Often thought of as just the wife (and sometime co-star) of Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester had quite a career of her own.
After all, the former Elsa Sullivan Lanchester — born in London in 1902 to devout Socialist parents who did not believe in the institution of marriage — rolled up nearly 100 movie and tv credits over a period of a half century. (In only a dozen of these did she costar with her husband.)
Along the way she received two Academy Award nominations, for 1949’s Come to the Stable and 1957’s Witness For The Prosecution.
But role encapsulated in the title of the 1935 film below has been the one part, for better or worse, that she is most closely identified with. She is, wrote British author-critic David Thomson, the greatest woman in horror until Mrs. Bates in ‘Psycho.’
Thomson nicely summarizes Lanchester’s ambiguous status in Hollywood. She was an actress and clown, comedienne and improv artist long before that mixture was appreciated. She was pretty in a pop-eyed way, smart and impulsive…But her talent was odd, not glamorous or beguiling, and few knew how to place it.
She met Laughton in 1927, and married him in 1929.
They had sex, for she had to have an abortion, Thomson writes in his interesting new book on classic and modern Hollywood, Sleeping with Strangers: How The Movies Shaped Desire.
Then she discovered what he called ‘his homosexual streak’ and nothing was the same again.
In her 1983 memoir, Elsa Lanchester, Herself, she writes: If I had known all this before we were married, it might have been very different. Nonetheless, the marriage to Laughton — however acrimonious it became — lasted more than thirty years until his death in 1962.
Lanchester’s career continue, even flourished, after Laughton’s demise. She appeared in a broad range of programming including the 1976 comedy-spoof, written by Neil Simon, Murder By Death, with a range of British film royalties in the cast. She died a decade later at the age of 84.
And, yes, The Bride of Frankenstein is still considered, as author Thomson puts it, the best role Lanchester ever had.