Oscar Actors: Lanchester, Elsa–Background, Career, Awards

Updated December 26, 2021
Elsa Lanchester Career Summary:

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Breakthrough Role: Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, aged 32

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Screen Image: character actress

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Marriage: Charles Laughton

Politics: Democrat

Death: 1986; aged 84

Lanchester (28 October 1902 – 26 December 1986) was an English actress with long career in theatre, film and television.

Lanchester studied dance as a child and after the First World War began performing in theatre and cabaret, where she established her career over the following decade.

She met the actor Charles Laughton in 1927, and they were married two years later.

She began playing small roles in British films, including the role of Anne of Cleves with Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

Laughton’s success in American films resulted in the couple moving to Hollywood, where Lanchester played small film roles.

Her role as the title character in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) brought her recognition.

She played supporting roles through the 1940s and 1950s.

She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar twice, for Come to the Stable (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the last of 12 films in which she appeared with Laughton.

After Laughton’s death in 1962, Lanchester resumed her career with appearances in such Disney films as Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965) and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). The horror film Willard (1971) was highly successful, and one of her last roles was in Murder by Death (1976).

Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born in Lewisham, London.

Her parents, James “Shamus” Sullivan (1872–1945) and Edith “Biddy” Lanchester (1871–1966), were considered Bohemian, and refused to legalize their union in any conventional way to satisfy the era’s conservative society.

They were both socialists, according to Lanchester’s 1970 interview with Dick Cavett. Elsa’s older brother, Waldo Sullivan Lanchester, born five years earlier, was a puppeteer, with his own marionette company based in Malvern, Worcestershire and later in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Elsa studied dance in Paris under Isadora Duncan, whom she disliked. When the school was discontinued due to the start of World War I, she returned to the UK. At that point (she was about twelve years of age) she began teaching dance in the Duncan style and gave classes to children in her South London district, through which she earned some welcome extra income for her household.

At about this time, after World War I, she started the Children’s Theatre, and later the Cave of Harmony, a nightclub at which modern plays and cabaret turns were performed. She revived old Victorian songs and ballads, many of which she retained for her performances in another revue entitled Riverside Nights. Her first film performance came in 1924 in the amateur production The Scarlet Woman, which was written by Evelyn Waugh who also appeared in two roles himself. She became sufficiently famous for Columbia to invite her into the recording studio to make 78 rpm discs of four of the numbers she sang in these revues: “Please Sell No More Drink to My Father” and “He Didn’t Oughter” were on one disc (recorded in 1926) and “Don’t Tell My Mother I’m Living in Sin” and “The Ladies Bar” were on the other (recorded 1930).

Her cabaret and nightclub appearances led to more serious stage work and it was in a play by Arnold Bennett called Mr Prohack (1927) that Lanchester first met another member of the cast, Charles Laughton. They were married two years later and continued to act together from time to time, both on stage and screen. She played his daughter in the stage play Payment Deferred (1931) though not in the subsequent Hollywood film version. Lanchester and Laughton appeared in the Old Vic season of 1933–34, playing Shakespeare, Chekhov and Wilde, and in 1936 she was Peter Pan to Laughton’s Captain Hook in J. M. Barrie’s play at the London Palladium. Their last stage appearance together was in Jane Arden’s The Party (1958) at the New Theatre, London.

Lanchester made her film debut in The Scarlet Woman (1925) and in 1928 appeared in three silent shorts written for her by H. G. Wells and directed by Ivor Montagu: Blue Bottles, Daydreams and The Tonic. Laughton made brief appearances in all of them. They also appeared together in a 1930 film revue entitled Comets, featuring British stage, musical and variety acts, in which they sang in duet “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie.” Lanchester appeared in other early British talkies, including Potiphar’s Wife (1931), a film starring Laurence Olivier.

She appeared opposite Laughton again as Anne of Cleves in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), with Laughton in the title role. Laughton was by now making films in Hollywood, so Lanchester joined him there, making minor appearances in David Copperfield (1935) and Naughty Marietta (1935). These and her appearances in British films helped her gain the title role in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), arguably the role with which she remains most identified.

