Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Elsa Lanchester (1902-1986)

Birth name: Elsa Sullivan Lanchester
Birthdate: Tuesday, October 28th, 1902
Location: Lewisham, London, UK

Died: Friday, December 26th, 1986
Location: California, USA
Cause of death: Bronchopneumonia

Best known for: Elsa will forever be associated with the iconic role of the bride of Frankenstein in the 1935 film of the same name. She was nominated for an Oscar twice - for Best Supporting Actress in Come to the Stable (1949, losing to Mercedes McCambridge) and in Witness for the Prosecution (1958, losing to Miyoshi Umeki).

In 1929, years before Elsa came to recognition as the fright-haired bride, she married fellow actor Charles Laughton, and they remained married for the rest of Charles's life, until he died in 1962. The pair appeared in no fewer than 12 movies together during this time.

Elsa as Katy Nanna in Mary Poppins
Elsa's career had seen a solid amount of often supporting roles in films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but as the 1950s drew to an end, her career was to receive some revivification thanks to high profile and successful roles in the films Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and Mary Poppins (1964 - she's the brusque housekeeper Katy Nanna whose departure instigates Poppins' arrival).

As the 1960s wore on she found herself appearing more and more on TV, such as Burke's Law (1963/64), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964), The Man from UNCLE (1965) and regularly in The John Forsythe Show (1965-66), but film roles did not die out completely - they included That Darn Cat! (1965), Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) and Willard (1971).

Elsa was 74 when she played Miss
Marbles in the comedy Murder By Death
Inevitably as Elsa entered her seventh decade, work began to dry up, as well as trade on her Universal Horror origins. In 1973 she appeared in Terror in the Wax Museum, shot back-to-back with many of the same cast and crew of the same year's Arnold, and in 1976 she took on the role of Jessica Marbles (a thinly veiled spoof of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple) in the comedy whodunit Murder By Death.

Elsa's final screen appearance was in April 1980, aged 77, in a woeful film called Die Laughing, in which a San Francisco cab driver finds himself in possession of a monkey that is carrying the formula for turning atomic waste into a plutonium bomb. Cue lots of capering about the city pursued by various characters intent on getting their hands on the formula. I've no idea what it means, but the film's tagline is classic: "As a singer, he's a killer. As a lover, he's a killer. As a killer, he's a lovely singer"! The film starred Robby Benson as our hero Pinsky, and Elsa played his guardian Sophie, who helped him in his bizarre quest.

In her final acting role in
1980's Die Laughing, aged 77
In 1983 Elsa wrote an autobiography, Elsa Lanchester Herself, in which she claimed the reason she and Charles Laughton never had children was because Charles was gay, but Laughton's one-time co-star Maureen O'Hara claimed it was because a botched abortion in her youth meant Elsa could not bear a child. Elsa admitted she'd had two abortions when she was young, but did not clarify if O'Hara's claim was the truth. What is known is that Elsa and Maureen did not like one another; Elsa once said of O'Hara: "She looks like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth - or anywhere else."

Not long after the release of her autobiography, Elsa's health took a turn for the worse and during the mid-1980s she suffered two strokes, becoming completely bedridden and needing 24-hour care. In March 1986 the Motion Picture and Television Fund filed to become conservator of Elsa and her estate, valued at $900,000. Elsa passed away, aged 84, at the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, on Boxing Day, 1986, of bronchopneumonia: she had requested no funeral or memorial service. She was cremated on January 5th, 1987 at the Chapel of the Pines in Los Angeles and her ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

A bit of fun: Here's an interview Dick Cavett did with Elsa (or should that be Flossie Floozy?) in August 1970, when she was 68, talking about her late husband Charles Laughton, as well as Isadora Duncan (who she describes as an "untalented bag of beans"!).

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