Monday, November 17, 2014

WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon 2014 – Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lanchester from set of
Hollywood Characters trading cards
About a month ago, I got wind of this Blogathon, and immediately jumped on the bandwagon. There are so many great character actors from classic Hollywood that I had to get in on it. One of my first thoughts was a real favorite of mine, Elsa Lanchester (pronounced Lan-Chester, not Lan-Caster). She said on a Dick Cavitt interview I found on YouTube, that she only corrected people when she thought she'd meet them again. As a person whose name has been mispronounced my whole life I thought this was an excellent strategy I should adopt.

As an actress, she seems to have got lost in the shadow of her husband, Charles Laughton, but just about everything I've seen her in she's been great. To be honest, I really didn't know too much about her. I knew, she had been married to Laughton, and had a wonderful film career spanning decades from Bride of Frankenstein to incredible character roles in Golden Age Hollywood films to Disney movies in the 1960s to the playing the Agatha Christie parody character in Neil Simon's, Murder By Death in the mid-1970s. [Her last screen credit was Die Laughing in 1980.] Mostly, I figured this would be a good opportunity learn more about her and maybe see some of her films I had missed before.

My first stop was to read her Wikipedia page. Born in London, Lanchester had a very Bohemian upbringing, studied dance as a child in Paris with Isadora Duncan, later back in London, started teaching dance, formed the Children's Theater, sang Burlesque, became an actress, met and married Charles Laughton.... It goes on like this, very interesting stuff. Then toward the end of the Wikipedia page, I run into her revealing in her autobiography that, "she and Charles Laughton never had children because Laughton was homosexual." Wha--Whaa--Whaaa--What?!? Okay, game on. Now, I gotta get this book.

Lanchester's autobiography, Elsa Lanchester Herself, is of course out-of-print, so off I went to ebay, in hopes of finding a copy for reasonable price. In the process, I stumbled onto a set of Hollywood Characters trading cards from the 90s, one of which is of her, see above. I also found a copy of the book for about $4 with free shipping.

1934 from Danse Arabe,
Sadler's Wells Ballet
(And I thought she was
hot in Bride of Frankenstein)
The book was a hoot. She had a very interesting life, although I have to say that the last two thirds of the book is more the story of Charles Laughton's life than her own. She goes on for page after page of how Charles prepared for this play or that film or such-and-such reading tour. And her own work (post-Charles), she discusses almost in passing, rarely spending more than a page or two on one of her own projects. Most of her film roles are given only a paragraph or two if mentioned at all. I'm not sure why this was the case. It may be modesty, but I have a feeling that's not what was going on. I know there was a Laughton biography, Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography by Charles Higham, published about 7 years before her 1983 autobigraphy. Lanchester supplied the introduction to the Highham biography, so I assuming that she didn't dispute the content. From the title, I assume Higham's book (which I have not read) focuses on Laughton's private life, and I would guess that she dedicated so much of her own story to Laughton work to help fill in the gaps.

Now, saying Lanchester had a Bohemian upbringing is a bit like saying King Kong is kind of a large monkey. Lanchester's parents were involved at various times with the Society Party, the Labour Party, and the Communist Party. Elsa's mother, Biddy, worked as personal secretary for Karl Marx's daughter. At one point, Elsa's Grandfather, aided by several of her Uncles, tried to have Biddy committed, and basically kidnapped her and carted her off to a sanitarium, where Biddy resided for a couple of days, until she could get a hold of a lawyer and a judge and get herself released. The commitment papers cited Overeducation as the cause of the insanity. 

In addition, Biddy was adamantly opposed to marriage and never married Lanchester's Father though they stayed together for life. Biddy was also a vegetarian and imposed it on the family (except for Lanchester's father, who for health reasons had to have meat), a tough thing to pull off in turn-of-the-century London, when you were very poor. This in itself does not add up to Bohemian, but as she starts discussing her own story, especially as a young adult when she starts performing, her autobiograpy reads like a who's who of early 20th Century actors, authors, and artists.

When Lanchester was 11, she went to Paris to study dance with Isadora Duncan. Young Lanchester liked Paris, the attention that she and the rest of the small group of dance students received, and of course the food, but didn't like Duncan or her methods. Duncan would sit on the sofa wrapped in a cocoon of white clothing and make the children kiss her hand as a greeting, a practice the daughter of a Socialist activist could hardly be expected to embrace. The children would also spend hours at the window observing trees as part of the dance training. She said of the experience: "I was fortunate not to get caught up in that particular art eddy. After all, bare feet are no longer naughty, and you can't make a living imitating rose petals."