She and Laughton returned to Britain to appear together again in Rembrandt (1936) and later in Vessel of Wrath (US: The Beachcomber. 1938).

They both returned to Hollywood, where he made The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) although Lanchester didn’t appear in another film until Ladies in Retirement (1941). She and Laughton played husband and wife (their characters were named Charles and Elsa Smith) in Tales of Manhattan (1942) and they both appeared again in the all-star, mostly British cast of Forever and a Day (1943).

She received top billing in Passport to Destiny (1944) for the only time in her Hollywood career.

Lanchester played supporting roles in The Spiral Staircase and The Razor’s Edge (both 1946).

She appeared as the housekeeper in The Bishop’s Wife (1947) with David Niven playing the bishop, Loretta Young his wife, and Cary Grant an angel. Lanchester played a comical role as an artist in the thriller, The Big Clock (1948), in which Laughton starred as a megalomaniacal press tycoon.

She had a part as a painter specializing in nativity scenes in Come to the Stable (1949), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (1949).

During the late 1940s and 1950s she appeared in small but highly varied supporting roles in a number of films while simultaneously appearing on stage at the Turnabout Theatre in Hollywood.[7] Here she performed her solo vaudeville act in conjunction with a marionette show, singing somewhat off-colour songs which she later recorded for a couple of LPs.

Onscreen, she appeared alongside Danny Kaye in The Inspector General (1949), played a blackmailing landlady in Mystery Street (1950), and was Shelley Winters’s travelling companion in Frenchie (1950). More supporting roles followed in the early 1950s, including a 2-minute cameo as the Bearded Lady in 3 Ring Circus (1954), about to be shaved by Jerry Lewis.

She had another substantial and memorable part when she appeared again with her husband in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) a screen version of Agatha Christie’s 1953 play for which both received Academy Award nominations – she for the second time as Best Supporting Actress, and Laughton for the third time for Best Actor. Neither won. However she did win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for the film.

Lanchester played a witch in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), and appeared in such films as Mary Poppins (1964), in which her husband’s goddaughter Karen Dotrice also starred, That Darn Cat! (1965), and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). She appeared on 9 April 1959, on NBC’s The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. She performed in two episodes of NBC’s The Wonderful World of Disney. Additionally, she had memorable guest roles in an episode of I Love Lucy in 1956 and in episodes of NBC’s The Eleventh Hour (1964) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965).

Lanchester continued to make occasional film appearances, singing a duet with Elvis Presley in Easy Come, Easy Go (1967), and playing the mother in the original version of Willard (1971), alongside Bruce Davison and Ernest Borgnine, which scored well at the box office. She was Jessica Marbles, a sleuth based on Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, in the 1976 murder mystery spoof Murder by Death, and she made her last film in 1980 as Sophie in Die Laughing.

She released three LP albums in the 1950s. Two (referred to above) were entitled “Songs for a Shuttered Parlour” and “Songs for a Smoke-Filled Room”, and were vaguely lewd and danced around their true purpose, such as the song about her husband’s “clock” not working. Laughton provided the spoken introductions to each number and even joined Lanchester in the singing of “She Was Poor but She Was Honest”. Her third LP was entitled “Cockney London”, a selection of old London songs for which Laughton wrote the sleeve-notes.

Personal life

Lanchester married Charles Laughton in 1929.

Lanchester published a book, Charles Laughton and I.

In March 1983, she released an autobiography, titled Elsa Lanchester Herself. In the book, she alleges that she and Laughton never had children because he was homosexual. However, Laughton’s friend and co-star Maureen O’Hara denied this was the reason for the couple’s childlessness. She claimed Laughton had told her that Lanchester had botched abortion early in her career in burlesque. Lanchester admitted in her autobiography that she had two abortions in her youth (one being Laughton’s), but it is not clear if the second left her incapable of becoming pregnant again. According to her biographer, Charles Higham, the reason she did not have children was that she did not want any.

