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Lanchester, Elsa

LANCHESTER, Elsa


Nationality: American. Born: Elsa Sullivan Lanchester (or Elizabeth Sullivan) in Lewisham, London, 28 October 1902; became U.S. citizen, 1950. Education: Attended Isadora Duncan's Bellevue School, Paris, 1912, and assistant on lecture tours; Margaret Morris's school, Chelsea, London. Family: Married the actor Charles Laughton, 1929 (died 1962). Career: 1918—taught dancing at Margaret Morris's school on the Isle of Wight; 1920—stage debut in a music hall act; founded children's theater, Soho; 1922—West End debut in Thirty Minutes in a Street; 1924—opened the London nightclub The Cave of Harmony; film debut in the amateur film The Scarlet Woman; other stage and film work in the 1920s, often with Laughton; 1930—in stage play Payment Deferred in London, and in 1931 in New York; 1932—short contract with MGM; 1933–34—acted at the Old Vic with Laughton; 1939—settled permanently in the United States; active in revue sketches from 1941, touring nightclubs with Ray Henderson, and in her own one-woman show Elsa Lanchester—Herself, 1951–61; in TV series The John Forsythe Show, 1965–66, and Nanny and the Professor, 1971. Died: In Woodland Hills, California, 26 December 1986.


Films as Actress:

1927

One of the Best (Hunter) (as Kitty)

1928

The Constant Nymph (Brunel) (as lady); Bluebottles (Montague—short); The Tonic (Montague—short); Daydreams (Montague—short)

1929

Mr. Smith Wakes Up (Hill—short)

1930

Comets (Geneen) (as herself)

1931

The Love Habit (Lachman); The Stronger Sex (Gundrey); Potiphar's Wife (Elvey) (as Mathilde); The Officer's Mess (Haynes) (as Cora Melville)

1933

The Private Life of Henry VIII (Korda) (as Anne of Cleves)

1934

David Copperfield (Cukor) (as Clickett)

1935

Naughty Marietta (Van Dyke); The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale) (as Mary Shelley/The Bride)

1936

The Ghost Goes West (Clair) (as dinner guest); Rembrandt (Korda) (as Hendrickie Stoffels); Miss Bracebirdle Does Her Duty (Garmes—short)

1938

Vessel of Wrath (The Beachcomber) (Pommer) (as Martha Jones)

1941

Ladies in Retirement (Charles Vidor) (as Emily Creed)

1942

Son of Fury (Cromwell) (as prostitute); Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier)

1943

Forever and a Day (Clair and others) (as waitress); Thumbs Up (Santley) (as Emmy Finch); Lassie Come Home (Wilcox)

1944

Passport to Destiny (McCarey) (as charwoman)

1946

The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak) (as Mrs. Oakes); The Razor's Edge (Goulding) (as secretary)

1947

Northwest Outpost (Dwan) (as chaperone); The Bishop's Wife (Koster) (as maid)

1948

The Big Clock (Farrow) (as artist)

1949

The Secret Garden (Wilcox) (as maid); Come to the Stable (Koster) (as artist); The Inspector General (Koster) (as mayor's wife)

1950

Buccaneer's Girl (De Cordova) (as madam); Mystery Street (Sturges) (as landlady); The Pretty Girl (Levin) (as spinster); Frenchie (King) (as Duenna)

1952

Dreamboat (Binyon) (as school president); Les Misérables (Milestone) (as Madame Magloire); Androcles and the Lion (Erskine) (as Megaera)

1953

Girls of Pleasure Island (Herbert, Gunzer) (as housekeeper)

1954

Hell's Half Acre (Auer) (as Lida O'Reilly); Three Ring Circus (Pevney) (as bearded lady)

1955

The Glass Slipper (Walters) (as wicked stepmother)

1957

Witness for the Prosecution (Wilder) (as nurse)

1958

Bell, Book, and Candle (Quine) (as matchmaker witch)

1964

Honeymoon Hotel (Levin) (as chambermaid); Mary Poppins (Stevenson) (as nanny); Pajama Party (Weis) (as housekeeper)

