Women in Horror Spotlight: The Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester

Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015 by

When you think of the classic Universal Monsters and the actors that portrayed them, who comes to mind? Usually it’s Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and Lon Chaney Jr. Your mind may possibly wander over to the Bride of Frankenstein, but do you know who played the iconic role? I didn’t either until I listened to a podcast about her early life roughly a year ago. Let me tell you guys, this is one kick-butt female. How her independent and funky spirit isn’t talked about much today, I do not understand. Before I dive into the interesting early life of this woman and how she became The Bride, lets get the boring facts out of the way. 

Young Elsa and Waldo Lanchester
Elsa Lanchester was born on October 28, 1902 in Lewisham, London to her mother Edith “Biddy” Lanchester and her father James “Shamus” Sullivan. She did have an older brother, Waldo Sullivan Lanchester, who went on to become a puppeteer, but that is a whole other article. You may have noticed her parents did not have the same last name. Well, the two never married as they didn’t believe in marriage, though they stayed together until Shamus’ death. Additionally, they were vegetarians, Socialists, and atheists. Yup, you read that correctly. This was a bold stance back in the early 1900’s in prim and proper England. Here is a little fun fact about Ms. Biddy Lanchester: her father was so angry with her for not marrying Shamus, that her father and brother kidnapped her in the middle of the night and had her committed under the terms of insanity. At the asylum she was interviewed and her education and ability to speak with reason showed that she was not insane so she was released. This very case is what started the reform of the lunacy laws in England. Maybe the history of her parents isn’t really all that boring. 

Allow me to get back on track. The London City Council had a law that stated all children must attend school starting at the age of 5 years. Biddy did not feel Elsa would get a worthy education in the public school system, so she moved around a bit with her family to avoid attending a Council approved public school. Eventually the Council caught up with the family but Elsa was able to attend an all boys school with her brother because the headmaster was a friend of the family. Around the time Elsa was 11 years old, she was hand picked to be one of the first students to attend the famed Isadora Duncan’s dance school in Paris, France. Elsa’s spunky and independent spirit sprang it’s head when she spoke against the kissing of Isadora Duncan’s ring each morning. She says she pretended to kiss it because it was just like the outdated policy of bowing to royalty. Sadly, World War I was impending and the majority of children were sent back home. After the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the all boys school Elsa returned to was shut down. She then went to a co-ed boarding in London and taught a dance class for a short period of time. 

In 1920, Elsa co-founded the Children’s Theatre in London, where she taught for several years. The children received lessons for free and the theatre put on paid shows for the city. Eventually the Children’s Theatre’s plays and dances became so popular the program began making a profit, which oddly enough ended up becoming a bad thing for Elsa. The London City Counsel called Elsa in for questioning and accused her of exploiting the children under the Child Slave Act. The Counsel decided to close the final run of the current show, but she worked around this by having the show run in the practice room and said all proceeds were going to the Save the Children Fund.

The Children’s Theatre eventually closed and Elsa started working different odd jobs to make ends meet. She worked performing plays in a night club with her then partner, posed for painters and sculptures, house keeping, and helping out couples that wanted to get a divorce. I shall divulge on the divorce help, because this is somewhat odd. During this time period if the husband had an affair, the divorce would occur much quicker. Through a lawyer, Elsa would be contracted to meet the client wanting the divorce at a hotel and the next morning she had to make sure she was clearly seen by the maid. Usually the maid was in on the act and when called to the divorce hearing, the maid would say she saw the husband with a woman that was not his wife. Elsa was never called into court because the name of the woman having the affair was usually not revealed. Nothing sexual ever occurred with any of the clients; as Elsa stated “it was just acting.”

Elsa with husband, Charles Laughton
In 1927, Elsa was cast in an Arnold Bennett play titled Mr. Prohack and this is where she met actor, Charles Laughton. The duo dated for two years and after an abortion (which she was surprisingly open about during the time) and moving in together, she agreed to marry Laughton in 1929. After two years of marriage Laughton told Elsa that he, in his words, was “homosexual partly.” While she did not have an issue with his sexual orientation, she was understandably upset that he kept this secret from her. They never divorced. 

The couple moved to Hollywood to pursue acting further and in the 1930’s, MGM Studios offered Elsa a movie contract that started a busy decade for the actress. In 1935, friend and director, James Whale, offered the role of the Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein to Elsa directly. The role and set were grueling for the actress. Part of her hair was braided into rows circling her scalp and a cage covered in horse hair was sewn into the braids. The remaining unbraided hair was brushed up into the horse hair and the famous white streaks were hair strips added on at the end. Her make-up took three to four hours each day. The make-up artist did not like for chatter and did not like being spoken to unless he spoke first. Elsa did not drink much on set because it was too much of a hassle to use the restroom when she was in the bandages before the reveal. She was in great pain at the end of each filming day from having to keep her eyes popped open since her character didn’t blink. All of the hissing and screaming as the Bride caused her to blow out her voice and she had to be prescribed codeine for severe throat pain. Through all this, Elsa speaks fondly of her time on set.  
Elsa with Vincent Price

Eventually, Elsa went on to be nominated for two Oscars in supporting roles and stayed married to Charles Laughton until his death from cancer in 1962. In her later years to performed in many Disney productions and played Katie Nanna in the movie Mary Poppins. Elsa Lanchester passed away from bronchial pneumonia in 1986.

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