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 World War I 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). His 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 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 suchDisney 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 and Edith "Biddy" Lanchester, were consideredBohemian, and refused to legalise their union in any conventional way to satisfy the era's conservative society. They were both socialists, according to Lanchester's 1972 interview with Dick Cavett. Elsa's older brother, Waldo Sulivan Lanchester, born five years earlier, was a puppeteer, with his own marionette company based in Malvern 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 Britain. 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 district, through which she earned some welcome extra income for her household. At about this time, after the First World War, 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. 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 was 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 Elsa first met another member of the cast, a rising actor named 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 1933–1934, 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 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 (Bluebottles, Daydreams and The Tonic) in which Laughton made brief appearances. They also appeared together in a 1930 'film revue' entitledComets, 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 appeared opposite Laughton again in 1933 as a highly comicalAnne 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). She and Laughton returned to Britain in 1936 to appear together again in Rembrandt and two years later in Vessel of Wrath, a.k.a.The Beachcomber.
They both returned to Hollywood in 1939 where he made The Hunchback of Notre Dame although Lanchester didn't appear in another film until 1941 withLadies 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 films. In this, she played a cockney charlady who scrubs her way across occupied Europe in order to assassinate Hitler."
Lanchester 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. She played a comical role in the 1948 thriller, The Big Clock, in which Laughton starred as a murderous, megalomaniac press tycoon. She 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 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 the Western Frenchie (1950). More supporting roles followed in the early 1950s, including a 2-minute cameo as the Bearded Lady in 3 Ring Circus, about to be shaved by Jerry Lewis. She then had another substantial part when she appeared again with her husband in the screen version of Agatha Christie's play Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 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 played a witch in Bell, Book and Candle (1958), and appeared in such classics as Mary Poppins (1964), 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 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 1965–66 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 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". Her third LP was entitled "Cockney London", a selection of old London songs for which Laughton wrote the sleeve-notes.
Lanchester married Charles Laughton in 1929.
In March 1983, Lanchester released her autobiography, entitled Elsa Lanchester Herself. In the book she alleges that she and Charles Laughton never had children because Laughton was homosexual. Maureen O'Hara, a friend and co-star of Laughton, denied this was the reason for the couple's childlessness. She claimed Laughton 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. Lanchester admitted in her autobiography that she had had two abortions in her youth (one of whom was sired by Laughton), but it is not clear if these left her incapable of becoming pregnant again. The two women did not like each other. Lanchester once said of O'Hara, "She looks as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, or anywhere else."
Not long 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 and requiring constant care. She was confined to bed. 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 26 December 1986, aged 84, at the Motion Picture Hospital from bronchopneumonia. Her body was cremated on 5 January 1987, at the Chapel of the Pines in Los Angeles and her ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean.