Hand color tinted photo of Elsa Lanchester & Charles Laughton from the 1957 movie, Witness for the Prosecution
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).
Lanchester 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.
Charles Laughton (July 1, 1899 – December 15, 1962) was an English-American stage and film actor, screenwriter, producer and one-time director.