British actor Ernest Thesiger appeared in many movie genres, but his appearances in the
horror film are the most memorable.
The Missing Link explores the career of the man who helped
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) such a success.
The Importance of Being Ernest...
Although he appeared in over fifty films from
everything including Greek drama and musical comedy, it is his work in the horror and
fantasy genre that he will be chiefly and fondly remembered. An unmistakable character
actor, a gaunt nostrilled figure whose definitive roles were achieved in his brief work
across the waters from his native country.
Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger was born in London on January 15th. 1879, the grandson
of the first Baron of Chelmsford. He was educated at Marlborough College where, at a young
age, his prospects were of becoming a great painter. When greatness was thought to be too
elusive, he quickly turned to the theatre, first appearing in the stage production of Colonel
Smith during 1909. He remained on stage until the outbreak of the First World War when
he enlisted, and after seeing action in the frontlines, he was sent home wounded.
His first film appearance is credited as being The
Real Thing at Last in 1916, but as films were then regarded somewhat as a novelty, he
returned to the theatre in an unpromising sounding play entitled A Little Bit of Fluff.
To Thesiger's amazement, the play successfully ran for over 1200 performances eventually
leading to a film adaptation in which Thesiger reprised his role and earned him an
association with comedies. He became known for his camp performances and remarkable female
impersonations. During 1925 Thesiger appeared in Noel Coward's stage production of On
With the Dance in which with Douglas Byng he portrayed one of two elderly women who
share a room in a boarding house, undressing for bed in a sketch of prudish embarrassment.
He later graduated to playing dramatic roles, taking the part of Dauphin in George Bernard
Shaw's Saint Joan.
Noted director James Whale, who had left
Britain for Hollywood under the wing of the great George Pearson with JOURNEY'S END (1930),
and had just scored a remarkable success for Universal Studios with Frankenstein (1931), petitioned studio head Carl Laemmle to purchase
the rights to J.B. Priestly's novel "The Benighted". The story brought together
a strange collection of people at an old house in Wales during a violent storm. Whale
insisted Thesiger join him in Hollywood (where many other versatile actors from the
British Isles had, and would work extensively, including Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone,
Claude Rains, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Leslie Banks and Lionel Atwill) to take
the role of Horace Femm, a character that Priestly describes as "A man so thin,
with so little flesh...he was almost a skeleton".
James Whale had first met Thesiger during a
Christmas production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in Manchester and described him
as "a frail ex-prisoner of war with a faun-like charm". Thesiger had no standing in Hollywood
whatsoever, but his work was recognised after appearing in Whale's Priestly adaptation The Old Dark House (1932) as Horace Femm. The part was
substantial and filmed with appropriately angled closeups, while his co-star, Boris Karloff portrayed Morgan, the thuggish,
mute manservant, and as with his role in Frankenstein,
delivers only several grunts as dialogue. The film, which also stars Charles Laughton (in
his American film debut), Raymond Massey,
Lillian Bond, Melvyn Douglas Eva Moore and Gloria
Stuart, found box office success and a healthy profit for Universal.
Returning back to Britain with Karloff, they both starred in
Gaumont's The Ghoul (1933). Karloff, in his first
British film, portrays Professor Moriant, an antiquarian who believes he can achieve
immortality with a scared jewel stolen from an Egyptian tomb named "The Eternal
Light". To achieve his aim he must follow a prescribed ritual with the jewel
bandaged in his clenched fist. His servant Laing played by Thesiger, steals the gem from
the professor's body, who then returns from the dead to seek his revenge. Amongst the cast
is Cedric Hardwicke as a scheming lawyer,
British character actress Kathleen Harrison
and a 31 year-old Ralph Richardson making his film debut. Again Ernest Thesiger was handed
a substantial role, although director T. Hayes Hunter, an American working in Britain
during the 30's, seemed to give him no kind of direction at all, something that his old
friend James Whale would have meticulously worked on and emphasised. Thought to be lost
for many years, the film was rediscovered in Eastern Europe during 1969, eight years after
the release of a comedy remake produced by the "Carry On..." team titled What a
Carve Up! (1961). Although The Ghoul seems
quite dated and pedestrian, it provides us with a look at both Thesiger and Karloff's work
before the release of The Bride of Frankenstein
Universal's Carl Laemmle
Jnr., who had inherited control of the studio on his 21st. birthday in 1929 would
often boast that the films made under his command were the most elaborate and prestigious
productions of any other studio in Hollywood. One of the first of six planned
"specials" was to be titled THE RETURN OF FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting the
original cast of 1931's Frankenstein. Whale was
reluctant to make a sequel, but he planned the film in a style more of his own choosing.
What he brought to the screen is a film that approaches a masterpiece and one that is
still used as a yardstick for releases in the genre. Thesiger was given the role of Dr.
Septimus Pretorius after Whale insisted on his involvement when the studio had planned to
cast Claude Rains instead. Rains was then moved to a role in THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
The story of the now titled The Bride of
Frankenstein (1935) revolves around Dr. Pretorious, (Thesiger), Henry Frankenstein's
former teacher, who suggests to Henry, (Colin Clive), to join forces and create a mate for
the monster, (Boris Karloff), after the original creature is discovered alive and well. Henry finds the idea repugnant, but he is forced into the pact when
Pretorious kidnaps Henry's fiancée, (Valerie Hobson). Infused with a wonderful
sense of gallows humour the film is stolen by Thesiger whenever he is on the screen.
