Day 174 of Colourisation Project – October 28
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
For those who can still think in black and white when it comes to films, you will know that the name Elsa Lanchester is synonymous with the classic 1935 film, The Bride of Frankenstein, a film that was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1998.
Today’s colourisation subject may not at first be recognisable to film buffs; it is a beautiful 1935 promotional shot of Lanchester for Naughty Marietta, a film which in 2003, was also selected as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
It was Lanchester’s role that same year in the classic horror film, The Bride of Frankenstein, that cemented her status as one of cinema’s immortals. Lanchester actually played two parts in the film; Frankenstein’s betrothed and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of the 1818 novel, Frankenstein, upon which the film was based.
In a cutesy cinematic device, James Whale, the director has Mary Wollstonecraft, (before she married Percy), narrating the story to her companions Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, in the prologue. Although, Lanchester as the bride has no lines in the film and is on screen for a total of only 12 minutes, her iconic performance has secured her a place in film history as the most popular female monster. It is also one of the reasons The Bride of Frankenstein endures as the best of the golden age, Gothic horror movies.
Lanchester wrote in her 1983 autobiography, Elsa Lanchester, Herself;
“I think James Whale felt that if this beautiful and innocent Mary Shelley could write such a horror story as Frankenstein, then somewhere she must have had a fiend within, dominating part of her thoughts and her spirit–like ectoplasm flowing out of her to activate a monster. In this delicate little thing was an unexploded atom bomb. My playing both parts cemented that idea.”
It may have only been 12 minutes on the screen but Lanchester endured some ten days of pain wrapped in yards of bandage and covered in heavy makeup, with her eyes taped to keep them wide open for long takes, which accentuated her looks of horror. Her screaming and hissing sounds, apparently based on the sounds of Regent’s Park swans in London, were taped and then run backwards to enhance a chilling effect.
Elsa Lanchester was born in London on this day, October 28, in 1902. As a child, she studied dance under Isadora Duncan and by the age of 20, she was working in cabaret and avaunt-garde theatre. In 1929 she married English actor Charles Laughton, and their parallel careers often crossed paths, notably in the 1936 stage production where Lanchester was Peter Pan to Laughton’s Captain Hook in J. M. Barrie’s play at the London Palladium.
She made ten movies with Laughton, the last of which, Witness for the Prosecution (1957) earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress and a Golden Globe award.
Off stage however their marriage of thirty three-years, from 1929 up to Laughton’s death in 1962, was overshadowed by his homosexuality. Stoically resigned to her lot, Lanchester found a way to deal with it. Her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester, Herself doesn’t hold back as she delves into her turbulent marriage to Laughton with astonishing candor. Theirs was a very unconventional union. She came from an unconventional family. Her bohemian parents refused to legalise their own union with marriage. Talking about her own ‘open marriage’ Lanchester said,
“We both needed other company. I met his young men, and I had a young man around and Charles didn’t even argue.”
Although her autobiography has been out of print for a number of years, Elsa Lanchester, Herself, has an underground cult following of fans who, through social media campaigns, are attempting to get the memoir reprinted. Spearing the ‘Reprint Elsa‘ campaign, Tom Blunt, a writer, performer and producer explains;
“This book is also a valuable document in GLBTQ history, a detailed insight into a relationship that was both unusual for its time, and still sadly all-too-common. Almost never has an arrangement between a gay husband and his long-suffering wife been so thoroughly or poignantly explored in full public view. Just like their husbands, women like Lanchester are victims of homophobia; her book teaches about the terrible physical and psychological toll this can take on both partners.”
Though her great love was the theatre, Lanchester appeared extensively on television in comedy, drama and variety programs, including guest roles in a classic I Love Lucy episode in 1956, and even performing a duet with Elvis Presley in Easy Come, Easy Go (1967). Her career extended well into her seventies. In 1976 she played Jessica Marbles, a sleuth based on Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, in the murder mystery spoof, Murder by Death. Her last film in 1980 at the age of 78 was Die Laughing.
Elsa Lanchester died in Woodland Hills, California on 26 December 1986, aged 84, from broncho-pneumonia and her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
“…large parts in lousy pictures and small parts in big pictures…I was content because I was fully aware that I did not like straight acting but preferred performing direct to an audience. You might call what I do vaudeville. Making a joke, especially impromptu, and getting a big laugh is just plain heaven.” – Elsa Lanchester