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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Vincent Price—A Life Well Lived: Celebrating the 110th Birthday of an Icon

Of all the horror icons in film history, none have more thoroughly embraced or had more fun with their sinister persona than Vincent Price. From his days playing the villain in the American stage version of Gaslight (then titled Angel Street) to baring his fangs with Kermit the frog on The Muppet Show, Price knew the power and fun inherent in playing “the bad guy.” But before his macabre reputation was fully formed, he was a versatile actor who was known for all kinds of roles in a wide variety of films. He slowly rose to stardom working with legendary Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, Samuel Fuller, and Joseph Mankiewicz, alongside some of the screen’s greatest stars like Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, Gene Tierney, and Jane Russell. His roles in horror are also extremely varied. Though known for the Vincent Price “persona,” one would be hard-pressed to nail down the particulars of it.

This was true for his life offscreen as well. He was a man of many interests and talents, a Renaissance man in the very best sense. As his daughter Victoria wrote in the preface to her book Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, “every day, he filled his mind, his spirit, and his life with everything that interested him—acting, art, cooking, gardening, history, poetry, opera, people, places, things. He was a collector of experience, and found ways to make a living doing most of the things he loved.” By all accounts, he was also a man of tremendous warmth, humor, and generosity. 

Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was the youngest of four children born into a family of some repute on May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father was a successful confectioner and highly respected in the candy-making industry. His grandfather had invented baking powder and amassed a fortune in creating, sustaining, and then selling the Price Baking Powder Company, but most of that wealth was lost in the devastating depression of 1893. Because of the crash (or at least suspected by his family), Vincent’s father returned from school early to pursue a career in business in hopes of saving his family from financial ruin rather than pursue his creative interests. Raised on these stories, the young Vincent was determined to live the life he really wanted to live, and that life involved the arts and acting.

His love of visual art began at an early age. When he was twelve, he did a number of odd jobs to scrape together $35 to purchase an original etching by Rembrandt on an installment plan. The piece remained in his vast art collection until his death. He caught the acting bug while studying art history at Yale. He saw every play and movie he could in New Haven between 1930-1933 as he completed his degree, which he switched to English when he became interested in acting. After graduating, he moved to New York to take on Broadway, but was unable to land any acting jobs. So, he ventured across the pond and eventually lied his way into a walk-on role in a small professional theater in London. Soon after, he had his first taste of success playing Prince Albert, a leading role in a series of short plays about the life of Queen Victoria titled Victoria Regina. The play was a huge success and caught the eye of an American producer who brought it, and Price along with it, to Broadway in 1935.

It wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned. He signed his first contract with Universal Pictures in 1937, but it took some time before the studio was able to find a suitable project for him. In the meantime, he continued to act on Broadway in various productions. He even worked with the renowned Mercury Theater Company under the direction of Orson Welles during this period. In his time with that company, he made several lifelong friendships and married his first wife, Edith Barrett, on April 22, 1938. 

‘The Invisible Man Returns’

Finally in June of that year, Price made his film debut in a screwball comedy titled Service de Luxe. Price later described the film as a “wonderful experience for me but it was a dreadful picture.” Despite Universal’s reputation for horror movies, he appeared in very few during his time with the studio. One of his earliest film roles of note was as the Duke of Clarence in Tower of London (1939), a pseudo-horror film about the life of Richard III. It was billed as horror because it starred two of Universal’s greatest genre stars, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, who both became great friends of Vincent’s. His other notable horror role of his early career was as the titular character in The Invisible Man Returns in 1940. Following a few more films including the disastrous Green Hell directed by James Whale, the gothic romance The House of Seven Gables, and a small role as the founder of the Mormon church Joseph Smith in Brigham Young, Frontiersman (all three from 1940), Price returned to New York to play the role that would redefine his acting path going forward.

The play Gaslight has been a major success in its native England. It was transplanted to the United States with some revisions and a new title, Angel Street, and Price was given the lead role of the villainous Mr. Manningham. It was a role that greatly intrigued Price. He found it fun to play a man who “believed in himself, in his own charm, in the fact that he could get away with anything.” It would become something of a template for the kinds of sophisticated villains of nobility he would become known for. The play opened on December 5, 1941, two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and became one of the only plays to remain successful during the war, perhaps in part because of a villain the audience loved to hate. When he returned to films, he went with the idea “if I go to Hollywood and can find a good villain maybe that will put me across as an actor, and give me the identity that I want.”

Following his return to Los Angeles, most of his roles of note were in noir films and various kinds of dramas of the era. Some of his most famous film appearances include The Song of Bernadette (1943), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s directorial debut Dragonwyck (1946), and Samuel Fuller’s Baron of Arizona (1950). More often than not, he appeared as complex villains of intelligence, charm, and social nobility or wealth. 

In his personal life, his marriage to Edith fell apart and custody of their son Vincent Barrett, was awarded to her. Finding himself alone, he adopted one of his great longtime companions, his dog Joe, whom he would later write a book about—The Book of Joe: About a Dog and His Man in 1962. However, he and Joe weren’t alone for long as Vincent married costume designer Mary Grant in 1949. The two shared many interests including gourmet cooking and collaborated on a book of recipes. They were well known for entertaining friends in their art-filled home and serving dishes they made themselves.

‘House of Wax’

In 1953, Price finally starred in an all-out horror film, House of Wax, one of the earliest films to employ the new 3-D process designed to compete with the burgeoning medium of television. It was a difficult film to shoot due to the cumbersome 3-D cameras, the tight shooting schedule, and the uncomfortable makeup. “I drank many liquids and because of the running around in the makeup, I fainted one day from lack of oxygen,” Price later noted of the making of the film. The remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum was a huge success, becoming one of the top ten films at the box office that year and made Price an instant horror star.

