In the prologue to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley, sitting and sewing as Byron (Gavin Gordon) and her husband Percy (Douglas Walton) look on. “She is an angel,” Byron says, and Mary rejoins, “You think so?” with a devilish smile. There is a storm going on outside. “You know how lightning alarms me,” she purrs, humorously, for Mary, like Lanchester herself, loves nothing more than a storm. Lanchester, with her Gothic, serrated prettiness, plays this prologue poised on the very edge of camp. “It’s a perfect night for mystery and horror,” she says. “The air itself is filled with monsters.”
“She’s alive! Alive!” cries Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein at the end of this classic horror film, with all of its allegorical insights into being an outsider and all of its stylish humor. We see the Bride’s eyes first in close-up, and when her bandages are taken off, Lanchester stands before us in a flowing white gown with her wavy hair sticking up on end. Does the fabulously queeny Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) tease the Bride’s hair like this for her?
Universal make-up artist Jack Pierce styled Lanchester for the role and said that he was inspired by images of Nefertiti, though the skunk stripe of white streaked through the Bride’s hairdo was his own inspiration. Lanchester’s own hair was set in a marcel wave and then combed up over a wire frame, which took a while. The terminally caustic Lanchester was bemused by Pierce: “He really did feel that he made these people, like he was a god,” she said. “In the morning he’d be dressed in white as if he were in hospital to perform an operation.”
The Bride looks around jerkily to the side and then up so that we can see the scars on her jaw. Aided by Whale’s moody lighting, Lanchester really does seem like a newborn creature swooning and swaying to all the stimuli around her. The Monster (Boris Karloff) approaches her and asks, “Friend?” and the Bride hisses and then screams (Lanchester said that she patterned the sounds she made in this scene after the hissing of swans). The Monster gently touches The Bride’s hand and she screams again. “She hate me,” he concludes. “Like others.” And so, with a tear on his face, he blows them up.
Why does The Bride reject The Monster so violently? It cannot just be fear. The Monster reaches out to her with real delicacy and vulnerability. There’s something in The Bride that makes her reject him, a streak of cruelty like that streak of white in her hair, and this relates directly back to the very vivid and particular actress who was playing her and giving her life. Lanchester is only on screen for ten minutes or so in The Bride of Frankenstein, but it is enough to seal her immortality.
Lanchester came from a free-living Socialist family and studied with Isadora Duncan as a girl. She was scathing about Isadora in later interviews, but this was a woman who was scathing about practically everyone. She became a cabaret star at the Cave of Harmony nightclub in London, singing ditties like “Please Sell No More Drink to My Father” and “Don’t Tell My Mother I’m Living in Sin.” Sporting kinky and flame-red hair, Lanchester moved in bohemian circles and she herself lived in sin with Charles Laughton for two years before they were married. She performed in several avant-garde shorts with titles like The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama (1925), and Laughton appeared with her in the H.G. Wells-scripted short Daydreams (1928).
Laughton and Lanchester were a match of opposites, and they made a kind of sense as a couple at the beginning of their union, but he was homosexual, which Lanchester discovered soon after they were married. He was also coming into his own as perhaps the finest actor of his time, which meant that she was always in his shadow even though she had deep, if eccentric, talents of her own. Lanchester stayed married to Laughton until he died in 1962, and she paid a steep price for it, as did he. She was trapped or stuck, always under his thumb professionally, and her frustration at that meant that she could be verbally cruel to him, but Laughton was a masochist who seemed to need the many pins she stuck in him to create his best work as an actor. She found herself unable to leave him. Whenever he spoke of divorce, it was Lanchester who defended their odd marriage and sought to keep it going.
Lanchester worked with Laughton throughout her life, with varying results. She’s hilarious as Anne of Cleves in his Oscar-winner The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), where she does a shamelessly broad German accent and grabs any laugh she can find. When Laughton went to Hollywood, Lanchester made do with small parts in David Copperfield (1935) and Naughty Marietta (1935), where she went in for rather heavy bitchery as Frank Morgan’s wife. Her Bride was certainly a success, but it was such extreme work that it led nowhere—she had been too weird in the part, too scary and sexually offbeat for easy casting. Lanchester has little more than a bit in The Ghost Goes West (1935), but then she proved that she could play a radiantly sweet and simple girl in Rembrandt (1936) opposite Laughton. Her Hendrickje is an ideal partner and helpmate to Rembrandt, and her performance here was proof, if any was needed, that she could act something very far from herself.
In her autobiography, Lanchester wrote that producer Alexander Korda had offered her a lead role in a film that she actually started shooting before Korda dropped it when he got Laughton for the lead in Rembrandt, and this sort of professional humiliation did nothing to shore up Lanchester’s increasingly fragile ego. Korda admitted grudgingly that she had done well with her own part in Rembrandt, but no one else seemed to care or notice that her very unusual talent was falling by the wayside while her husband took one plum part after another and made large meals of them.
She got to do a lead opposite Laughton in Vessel of Wrath (also known as The Beachcomber, 1938), where she plays a prudish missionary, but Laughton and Lanchester usually don’t have much real chemistry in their on-screen work. She does her thing (usually outrageous comedy in fast strokes) and he does his (tirelessly labored-over and seriously layered character work), and they don’t mix very well; it’s as if there is a wall up between them. In their relations in movies, he’s usually in charge and naughty while she is censorious but powerless, and surely she would have preferred to be the naughty one herself. At the end of Vessel of Wrath, Laughton slaps Lanchester lightly on the face, and it’s presumably meant to be affectionate, but it feels more like a glimpse of their frustration with each other.
Lanchester played character roles throughout the 1940s, and her films treat her like a spicy side dish that might make you sick if you have too much of it. She was asked to be just nice sometimes, as in Come to the Stable (1949), but she’s much more useful as a fly in the ointment, a weirdo, a bitch or a witch, a fairy or an imp. On stage in the 1930s, she had played Peter Pan and Ariel in The Tempest with Laughton, and surely she would have made a perfect Puck, too. Her instincts were for the fantastical and the non-realistic, but she was also capable of realistic nastiness, as in her superb performance as a seedy and avaricious landlady in Mystery Street (1950), a film that allows her to spread her wings and steal the show with work that would have met even Laughton’s exacting artistic standards.
Lanchester played a cheery, chattering nurse to Laughton in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), a film where Laughton’s gibes at her feel heavy-spirited rather than funny. She made for a childlike witch in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and then retired to take care of Laughton until he died. As an older and less inhibited man, he had his boyfriends, and they often fought bitterly. “Her chief means of communication was raillery,” wrote Simon Callow in his biography of Laughton. “Tremendous fun if you were sure of yourself and in the mood, but apt to make you feel put down, sent up, and finally pissed-off, if you weren’t…she was like the little bird who lives on the hippopotamus, except that instead of ridding him of insects, she was now drawing blood.”
After Laughton died, Lanchester did some more character parts in films, but she was most comfortable doing her cabaret act at the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles, for she was a performer who liked the reassurance of instant live audience laughter. She wrote a candid and amusing memoir called Elsa Lanchester Herself and was a popular talk show guest until her death in 1986.
In the 1998 film of Christopher Bram’s novel Gods and Monsters, Rosalind Ayres played Lanchester with just the right touch of wary asperity. Lanchester’s Bride remains one of the most memorable images of the twentieth century. No doubt her career might have been different in a different time and without the strain of her marriage, but there is a certain poetic justice in the fact that Lanchester will always be remembered for playing a creature who rejects someone else out of hand, a creature who takes power when none has been given her, a bride who has other ideas for herself.
by Dan Callahan