Unusual both on and off screen, Elsa Lanchester was a skilled and artistic actress, and Hollywood never figured out what to do with her. She could have made a great leading lady, with her unconventional beauty and dancer’s body, but was only given leading parts twice (both mentioned below). Most often she was relegated to support status, often in quite small parts as maids and housekeepers, where her quirkiness was an asset. But this suited her as she was more interested in live performances, particularly of the music hall variety.
Besides being the Bride of Frankenstein, she is probably best known as the wife of Charles Laughton. They appeared together in twelve films.
An honorable mention to Mystery Street (1950), a solid B&W police procedural, where she’s a landlady who thinks that blackmailing a murderer is a good idea, and to the rat-filled horror film Willard, which was in tight competition for 8th place below. Additionally, a couple of honorable mentions for bit parts opposite Laughton, in the anthology film Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), as well as one for her cameo in Mary Poppins (1964)—the part is too small to count for her list.
On to her top 8:
#8 – Passport to Destiny (1944) — Lanchester finally gets a leading part and top billing in this strange little wartime comedy. The first part is charming; she believes she’s invulnerable due to a magic eye, so waltzes into Germany with the intention of assassinating Hitler. The second half takes it a bit too seriously, but as a whole it’s fun and worth seeking out.
#7 – The Beachcomber (1938) — An African Queen-like tale, though lighter, with Lanchester in her only other leading role, as a prim and prissy missionary’s sister, and Charles Laughton as a boozy reprobate. Robert Newton is the bored magistrate who envies the wild life. Lanchester is superb and is the reason to watch. The rest is good, but she’s superb.
#6 – The Spiral Starcase (1946) — A tense Old Dark House mystery filmed in luscious, deep focus B&W, in which a killer is hunting “imperfect” women. Unfortunately Lanchester’s part is small as the housekeeper, but as always, she’s memorable. (My review)
#5 – Bell Book and Candle (1958) — This should be on everyone’s Halloween viewing list, or Christmas. Jimmy Stewart is a bit gray for his starring role in a supernatural romantic comedy, but Kim Novak is breathtaking as a powerful, sexy witch and Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lemmon, and Lanchester are all marvelous. [Also on the Jack Lemmon list and the James Stewart list]
#4 – The Big Clock (1948) — One of the great Film Noirs; Ray Milland is placed in charge of an investigation to find a man who turns out to be himself. Lanchester plays an avant-garde artist who knows something odd is going on with the search. Remade in ’87 as No Way Out with Kevin Costner. [Also on the Ray Milland list] (Full Critique)
#3 – The Bishop’s Wife (1947) — A Christmas classic. David Niven is a bishop who has lost his way and Cary Grant is the angel who comes to help, but also makes things uncomfortable. Once again, Lanchester is in a supporting role. [Also on the David Niven list]
#2 – Witness for the Prosecution (1957) — A courtroom thriller, it’s the best adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, and is often mistaken for a Hitchcock film. It’s Marlene Dietrich’s best film, and arguably Laughton’s. Lanchester was nominated for an Oscar for Supporting Actress for her role as the greatly put upon nurse. The dialog is fast and funny, and the mystery is solid, with one of the great film twists. [Also on the Great Director’s List for Billy Wilder]
#1 – Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — Arguably the greatest horror film of all time, and the greatest sequel of all time. It is weird and wild. Sure it’s horror, but it’s also black comedy and satire. Lanchester plays duel roles, as Mary Shelley and The Bride, and is dark, sexy, and engaging. Her screen time is brief, but in it she became an icon. [Also on The Boris Karloff List and on the Great Director’s List for James Whale] (My review)