It's hard to tell the exact timing, but shortly after Lanchester's return to London, World War I started. She was still in school and enjoyed taking dance and her experience with Duncan help her become a teacher's assistant, and eventually this led to odd jobs teaching dance. By the end of the War, Lanchester was living on her own and she started the Children's Theater, which was quite successful. Eventually, she and friends started performing one act plays in their own late night club, the Cave of Harmony, with Lanchester often singing naughty ditties for the late night patrons. She also started acting in theater and would often divide her time between acting in a play early in the evening and then singing their own cabaret late. 

In 1927, she met Charles Laughton when they were both cast in the same play. Within a couple of years, they were married. Laughton was quite successful as an actor, usually getting rave reviews, while she often played opposite him in smaller roles. Fairly early in their marriage, she discovered that he was gay, when  the police brought him home after an altercation with a boy he had paid to have sex with. The details were a bit fuzzy about the actual incident, but that night in tears, he confessed to her he was partly homosexual. Later he admitted that he'd had sex with another man on their sofa. Her response to this confession was very flip and one of the funniest lines in her autobiography. Charles Laughton felt guilt and anguish about his sexuality his whole life. I really don't think her intention was to be glib, but rather to put him at ease about it. She didn't really go into her feelings about it, but reading between the lines, I think she was very hurt by this. 

By the 1930s, Elsa and Charles were dividing their time between Hollywood and the movies and London and the theater (and the occasional British film). In her autobiography, the most time she time she ever spent discussing any of her films was the three or four pages she dedicated to her most famous role as The Bride of Frankenstein. She disliked the long hours in the makeup chair. Jack Pierce created both her makeup and that from the original film. She felt he took his role as monster maker much too seriously, and he glared at her whenever she tried to speak in the makeup chair. The hair she said was her own on a wire frame with the white part applied on top. She also said that she lost her voice hissing and screaming. The sound of the hisses she based on swans she remembered from Regents Park in London.

Relaxing with a cup of tea on the set
of Bride of Frankenstein
Looking at IMDB, she made as many as four films a year but often she only made one or two films a year. considering how prolific many character actors of her era were, she was less so than many. During the 1940s, she made 15 films, but during much of that time, she sang, in a theater called the Turnabout, 6 nights a week. In her autobiography, she rarely discussed her film work, much beyond a passing mention. I think this because she felt that singing and performing before a live audience was much more important to her, the people who accompanied her, the costume changes, and the songs she sang. I think that she viewed film acting as a sideline, that helped her contribute to the Laughton family income and support her aging parents. But her live shows, her relationship with Charles, and even her houses and travels were much more important to her.

In a way, it seems a shame to me, because she was always so good in her film roles. She was twice nominated for an Oscar, both for Best Supporting Actress, for Come to the Stable (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). She didn't win either of them, but she did win the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for Witness for the Prosecution. Every film I ever saw her in, she was good. 

Though, husband Charles Laughton had directed scenes of The Man on the Eiffel Tower (uncredited), his sole film directing credit was The Night of the Hunter. The film was considered a failure when first released, but later revered as one of the best Suspense films ever made. It was Elsa Lanchester who suggested Lillian Gish for the film and she was brilliant in it. 

1960s, characters from her
 Elsa Lanchester Herself
musical review
My own personal favorite role of Elsa Lanchester is one of my top sleeper films that most people haven't seen and really should, The Big Clock (1948). Starring Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, and George Macready, Elsa Lanchester plays a quirky artist in a relatively small role that provides virtually all of the comic relief, and she virtually steals the show, in a very taut entertaining thriller.

After Charles Laughton died of cancer in late 1962, Lanchester continued to act in both film and television. She made several Disney movies including Mary Poppins and That Darn Cat as well as shlocky horror, Willard and Terror in the Wax Museum. On the small screen, she appeared on Mannix, Night Gallery, Here's Lucy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and a dozen or so other shows.

I wanted to watch one of her later films, so I ended up going with Willard (1971). I know I had seen it as a kid on TV. For a 70s horror flick about a psycho who trains an army rats to do his evil bidding, it actually had a decent cast, Bruce Davison is the least known of the main actors, supported by Ernest Borgnine, Sondra Locke, and of course, Elsa Lanchester. To be honest, it was better than I expected it to be. Still I don't think it was anyone's finest hour, including Bruce Davidson, who despite my never having heard of him has worked steadily since starring in Willard, his fourth film. Elsa Lanchester plays Willard's elderly, doting, and domineering mother. She dies about a third of the way through Willard (of natural causes), which in a film like Willard is not too bad. Although I have a feeling that given her choice, she would have rather gone out like Ernest Borgnine, not pretty.

The WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon is hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club. Be sure to check out their sites for links to other great WHAT A CHARACTER! posts. And thanks Aurora, Kellee, and Paula for your hard work.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

µBlog – TCMFF 2015, Here, I Come

µBlog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

Passes for the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival went on sale today at Noon Eastern/9 am Pacific. I was on within a few minutes of passes going on sale and ...

I decided to go with the Essential Pass this time. I honestly don't know if it is worth the extra money for the Essential Pass over the Classic, but if the extra screening is something I really love, I'll call it a win.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bonhams : TCM Presents ... There's No Place Like Hollywood Auction Preview

I went to the Bonhams/TCM auction preview in L.A. this weekend. It was so worth it. The trip up was a little weird. Bonhams is on Sunset Blvd, and I would have sworn that there was a Sunset exit off I-5. I would have been wrong, should have taken 101. I'm looking for the Sunset exit and I see Griffith Park, and I'm like, isn't that north of Hollywood, I must be thinking some other famous L.A. park. Then a couple minutes later I see a sign for Burbank Blvd. Okay, I am definitely too far North.

I get off at the next exit, and start heading west. I had mapped out the trip from the auction house to Burbank, and the bulk of the north/south was on Cahuenga, so I figure I could take that. At a certain point I got impatient, so I figured I'd take the next big street south. Turns out that was Hollywood Way. This took me past Warner Brothers, so I knew I was probably okay.

Eventually I got to 101, and took it about four or five exits to Sunset. Probably, added about 20 minutes to the trip.

These are the pictures. I only added captions to a handful of them.

Fun fact, a hiker found this in folliage
above Mount Rushmore

This is the one I want. Architectural detail
from Ghostbusters, Spook  Central. Measures
7 1/2" tall. Estimate says it will go for $500-$700.
Thinking it will be way more than that, dammit.

Marilyn Monroe dress. Can you imagine
her standing in front of you wearing that?

This is the other one I really like. Concept
art from The Great Race.

One of four pieces of The Great Race
concept art.

Second lot of The Great Race concept art

Cuddles Sakall tux jacket from Casablanca 

So you want to makeover the den in a
Casablanca theme, and money is no object

Witches were really a problem in 1939

Viennese Cinnamon, anyone?

Jimmy Stewart's flight suit from Spirit
of St. Louis

So, yeah, they have a few posters

As a postscript, I decided to buy the auction catalog on the way out. The woman at the desk said it was $35, so I handed her two twenties. She went in the back and came out and said they weren't set up to take cash. She ended up giving me the catalog. Score.

Monday, November 10, 2014

µBlog – Weekend Getaway

µBlog – Too long to tweet, too short to call a real post

This weekend I attended Bent Con (small LBGT-oriented comic convention) in beautiful downtown Burbank. Actually, it probably wasn't downtown Burbank, but how often do you get to say that? Not often, you bet your sweet bippy. Now being up in Burbank, puts me in fairly close proximity to Hollywood, which means I'm going to try to make it to Amoeba Music, probably the best record store on the West Coast. It didn't seem to be in the cards this time, because of a combination of circumstances and another event going on in Hollywood this weekend that would have to take precedence.

Circumstance was I was driving and supposed to give a friend of a friend (whom I'd never met) a ride to Bent Con. Not that I mind, really, but when you have a stranger in the car, you don't really want to make them run off with you on a personal errand. The other event was, the Bonhams : TCM Presents ... There's No Place Like Hollywood auction preview. Thus with giving a ride, I would only have Sunday morning, meaning I would have to do Amoeba the next time.

As it turned out, the friend of a friend had to cancel, meaning I got to do both, making me a very happy camper. On the way up, I did the auction preview, despite a 20 mile detour, due me thinking that there was a Sunset Blvd. exit off I-5 (should have taken 101, really need to start using that map thing in my phone). Then Sunday morning, went to Amoeba and spent way too much money on CDs.

It was a great weekend. Bent Con, the auction preview, and Amoeba were all a blast. I will posting more pictures later, once I get them out of my real camera. Below is just a tease.

Eva Marie Saint's shawl from North By Northwest