Hand color tinted photo of Elsa Lanchester & Boris Karloff from the 1935 movie, The Bride of Frankenstein
Elsa Sullivan Lanchester (28 October 1902 – 26 December 1986) was an English-American character actress with a 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 bride in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), brought her recognition, and came to be one of the roles most closely associated with her throughout her life. Lanchester played supporting roles through the 1940s and 1950s. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Come to the Stable (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the last of twelve films in which she appeared with Laughton. Following 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).
Early lifeLanchester was born in Lewisham, London, England. Her parents, James Sullivan and Edith Lanchester, 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 in a 1972 Dick Cavett interview. Edith’s parents even successfully sent her to an asylum for a while, as she refused to wed James even if she wanted to live with him. An elder brother, Waldo (b. 1898), completed the family.
As a child, Elsa studied dance in Paris under Isadora Duncan, whom she disliked. When the school was discontinued due to the start of First World War she returned to England. At that point (she was about twelve years of age) she considered herself capable of teaching dancing in the Isadora Duncan style (despite her own scathing remarks about her former teacher’s style) and, very enterprisingly, started to give classes to children in her South London neighbourhood, through which she earned some welcome extra income for her household.
At about this time after the First World War, Elsa 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. These appearances led to stage work and it was in a play by Arnold Bennett called Mr. Prohack (1927) that Elsa first met another member of the cast, a rising actor called 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 also appeared in the Old Vic Season of 1933-34, playing Shakespeare, Chekov 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 married actor Charles Laughton in 1929. She made her film debut in The Scarlet Woman (1925) and in 1928 appeared in three ‘silent shorts’ written for her by H.G. Wells (Bluebottles, Daydreams and The Tonic) in which Laughton made brief appearances. 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 several other early British talkies, including Potiphar’s Wife (1931), starring Laurence Olivier. She acted with Laughton again in 1933 in one of her best-known early screen appearances, as a highly comical Anne of Cleves in The Private Life of Henry VIII. 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), the film for which she is now best remembered. She and Laughton returned to England in 1936 to appear together again in Rembrandt and two years later in Vessel of Wrath (aka The Beachcomber).
They both returned to Hollywood in 1939 where he made The Hunchback of Notre Dame though Elsa didn’t appear in another movie until 1941 with Ladies in Retirement. 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). Lassie Come Home (also 1943) was Elsa’s first Technicolor film. She then received top billing in Passport to Destiny (1944) for the only time in her Hollywood movies. In this, she played a cockney charlady who scrubs her way across occupied Europe in order to try and assassinate Hitler. She played supporting roles in The Spiral Staircase and The Razor’s Edge (both 1946) and also appeared in The Bishop’s Wife the following year. Elsa played a comical role in the otherwise gripping 1948 thriller, The Big Clock in which Laughton also starred as a murderous, megalomaniac press tycoon. She also had a substantial part as an artist specialising in nativity scenes in Come to the Stable for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (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. Here she performed her solo vaudeville act, singing somewhat off-colour songs which she later recorded for a couple of LPs. On screen, she appeared alongside Danny Kaye in The Inspector General (1949), played a blackmailing landlady in Mystery Street (1950) and was Shelley Winter’s travelling companion in the Western Frenchie (1950). More supporting roles followed in the early 1950s but then she had another substantial part when she appeared again with her husband in the screen version of Agatha Christie’s play Witness for the Prosecution, for which both received Academy Award nominations – she for the second time as Best Supporting Actress, and Laughton, also for the second time, for Best Actor. Neither won. However, Lanchester did win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for the film.
Lanchester had another big part, as a witch, in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and she is known for her appearances in a few Walt Disney films, including the departing nanny, Katie Nanna, in Mary Poppins (1964), and also That Darn Cat! (1965) and Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). She appeared on April 9, 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 a classic I Love Lucy episode in 1956 and in episodes of NBC’s The Eleventh Hour (1964) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1965).
In the 1965-1966 television season, she was a regular on John Forsythe’s sitcom The John Forsythe Show on NBC in the role of Miss Culver, the principal of a private girls’ academy in San Francisco. She continued television work into the early 1970s, appearing as a recurring character in Nanny and the Professor, starring Richard Long and Juliet Mills.
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). 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 also 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. Charles Laughton provided the spoken introductions to each number and even joined Elsa in the singing of “She Was Poor But She Was Honest.” Elsa’s third LP was entitled “Cockney London,” a selection of old London Songs for which Laughton wrote the sleeve-notes.
Private lifeFollowing Laughton’s death in 1962, Lanchester wrote a book alleging that they never had children because Laughton was actually homosexual. Actress Maureen O’Hara, a friend and co-star of Laughton, firmly denied that this was the reason for the couple’s childlessness. She claimed that homosexuality would never have stopped Laughton, and that he had told her that the reason he and his wife never had children was because of a botched abortion Lanchester had early in her career while performing burlesque. Elsa Lanchester mentioned in her own biography Elsa Lanchester Herself having had two abortions in her youth (one of them, a child from Charles), though she doesn’t mention whether this left her incapable of becoming pregnant again.
