Janet Munro – Britain’s Fresh Face of Fantasy – By Philip Smolen

I remember the first time I fell in love. Totally, madly deeply in love as only an innocent young boy can. I was four years old and my mother had taken me to see the Walt Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). I enjoyed the opening cartoon, (I believe it had Pluto in it) and was looking forward to seeing the movie and experiencing the magic of Disney. I was just settling into my seat when in the opening scene my eyes fell upon a glorious young woman with auburn hair. Her beauty froze me to my chair and made my heart leap. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had magnificent green eyes that seemed to pierce right through the screen and look directly at me, perfect full red lips and a peaches and cream complexion. I could almost smell her perfume in the theatre. I was thunderstruck. Her beauty held me captive throughout the film. Suddenly I didn’t care about the story of the leprechauns, the mischievous interplay between the little people and humans, the magic, and all the wonderful singing. I just had to keep watching that incredible auburn-haired beauty.  During the climax of the film, when her character is injured in a fall, I was terrified and visibly upset. Later when the horrible banshee came for her, I buried myself in my mother’s arm and sobbed, thinking that she was going to die.  She didn’t, of course, (Walt Disney wasn’t that cruel) and the happy ending made my heart soar.  But over the decades I never forgot that intoxicating young woman; her beauty and charisma stayed a part of me as I grew up.

That was my introduction to Janet Munro (1934-1972), a wonderful and captivating British actress whose elegance and splendor shone brightly for only a brief period. She rose to prominence on the stage, screen and TV and became one of Britain’s premier actresses. The daughter of well known British comedian Alex Munro, she grew up with theater in her blood. After a stint in theatre rep, she debuted in the 1957 film Small Hotel and quickly graduated to increasingly larger roles. In 1958, Walt Disney signed the young actress to a then unheard of five picture deal (she wound up only making four). In 1960 she won the Golden Globe award for Most Promising Female Newcomer (an award she shared that year with Stella Stevens, Angie Dickinson and Tuesday Weld).

Fantasy and sci-fi fans remember her for wonderful performances in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People and in two other well made British sci-fi films The Crawling Eye (1958) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). These three roles gained her a lion’s share of her audience on this side of the Atlantic, because these films were repeatedly shown on American television throughout the 1960s and 1970s. So to celebrate the career of a wonderful and distinctive actress, let’s take a look at the fantasy film career of Janet Munro.

1.    THE CRAWLING EYE (aka THE TROLLENBERG TERROR) (DCA – 1958) Director: Quentin Lawrence

In the quiet Swiss mountain town of the Trollenberg, strange events are taking place. There have been an unusual number of accidents that have claimed the lives of several climbers. What’s worse, some of the victims have been found headless. While this has spooked many of the simple mountain villagers, Professor Crevett (Warren Mitchell) from the local observatory has a rational explanation. He believes that aliens have landed at the top of the mountain and are lurking in that strange unmoving cloud on one side of the Trollenberg, slowly acclimating themselves to earth’s atmosphere. He has called in his friend UN investigator Alan Brooks (Forest Tucker) to help him. Brooks arrives but with some additional companions, a British mind reading duo Sarah and Ann Pilgrim (Jennifer Jayne and Janet Munro). It seems that Ann has been receiving strange psychic signals from that very same mountain cloud…

The Crawling Eye is a wild and fun example of British sci-fi. Like the famous Quatermass series, it is based on a popular six part television show. Screenwriter Jimmy Sangster decided to have a lot of fun, so he throws in everything but the kitchen sink. The Crawling Eye has more diverse plot elements than any other British science fiction film. There are decapitations, ESP, alien controlled zombies, giant squishy aliens with long tentacles and a climatic napalm bombing raid conducted by the United Nations. Somehow director Quentin Lawrence keeps everything percolating, without dwelling long enough on any of the more outrageous aspects of Sangster’s screenplay.

