Elsa Lanchester: Superlative on stage & screen

“ There is no such thing as a person that nothing has happened to, and each person’s story is as different as his fingertips” Elsa Sullivan Lanchester (October 28th, 1902- December 26th, 1986)3

Elsa Lanchester is perhaps one of my most cinematic inspirations: she displayed a deeply masterful poignance and exceptional brilliance during her 55 years on the silver screen. In the years 1925-1980, she starred in nearly 60 films and made countless appearances in television including Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with the episode entitled “Green Fingers” based on a short story by R.C. Cook. Premiering on January 5th, 1972 and written by Serling himself it stars Lanchester along with American film, television and Broadway actor Cameron Mitchell & American voice actor Michael Bell- under the direction of famed English born American film director John Badham. Lanchester’s only devoted spouse was the prominent English- American film and theatre actor, screenwriter, producer, and director Charles Laughton ( who directed only 1 film in his lifetime-1955s timeless American thriller classic The Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish) and whose 33 year marriage to Ms. Lanchester lasted until his death on December 15th, 1962 at the age of 63. From her film debut in 1925s The Scarlet Woman based on a novel by friend and author Evelyn Waugh (directed by Terence Cambridge) starring Derek Erskine, Archibald Gordon, and John Greenidge to her last feature film as Sophie in 1980s Die Laughing (directed by Jeff Werner) with Robby Benson, Charles Durning & Peter Coyote, she became a consummate actress of the stage and silver screen; her iconic role as the bride in English film director James Whale’s 1935 horror classic Bride of Frankenstein brought her recognition, and therefore came to be one of the roles most closely associated with her throughout her life. It is with great pleasure and honor that I present and pay an ardent tribute to the cinematic artist of the 20th Century that is Elsa Lanchester: The English- American character actress was born Elizabeth Lanchester Sullivan on October 28th, 1902 in Lewisham, London England to Bohemian parents James Sullivan & Edith Lanchester; her older brother Waldo Sullivan Lanchester was born 5 years before in 1897. Both parents never married and therefore their marriage remained a cohabitation throughout Elsa’s life. She began studying dance in Paris as a child with the renowned American dancer Isadora Duncan, with whom Lanchester disliked. After WWI, Elsa began performing in theatre and cabaret where she began her career over the following decade with the start of The Children’s Theatre & later the Cave of Harmony, a nightclub at which modern plays and cabaret turns were performed; her cabaret and nightclub appearances led to more serious stage work. It was in 1927 during Arnold Bennett’s play Mr. Prohack that Elsa met a rising actor who would change her life completely, both physically as an actress and in the role as the love of her life: Charles Laughton. They were married 2 years later and continued to act together from time to time both on stage and screen, including their last stage appearance in Jane Arden’s The Party. The Party premiered on May 28th, 1958 at the New Theatre in London with Laughton serving as both director and main cast member with his wife Lanchester. Laughton’s many successes in his early films, like 1932s Payment Deferred with Maureen O’ Sullivan and a brief but memorable appearance by future Oscar winning Welsh actor Ray Milland as James Medland, resulted in the couple moving to Hollywood where Lanchester would later find more career4

success. MGM soon signed a contract with Elsa Lanchester in 1932 and soon Laughton found work for her playing small roles in British films such as the role of Anne of Cleves in 1933s The Private Life of Henry VII (under the direction of acclaimed Hungarian- born British producer and film director Sir Alexander Korda). The film garnered Laughton an Academy Award for his titular performance as the lustful insecure King of England. She would later achieve immortality with her role as the bride in The Bride of Frankenstein with Colin Clive, Una O’Connor, Valerie Hobson, and Boris Karloff ( although she never received on screen billing for her role as The Bride). She continued to play supporting roles through the 1940s and 50s before hitting her stride in 2 films: as painter Amelia Potts in 1949s Come to the Stable with Loretta Young, Celeste Holm and Hugh Marlowe directed by the prolific German director Henry Koster and as the worrisome but deeply caring nurse Miss Plimsoll in the 1957 American courtroom drama film Witness for the Prosecution directed by Billy Wilder, with Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power. Both films earned Lanchester an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. She lost to Mercedes McCambridge for All the King’s Men during the 22nd Academy Awards on March 23rd, 1950 and later to Miyoshi Umeki for Joshua Logan’s Sayonara at the 30th Academy Awards on March 26h, 1958. She did win the Golden Globe Award for her supportive performance in Witness for the Prosecution and officially became a US Citizen in 1950. Laughton and Lanchester never had children together and after Laughton’s death, she continued her film career in countless other films, like the 1964 Disney classic Mary Poppins with Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson, 1965s That Darn Cat! with Hayley Mills, Dean Jones, Roddy McDowall, Neville Brand and Frank Gorshin, as Madame Neherina singing a duet with The King of Rock & Roll Elvis Presley in 1967’s Easy Come, Easy Go co-starring Frank McHugh, as Emily Stowecroft in 1968s Blackbeard’s Ghost with Dean Jones ( co-star from That Darn Cat!) English actor Sir Peter Ustinov and Suzanne Pleshette, as Wilbur’s mother in the original version of the highly successful 1971 classic horror film Willard with Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine, as Jessica Marbles in Robert Moore’s Murder by Death with Truman Capote, Peter Falk, David Niven, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers and Maggie Smith, and her final screen appearance as Sophie in 1980s Die Laughing. On December 26th, 1986 Elsa Lanchester passed away from pneumonia in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles California at the age of 84; she was cremated and her ashes were scattered at sea5

During her lengthy film career, I have had the immense and wondrous pleasure of viewing 8 films of Ms. Lanchester’s that I’ve enjoyed very much: 1) 1933s The Private Life of Henry VII with Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon & Wendy Barrie, 2) 1936s Rembrandt starring Charles Laughton and Gertrude Lawrence, 3) 1943s Lassie Come Home with Roddy McDowall, Donald Crisp, Nigel Bruce & Elizabeth Taylor, 4) 1946s The Spiral Staircase starring Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore, 5) 1947s The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, David Niven & Loretta Young, 6) 1948s The Big Clock starring Harry Morgan, Charles Laughton, Ray Milland and Maureen O’ Sullivan, 7) 1950s Mystery Street with Ricardo Montalban, Jan Sterling & Sally Forrest and 8) 1957s Witness for the Prosecution starring Tyrone Power (in his last active film appearance before his untimely death), Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, who would make a total of over 9 films together with Lanchester. A few films that I have yet to see of hers (but would still love to view) are 1946s The Razor’s Edge with Tyrone Power and Oscar winner Anne Baxter, 1971s Willard and finally the 1935 beloved horror classic Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa Lanchester was a beloved, cultured and immensely talented performer of the stage and silver screen; she became one of my favorite actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Films & Television not long after Witness for the Prosecution. Even though she was unable to win an Academy Award, the recognition and critical acclaim that she receives from so many classic film lovers became much more eminent than a golden statuette and gave me an even more profound and revered respect, appreciation, dedication and love for a wondrously enigmatic actress. Elsa Lanchester continues to instill an unconditional amount of heart, soul and passion through her selfless cinematic contributions and for that reason, I’m equally and eternally grateful for the continuous sparkle of hope and life she’s given to TCM and the classic film world!


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