Lanchester once said of O’Hara, “She looks as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, or anywhere else.”
Lanchester died in Woodland Hills, California on 26 December 1986 from pneumonia. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered at sea.
Boris Karloff (November 23, 1887 – February 2, 1969) was a British actor who emigrated to Canada in the 1910s. He is best remembered for his roles in horror films and his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein, 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, and 1939 film Son of Frankenstein. His popularity following Frankenstein in the early 1930s was such that for a brief time he was billed simply as “Karloff” or, on some movie posters, “Karloff the Uncanny”.
Karloff was born William Henry Pratt at 36 Forest Hill Road, Peckham Rye, London, England, where a blue plaque can now be seen. He was brought up in Enfield. His paternal grandmother was Eliza Julia (Edwards) Pratt, a sister of Anna Leonowens, whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I. Her maternal grandmother was of Indian origin, being from Kolkata. In 1845, Anna’s 15-year-old sister, Eliza Julia Edwards, married Edward John Pratt, a 38-year-old Anglo-Indian civil servant who had served in the Indian Navy. Eliza and Edward had a son, Edward John Pratt, Jr., who in 1887, with his wife, Eliza Sarah Millard, had a son named William Henry Pratt, who later became known as Boris Karloff. Because Pratt Sr. was an Anglo-Indian, Anna never approved of Eliza’s marriage, and her disconnection from the family was so complete that decades later, when a Pratt relative contacted her, she replied threatening suicide if he persisted.
Research for a new biography has shown the actor was not orphaned in his youth, as has always been believed. Following his mother’s death he was raised by his elder brothers and sister and attended Enfield Grammar School before moving to Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood, and eventually King’s College London. Karloff’s first goal in life was to join the foreign service his brother, Sir John Henry Pratt, became a distinguished British diplomat but instead he fell into acting.
Karloff was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable all through his career.
Early acting career and name change
In 1909, Pratt travelled to Canada and some time later changed his professional name to “Boris Karloff”. Some have theorized that he took the stage name from a mad scientist character in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy called “Boris Karlov”. However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in silent films (Warner Oland played “Boris Karlov” in a movie version in 1931). Another possible influence was thought to be a character in the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy novel H.R.H. The Rider which features a “Prince Boris of Karlova”, but as the novel was not published until 1915, the influence may be backward, that Burroughs saw Karloff in a play and adapted the name for the character. Karloff always claimed he chose the first name “Boris” because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that “Karloff” was a family name. However, his daughter Sara Karloff publicly denied any knowledge of Slavic forebears, “Karloff” or otherwise. One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family. Whether or not his brothers (all dignified members of the British foreign service) actually considered young William the “black sheep of the family” for having become an actor, Karloff himself apparently worried they did feel that way. He did not reunite with his family again until 1933, when he went back to England to make The Ghoul, extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his elder brothers jostled for position around their “baby” brother and happily posed for publicity photographs with him.
Karloff spent years testing the waters in North America while living in smaller towns like Kamloops, BC and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. In 1912, while appearing in a play in Regina, Saskatchewan, Karloff volunteered to be a rescue worker following a devastating tornado. He also lived in Minot, North Dakota, for a year, performing in an opera house above a hardware store.
Due to the years of difficult manual labor in Canada and the U.S. while trying to establish his acting career, he suffered back problems for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not fight in World War I.
Career in Hollywood
Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labor, such as digging ditches and driving a cement truck, to pay the bills. His role as Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein (1931) made him a star. A year later, he played another iconic character, Imhotep, in The Mummy.
The five-foot, eleven-inch, brown-eyed Karloff played a wide variety of roles in other genres besides horror. He was memorably gunned down in a bowling alley in the 1932 film Scarface. He played a religious WWI soldier in the 1934 John Ford epic The Lost Patrol. Karloff gave a string of lauded performances in 1930s Universal horror movies, including several with his main rival as heir to the horror throne of Lon Chaney, Sr.: Bela Lugosi, whose refusal to play the monster in Frankenstein made Karloff’s subsequent career possible. Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster three times; the other films being Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), which also featured Lugosi. Karloff would revisit the Frankenstein mythos in film several times after leaving the role. The first would be as the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), where Karloff would be contrasted against Glenn Strange’s portrayal of the Monster.
Karloff returned to the role of the “mad scientist” in 1958’s Frankenstein 1970, as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original inventor. The final twist reveals the crippled Baron has given his own face (i.e., “Karloff’s”) to the Monster. The actor appeared at a celebrity baseball game as the Monster in 1940, hitting a gag home run and making catcher Buster Keaton fall into an acrobatic dead faint as the Monster stomped into home plate. Norman Z. McLeod filmed a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Karloff in the Monster make-up, but it was deleted. Karloff donned the headpiece and neck bolts for the final time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, but he was playing “Boris Karloff,” who, within the story, was playing “the Monster.”
