Monday, November 19, 2012


Here in mid November, we're right between the birth (October 28, 1902) and death (December 26, 1986) of Elsa Lanchester. She was last heard from on this blog in October of 2007, celebrated for her risque comedy albums. Now it's time to give a nod to her for all the British Music Hall songs she performed, which kept alive the spirit of Vesta Victoria, Marie Lloyd and other charmers she no doubt saw live on stage. When Elsa was on Broadway with her one-woman show, she performed, among many others, "Mrs. Dyer, the Baby Farmer." It appears on her album "Cockney London" (released on vinyl by Verve circa 1958, now a gray area bootleg on CD by Windyridge in the UK).

In a style somewhat in homage of Vesta, Elsa often sang with wavery pitch. Her performance here is almost "campy," probably because the sophisticates in her audience relished decadence and prided themselves on being urbane and shockproof. Prolific murderess Amelia Dyer, the greatest monster of the English-speaking world, gets a coy tribute from the woman who once played opposite Boris Karloff. Her vocal might remind some of the time Roseanne Barr, unintentionally singing "Star Spangled Banner" out of her range, decided the only way out of her embarrassment would be to go for laughs and accentuate her ineptness. Elsa no doubt was aware of the limitations of her voice, and used her acting skills to color the lyrics to best advantage.

From the rather awful piano work of Ray Henderson, to her own wobbling between disgust and amusement over the dire doings of Dyer, Elsa sometimes hits both the bone of pathos and the funny bone on voice alone. When it was penned, and sold to crowds gathered at her hanging, the lyrics were intended to fire up outrage at Dyer's crimes, and to make people happy she was going to die. Over the years, the serious world of England a century ago has often been revised and parodied. From Peter Sellers' comical torture of "My Old Dutch" to Lionel Bart's lovable Fagin and musical comedy version of "Oliver Twist," the idea has been to lighten up the dark. And so "Mrs. Dyer, the Baby Farmer" becomes a black comedy of sorts for Elsa Lanchester. The former Bride of Frankenstein wants to have you in stitches.

ELSA: Mrs. Dyer the Baby Farmer

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