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.


  1. WOW! I knew practically nothing of what you mention. Love Lan-CHESTER even more now. What an interesting, diverse life that perfectly explains why she seemed often a bit off-kilter in her roles and ALWAYS memorable. Terrific write-up, Chris!


  2. That was fascinating. There's a biopic in Elsa's story for the right actress. I wonder if she's out there somewhere.

    1. This will probably get a groan or laughter, but Amanda Seyfried immediately came to mind. She's another underrated chameleon, playing characters from the manipulated [Linda] "Lovelace" (2013) to a very convincing, fearless, highly organized serial killer hunting, revenge seeking vigilante in "Gone" (2012).

  3. Thanks, Aurora and Caftan Woman. It's weird. I read her autobiography in hopes of learning more about her film work and got almost nothing, but I learned a ton about history, her life, and Charles Laughton's work, so I'll take that as a win.

  4. I agree with Caftan Woman- there needs to be a film bio made of Elsa. What an interesting read about a very interesting life. Fabulous & informative write-up, Chris! Thanks so much for joining our blogthon- I've learned so much!

  5. I had no idea that she had such an "unconventional" early life! Great post on an amazing woman with an astonishingly long career!

  6. I'm guessing that her later life was just as unconventional. I just she would have given a little more of that.

  7. Thanks, Chris. I really enjoyed this post about an inexplicably underutilized, underappreciated actress. I wish she had been cast in pre-code Hollywood movies. Her quirky brilliance would have been perfect.