While the long, creative partnership between Karloff and Lugosi never led to a close mutual friendship, it produced some of each actor’s most revered and enduring productions, beginning with The Black Cat. Follow-ups included Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Black Friday (1940), You’ll Find Out (also 1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945). During this period he also starred with Basil Rathbone in Tower of London (1939).
From 1945-1946, Karloff appeared in three films for RKO produced by Val Lewton: Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg, of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his three-picture deal with RKO, his reasons for leaving Universal Pictures and working with producer Lewton. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. The latest installment was what he called a “‘monster clambake,’ with everything thrown in – Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback and a ‘man-beast’ that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so.” Berg continues, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul”.
During this period, Karloff was also a frequent guest on radio programs, whether it was starring in Arch Oboler’s Chicago-based Lights Out productions, most notably the episode “Cat Wife,” or spoofing his horror image with Fred Allen or Jack Benny.
An enthusiastic performer, he returned to the Broadway stage in the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941, in which he played a homicidal gangster enraged to be frequently mistaken for Karloff. Although Frank Capra cast Raymond Massey in the 1944 film, (which was shot in 1941, while Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway), Karloff reprised the role on television with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Somewhat less successful was his work in the J. B. Priestley play The Linden Tree. He also appeared as Captain Hook in the play Peter Pan with Jean Arthur. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his work opposite Julie Harris in The Lark, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh about Joan of Arc, which was also reprised on Hallmark Hall of Fame.
In later years, Karloff hosted and acted in a number of television series, most notably Thriller, Out of This World, and The Veil, the latter of which was never broadcast and only came to light in the 1990s. In the 1960s, Karloff appeared in several films for American International Pictures, including Comedy of Terrors, The Raven, and The Terror, the latter two directed by Roger Corman, and Die Monster Die (1965 film).
During the 1950s Karloff appeared on British TV in the series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, in which he portrayed John Dickson Carr’s fictional detective Colonel March who was known for solving apparently impossible crimes.
As a guest on The Gisele MacKenzie Show, Karloff sings “Those Were the Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees, while Gisele MacKenzie performs the solo, “Give Me the Simple Life”. On The Red Skelton Show, Karloff guest starred along with horror actor Vincent Price in a parody of Frankenstein, with Red Skelton as the monster “Klem Kadiddle Monster.” In 1966 Karloff also appeared with Robert Vaughn and Stefanie Powers in the spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., in the episode “The Mother Muffin Affair.” Karloff performed in drag as the titular Mother Muffin. That same year he also played an Indian Maharajah on the adventure series The Wild Wild West (“The Night of the Golden Cobra”). In 1967, he played an eccentric Spanish professor who thinks he’s Don Quixote in a whimsical episode of I Spy (“Mainly on the Plains”).
In the mid-1960s, Karloff gained a late-career surge of American popularity when he narrated the made-for-television animated film of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and provided “the sounds of the Grinch” (the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung not by Karloff, but by American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft). Karloff later won a Grammy in the spoken word category after the story was released as a record.
In 1968 he starred in Targets, a movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich about a young man who embarks on a spree of killings carried out with handguns and high powered rifles. The movie starred Karloff as “retired horror film actor” Byron Orlok (a lightly-disguised version of himself) facing an end of life crisis, resolved through a confrontation with the shooter.
Karloff ended his career appearing in a trio of low-budgeted Mexican horror films that were shot shortly before his death; all were released posthumously, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not seeing release until 1971, two years after Karloff’s death.
Other records Karloff made for the children’s market included Three Little Pigs and Other Fairy Stories, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and, with Cyril Ritchard and Celeste Holm, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.
In contrast to the sinister characters he played on screen, Karloff was known in real life as a very kind gentleman who gave generously, especially to children’s charities. Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital.
Karloff was also a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and was especially outspoken regarding working conditions on sets (some extremely hazardous) that actors were expected to deal with in the mid-1930s. He married six times. He had one child, a daughter, by his fifth wife.
In 1931, Boris Karloff took out insurance against premature aging from his fright make-up.
Boris Karloff lived out his final years at his cottage, ‘Roundabout,’ in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. After a long battle with arthritis and emphysema, he contracted pneumonia, succumbing to it in the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex, England, on February 2, 1969. He was cremated, following a requested low-key service, at Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, where he is commemorated by a plaque in the Garden of Remembrance. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s, Covent Garden (The Actors’ Church), London, where there is also a plaque.
However, even death could not put an immediate halt to Karloff’s media career. Four Mexican films for which Karloff shot his scenes in Los Angeles were released over a two-year period after he had died. They were dismissed, by critics and fans alike, as undistinguished efforts. Also, during the run of Thriller, Karloff lent his name and likeness to a comic book for Gold Key Comics based upon the series; after Thriller was cancelled, the comic was retitled Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery. An illustrated likeness of Karloff continued to introduce each issue of this publication for nearly a decade after the real Karloff died; the comic lasted until the early 1980s.