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92YTribeca Tribute to Bride of Frankenstein star Elsa Lanchester!

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by: Kier-La Janisse on: 2013-01-19 22:48:05

As horror fans, you know her as the iconic BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, perhaps as the cheery boozer in Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE or WILLARD’s grouchy matriarch in the 1971 film of the same name. But how well do you really know Elsa Lanchester?

Lanchester attempted to rectify any such gaps in her legacy with a controversial tell-all autobiography in 1983 called Elsa Lanchester: Herself. And this book – long out of print but currently the subject of a fan campaign for reprinting (http://www.facebook.com/ReprintElsa)  – was the starting point for a multimedia evening celebrating Lanchester’s life and work called THE ELSA MONOLOGUES, to be held at 92YTribeca on January 25th.

As part of curator Tom Blunt’s ongoing variety show series “Meet the Lady” (focused on unsung women in the performing arts), THE ELSA MONOLOGUES will feature film clips, performances and live readings from Lanchester’s scandalous book, all whipped together into a feisty and fascinating homage to one of cinema sassiest bohemians.

We spoke to Blunt about the appeal of Lanchester’s oeuvre for the tribute treatment, and to give us a tease of a new event planned for April devoted to “Stalker Cinema”.

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THE ELSA MONOLOGUES, Friday, January 25th, 8pm
At 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson Street, New York, NY
$12 general seating
Followed by reception with DJ Accident Report
More info at www.92y.org/Tribeca

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FANG: What led you to focus on Elsa Lanchester?

BLUNT: I found a copy of her book in a junk store for a dollar. In the prologue, Elsa recalls how her mother rebelled against her wealthy family in 1895 by becoming a Socialist and moving in with a boyfriend instead of getting married. The family responded by kidnapping her and committing her to an insane asylum – the cause of insanity was actually listed as “over-education.”

As you can imagine, I was instantly hooked. The more I read, the more I was inspired to share with anyone who’d listen — thanks to our series of “Meet The Lady” shows, I already had a platform from which to do this. It’s so much faster than calling people and reading it to them over the phone! We’re also kicking off a fan campaign (still in its infancy) to try and get the book republished. Future generations of troublemakers must know her!

FANG: Lanchester is best known as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN but what else will you be showing clips from that you consider her standout roles?

BLUNT: I’m not allowed to say which exact clips we’ll be showing. I can say that her career took many twists and turns – in the earlier days she was mostly tethered to small roles in movies that her husband, Charles Laughton, was starring in. In her later years she really worked the Disney circuit. “Large parts in lousy pictures, and small parts in big pictures,” is how she sums it up. It was really fun to revisit movies like MARY POPPINS and BLAACKBEARD’S GHOST in my research, to finally be able to say “So that’s who that bizarre and sort of unpleasant creature was!” Elsa had a real flair for playing grotesques. However, she considered her greatest artistic achievement to be her nightclub/theatrical acts. Recordings of these are available on Amazon (I strongly recommend “Songs for a Smoke-Filled Room”).

FANG:I’ve seen interviews with her and she’s quite sassy, but I haven’t read her autobiography – what are some of the controversial elements – was the contention solely due to her claims that her husband, actor Charles Laughton, was a closested homosexual?

BLUNT: No, but that’s a great start! Fortunately Laughton’s homosexuality is now well-documented, so that’s no longer contentious to anyone except Maureen O’Hara. What makes Elsa’s book controversial today is not the revelation itself, but the acceptance and discretion she offered him for the long duration of their marriage. This was a time period that wasn’t particularly gay-friendly, but Elsa was down. This kind of arrangement – in which they both had private romances with other men – is remarkable even by today’s standards, and she writes about it in detail. Over the years they ended up manipulating and punishing each other mercilessly… It’s often painful to read, but her underlying love and admiration for him still shines through.

Her childhood memories are hilariously shocking — tales of a wild young Socialist living in decadent squalor. As she grew older she became one of London’s Bohemian “It girls,” running around in a paper skirt and putting on scandalous nightclub acts. She is very candid about the ups and downs of this lifestyle, including the occasional abortion (Tallulah Bankhead referred her to a very good doctor). There are many intelligent, humorous, sex-positive role models from that time period, and Elsa deserves credit for being one of them.

FANG: What is the running order of the event, and would you describe it as more of a performance or a historical overview of her career?

She’s worthy of a true historical overview, but this is more of a love letter. What we’ve done is turn a bunch of performers loose on some of the best moments from her book. That lends a natural story arc to the event — but at the end of the day we’re a variety program, and we are here to entertain you. We’re giving away perfume samples from Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab that remind us of The Bride (“Cathode,” “Burial,” and “Lightning”), and we have a local milliner who’s designing a gorgeous hat inspired by the character’s iconic hairstyle; there will probably be a burlesque element as well. I think Elsa would approve!

FANG: Also, can you tell me a bit about The “Stalker Cinema” event you have coming up in April?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but movies featuring female stalkers have an entirely different set of rules than movies about male stalkers. We’ll be reveling in these differences and poking fun at some of the wildest examples. (I’m really into SWIMFAN which owes so much to FATAL ATTRACTION that it even thanks Michael Douglas in the credits.) We do focus on female victims of stalking as well – last time around we chatted with Jessica Harper, who starred in films like SUSPIRIA and THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and with the director of I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW – that sensational documentary about people who stalk the ’80s pop star Tiffany. I’m already stalking potential guests for April’s show…

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THE ELSA MONOLOGUES, Friday, January 25th, 8pm
At 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson Street, New York, NY
$12 general seating
Followed by reception with DJ Accident Report
More info at www.92y.org/Tribeca

 

About the author
Kier-La Janisse http://www.big-smash.com
Kier-La Janisse is a writer and film programmer based in Montreal, Canada. She is the Founding Director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and a film programmer for Fantastic Fest, POP Montreal and SF Indie. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver and co-founded Montreal's Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012).
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