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Widow of Charles Laughton Had Many Talents : Actress Elsa Lanchester Dies at 84

December 27, 1986|From a Times Staff Writer

Miss Lanchester appeared as a seductress in the film, which was shown a few times privately at Oxford University but never publicly. The film became a legend in Britain and the University of Texas now has one of only three existing prints.

Seemingly a big break came for the actress-singer in 1926, when she was hired to do a comic specialty number in the Midnight Follies at London's Metropole. But disaster struck when a member of the British royal family walked out as she was singing "Please Sell No More Drink to My Father." She was fired.

She shrugged off the matter and said later she should have used another song from her repertoire--"I Danced With a Man Who Danced With a Girl Who Danced With the Prince of Wales."

However, Miss Lanchester got many other parts in many reviews. After appearing in a stage show, she would have to change costume in a taxicab while en route to the Cave of Harmony for the midnight show.

Role With Laughton

In 1927, she got a role opposite Charles Laughton in Arnold Bennett's play, "Mr. Prohack." They were married in 1929 after Miss Lanchester closed her Cave of Harmony cabaret. Without a liquor license, the club had never made much of a profit.

A year later Laughton was involved in a London police case involving a young man. Friends said she had no idea that her husband entertained homosexual predilections.

"Elsa could have burst into tears, collapsed or struck Charles," Charles Higham wrote in his "Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography," which was published in 1976 with Miss Lanchester's cooperation.

"But instead, her compassion fighting her despair, she simply said all she could in the circumstances: 'It's perfectly all right. It doesn't matter. I understand.' "

They remained married for 32 years.

In 1928 Miss Lanchester had made her official movie debut in the silent British version of "The Constant Nymph."

Nothing but Praise

When Laughton was cast in the title role in Alexander Korda's "The Private Life of Henry VIII," Miss Lanchester got to play the role of one of Henry's wives, Anne of Cleves. This British movie earned Laughton the 1933 Academy Award, and Miss Lanchester, in her words, "paeans of praise, but few offers."

Laughton had begun working in Hollywood in 1931, but it was not until 1935, after Miss Lanchester and her husband had done a number of plays for the Old Vic-Sadler's Wells Company in London, that she got small character roles in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "David Copperfield" and "Naughty Marietta."

Later in 1935, however, she came into her own as a movie actress when MGM lent her to Universal to star with Boris Karloff in "The Bride of Frankenstein."

Miss Lanchester wrote in her 1938 autobiography, "Charles Laughton and I," that she played "two very good parts" in this horror classic.

"In one role I was the female monster with a terrifying, sculptural sort of makeup, in the other I was Mary Shelley (the author of the "Frankenstein" novel) who was sweet and docile," she wrote.

Basis of Complaint

But Miss Lanchester complained about the three hours of work it took to make up her face for the female monster.

"My hair stiffened into a Topsy-like mop and was to stick out backward on a little cage," she said. "I was then bound in yards and yards of bandage, all most carefully done by a nurse."

Although she made six successful movies with Laughton, Miss Lanchester said in a 1958 interview that she and her husband never considered themselves an acting "team."

"We had separate acting careers when we first met, and separate we have kept them ever since," she said. They appeared in the same movie or play "only when they happened to have roles that were right for both of us," she added.

The movies in which they appeared together were the Henry VIII film, "Rembrandt" (1937), "The Beachcomber" (1937), "Tales of Manhattan" (1942), "The Big Clock" (1947) and "Witness for the Prosecution."

Other of her better-known roles were in "The Ghost Goes West" (1936), "The Spiral Staircase" (1945), "The Inspector General" (1949), "Androcles and the Lion" (1953), "Bell, Book and Candle" (1957), "Mary Poppins" (1964), "Willard" (1971) and "Murder by Death" (1976).

Death of Husband

In 1962 Laughton lay dying of bone cancer in a hospital. The cancer had reduced the rotund actor's weight to 90 pounds and he had called for a Catholic priest to make his peace.

When Miss Lanchester visited her stricken husband each day, she asked photographers not to take her picture.

"Charles is so cheerful," she explained. "And if a picture was taken, I would have to look sad and Charles wouldn't like that. And I don't feel like looking jolly."

Laughton died on Dec. 15, 1962, at age 63.

In 1976, after Higham's biography of Laughton had come out, a reporter asked Miss Lanchester why she had allowed the author to disclose that Laughton had led a secret homosexual life.

"Because times have changed, and such things can be discussed more openly than they were before," she said. "And because it might help people who are faced with the same kind of problem and must deal with the terrible guilt that Charles felt most of his life."

Miss Lanchester said their common work and the old home and garden they shared in Hollywood kept them together for more than 30 years.

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