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Elsa Lanchester, a Cause of Lasciviousness in Others
2003-03-21

have been wanting to write about the subject of the English music hall for quite some time, but I am buffaloed as to how to approach it. It is, after all, a rather obscure subject for most Americans, dating back to the end of the 19th century and experiencing a rapid decline after World War I, similar to that of its American cousin, vaudeville. But this style of English variety entertainment has intrigued me for a long time -- probably since I was a little boy and lived in England for a year. Despite its antiquity, there were still hints of the music hall on British television. Ancient performers were drag their creaky bones onto late-night television and perform dazzling feats of physical comedy. Old English movies, glimpsed through the fog of illness on afternoons when fever kept me home from school, showed broad-faced performers strumming banjoleles while singing spritely, slightly naughty melodies. And The Muppet Show, which was filmed in England, borrowed its structure from vaudeville and the music hall, and gave credit where credit would do. On occasion, for no clear reason, Fozzie Bear would emerge onstage in a hat and vest that sparkled with shiny buttons -- a costermonger's costume -- and launch into songs from the golden age of the music hall.

However, the subject of the music hall is too large to tackle in one story -- I have not enough room to talk about Edwardian music hall star George Formby or his identically named son, the possessor of the banjolele in the above paragraph. Rather than drive myself mad attempting to fit too much history into too little space, I shall cut it up into individual stories. I can't resist it, you see -- the music, and particularly the winking, too-clever-by-half lyrics of the music hall -- remain one of my largest sources of inspiration as a bad poet. And so I shall begin by talking about Elsa Lanchester, one of the last of the truly serious music hall performers, because Ms. Lanchester is linked to another of my great childhood obsession, the horror movie. You see, Ms. Lanchester was The Bride of Frankenstein.

Anyone who has seen this movie (and if you haven't, you would do yourself a great favor if you rent it) knows the image on the upper left: Lanchester, swaddled in bandages and a ragged gown, her black and white-streaked Nefertiti hair rising behind her like a ghastly parody of a halo from a religious painting. She twitches her head and stares unblinking at Frankenstein's monster, who lunges toward her, desperate to touch the mate he has demanded. However, the bride of Frankenstein responds in horror, pointing at the monster and hissing like a furious goose.

Boris Karloff's noble monster was not alone in his lust for Miss Lanchester. With apologies to Samuel Johnson, we can fairly say of Elsa Lanchester that she was not only lascivious, she was the cause of lasciviousness in others. Throughout her long career as an actress, singer, and general muse, she inspired men to write odes -- many quite improper -- to her charms, all of which Lanchester remembered in her fascinating autobiography, Elsa Lanchester, Herself.

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Lanchester was the product of scandal. The daughter of ardent socialists, Lanchester's mother had been kidnapped by her father and older brothers for her insistence on living with a lover rather than marrying him -- quite shocking behavior at the turn of the 20th Century. Her family had her declared insane on the grounds that she was "over-educated," and the case was widely reported throughout the British Empire. Lanchester's mother, a 25-year-old woman with enormous willpower (she kicked the windows out of the carriage used for her kidnapping), quickly regained her independence and returned to her lover, a self-educated Irish laborer considered to be well below her "station." Angry letters flooded the papers, protesting that her immoral cohabitation would produce children that society would naturally reject.

Elsa was born in London on October 28,1902, and had the sort of childhood that now sounds like a romantic fiction. Her parents remained firebrands (they taught their parrot to scream "Votes for women!"), and Lanchester remembers witnessing a suffragette meeting that ended with a police riot, during which mounted policemen pushed protesting women up against walls and beat them with nightsticks. The family moved frequently to avoid one legal entanglement or another, and consequently Lanchester's education was sparse and eccentric. She eventually ended up in a Summerhill-type all-boys school, as well as studying dance with both Raymond and Isadora Duncan, the founders of modern dance. She naturally gravitated toward the theater, and was endlessly fascinated by music mall performers.

At age 17, Lanchester started her own children's theater, which survived for a few tumultuous years (she had a talent both for exploiting her students' natural performing skills and for selecting material that displeased the local officials, who tried to shut her down), and eventually the whole project transformed into a professional cabaret. Called The Cave of Harmony, performances were semi-improvised and often included odd ditties such as "Rat Catcher's Daughter" that Lanchester had dug up at the British Museum. The Cave of Harmony became a popular meeting place for London artists and intellectuals, including H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, and James Whale (who would direct Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein). A local wag was the first to immortalize Lanchester in song, struck by her shock of bronze hair and her brassy behavior. He wrote:

I may be fast, I may be loose,
I may be easy to seduce.
I may not be particular
To keep the perpendicular.
But all my horizontal friends
Are Princes, Peers and Reverends.
When Tom or Dick or Bertie call,
You'll find me strictly vertical!

Simultaneously, Lanchester fell in with a gang of radical socialists called the 1917 Club, and became something of their mascot. A Mr. John Armstrong wrote of the club, saying:

In nineteen one seven they founded a club
Partly as a brothel and partly as a pub,
With a membership mainly of literary bores
Redeemed by a girl in Giotto-pink drawers.

Lanchester claims she did not own a pair of pink drawers at the time, but her image was fixed: A bohemian socialist with loose morals, outrageous behavior, and brightly colored unmentionables. Her compatriot Geoffrey Dunlap wrote bitterly about her (he was bitter about everything, Lanchester complained), saying:

Pink drawers alas--why should her drawers be pink
Their colour gives me furiously to think--
Pink drawers--and do they never turn red
Flushed at their mistress' sin while she's in bed.
No they are pink, and peonies in their fair hue
Their innocence remains forever new.

