Happy birthday to Elsa! The woman who possessed sheer feminine power! She may not be so well-remembered but you can guess who she played by the look of her eyes!
Elsa is an inspirational icon for my life and mind. I was somewhat obsessed with her last year and her marriage to Charles Laughton, which I found so enthralling. She was a woman who at the peak of her career did not feel obliged to conform to the ways of thinking, dressing and behaving as a human girl. I know I am terrible at giving summaries but I’ll try to give one about her remarkable life.
Elsa Lanchester was born in London a hundred and twelve years ago today. Her parents were strictly devoted to the thought of being bohemian and remained like that probably throughout their lives. I remember reading somewhere that her grandparents placed her mother in an asylum (correct me if I’m wrong) because she didn’t want to marry. Elsa was one of Isadora Duncan’s dance students in Paris. Despite her dislike towards her, she later taught dance in her manner when she returned to London. She worked in nightclubs and cabarets until she started to act professionally on the stage. In a play named Mr Prohack, she met the quintessential love of her life, Charles Laughton. They wedded two years later in 1929.
To me, this is one of the marriages that skilled in survival and was free of ongoing quarrels and misunderstandings. I think they were called “the happiest couple” at one point.
Two years after they were married, Elsa found out he was a closeted homosexual who was terrified of the judgmental press. They had been returning to their home one night, only to find a policeman and an escort patiently waiting outside. The latter claimed that he had offered his services to Laughton and he had not paid him in return. Did Elsa drop on her knees and wail? Did she demand a divorce? No! She didn’t care! She was a bit quirky so things like this never bothered her. The marriage remained undisturbed because she loved him! He probably reciprocated the feelings but in a brotherly way. This lavender marriage turned out to be fantastic. They both had liberties. He had men and she had men. To lessen suspicion at work, he would bring his men to the set and make others think they were his “assistants”. Even though Elsa didn’t give a care for what he preferred, Laughton had a horrific fear of exposure. Everybody knew about it! Some men even confronted him about it….such as Henry Fonda calling him a “fat faggot”. When filming Mutiny on the Bounty, Clark Gable had to stay away from him because of his strong homophobia. Why else do you think George Cukor got fired from Gone With the Wind?
Elsa appeared in some silents and then in some talkies, sometimes starring with her husband, which helped her get the role for Bride of Frankenstein. Having had her husband work with James Whale (an openly gay director) before, he offered Elsa the role of Frankenstein’s bride and she accepted. Her hair in that film was inspired by Nefertiti.
She actually had two roles in this film. The character she portrays in the beginning is Mary Shelley, accompanied by her husband Percy and Lord Byron, who are congratulating her on finished book of Frankenstein. Thereon she tells them the continuation of the story….
When I first saw this film, my eyes watered on the part when Frankenstein is befriending the old blind man. Not even vision could intrude in the way of friendship. He even taught the ghoul to smoke! Ah, I’ll bethink of that part always….
Back to Elsa. Today she is mostly remembered for those very few minutes that she played as the Bride. She only hissed; that’s all she did after the prologue. The makeup is compliment-worthy, so what can I say? Most of the horror icons are so revered that people forget they were just playing a non important role that got them paid. Must I even mention Maila Nurmi’s fifteen minute fame? I find it hard to understand why others obsess over her television show when it wasn’t even recorded. She wanted to be an actress! She deserved to be one! People now see her as a silly goth icon when all she wanted to do was act. Ah, how this plagues me!
A-N-Y-W-A-Y. Sorry for getting off topic again. She and her husband returned to England after to make more films and went back to Hollywood so he could make The Hunchback of Notre Dame. She appeared in more films, usually cast in non important roles, for she was considered a disregarded actress. It wasn’t until Passport to Destiny that she got the proper recognition. She played a lady who voyaged through Europe on her way to kill Hitler.
Throughout the years, she earned two Oscar nominations for Come to the Stable and Witness for the Prosecution. Did she win? No.
One appearance that I love of hers was in “Off to Florida” from I Love Lucy. I was never a big fan of the show, for I felt it was too recent for my taste, but I watched it just for Elsa’s sake. Lucy and Ethel ended up getting hitchhiked by Elsa’s character as they feared she was a hatchet murderess. It’s a comical episode that will cheer one up in a day cursed with depression. I watched it after bawling for half an hour straight while drinking hot chocolate.
Oh yes! In the fifties, she released about three albums. My favorite is Bawdy Cockney Songs. Well, that was the name to one of those when it was reissued. I love it so that I’d listen to it every day. That spellbinding little voice! How I treasure the memory of it in my eardrums! Oh yes! My favorite tune is the saucepan one. Some sexual innuendo in these tunes….
After Laughton died in ’62, she starred in classics such as Mary Poppins, which my sister loves and I don’t. Musicals aren’t my thing. A decade and some years later, she was in Murder by Death which brought her some success. Her last appearance in the movies was in Die Laughing.
I know this summary was vaguely written so if you wish to learn more about Elsa’s life, thoughts and movies, read her autobiography called Elsa Lanchester, Herself. It’s out of print now but you can find it on Amazon from around five to fifteen dollars.
Now….let’s gladly celebrate the legacy Elsa Lanchester left in our world and think of her unforgettable marriage to Charles Laughton.