While she has a secondary role in The Crawling Eye, Munro holds her own against all the other actors including the blustery Forest Tucker. She really shines in her role as ingénue Ann Pilgrim and her impending danger from the aliens helps give the film a strong central anchor. All of the other characters are aware of Ann’s susceptibility to the alien’s commands, so they go out of their way to protect her. There is one particular scene where Munro really projects her character’s helplessness. In their first evening in the hotel, Sarah and Ann decide to perform their mind reading act for the guests including Brooks and Crevett. The act starts off normally, but the alien’s stronger thought patterns take control of Ann. The entire group is stunned as she relays the alien’s evil plans for two climbers spending a lonely night on the Trollenberg:
“Snow, mountains, little hut.  Two men in the hut. The fat one he is asleep. Yes the fat one he is asleep. But he’s not the one. The other one.  Sitting at a table – smoking – writing in a book. He’s the one. Getting up – coming towards the door. He’s reached the door. He’s opening it. He’s coming out. Up the slope – Up the slope. Walking slowly – snow, mountains, paper weight, glass paper weight.”

It’s a terrific scene.  At first Munro shows Ann in full control of her faculties. But then as the alien signal comes in, her eyes glaze over blankly and then finally as she goes deeper and deeper under the alien’s control her eyes go wide as she delivers their chilling message. Munro conveys Ann’s helplessness and vulnerability perfectly. Though only her third motion picture, it is Munro’s performance that helps propel The Crawling Eye from overly ambitious monster flick into an iconic British sci-fi film.

2.    DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE (Walt Disney – 1959) Director: Robert Stevenson

In a quaint Irish country village, Darby O’Gill (Albert Sharpe) is the caretaker of Lord Fitzpatrick’s manor. As such, he and his daughter Katie (Munro) enjoy all the benefits and live in a large house near the estate. But O’Gill spends more of his time matching wits with King Brian of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea) then taking care of the manor, so Lord Fitzpatrick (Walter Fitzpatrick) retires Darby and gives his job to young Michael McBride (Sean Connery). This means that Darby and Katie will have to leave their beloved home. Not wanting to upset his daughter, Darby gets McBride to agree not to mention the demotion and goes about trying to capture King Brian so he can get his three wishes and save the day. But it’s one thing to capture the King of the Leprechauns and another to collect your wishes without being tricked.

Darby O’Gill is simply one of Walt Disney’s most delightful fantasies. It’s bright, witty and full of the child-like innocence that Disney was famous for. The fantastic realm of the leprechauns is dealt in such a matter of fact manner that the audience is swept along with it.  The film is briskly paced and never loses its sense of fun. Even at the end when the scary Banshee approaches, it never overpowers the film’s light and happy tone. Sharpe and O’Dea give grand performances as they match wits with one another throughout the film, and young Sean Connery flashes his magnetism as Michael McBride. Janet Munro is simply charming as the beautiful Irish rose. Though Katie is not the film’s main character, her blossoming from a devout daughter to a young marriage-minded woman is an underlying theme to the film. At the beginning, she has no interest in meeting a man, but slowly and surely falls for Connery. Director of photography Winton Hoch captures Munro’s beauty perfectly throughout the film transforming her into one of Disney’s most beloved heroines.  Even when Katie is injured and lies dying, Hoch doesn’t photograph her awkwardly. Instead he presents her as if she is Sleeping Beauty and merely requires her prince’s kiss to awaken. Though not overly successful during its theatrical run, Darby O’Gill went on to become a perennial staple on the Wonderful World of Disney during the 1960s. With the beauty and charms of Janet Munro on display throughout the film, that’s not surprising.

3.    THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (UK – Melina Productions – 1961) Director: Val Guest

Life for Pete Stenning isn’t getting any easier. He used to be one of the best reporters in London, but that was before his messy divorce. Now he drinks too much, writes too little and relies on his friendship with science editor Bill McGuire (Leo McKern) to keep him employed. But even Pete has noticed the change in British weather. Suddenly it’s getting hotter and hotter in London and there have been cyclones and fog thicker than usual. And that’s not all. Weather around the entire world has also gone crazy. Then, Jeannie (Janet Munro), his new girlfriend who works at the Meteorological Bureau tells him some startling news. She’s found out the recent atomic bomb exploded by the United States coincided with an atomic explosion by the Soviet Union at the exact same time. And these two explosions have changed both the earth’s axis and its nutation (rotation). Simply put, the earth is hurtling towards the sun and in about four months, the planet will be a burnt out cinder. Jeannie begs Pete to keep the news a secret, but Pete insists the world needs to know the truth. So he writes the big story, and the fallout gets Jeannie temporarily thrown in jail. But it also forces all the worlds’ governments to finally tell the truth. So what can be done to save the human race? Well, if two atomic bombs could knock the earth off its rotation, maybe four larger ones can knock it back.

