The Many Faces of Ernest Thesiger

Ernest Thesiger is one of the ’30s Hollywood thesps raved about in the piece B. Kite and I wrote for The Believer magazine. Although he was British born, bred and based, his work for James Whale across the pond is what he’ll doubtless be remembered for — BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This is a little visual celebration of his ever-changing countenance as seen in the 1938 thriller THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT.


Hat on!



 “And this is the real me!”

If I can go mad and QUOTE MYSELF, without vanishing into some kind of chrono-synclastic infundibulum, “Ernest Thesiger belongs, almost, to an unofficial group of effete British actors who created a parody of the upper classes and worked extensively with their nostrils.”

E.T.’s best British work is probably THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, where Alexander Mackendrick cast him as a malign, wheezing magnate. Are there many cases of a filmmaker being struck down by an illness he has made light of in his work? Mackendrick considered it an awful form of poetic justice that his own later years were blighted by emphysema.

As an asthmatic I sympathise. You easy breathers have no idea how wonderful a thing inhalation really is. You certainly come to appreciate it when deprived of the ability. Note to filmmakers — you always get this wrong — asthma doesn’t make you cough. Wheeze, yes, cough, no. You can get the air into your lungs, you just can’t make them do anything WITH it. Imagine that, then let’s be glad for our health.

10 Responses to “The Many Faces of Ernest Thesiger”

  1. I would have loved t o have seen Thesiger in an Astaire-Rogers musical, doing battle with Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore.

  2. Could any screen contain such upper-crust feyness?

    Kenneth Williams told a story of Thesiger getting off a bus with his shopping, when the doors closed on him. He cried (without hesitation!) “Stop! Stop! You are killing a genius!”

  3. Well he was only right.

  4. That he considered himself a genius, whether in truth or jest, makes him all the more endearing. I just wish you had pulled some stills of Thesiger with the kittens.

  5. Yeah, why didn’t I? Am crazy about kittens. And the kitten-Thesiger combo is so wrong it has to be right.

  6. Mike Santoro Says:

    Really enjoy your site. The resolution of the images is excellent. Ernest Thesiger’s role as the king’s tutor in Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra was most entertaining and he spoke Shaw’s dialogue with much expression. Was wondering if anyone has exterior views of Caesar and Cleopatra sets at Denham Studios during its production in the 1940s.

  7. I don’t. I did have a friend who worked on the film, and had stills of the Black Narcissus sets. But I don’t know where they are since his death.

    I’m planning a post based on his memories of Caesar and Cleopatra, which I just viewed, soon…

    Thanks for the kind words, hope you’ll stick around.

  8. […] the former schoolmaster Walter Hoover, played by the unbelievably urbane, stick-figure-thin Ernest Thesiger. Our first view of him is of his hands, so you only see what he’s doing– pasting […]

  9. I recently left some flowers on his grave in Brompton cemetry in London, I have his auotbiography ‘practically true’, seemingly practically not ! a genius of a man, I also have his book ‘adventures in embroidery’, when I grow up I want to be Ernest Thesiger ….

  10. You know the one about him being caught by the bus doors as he was disembarking with his shopping? “Stop, stop, you are killing a genius!”

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