Lanchester later noted that "art was a word that cloaked oceans of naughtiness," and she had her share of it, working as a nude model by day and a theatrical impresario by night. Her biography only hints at the wildness of London during the Roaring Twenties, but those hints are tantalizing: Stripping nude at strangers' houses, getting advice on abortion from Tallulah Bankhead, moving from one just-barely suppressed scandal to another while singing bawdy songs -- always singing bawdy songs.

Years later, when Lanchester was happily married to actor Charles Laughton (who only revealed his homosexuality after they were wed, news she received with aplomb) and had established herself as a respectable presence in Hollywood, she would still be singing these songs. By day, Lanchester worked at the movie studios, and at night she would take the stage at the Turnabout Theater, changing costumes for each new song and warbling out numbers with names like "If You Peek In My Gazebo" and "Fiji Fanny."

The Turnabout was one of those improbable theatrical projects that turned out, despite its improbability, to be quite successful. Begun in 1941 by a group of puppeteers, it consisted of two stages, one on either end of the audience. Between the stages sat reversible seats from streetcars, so that when one show finished on one side of the theater, the audience could simply switch position and watch another show as it began on the other stage. The plan was to produce one hour of puppet theater and aonen hour of live theater, but eventually the venue became primarily known for Lanchester's elaborate, costumed song routines. One critic wrote that her show was "A breath of fresh air in our smoky night life ... Else Lanchester, with her abstract face, her thicket of apricot hair ... oddly diverting, funny, fantastic, wistful, and wayward ... a weird and wondrous will-of-the-wisp, being female, street urchin and witty in rapid succession."

While a collection of Lanchester's performances was released under the title "Elsa Lanchester Sings Bawdy Cockney Songs" (available from Amazon.com; just click the banner below). The title is misleading; Although a few of the songs (such as the morbid "Rat Catcher's Daughter") are holdovers from her Cave of Harmony days, and all are written in the style of the music hall, most of the songs on the recording were written specifically for Ms. Lanchester. The songwriter was one of the great, forgotten lyricists of the 20th Century: Forman Brown.

Brown had an extraordinary talent for telling stories in verse: He could pair a couplet in a way that was straightforward, intimate, and utterly compelling in its details. Let us look at a section from one of his unrecorded songs, titled "Lackadaisy Masie":

The tinker he was a dashing man,
flashing his smile so splendid.
The women would flock around his van
and buy what they'd never intended.

Brown's lyrics had a quiet playfulness. His subtle wordplay never announced itself, as did Cole Porter's, but instead built careful line upon careful line in order to create a rich, textured story. His songs are bawdy, yes, but have a mournful quality to them that renders them quite striking. Let us look at a song of infidelity, for example, called "When a Lady Has a Piazza":

Every night when the sun goes down
On the little white house on the edge of town
I sit on my porch and rock
My neighbor on the left is Mrs. MacFaul
She never speaks to me at all
She's in bed by nine o'clock
Mrs. Pottington lives on the other side
She's a righteous women with a military stride
And she ignores me too
But Mr. Pottington and Mr. MacFaul
Have both dropped in rather late to call
A neighbourly thing to do

There is a hint of pettiness and loneliness in these lyrics that Lanchester echoed in her performance. "I am not first and foremost a singer," she once wrote, and it is not her voice that made her famous. Instead, in a now nearly lost tradition of musical theater, Lanchester would create a character for each of her songs, and create a voice for that character. Thus, "When a Lady Has a Piazza" sounds as though it were sung by a rather exhausted, depressed gentlewoman, causing a critic to comment that "there is a desperate quality about her art; in some curious way, she takes her listeners out of a close, tidy world and into a disquieting place filled with sharp winds and unsteady laughter."

Off and on, Lanchester would perform songs from her Cave of Harmony and Turnabout Theater days for the remainder of her life, creating a variety of characters to warble out Brown's amazing, almost totally unknown rhymed couplets, such as these from "The Janitor's Boy":

When we play house in the janitor's garret,
I'm momma and he is the pop.
We quarrel and I scream just like old Mrs. Barrett,
While he beats me up with a mop.
Last week Mr. Jones got a splendid allotment
Of scotch and two bottles of gin,
And did we have fun in the Jones's apartment!
At least 'till the Joneses walked in.
The janitor's boy is a marvel,
Though he's not such a popular kid.
He swiped such a funny French novel
That Mrs. Cuducci had hid.
Some parts of that book were beyond me:
It was funny the way they would act.
But the janitor's boy made the reading a joy:
He supplied all the knowledge I lacked.

It is hard to imagine these words coming from the same mouth that produced the horrified swan hissing when unveiled before the monster in James Whale's masterpiece, but then it is also impossible to imagine her singing this song in a puppet theater -- and doing so for 10 years! In London in the 1940s, critics would often complain that the music hall was not what it had once been, and the new stars could not compete with the old. "They were giants then," came the complaint, but it was a complaint produced by a lack of observation. Giants of traditional British Music Hall still walked the earth, still producing the same delightful -- if somewhat unseemly -- popular ballads. The critics simply were not looking in the right location, which, odd as it still seems, was a Hollywood puppet theater.

Cheers!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.


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Posted by UkuleleKing at 8:34 p.m.

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