Muriel Findlay (Muriel Angelus), actress: born London 10 March 1909; married 1931 John Stuart (marriage dissolved), 1946 Paul Lavalle (died 1997; one daughter); died Harrisonburg, Virginia 26 June 2004.
As one of the stars of the Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse (1938), the British-born actress and singer Muriel Angelus introduced one of the best of the many great standards written by Rodgers and Hart, "Falling in Love with Love". She had already appeared on screen and stage in Britain, and later starred in the Hollywood classics The Light That Failed (1939) and The Great McGinty (1940), but it is her association with the durable song that has given her a place in show-business history.
The number is quintessential Rodgers and Hart. Richard Rodgers was noted for his rhapsodic waltzes, and "Falling in Love with Love" is one of the most lilting and gorgeous. It also has a typically deft Lorenz Hart lyric, with internal rhymes and a wry, disillusioned message that includes the lines, "Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy, learning to trust is just for children in school." Angelus reputedly gave a convincing display of wifely fortitude while she sang the song with what the New York Times critic called "exquisite sweetness".
She was born Muriel Findlay in London in 1909, into a Scottish medical family, and began her career at the age of 12 as a successful child model. After performing as a singer in music halls, she made her screen début with a bit role in the silent film comedy Sailors Don't Care (1928), followed by her first billed role, in The Ringer (1928), based on the play by Edgar Wallace.
Angelus's first talkie was Night Birds (1930), a ripe thriller set mainly in a night-club, where she sings a seductive tango, "What's the Time, Dearest?', and plays cat-and-mouse with an undercover police officer who suspects (rightly) that she knows the identity of the killer, Flash Jack.
In Hindle Wakes (1931), the second of four screen versions of the Stanley Houghton play, written in 1912 and set in Lancashire, Angelus was the respectable fiancée of a mill-owner's son. Her refusal to go away with him for a holiday weekend prompts his flirtation with an independent mill girl, whom he seduces. The young man was played by the Scottish actor John Stuart, and he and Angelus were married during the film's production. The pair were teamed again as the stars of No Exit (1930), an amusing comedy in which a publisher's daughter (Angelus) mistakes a penniless writer (Stuart) for a famous novelist (actually her own mother writing under a pseudonym).
Angelus starred in several more films, but they were a poor lot. In the musical comedy Let's Love and Laugh (1931), a wealthy playboy (Gene Gerrard) wakes up after a drunken evening to find himself wed to a chorus girl (Angelus). She and the debonair Gerrard were teamed again in My Wife's Family (1931), a weak comedy built around confused references to a piano and a baby. The Blind Spot (1932) was a melodrama in which Angelus is knocked down by a car, loses her memory and marries a barrister who turns out to be the prosecuting counsel when her father is arrested for theft. It was glum, unrewarding fare, and by 1935, when Angelus made a much better film, So You Won't Talk, a bright comedy crisply directed by Monty Banks, her billing had slipped to fifth.
Fortuitously, she was then offered the leading role in the operetta Balalaika (1936), with songs by Eric Maschwitz, George Posford and Bernard Grun, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London in December, 1936. Set just after the Bolshevik revolution, it took place in a lavishly reproduced Paris, where a ballet dancer and singer (Angelus) falls in love with an exiled Russian prince. The score's highlight was the haunting tango "At the Balalaika", introduced by Angelus.
A smash hit, Balalaika ran for over a year and led to her being offered the role of Adriana in The Boys from Syracuse (based on Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors) on Broadway. Only two lines of Shakespeare's play were retained in the musical, "The venom clamours of a jealous woman / poisons more deadly than a mad dog's tooth", which was followed by the star Jimmy Savo poking his head out from the wings to say, "Shakespeare". The Herald Tribune critic Richard Watts wrote,
If you have been wondering all these years just what was wrong with The Comedy of Errors, it is now possible to tell you. It has
been waiting for a score by Rodgers and Hart and direction by George Abbott.
Besides "Falling in Love with Love", the show also gave Angelus the chance to let her hair down in the evening's big show-stopper "Sing for Your Supper". Joined by two other ladies (Marcy Westcott and Wyn Murray) she swung into a delightfully playful trio arrangement by Hugh Martin that is still often performed in concert presentations to enthusiastic response. Though The Boys from Syracuse did not get to London until a lacklustre production in 1963, its three hit songs (the third was "This Can't Be Love") were interpolated into a West End revue Up and Doing (1940), which also introduced Noël Coward's "London Pride".
While performing on Broadway, Angelus was offered a film contract by Paramount, and she made her US screen début in William Wellman's version of Rudyard Kipling's novel The Light That Failed, giving a touching performance as the girlfriend of an artist (Ronald Colman) who is slowly going blind. In the film's most memorable scene, the girl of the streets whom he has used as a model (Ida Lupino) deliberately ruins the artist's last work, which he considers his masterpiece. Angelus then valiantly tries to conceal the fact from the now blind man.
She had a less rewarding role in Safari (1940), which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Madeleine Carroll, and tempted audiences (who were scarce) with advertisements that stated, "Deep in the heart of Africa, her hungry heart beat to tomtom rhythm!"
The Way of All Flesh (1940) was a torpid drama starring Akim Tamiroff as a bank messenger who deserts his family and is exploited by an adventuresss (Angelus). But she ended her screen career with a film classic, the first film to be directed by Preston Sturges, The Great McGinty (retitled Down Went McGinty for the UK). In this biting political satire in which a tramp rises to become Governor through guile and graft, Angelus shone, bringing refreshing humanity to the cynical proceedings as the gentle secretary, who offers to become McGinty's wife "for the sake of the women's vote", then grows to love him and effects his reformation. When casting the role, Sturges was allegedly offered an alphabetical list of players under contract to the studio and he chose the first name on the list - Angelus.
When Paramount let her go (never, alas, having allowed her to sing in a Hollywood film), she returned to Broadway to star in the operetta Sunny River (1941). Despite book, lyrics and direction by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg, the period piece, set in New Orleans in the early 19th century, it was not a success. The critic John Mason Brown recorded in the New York World Telegram,
I hate it when musicals take themselves too seriously and go in for all the pretensions
of grand opera with nothing but sentimentality as their motive and dullness as their means.
Sunny River closed after 36 performances.
Angelus's final Broadway show was less pretentious and much more successful, running for 382 performances. Entitled Early to Bed (1943), it called itself "a fairy tale for grown-ups" and, though not particularly admired by critics, it fulfilled the prediction of Howard Barnes, the Herald Tribune critic, who wrote,
The performance is so much better than the basic material that it is certain to catch on as a bit of escapist hot-cha.
Angelus played the owner of a bordello in Martinique who, when the island is visited by her former lover, pretends that her place is a girls' finishing school. The music by "Fats" Waller and lyrics by George Marion included a show-stopper for Angelus and three other females, "The Ladies Who Sing with a Band", satirising vocalists of the day.
The actress then phased out her career with an NBC radio programme entitled Presenting Muriel Angelus, and in 1946 she settled into marriage with Paul Lavalle, at the time the conductor at Radio City Music Hall. The couple kept an apartment in Manhattan and owned a handsome Colonial house in Connecticut. Their daughter, Suzanne, graduated summa cum laude and became a reporter for NBC. In 1989, they moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to be near her and her son, Brian.
In 1959 Richard Rodgers, who had been a lifelong friend, pleaded with Angelus to audition for the role of the Mother Superior in the Broadway production of The Sound of Music. Later she recounted that, when he heard her sing, he said, "Muriel, you sound so young. Could you sing a little older?" "That," she said, "is when I laughed and decided to stay retired."