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A charcoal drawing of Ernest Thesiger by John Singer Sargent (circa 1911).
15 January 1879|
London, England, United Kingdom
|Died||14 January 1961
London, England, United Kingdom
|Spouse(s)||Janette Mary Fernie Ranken (1917-1961)|
Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger, CBE (15 January 1879 - 14 January 1961) was an English stage and film actor. He is remembered for his performance as Doctor Septimus Pretorius in James Whale's film Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Early life and career
The grandson of the 1st Lord Chelmsford, Thesiger was born in London, England and was the first cousin once removed of the explorer and author Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003), and the nephew of 2nd Lord Chelmsford, who, exactly a week after Ernest's birth, famously led his troops in battle against — and defeat at the hands of — a Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana.
Thesiger attended Marlborough College and the Slade School of Art with aspirations of becoming a painter, but quickly switched to drama, making his professional debut in a production of Colonel Smith in 1909. He enlisted in the armed forces at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, allegedly hoping to be assigned to a Scottish regiment because he wanted to wear a kilt, but was wounded in the field and sent home. (At a dinner party shortly after his return, someone asked him what it had been like in France, to which he is supposed to have responded "Oh, my dear, the noise! and the people!") In 1917, he married Janette Mary Fernie Ranken (1877-1970), sister of his close friend and fellow Slade graduate William Bruce Ellis Ranken. In her biography of Thesiger's friend, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Hilary Spurling suggests that Thesiger and Janette wed largely out of their mutual adoration of William, who shaved his head when he learned of the engagement. Another source states more explicitly that Thesiger made no secret of his homosexuality.
Thesiger moved in several artistic, literary and theatrical circles. At various times, he frequented the studio of John Singer Sargent, befriended Mrs. Patrick Campbell, visited and corresponded with Percy Grainger and worked closely with George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the role of the Dauphin in Saint Joan for him. Somerset Maugham, on the other hand, responded to Thesiger's inquiry as to why he wrote no parts for him with the quip, "But I am always writing parts for you, Ernest. The trouble is that somebody called Gladys Cooper will insist on playing them."
After the Great War
Thesiger's film debut was in 1916 in The Real Thing at Last, a spoof presenting Macbeth as it might be done by an American company, in which he did a drag turn as one of the Witches. Thesiger also played the First Witch in a 1941 production of Macbeth directed by John Gielgud. He performed more small roles in films during the silent era, but worked mainly on the stage.
In 1925, Thesiger appeared in Noël Coward's On with the Dance, again in drag, and later played the Dauphin in Shaw's Saint Joan. He wrote an autobiography Practically True, published in 1927, which covers his stage career. An unpublished memoir written near the end of his life is housed in the Ernest Thesiger Collection at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
Work with James Whale
When he appeared in a Christmas production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1919, Thesiger met and befriended James Whale. After Whale had moved to Hollywood and found success with the films Journey's End (1930) and Frankenstein (1931), the director was commissioned to direct the screen adaptation of J. B. Priestley's Benighted as The Old Dark House (1932), starring Charles Laughton in his first American film, together with Boris Karloff and Raymond Massey. Whale immediately cast Thesiger in the film as Horace Femm, launching his Hollywood career. The following year Thesiger appeared (as a Scottish butler) with Karloff in a British film The Ghoul.
When Whale agreed to direct Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, he insisted on casting Thesiger as Dr. Septimus Pretorius, instead of the studio's choice of Claude Rains. Partly inspired by Mary Shelley's friend John Polidori and largely based on the Renaissance physician and botanist Paracelsus, it became Thesiger's most famous role, in which he gives a fey, flamboyant performance as Baron Frankenstein's mentor.
Arriving in the United States for the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, Thesiger immediately set up a display in his hotel suite of all his needlework, each with a price tag, and during the making of the film he would work on needlework, one of his hobbies.
Originally cast to play the luddite sculptor Theotocopolous in H.G. Wells's Things to Come (1936), Thesiger's performance was deemed unsuitable by the author, and so was replaced by Cedric Hardwicke, although he was retained on the parallel production of Wells's The Man Who Could Work Miracles. Around this same time Thesiger published a book, Adventures in Embroidery, about needlework, which was his expert hobby.
The remainder of Thesiger's career was centred on the theatre but he did appear in supporting roles in films produced in Britain, prominent among which is The Man in the White Suit (1951), starring Alec Guinness. He plays "Sir John," the most powerful, the richest, and the oldest of the industrialists (jointly with the trade unions) trying to suppress Guinness's invention of a fabric that never wears out and never gets dirty.
Thesiger made several appearances on Broadway, notably as Jacques to Katharine Hepburn's Rosalind in the longest-running production of As You Like It ever produced on Broadway. Later films included The Horse's Mouth (1958) with Alec Guinness, Sons and Lovers (1960), and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, with Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty (1961). That same year he made his final stage appearance—a mere week before his death—in The Last Joke, with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.
In 1960, Thesiger was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). His last film appearance was a small role in Invitation to Murder (1962). He died in his sleep shortly after completing it, from natural causes, on the eve of his 82nd birthday, and is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
- In the fictionalised James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters (1998), Thesiger was portrayed by Arthur Dignam. And the real Thesiger is seen in the film when Brendan Fraser, as Whale's gardener, sits at a bar watching televised repeats of the original 1935 Bride of Frankenstein.
- Curtis, James (1998). James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. Boston: Faber and Faber. p. 240. ISBN 0-571-19285-8.
- "Ernest Thesiger - Expert Embroiderer 1944", British Pathé newsreel
- "Ernest Thesiger, Actor, 82, Is Dead. Stage and Film Performer in Britain Since 1909. Had Paintings Displayed.". New York Times. January 15, 1961. Retrieved 2008-05-06.
Ernest Thesiger, veteran stage and film actor, died at his home here today. He would have been 82 years old.
- Mark Duguid "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1960)", BFI screenonline
- Ernest Thesiger at the Internet Movie Database
- Ernest Thesiger at the Internet Broadway Database
- Ernest Thesiger at Find a Grave
- The Importance of Being Ernest
- Ernest Thesiger archive at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, University of Bristol
- Classic Horror Movie Players T
- The Doctor Is In!