Born into a showbiz family, Sally Ann Howes was only 12 when she got her first lead role, playing the title character in a movie called Thursday’s Child, about a girl who becomes a child star. The storyline was to prove prophetic and Howes was a veteran with a quarter of a century of cinema behind her when she landed her most memorable role in the classic children’s film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Howes played the wonderfully named Truly Scrumptious, who forms a relationship with the absent-minded widower Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke, and his two young children.
“Even if we didn’t know your name we could have guessed it,” says Caractacus’s daughter Jemima, played the by the young Scottish actress Heather Ripley. “You have to be called something lovely.” They sing a song together called Truly Scumptious.
A whimsical story of a flying car, based on a novel by James Bond author Ian Fleming, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is now regarded as a classic and has been turned into a hit stage musical. But it got lukewarm reviews, cost a small fortune and lost money on its initial cinema release in 1968.
It was to prove the high point of Howes’s film career. After Chitty Chitty Bang Bang she worked mainly in theatre, although she had made her stage debut years earlier when she appeared in the musical Caprice at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow in 1951.
Her parents, Bobby Howes and Pat Malone, were both professional actors and singers, one of her grandfathers was a theatre director and her elder brother Peter became a classical musician. But it was not only in showbusiness and the arts that the family distinguished itself, for one of her great-grandfathers survived the Charge of the Light Brigade and won the Victoria Cross for courage under fire.
It was one of her parents’ friends who suggested her for the starring role in Thursday’s Child. She secured a contract with Ealing Studios, where she appeared in the classic horror movie Dead of Night and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, playing his sister Kate. She appeared with Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson in producer Alexander Korda’s Anna Karenina.
At 18 she signed a seven-year contract with Rank, where her films included The History of Mr Polly, with John Mills. But she was unhappy with the way her film career was going and negotiated an early release from her contract to concentrate on theatre, though she did also play the title role in a BBC television version of Cinderella in 1950.
She was the female lead in the original 1953 West End production of Paint Your Wagon, in which her real-life father Bobby Howes played her father Ben Rumson, the role taken years later by Lee Marvin in the film version, though the plot was heavily reworked for the big screen.
She made her Broadway debut in 1958 when she replaced Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in the original production of My Fair Lady.
Her first marriage, to actor Maxwell Coker, was short-lived. She then married Richard Adler, who was the lyricist on the Broadway hits The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. He wrote the Broadway musical Kwamina specifically for her. It closed after only 32 performances.
However she won a Tony award, Broadway’s equivalent of the Oscars, for her performance as Karen in a 1963 revival of Brigadoon, Lerner and Loewe’s romantic musical about a Scottish village that appears out of the Highland mists for only one day in every 100 years. Her performance impressed producer Cubby Broccoli, who had the film rights to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as Fleming’s Bond novels.
But Howes got the role of Truly Scumptious only after Julie Andrews turned it down and after she fibbed about her dancing abilities. “My father had taught me long before that when a casting director asked if you could do something, you immediately said Yes, and if you couldn’t you learnt darn fast,” she said.
She put herself through a crash course in dancing before Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the filming of the dance numbers Toot Sweets and Doll on a Music Box, in which she is pretending to be a life-size doll in the castle of Baron Bomburst, ruler of Vulgaria, who is holding the children prisoner.
Preferring theatre, Howes made only one more feature film and the 1980 horror movie Death Ship was a world away from Truly Scrumptious. Based in the United States, Howes made guest appearances in such hit television series as Mission: Impossible, The Virginian and Marcus Welby MD, and she was a regular on panel games.
On stage she starred in an American touring version of The Sound of Music, in the role made famous by Julie Andrews, she later stretched herself as Gertrude in a touring version of Hamlet and she came to Edinburgh in 1990 with her one-woman show From This Moment On.
Her first three marriages all ended in divorce. She married Douglas Rae, a literary agent, in 1973. He died in September. She is survived by an adopted son from her second marriage.
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