 It’s a great shame that The Day the Earth Caught Fire (TDTECF) isn’t shown anymore. There’s a whole generation of film fans who are unaware of this gem and need to see it. A very early example of adult science fiction, TDTECF is a sharply focused look at man’s ability to destroy. The film takes a huge topic like literal global warming and tells it in very human terms. All of the characters – Pete, Jeannie and Bill are swept up in the apocalypse, and there is little to do except make the best of what’s left. Director Val Guest and writer Wolf Mankowitz weave a frightening tale of destruction. They start with small events like a crippling ground fog and slowly make the events larger and larger until it’s clear that the whole world has gone mad.  But by telling the story in human terms, it becomes that much more real. When Pete first meets Jeannie, he thinks she’s nothing more than another fresh faced tart. Later, he realizes how important she is to him. And when the crisis reaches a dangerous level, he has fallen in love with her and will do anything to protect her (which he does).

Another of the triumphs in the film are the performances. This is Edward Judd’s best sci-fi role. And Leo McKern is great as Pete’s wise old sage. For those of us who grew up with Janet Munro from her Disney days, TDTECF was an eye opening experience. Her Jeannie is vulnerable, yet still strong and very sexy. This plays out in several very adult scenes with Judd as she tries to decide whether she should love this downtrodden alcoholic. But it is Jeannie’s love that saves Pete. Her willingness to commit to him while madness exists all around is what brings him back from the edge of the abyss. Munro puts in a bravura performance that is fondly remembered by many fans as one of her best. TDTECF remains a great sci-fi film that needs to be rediscovered.

After her role in TDTECF, Janet continued  with more grown up roles and in 1962 won a BAFTA (British academy awards) nomination for Best Actress for her performance in the film Condemned to Life.  She married twice, the second time to actor Ian Hendry who along with Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, was one of the real British hell raisers of the 1960s. She stopped acting in 1964 to raise her two children Sally and Corrie. But when she chose to continue her career in 1968, most producers had short memories and had forgotten about her. She continued to act sporadically but only had two more film roles.  In 1972 she tragically lost her life to myocarditis at the young age of 38. When she died, it was erroneously reported that she committed suicide and that error has unfortunately continued to haunt her memory. According to Liam Byrne who runs the web site janetmunro.com, the rumor started some time earlier. Munro (who admitted to being an alcoholic) had been drinking on Pharaoh’s Island (located on the Thames), and got in a small boat to go back to the mainland for alcohol. The boat capsized and Janet was swept down river to a dock. The press mistakenly reported that she tried to commit suicide.  For some reason, those press clippings stayed with her and developed a life of their own long after Janet Munro passed away.

I remember seeing Janet Munro’s obituary here in America. It was a small blurb in my local paper, not more than 100 words. I cried when I read it. Here was the first woman I fell in love with, and the article was short, clipped and so antiseptic. No mention of her beauty, her charisma, how great an actress she was or how many lives she touched with her performances. I just remember thinking that it was so wrong. Now almost forty years after her passing, she lives in the minds of fans like me and in those priceless pieces of celluloid. Her three wonderful fantasy films will keep her memory alive and her beauty, grace and charm will continue to live.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am deeply indebted to Mr. Liam Byrne for his insight, trust and help in developing this article. For a more detailed description of Janet Munro’s life and career, please go to janetmunro.com.

Selected References

1.    janetmunro.com. Accessed May 27th, 2010.
2.    Lisanti Tom and Paul Louis. Film Fatales. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., 2002.
3.    Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies (Two Volume Set). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc, 1982 and 1986.