Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born on 28th October 1902 in Lewisham, London. Her parents, James “Shamus” Sullivan and Edith “Biddy” Lanchester, were considered Bohemian, and refused to legalise their union in any conventional way to satisfy the era’s conservative society. They were both socialists, her mother had actually been committed to an asylum in 1895 by her father and older brothers because of her unmarried state with James. The incident received worldwide press as the “Lanchester Kidnapping Case”. 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 began teaching dance in the Isadora Duncan’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. Lanchester kept busy including, by her own admission, posing nude for artists. During a 1926 comic performance in the Midnight Follies at London’s Metropole, a member of the British Royal family walked out as she sang, “Please Sell No More Drink to My Father”. She closed her nightclub in 1928 as her film career began in earnest.
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 Lanchester first met another member of the cast, 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’ entitled “Comets”, 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 comical ‘Anne 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), stage and film associate James Whale wanted her for two parts – author Mary Shelley and the bride. A central joke of the movie build-up was the tag lines: “WHO will be The Bride of Frankenstein? WHO will dare?”.
It was no honeymoon for her, for some ten days, Lanchester was wrapped in yards of bandage and covered in heavy make-up. The stand-on-end hairdo was accomplished by combing it over a wire mesh cage. Lanchester was in real agony with her eyes kept taped wide open for long takes – and it showed in her looks of horror. Her monster’s screaming and hissing sounds (based on the sounds of Regents Park swans in London) were taped and then run backward to spook-up the effect. She was delightfully melodramatic and picturesque as Wollstonecraft, and her bride would become iconic.
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”. 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 1940’s and 1950’s 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).
She entered the 1950’s busy with road touring of her nightclub act with pianist J. Raymond Henderson (who went by “Ray” and who is sometimes confused with popular songwriter Ray Henderson). There was a series of tours to complement Laughton’s famous reading tours, called Elsa Lanchester’s Private Music Hall which ended in 1952; Elsa Lanchester – Herself which ended in 1961; and once more in 1964 at the Ivar Theater. More supporting roles followed in the early 1950’s, 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.