Elsa Sullivan Lanchester (28 October 1902 – 26 December 1986) was an English-American character actress with a long career in theatre, film and television.
Lanchester studied dance as a child and after World War I began performing in theatre and cabaret, where she established her career over the following decade. She met the actor Charles Laughton in 1927, and they were married two years later. She began playing small roles in British films, including the role of Anne of Cleves with Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). His success in American films resulted in the couple moving to Hollywood, where Lanchester played small film roles.
Her role as the title character in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) brought her recognition. She played supporting roles through the 1940s and 1950s. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Come to the Stable (1949) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the last of twelve films in which she appeared with Laughton. Following Laughton's death in 1962, Lanchester resumed her career with appearances in such Disney films as Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965) and Blackbeard's Ghost (1968). The horror film Willard (1971) was highly successful, and one of her last roles was in Murder By Death (1976).
Elsa Sullivan Lanchester was born in Lewisham, London. Her parents, James "Shamus" Sullivan and Edith "Biddy" Lanchester, were considered Bohemian, and refused to legalise their union in any conventional way to satisfy the era's conservative society. They were both socialists, according to Lanchester's 1972 interview with Dick Cavett. Elsa's older brother, Waldo Sulivan Lanchester, born five years earlier, was a puppeteer, with his own marionette company based in Malvern and later in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Elsa studied dance in Paris under Isadora Duncan, whom she disliked. When the school was discontinued due to the start of World War I, she returned to Britain. At that point (she was about twelve years of age) she considered herself capable of teaching dancing in the Isadora Duncan style (despite her own scathing remarks about her former teacher's style) and, very enterprisingly, started to give classes to children in her South London district, through which she earned some welcome extra income for her household. At about this time, after the First World War, she started the Children's Theatre, and later the Cave of Harmony, a nightclub at which modern plays and cabaret turns were performed. She revived old Victorian songs and ballads, many of which she retained for her performances in another revue entitled Riverside Nights. She became sufficiently famous for Columbia to invite her into the recording studio to make 78 rpm discs of four of the numbers she sang in these revues: "Please Sell No More Drink to My Father" and "He Didn't Oughter" were on one disc (recorded in 1926) and "Don't Tell My Mother I'm Living in Sin" and The Ladies Bar was on the other (recorded 1930).