original performance for many years through frequent “Mary Poppins” rewatches. Her witty, high-spirited charm as Winifred Banks is forever etched into Disney history.
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