Sunday, November 3, 2013

Friday Dance Party: Always A Bride

My grandmother bore a resemblance to the star of this week's Dance Party;  that may be why I have always been fascinated by her.
I know, it's a little too late for a Halloween-inspired entry, but who cares?  Are we all really ready to move on to Christmas? Our star had a birthday this week, or would have, if she weren't long gone.  Do dead people still have birthdays?  That's discussion for another time, but in addition to celebrating the day of her birth, Halloween itself brings this gal to mind. 
The Bride of Frankenstein is always resurrected during the Halloween season, and Elsa Lanchester reappears in the title role.  The film itself is a classic, and many critics believe it to be one of those unusual sequels which is superior to the original which inspired it.  Much of the plot of the film is included in Mary Shelley's original novel Frankenstein, and in fact, Lanchester plays a duel role, that of the man-made wife and of Mary Shelley herself, who appears in a prologue reminding viewers where the first film left off.  Haven't had enough of Frankenstein yet?  I wrote more on the subject in a previous Dance Party, go here for that report.
Elsa's glamour period was relatively short. Her
many middle-aged character roles are the ones
which first caught my attention as a kid.

I confess to never having seen Bride of Frankenstein, as I am not a fan of the horror film.  But I am indeed a fan of Elsa Lanchester's.  She had an extremely long career in film and on stage, but was consistently remembered primarily as the wife of Charles Laughton. 
Elsa had a brief comic turn as Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in the film which earned her husband an Oscar.  Their childless marriage appeared to be a happy one, despite Laughton's homosexuality, which Lanchester confirmed in her autobiography.
Laughton predeceased his wife by many decades, and it was in her later career that she caught my youthful attention.  I have always had an artistic attraction to middle-aged character actresses such as Lanchester, Hermione Gingold, the Baddeley Sisters (Angela of Upstairs / Downstairs fame, and Hermione of Maude) and other quirky gals. 
My tastes were odd even as a child.  My favorite scene from Mary Poppins was not the animated one, nor the one on the roof, nor the one in mid-air.  This throwaway moment, though, made me very happy.  Elsa Lanchester's irritable Katie Nana gets sucked into Glynis Johns's "Sister Suffragette."  With both Hermione Baddely and Reta Shaw along for the ride, I was hooked.
Elsa was born of socialist parents who never married, quite the scandal in the early part of the 20th century, and our heroine was treated to an eccentric childhood, to say the least. 
Elsa displayed both comedic and villainous chops in The
Inspector General, opposite Danny Kaye.

She studied dance with Isadore Duncan, whom she detested, and was only in her early teens when she began appearing on cabaret stages in her native England.  Lanchester's stage career, in fact, was to be spent largely in cabaret settings, including a 15 year stint with the Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles. 
I wish it was always Bell, Book, and Candle which reappears on Halloween, rather than that Bride. It's all about witches, after all. But I don't give a hoot about Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart, or even Jack Lemmon in the film.  I watch it for my two ladies, Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold.  The film was to inspire the sitcom Bewitched, and Elsa's character, Aunt Queenie, inspired Samantha's dotty Aunt Clara in the series.

Elsa worked 6 nights a week for no pay at the
Turnabout Theatre in Los Angeles.
The concept at the Turnabout was an odd one:  act one of the evening was a puppet show geared toward adults, then, during the intermission, the audience was instructed to swivel their chairs around 180 degrees.  Act two was performed at the opposite end of the theatre, and here our Elsa took the spotlight.  She was an expert interpreter of bawdy songs of previous eras, though her act was also full of songs written especially for her talent with the double entendre. 

Both Lanchester and Laughton were nominated for Oscars for their work in Witness for the Prosecution (they both lost, though Lanchester won the Golden Globe).  Elsa's role was written specifically for the film, and does not appear in the original stage play by Agatha Christie.

Everyone in Hollywood came to see Charles Laughton's wife in this revue during the late 50s and early 60s.  Elsa's film career, meanwhile, was prolific if not as substantive as her husband's. 
It was Elsa's presence which enticed me
to see this low-budget horror film about
a boy and his rats. Willard was the sleeper
smash of 1971, inspiring a sequel, Ben,
which in turn inspired Michael Jackson's
first #1 solo hit.

She usually played supporting characters (in fact, she received star billing only once, in Passport to Destiny, in which she played a Cockney maid intent on assassinating Hitler), but she received two Oscar nominations for her work in supporting categories. 

Lanchester played one of the first female mad scientists when she guested in the first season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Despite her significant resume of motion pictures, I remember her primarily from her television work.
Particularly after her husband's death, Lanchester turned to television (and the occasional Disney film) for most of her work. 
I did not watch the sitcom Nanny and the Professor, but I love this story.  Hermione Gingold was hired to guest star as the Nanny's eccentric aunt; she was to make her first entrance riding an elephant.  The first day of shooting the episode, Gingold (another of my Favorite Ladies Of A Certain Age) fell off the elephant and broke her leg.  An emergency call went out, and our Elsa was hired to replace her.  It turned into a recurring gig for her.
But as much TV and film work which Lanchester accomplished in a 50-year career, she was most proud of her work at the tiny Turnabout Theatre on La Cienega Blvd in Los Angeles. 
Ann Davis (pre-Brady Bunch) and Elsa
were regulars on this short-lived sitcom
starring a pre-Dynasty John Forsythe.

This week's Dance Party comes from those cabaret days.  The clip is actually preserved in a documentary film about the puppeteers who shared the stage with Elsa;  thankfully, puppets do not appear in this particular segment (you know how I feel about those).  Though most of Lanchester's repertoire consisted of bawdy songs (with titles such as "I'm Glad To See Your Back Again," a sly wink at sodomy), this one has a serious bent.  Elsa Lanchester would have turned a piddling 111 years old last Monday, and of course, Halloween, which will always conjure up images of her, has just passed.  See you next year, Elsa!