English stage and film actor ERNEST THESIGER, CBE was born (d. 1961). Born Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger, he is is best known for his performance as Dr. Septimus Pretorius in JAMES WHALE’s film Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In 1917, he married Janette Mary Fernie Ranken, sister of his close friend and fellow Slade graduate William 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 about 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.”
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 did a few smaller roles in movies during the silent era, but worked mainly on the stage.
In 1919 he appeared in a Christmas production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, during which he met and befriended JAMES WHALE. 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 An unpublished memoir written near the end of his life is housed in the Ernest Thesiger Collection at the University of Bristol.
Originally cast to play the luddite sculptor Theotocopolous in H.G. Wells’s Things to Come, 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.
The remainder of Thesiger’s career was centered around the theater and around supporting roles in films produced in Britain, prominent among which is The Man in the White Suit which starred 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 to ever be produced on the Great White Way. Later films included The Horse’s Mouth with Alec Guinness, Sons and Lovers, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, with Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty. 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.
His other artistic pursuits included painting and that manliest of all arts, needlework. Thesiger even published a book about needlework in 1945, Adventures in Embroidery. Sadly the book didn’t share details of his numerous visits to the Royal Family.
Thesinger regaled his costars with stories about his numerous visits to the castle where he and Queen Mary would partake in their shared hobby of embroidery. During World War I he enlisted as a private and went on to found the Disabled Soldiers’ Embroidery Industry. Alec Guinness recalled the time that Thesinger was mocked for stitching in public. “He didn’t turn a hair–just said, ‘In Chelsea I’m known as the stitching bitch–now buzz off.’ And they did, of course.”
In 1960, Thesiger was granted the order of Commander of the British Empire (CBE). His last film appearance was a small role in Invitation to Murder (1962), which was released the year after his death. 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.