Today is Angela Lansbury’s 85th birthday, and I thought I would celebrate by watching Gaslight again. I have seen it several times before, mainly enjoying the performances of Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, while thinking that the very American Joseph Cotten was miscast as a Scotland Yard detective.
This time, I watched this 66-year-old film to enjoy the performance of the 17-year-old Lansbury in her first film. Lansbury was born in London in 1925, and after her father died, she and her mother moved in with another man. It was an unhappy living arrangement that was worsened by the London bombings. The mother and daughter fled to North America, going first to Montreal, then to New York, finally settling in Hollywood. The teenager worked at Bullocks Wilshire department store, while her mother gave parties for the British émigré community. She was introduced to casting director Mel Ballerino, who was looking for young actresses who could do British accents for an upcoming MGM production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ballerino must have liked something about the untested actress who put her in two back-to-back roles, as Nancy, the saucy maid of Ingrid Bergman’s character in Gaslight, and as doomed Sibyl Vane in Dorian Gray. Lansbury told her boss at the department store, where she was making $27 a week, that she was leaving, and he offered to match the salary she had been promised at the new position. When she said she would be making $500 a week, he decided it was best to let her go. The department store’s lose was cinema’s gain, and the first-time actress would be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Lansbury’s strong and authentic cockney accent combined with her conniving nature frighten her mistress and also makes for some of the most memorable moments in the film.