1965

That Darn Cat (Stevenson) (as nosy neighbor)

1967

Easy Come, Easy Go (Rich) (as yoga teacher)

1968

Blackbeard's Ghost (Stevenson)

1969

Rascal (Tokar) (as housekeeper); Me Natalie (Coe) (as landlady)

1971

Willard (Mann)

1973

Terror in the Wax Museum (Fenady)

1974

Arnold (Fenady)

1976

Murder by Death (Moore) (as Dame Jessie Marbles)

1980

Die Laughing (Werner) (as Sophie)



Publications


By LANCHESTER: books—

Charles Laughton and I, New York, 1968.

Elsa Lanchester Herself, New York, 1983.


By LANCHESTER: article—

Interview, in Radio Times (London), 9 July 1983.

On LANCHESTER: articles—

Roberts, Florain, "Elsa Lanchester," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1976.

Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, revised edition, London, 1979.

Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1985.

"Elsa Lanchester Dies on Coast: Screen, Stage Actress Was 84," in Variety (New York), 31 December 1986.

Galan, D., "Elsa Lanchester," in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), January 1996.

Senn, Bryan, "Elsa 'The Bride' Lanchester: A Candid Look at the Fairest Monster of Them All!" in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), October-January 1996–1997.


* * *

Elsa Lanchester, the daughter of two prominent socialists, had always been a free spirit, studying with Isadora Duncan at the age of 11, teaching dance and directing a children's theater while still in her teens, then starting a London theatrical club called The Cave of Harmony. By the time she met Charles Laughton, her future husband, in 1927, she had tired of her bohemian life and was attracted to his "middle-class respectability." She and Laughton appeared together in several plays (to favorable reviews), but as Laughton's film career took off, her career began to suffer.

There were probably two reasons for this. First, she was not beautiful; though perkily attractive, she was small, with frizzy red hair and an oddly blunted nose. Not considering her leading-lady material, Hollywood might have forgotten her altogether had it not been for her husband, who in turn represented her second problem. According to Lanchester, producers resented the implied pressure of "if Charles works, Elsa must be used, too," and she began to lose ground professionally. Her bits as maids, prudes, and assorted eccentrics seemed a far cry from her London theatrical successes, including her role as the last Peter Pan to be personally approved by James Barrie. Sometimes producers would even fabricate Lanchester vehicles to lure the Laughtons, "changing" their plans once the two were hooked. If she did get into a Laughton picture, she felt she was "acting with a pistol at my head" and that she had to be good.

Luckily, she almost always was, whether or not she appeared with Laughton. Given the prejudice against her looks, it is ironic that she is probably best known in this country for her role as the Bride of Frankenstein (in the film of the same name). Wrapped in yards of bandage, a wire cage with hair pieces on her head and three to four hours' worth of makeup on her face, she hissed in imitation of swans she had heard as a child in London (some of her hisses and screams were run backward on the soundtrack). Yet she was pleased to be in the film because, as the sweet-as-sugar Mary Shelley, she was allowed to show the range of her acting.

She was able to demonstrate that range under less grueling circumstances, registering most effectively in The Beachcomber (she and Laughton played the leads in this film produced by his Mayflower production company), The Private Life of Henry VIII (as Anne of Cleves, she gave the best performance of Laughton's wives), and Witness for the Prosecution (both she and Laughton winning Oscar nominations). She also contributed delightful cameos in a number of other pictures, notably Bell, Book, and Candle (as an addled witch), The Big Clock (as an eccentric artist), Honeymoon Hotel (as yet another maid), and The Razor's Edge (as a social secretary).

To supplement these rather meager and intermittent opportunities, Lanchester ultimately returned to the cabaret of her youth. In the 1940s she joined the Turnabout Theatre, performing cabaret songs, and in the 1960s, she took an elaborate, one-woman show (Elsa Lanchester—Herself) on the road, to rave reviews. The free spirit of Elsa Lanchester appealed to live audiences denied the opportunity to experience it in films by Hollywood's commercial cowardice.

—Catherine Henry

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