Still, for an actor so associated with the genre as Price, very few of the films in the early part of his career could be considered horror. For years following the success of House of Wax, he declined starring roles in genre films (with the exception of 1954’s The Mad Magician) to avoid the kinds of typecasting his friends like Boris Karloff and, at least later in his career, Basil Rathbone received. But his greatest fame came at a time in his life when many stars begin to fade. Instead, he reached an entirely new audience over two decades into his long career when he began to appear in horror and science fiction movies and low budget exploitation films geared toward younger viewers. It was during these years that the performer we most remember Vincent Price to be was born.

And it all started with a buzz.

In 1958, Price appeared as the brother of Andre Delombre (played by Al—later credited as David—Hedison), the scientist who has an unfortunate mishap with his teleportation experiments, in The Fly. The film was a massive success and 20th Century Fox ordered a sequel, Return of the Fly, hot on its heels. Though these would begin his rise to becoming the King of Horror in the 60’s, he plays neither the villain nor the monster in either film. Between Fly films, Price connected with one of the great showmen of horror, William Castle, and starred in House on Haunted Hill, one of the seminal haunted house movies. As expected from William Castle, it involved a gimmick in which a plastic, glow-in-the dark skeleton on a fishing line hovered above the audience. The gimmicks would return in the form of the infamous seat buzzers for Price and Castle’s next collaboration The Tingler in 1959. Price enjoyed working on these films and admired Castle’s audacity. “Bill Castle was wonderful…He was a nutty fellow, but great fun to work with and very inventive.”

‘The Fly’

Perhaps the films that most solidified Price’s legacy as horror icon are his collaborations with American International Pictures (AIP), particularly the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by the legendary Roger Corman. Beginning with House of Usher in 1960 and culminating with Tomb of Ligeia in 1964, Price starred in all but one of the eight films officially in this cycle. AIP put more time and money (though they were still made on extremely tight budgets) into these movies and filmed them in color and widescreen. Their gamble paid off as all of them were met with great success. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) remains the most successful of them all and Masque of the Red Death (1964) is considered a masterpiece of the genre. While at AIP, he had the opportunity to reconnect and co-star with a number of old friends and fellow horror icons including Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. 

Besides the core Poe films, he also starred in the first film adaptation of Richard Mathieson’s oft-filmed I Am Legend re-titled The Last Man on Earth (1964), two Dr. Goldfoot movies—one of them directed by Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, and made a number of television appearances, most notably as Egghead on Batman and Count Sforza on F Troop. These are only the tip of the iceberg of his many appearances on television, in commercials and print ads, and on radio that spanned his career. In the early 60’s, Price was given a few unexpected opportunities as well. He was selected to serve on President Kennedy’s White House Fine Arts Committee, became the spokesman for the California Wine Institute, and signed a contract to become the art buyer for Sears stores. He was particularly enthusiastic about the program at Sears as it made original art pieces available to everyone, not just the wealthy. He was also able to discover many new artists and expose their work to a wider audience. For a time, he became almost as well known for his love of fine art, wine, and cooking as for his films.

In the late 60’s, Price began to become disenchanted with the roles he was being assigned by AIP. He was concerned by the rising violence and gore being employed in these movies. But despite his concerns, the films of this period remain some of the most impactful of his career. One of the best movies Price ever made was one that he objected to the most, Witchfinder General (1968), also titled The Conqueror Worm to capitalize on the success of the Poe films. It is a bleak, brutal, and utterly unforgettable film that remains powerful to this day. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) remain influential on everything from Evil Dead to Se7en, to Saw. These, along with 1973’s Theater of Blood, were a chance for Price to lean into the wicked sense of humor he was so well known for. These films are brutal, gory, and hilarious with plenty of campy fun to be had along the way. It was during this period that his second marriage also ended, and he married Coral Browne in 1974. This had an unfortunate effect on his relationship with his daughter, Victoria, but the two would reconcile before Price’s passing in 1993.

‘Witchfinder General’

Throughout his career, he often returned to his first love, the stage. As the twilight of his career began to set in, he gave the performance of a lifetime as Oscar Wilde in the one-man show Diversions & Delights which played over 800 performances in 300 cities between 1977 and 1980. He also became a frequent guest star on various television programs including The Carol Burnett Show, The Muppet Show, and dozens of episodes of The Hollywood Squares.

Though his filmic output began to slow in the 1970’s, his appearances on television and the “fun-with-horror” persona that he had cultivated only raised him to the status of legend. In the 80’s, he provided narration for Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” song and video and appeared alongside horror royalty Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine in House of the Long Shadows (1983). In 1982, he provided the narration for an animated short titled “Vincent” by aspiring animator and filmmaker Tim Burton, who would later direct his last great film appearance in Edward Scissorhands (1990). In 1987, he made two important films: the horror film From a Whisper to a Scream, which has become a cult classic, and an acclaimed drama The Whales of August alongside screen legends Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, and Harry Carey, Jr.

Vincent Price died of complications from Parkinson’s disease and lung cancer on October 25th, 1993 at the age of 82. He left behind a legacy of more than a hundred films and more than two thousand television appearances. He is one of the few actors lucky enough to work steadily for an entire career that spanned over six decades. But beyond his movies, he left the legacy of living a full life. As his daughter said, “I think a lot of people have very fond memories of sitting around and scaring themselves watching Vincent Price movies. But I think the reason that those movies worked was because always underneath that you saw this man that was having fun. And he really had fun with his life. It was a life well lived.” As horror fans, we can be grateful for the fun he had making the films he did. Films that remain effective, memorable, and maybe above all, fun to watch. His movies, his legacy, and his well-lived life remain worth celebrating.

“The Muppet Show”



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3667088/vincent-price-life-well-lived-celebrating-110th-birthday-icon/

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