Lanchester was an atheist. She was a Democrat and she and Laughton were supportive of Adlai Stevenson’s campaign during the 1952 presidential election.

Shortly after the release of her autobiography, Lanchester’s health took a turn for the worse. Within 30 months, she suffered two strokes, becoming totally incapacitated. She required constant care and was confined to bedrest.

In March 1986, the Motion Picture and Television Fund filed to become conservator of Lanchester and her estate which was valued at $900,000.

Lanchester died in Woodland Hills, California on December 26, 1986, aged 84, at the Motion Picture Hospital from pneumonia.

Films

Shorts:

The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama (1925 short) as Beatrice de Carolle
One of the Best (1927) as Kitty
The Constant Nymph (1928) as Lady
The Tonic (1928, Short) as Elsa
Daydreams (1928, Short) as Elsa / Heroine in Dream Sequence
Blue Bottles (1928, Short) as Elsa
Mr. Smith Wakes Up (1929, Short)
Comets (1930) as Herself
Ashes (1930, Short) as Girl

Features:

The Love Habit (1931) as Mathilde
The Officers’ Mess (1931) as Cora Melville
The Stronger Sex (1931) as Thompson
Potiphar’s Wife (1931) as Therese
Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) Anne of Cleves, Fourth Wife

David Copperfield (1935) as Clickett
Naughty Marietta (1935) as Madame d’Annard
Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Mary Shelley/The Monster’s Mate
The Ghost Goes West (1935) as Miss Shepperton

Rembrandt (1936) as Hendrickje Stoffels
Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty (1936 unreleased short) as Millicent Bracegirdle

Vessel of Wrath (1938) as Martha Jones
Ladies in Retirement (1941) as Emily Creed
Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942), Bristol Isabel
Tales of Manhattan (1942) as Elsa (Mrs Charles) Smith
Forever and a Day (1943) as Mamie
Thumbs Up (1943) as Emma Finch
Lassie Come Home (1943) as Mrs. Carraclough
Passport to Destiny (1944) as Ella Muggins
The Spiral Staircase (1945) as Mrs. Oates
The Razor’s Edge (1946) as Miss Keith
Northwest Outpost (1947) as Princess “Tanya” Tatiana
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) as Matilda
The Big Clock (1948) as Louise Patterson
The Secret Garden (1949) as Martha
Come to the Stable (1949) as Amelia Potts
The Inspector General (1949) as Maria
Buccaneer’s Girl (1949) as Mme. Brizar
Mystery Street (1950) as Mrs. Smerrling
The Petty Girl (1950) as Dr. Crutcher
Frenchie (1950) as Countess
Dreamboat (1952) as Dr. Mathilda Coffey
Les Misérables (1952) as Madame Magloire
Androcles and the Lion (1952) as Megaera
The Girls of Pleasure Island (1953) as Thelma
Hell’s Half Acre (1954) as Lida O’Reilly
3 Ring Circus (1954) as the Bearded Lady
The Glass Slipper (1955) as Widow Sonder
Alice in Wonderland (1955 TV movie) as the Red Queen
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) as Miss Plimsoll
Bell, Book and Candle (1958) as Aunt Queenie Holroyd
The Flood (1962 TV movie) as Noah’s Wife (voice)
Honeymoon Hotel (1964) as Chambermaid
Mary Poppins (1964) as Katie Nanna
Pajama Party (1964) as Aunt Wendy
That Darn Cat! (1965) as Mrs. MacDougall
Easy Come, Easy Go (1967) as Madame Neherina
Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) as Emily Stowecroft
Rascal (1969) as Mrs. Satterfield
Me, Natalie (1969) as Miss Dennison
In Name Only (1969, TV Movie) as Gertrude Caruso
Willard (1971) as Henrietta Stiles
Terror in the Wax Museum (1973) as Julia Hawthorn
Arnold (1973) as Hester

Murder by Death (1976) as Jessica Marbles

Where’s Poppa? (1979, TV Movie) as Momma Hocheiser

Die Laughing (1980) as Sophie (final film role)