Cameraman John Mescall, although reportedly drunk through much of the production, composed
a slew of weird and imaginative angles that accentuated Thesiger's skeletal frame and
intense features aiding the actor's already rich performance.
Unfortunately Whale cast Thesiger in only two of his films. It would have been
interesting to see Thesiger in The Invisible Man
(1933) possibly playing directly opposite the equally charismatic Una O'Connor. Between
takes of The Bride of Frankenstein, Thesiger
would often be seated in a quiet and secluded corner offstage either painting, or
concentrating on some meticulous needlework at which he was very proficient. Later on in
the 30's Thesiger published a book entitled "Adventures in Embroidery". The Bride of Frankenstein turned out to be
Thesiger's last film made in America. The rest of his work was in Britain.
In The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)
Thesiger stayed within the horror/fantasy genre. Directed by Lothar Mendes, a Hungarian,
for fellow countryman Alexander Korda who owned the London Film Company, Thesiger received
fourth billing as Reverend Silas Maydig who advises George McWhirter Fotheringay, (Roland
Young), a menial civil servant who has been granted the gift of ultimate power by a trio
of sporting gods (amongst them the superb George Sanders in his film debut), to use his
power to create a better world. Instead Fotheringay decides to create a world for himself,
and almost brings about the destruction of the planet. This whimsical, comic fantasy was
met with luke-warm reviews, but most praised Thesiger's portrayal of the prissy
Thesiger's next venture would see him return to portraying a somewhat
peculiar character, the type of role he excelled and revelled in. They Drive by Night (1938) revolves around Shorty White, (played by
Emlyn Williams, a Welsh actor and playwright who debuted in 1932's modest thriller The Frightened Lady), an innocent ex-convict
suspected of being the "silk stocking murderer". This rarely seen British
thriller successfully combines elements of film-noir and unabashed tongue-in-cheek horror.
The promising director Arthur B. Woods was following a path similar to that of Hitchcock
when he unfortunately became a casualty of the Second World War. Thesiger appears as Mr.
Hoover, who at first appears as a mild-mannered, unctuous amateur criminologist, but later reveals himself to be the real killer, armed with a collection
of silk stockings and a maniacal sneer. Thesiger's meaty role is played to the hilt, his
remarkable ability to convey an air of normality and then dramatically switch to a
demented malevolent sex killer was a trait which few other actors could hope to achieve.
The film's unfortunate obscurity deserves its recognition as one of the best pre-war
thrillers ever to be made in Britain.
Thesiger's next genre offering after appearing with Will Hay in MY LEARNED FRIEND (1943)
and DON'T TAKE IT TO HEART (1944), a felicitous comedy involving a ghost's release
from his tomb by the direct hit of a bomb, was A Place
of One's Own (1945). Made at a time when the all too real horrors of war were raging
and the British censorship laws had completely removed the horror product from the
cinemas, Thesiger appears as Dr. Marsham, a medic summoned by Mr. & Mrs. Smedhurst,
(James Mason & Barbara Mullen), to their new country retirement house that has a
reputation for being haunted. Stricken with a mysterious illness, the Smedhurst's
companion Annette, (Margaret Lockwood), is attended by the doctor who had attempted to
treat a young girl who died at the house forty years earlier. It is later revealed that
the good doctor was a ghost. Directed by former cinematographer Bernard Knowles, this is
acknowledged to be his finest film. Satisfyingly elegant, the film held its own against
the more renowned chillers of the time which included The Halfway House (1943) and the Dead of Night (1945).
Ernest Thesiger's last genre venture before 1950 is British National's The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947) directed by
Vernon Sewell. The ghosts of two 18th. century military men, (Robert Morley and Felix
Aylmer), are doomed to haunt their London mansion until their house is visited by a
reigning monarch. All their efforts for salvation come to nothing until the house receives
a direct hit from a bomb during the First World War. Queen Mary visits the demolished
mansion while inspecting local war damage, and inadvertently saves the spectres. Thesiger
appears in a moderate role played with his usual flair and finesse, standing out from the
cast as an exceptional performer.
In 1950, Thesiger briefly returned to America to appear in a Broadway production of As
You Like It after which he divided his time between theatre and film work in Britain
appearing in a spate of Ealing productions that included THE
MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951), Meet
Mr. Lucifer (1953) and WHO DONE IT? (1956). He became a respected
character actor that could always highlight an otherwise pedestrian film. His biggest role
in his declining years is of Lord Crawford in THE ADVENTURES OF QUENTIN DURWARD (1956),
a first rate period piece set in 15th. century France. The number of Thesiger's film roles
continued to increase and he can be spotted in many films of this time including LAUGHTER
IN PARADISE (1951), and the definitive version of Scrooge
(1951), both starring the great Alistair Sim. After an appearance in THE MAGIC BOX (1952),
his last film role was in THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE during 1961, a rather
heavy-handed melodrama starring Vivian Leigh.
With his health failing, Thesiger appeared in his last stage production ironically
titled The Last Joke alongside John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. Ernest
Thesiger passed away shortly afterwards in 1961 at the age of 82.
Fifty two years in the industry, Ernest Thesiger is unfortunately remembered by few fans
of the genre, but as time goes on his films will stand testament to this fine and unique
Ernest Thesiger Filmography
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The Missing Link
is indebted to Frances Thesiger for additional information and corrections.
Autographed postcard courtesy of Dave Johnston
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