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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

THE REEL REALS: Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lancester (Shelley)?
Elsa Lanchester would forever be overshadowed by two things: her most famous characterization "The Bride" and perhaps the even more ominous presence: her husband, Charles Laughton. On the one hand, she had the role that would make her famous but that would equally eclipse any other work she later did that had, in her estimation, more merit. On the other, she was never held is as high esteem as her husband, considered one of the greatest actors of all time. (She was "shocked" to learn that her hubby was actually a closeted homosexual, but their union lasted a lifetime as they enjoyed an open and unabashed relationship). Fortunately for Elsa, she was imbued with a sharp sense of humor, keen intellect, and personal ambition and lust for life that made such irksome facts trivial. A native of London, she was raised with the compulsion for utter independence by her forward thinking parents. Her early study of dance educated her well on the movements that would later help her cultivate more physically articulate and alive characters, and her experiences dancing in and even running her own Club gave her ample opportunity to practice playing for and to an audience. 

Elsa was always in it for the sensation. She took her craft seriously but never herself, and her intellectual appetite kept her in good company with many of the greatest artists of her day. Her open and liberal-minded ways allowed her to transform from one character to another with seeming ease, and though an attractive woman, she would find her niche as a character actress of great verve, spirit, and often humorous abandon in films like Witness for the Prosecution, Mary Poppins, and Bell, Book and Candle. Her great talent allowed her career to continue with minimal interruption over the course of over 30 years, though she always admitted that she was more in love with the stage. An unabashed ham, it was the live performance and the interaction with an audience that truly inspired her, but her work in film and television is nothing to sneer at-- or should I saw shriek?

Elsa's Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein had no dialogue, but she was able to communicate everything within her patched up heroine's borrowed mind with her quick, birdlike movements and iconic hiss-- both literally borrowed from her studied observations of swans. The not too thinly veiled subtext in James Whale's masterpiece of horror painted a portrait of the absurd, macabre, and even hilarious roles of both the male and female in the ever popular mating ritual of life. Though Elsa's time on the screen in the picture was very brief, she still stole the show, and with the incomparable Boris Karloff, she enhanced the film that has come to be known as perhaps the greatest offering of the Universal Monster era. She considered this piece of her career a bit of a lark and but one chapter in a long narrative of experiences and performances, but to us it is one of the most intriguing, sexually potent, disturbing, and glorious moments in the realm of horror.

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