Elsa Lanchester was a famous British actress best known for her lead role in the sci-fi horror film 'Bride of Frankenstein'. It was a sequel to the hit film 'Frankenstein,’ which was based on the popular novel of the same name by Mary Shelley. She later earned an Oscar nomination for her role in the film 'Come to the Stars' which was directed by Henry Koster. Other works that earned her fame and recognition include her role in the courtroom drama film ‘Witness for the Prosecution’. Lanchester earned her second Oscar nomination in the category of ‘Best Supporting Actress’ for her role in this movie. Later she also ventured into television and appeared in the comedy TV show ‘The John Forsythe Show’ among others. She lived a long life and enjoyed an extensive and productive career. Some of the last films in her career were ‘Terror in the Wax Museum,’ ‘Murder by Death’ and ‘Die Laughing’. She passed away from bronchopneumonia at the Motion Picture Hospital at the age of 84.
Childhood & Early Life
Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born on 28th October 1902 in Lewisham, London. Her parents were James Sullivan and Edith Lanchester. She also had an older brother named Waldo Sullivan Lanchester who became a puppeteer.
From an early age, she aspired to become a classical dancer. She studied at the Bellevue School in Paris for a while but had to return when the First World War began. In 1918, she was appointed as a dance teacher at the Margaret Morris School.
Later she started performing at nightclubs as well as in cabarets. It opened her way to more serious work and she was soon seen in the play ‘Mr Prohack’ by Arnold Bennett. It was during this time that she met her future husband Charles Laughton. They appeared in several plays together.
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In 1925, Elsa Lanchester made her film debut in ‘The Scarlet Woman’. She also appeared in three short films which were written by the famous author HG Wells and directed by Ivor Montagu. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films, such as ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933), ‘David Copperfield’ (1935), ‘The Ghost Goes Everywhere’ (1935), ‘Ladies in Retirement’ (1941) and ‘Thumbs up’ (1945).
She earned an Oscar nomination in the category of ‘Best Supporting Actress’ in 1949 for her role in the American film ‘Come to the Stable’. It was directed by Henry Koster. The same year, she appeared in ‘The Inspector General’, another film by Koster. It was loosely based on a play of the same name by Nikolai Gogol.
In the following years, she appeared in many other movies including ‘Dreamboat’ (1952), ‘Androcles and the Lion’ (1952), ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ (1954) and ‘The Glass Slipper’ (1955). In 1957, she played a supporting role in the courtroom drama film ‘Witness for the Prosecution’. It was based on a play of the same name by Agatha Christie. The film earned several Oscar nominations.
In her later career she acted in movies, such as ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ (1958), ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ (1964), ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ (1967), ‘Rascal’ (1969) and ‘Arnold’ (1974). She was also known for her work on television. She was seen in ‘The John Forsythe Show’ as well as the TV series ‘The Man from U.N.C.LE’. The last film she appeared in before her death was ‘Die Laughing’ which released in 1980.
'The Private Life of Henry VIII,' a 1933 film, was one of the early works in Elsa Lanchester’s career. Directed by Alexander Korda, the film starred Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie, and Binnie Barnes alongside her. The film was about the marriages of King Henry VIII of England. It was a huge success internationally and catapulted Alexander Korda, the director, as well as the lead actor Charles Laughton to success and stardom. It also became the first non-Hollywood film to win an Oscar.
Lanchester gained international recognition for her role in the 1935 sci-fi horror movie ‘Bride of Frankenstein’. The film was based on the famous novel ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. The film did well commercially, earning more than five times its budget. Lanchester appeared in dual roles; her first role was that of Mary Shelley, while her second role was that of the monster’s partner. Other actors in the film included Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson and Ernest Thesiger.
Elsa Lanchester played a supporting role in ‘Witness for the Prosecution,’ a courtroom drama film which was directed by Billy Wilder. The movie was released in 1957. It starred Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. The film was a commercial success. Lanchester earned an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe Award for her performance in the film. The film was nominated for five more Oscars as well.
Awards & Achievements
Elsa Lanchester was nominated for the Academy Award in the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ category in 1950 for her work in the film ‘Come to the Stable’.
She earned another Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ as well as the ‘Golden Globe Award’ in the same category for her outstanding work in the movie ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ in 1958.
Elsa Lanchester was married to the famed actor Charles Laughton from 1929 to his death in 1962. The couple did not have any children.
She passed away on 26th December 1986 at the Motion Picture Hospital after suffering from bronchopneumonia. Her body was cremated on 5th January 1987 at the Chapel of the Pines in Los Angeles. Her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.