October 28, 1902– Elsa Lanchester:
“Movies don’t really provide a career for a freak like I am.”
Lanchester was born into an eccentric English family. Her parents were true Bohemians, pacifist, atheist, vegetarian Socialists who refused to legalize their union in a conventional way just to satisfy the era’s conservative society.
When she was just 11 years old, Lanchester enrolled at Miss Isadora Duncan‘s School Of Dance in Paris, but the start of World War I prevented her from finishing her studies and she was sent back home to England.
Even as a young teenager, the war in Europe meant that she was obliged to find work and so she became a dance instructor. Lanchester was just 18 years old when founded of The Children’s Theater of London where she worked as an acting teacher. She also helped start an artist collective, Cave of Harmony Productions, where she and her theatre friends performed songs and sketches at London cabarets.
Lanchester made her film debut in One Of The Best (1927) working with another young actor, Charles Laughton. They married in 1929. In 1931, the couple came to the USA so that Laughton could take a role in a Broadway play. For two decades, the pair traveled frequently between England and the United States, eventually becoming American citizens in 1950.
Lanchester had a long career in films and television, playing eccentric characters with humorous quirks. She and Laughton enjoyed working together and they did 12 films as a team including The Private Life Of Henry VIII (1933) and Rembrandt (1936). She received an Academy Award nomination for Witness For The Prosecution (1957), in which they both starred. They did a picture together titled The Big Clock (1948), which despite the rumors, is not about me.
With him or without, her own performances were widely appreciated. Director/writer Billy Wilder called the pair: “the two most original actors I ever worked with.”
Lanchester would have her defining, iconic role in the fabulous Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), directed by the amazingly talented, openly filmmaker gay, James Whale. In that classic film she also plays Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the talented young woman who wrote the original Frankenstein novel in 1818. This movie’s Bride remains, without a doubt, the most famous female monster in film history. One of my favorite films, gay director/screenwriter Bill Condon’s Gods And Monsters (1998), based on the terrific novel by my friend Christopher Bram, pays homage to the creators of that 1935 production, with Rosalind Ayres smartly portraying Lanchester.
Except for specializing in the idiosyncratic, Lanchester was fortunate to not be stuck in a stereotype and she found work in films in a wide variety of roles and genres: Historical Dramas, Noir, Thrillers, Comedies, Westerns and Melodramas.
René Clair‘s charming The Ghost Goes West (1935) is my favorite; a romantic fantasy where Jean Parker plays the daughter of a rich American businessman who purchases a Scottish castle from Robert Donat, dismantles it and moves it to Florida. Along with the castle goes its ghost (also played by Donat). Lanchester plays a wacky spiritualist.
I also admire her work in Ladies In Retirement (1941), Tales Of Manhattan (1942), Lassie Come Home (1943), and the only really good version of gay writer W. Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge (1946), plus the thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945). In 1950, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the Loretta Young nun flick Come Back To The Stable. She is especially delightful as a witch in the thinly disguised gay allegory Bell, Book And Candle (1958), based on gay playwright John van Druten‘s popular play.
Her husband was queer. In her impishly witty memoir Elsa Lanchester Herself (1983), she wrote that she learned Laughton was a gay in 1931, two years after their wedding, when they came home one night to find a policeman at their door with a young ruffian who had tried to get money from Laughton after the actor had cruised him earlier that day in Hyde Park. Lanchester simply didn’t care. The couple had a 30+ year, happy, very modern marriage with each of them taking casual lovers, Lanchester with members of both sexes, while being honest and upfront about their needs and feelings with each other.
In 1960, Laughton and Lanchester bought a house on the beach in Santa Monica next door to pioneering gay couple, writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. The two couples became the best of friends. During that period, Lanchester was being cast in supporting roles, performing in her own distinctive batty style. She found a home at Disney Studios where they found good roles for her in Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965) and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). She even made an Elvis Presley flick, Easy Come Easy Go (1968).
In the 1970s, she returned to horror films with Willard (1971), about a young man’s love of a rat. It was an unliekly box-office hit at the time. She was also in the scary Terror In The Wax Museum (1973), reuniting with other Golden Age Hollywood stars: Ray Milland, Maurice Evans, and John Carradine. She was perfection spoofing Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple character in Neil Simon‘s brazenly funny Murder By Death (1976). Lanchester’s final appearance was in the comedy Die Laughing (1980), a very fitting title. When she left this world, she had worked as an actor for more than six decades.
Lanchester wrote a book about her relationship with her famous husband, Charles Laughton And I (1938), where she is discreet, of course. Yet, she did publish another memoir Elsa Lanchester Herself where she writes candidly about Laughton’s gayness. She reported that they never had children because Laughton was homosexual. Laughton’s pal and occasional costar Maureen O’Hara refuted this. She claimed Laughton had related to her that the reason the couple never had kids was because of a botched abortion Lanchester had early in her career. Lanchester didn’t deny the accusation, but she did say of O’Hara: “She looks as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, or anywhere else”.
Lanchester’s final credits rolled in 1986. She was 84 years old when she took that final curtain call. Her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean by Bachardy (Isherwood had died earlier that year).
With her role in Bride Of Frankenstein, Lanchester will forever be a Gay Icon. Parodied perfectly, but never ridiculed, by the great Madeline Kahn in Mel Brooks‘ Young Frankenstein (1974), Lanchester’s Bride is simply one of the most unique, strangest, powerful and troubling portrayals in film history.