Saturday, May 24, 2014

Elsa Lanchester at the BFI

Sue Verney (left) and Deborah Klein (right) flanking a banner of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein.
British Film Institute, London, May 2014. Photograph: Shane Jones

The British Film Institute on London’s South Bank is one of my favourite haunts. I’ve been going there since I lived in London in the 1970s, not infrequently in the company of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Sue Verney. I have so many happy memories of this place. For example, it was there, many moons ago, that Sue introduced me to Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Director Max Ophüls) for which I will be eternally grateful. On another memorable occasion, I introduced Sue to what became another mutual favourite, the dazzling film noir Murder My Sweet (1944, Director Edward Dmytryk).

To my delight, the BFI interior is currently festooned with banners of Elsa Lanchester (1909-1986) an actress Sue and I have long admired. (She and I once sat in a pub in Nottinghill Gate and started a fan letter to her. We finished our drinks, but never did finish the letter – I guess we just couldn’t find the right words).


Black Swan, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 
12.5 x 7.5 cm
My miniature painting Black Swan, 2013, is a playful homage to Elsa Lanchester in what is arguably her most famous role: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, Director James Whale). It’s an extraordinary film and her dual performances as Mary Shelley and the Bride – particularly the latter - are simply astonishing, albeit far too brief. While still in London, I looked her up online and discovered an absolute gem – a two-part interview with Dick Cavett. In Part 1 she speaks of her late husband, the incomparable Charles Laughton. (1)

On a personal note, however, the real revelation came soon after, when Cavett asked her about The Bride of Frankenstein. In one of the movie’s best remembered scenes, the newly unbandaged bride first lays eyes on her husband to be: Frankenstein’s unrequitedly smitten monster, touchingly portrayed by Boris Karloff. Horrified, but  having no words, she begins to hiss – a scene once seen and heard, not easily forgotten. Lanchester tells Cavett that her character's reaction was based on a swan’s warning hisses and promptly launches into a marvelously spirited recreation of the sound.

Ironically, a swan wasn’t the first choice for my painting. Initially I considered other animals, including a skunk, but after much trial and error the black swan, with its downy white flight feathers was the only creature that worked compositionally. The pictorial reference to Elsa Lanchester’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s Bride was completely serendipitous - and not a little uncanny.

Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff, The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

(1)  For Part 1 of Dick Cavett's interview with Elsa Lanchester, click HERE
      For Part 2 of the interview, click HERE.