Friday, May 27, 2011
Centennial Tributes: Vincent Price
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Over at my usual stomping grounds at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, I’ve been known to jokingly refer to the time I spent living in Morgantown, W.Va. (1992-2000) as “my years in exile” — and one of my fondest memories during that period occurred when my co-workers at the company that saw fit to employ me decided to have an impromptu lunch at an Italian restaurant located in nearby Westover, a small burg just across the Monongahela River from Mo-town, better known as home to West Virginia University (Or as I have been known to call it — using a gag I swiped from Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman — “a stadium with a college attached”). The eatery was known as Rose’s, and I’d heartily recommend that you stop by for a nosh sometime when you’re in the area were it not for the awful fact that it closed its doors about five years back.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure — when it comes to Italian cuisine, it’s not my first choice on the menu…I’m more of a cheeseburger-and-onion rings kind of guy. But when I followed my co-workers into the restaurant I had a feeling the food was going to be first-rate (and it was…so much so that I went back on repeat occasions with a friend of mine from high school) because on one of the walls near the entrance was an article from the local newspaper that talked up the place…and mentioned that Rose’s (and her cooking in particular) was a favorite of actor Vincent Price, who made it a point to stop by whenever he was in the area. Price, known for his distinguished accomplishments on stage, screen, television, radio — just about any facet of show business you can name, as a matter of fact — also enjoyed a reputation as a gourmet cook…so if Rose’s fare had his seal of approval I certainly wasn’t going to argue. I know, it’s sort of odd that I would remember something like this but seeing as how the man christened Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was born 100 years ago on this date I guess I’m resorting to this “degree of separation” to pay tribute to one of my favorite actors on his “Vincentennial.”
Vincent Price was born a century ago in St. Louis, Mo., this date and to his dying day remained one of that city’s favorite sons…with good reason, of course. Truth be told, if Price had never set foot upon the stage his future would have been pretty secure; his father, Vincent, Sr., was president of the National Candy Company and his grandfather (also named Vincent) was the inventor of “Dr. Price’s Baking Powder” — the first cream of tartar baking powder. As a son of privilege, Vincent attended both St. Louis Country Day School and Yale University, where he developed his lifelong interest in art history and the fine arts. In the 1930s, he also began to acquire an interest in the theater and began appearing in stage productions in 1935. His big stage success came a year later, playing opposite Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina — a production that the superstitious actor believed brought him such good fortune that he named his first daughter “Victoria” (aided by the fact that her mother was raised in Victoria, British Columbia). Though he would eventually devote most of his time in show business to making movies, Price never completely abandoned his stage roots — among his triumphs in later years was a successful one-man production entitled Diversions and Delights in which he played the part of legendary author/playwright Oscar Wilde.
On the silver screen, Vincent made his debut in the 1938 film Service de Luxe — a movie he wasn’t particularly fond of, but it paved the way to future appearances in more prestigious films such as Michael Curtiz's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex starring Bette Davis, Erroll Flynn and Olivia de Havilland (1939), The House of the Seven Gables (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Eve of St. Mark and Wilson (both in 1944). In fact, 1944 was a big year for the actor for he also appeared in The Keys of the Kingdom and a movie I’ve long considered one of his signature roles (and is the personal favorite of daughter Victoria), Otto Preminger's film noir classic Laura. As the rakish scoundrel Shelby Carpenter, Price gave an amazing performance as a cad who lies as easily as taking a breath but whose courtly Southern manner and charm (“I can afford a blemish on my character but not on my clothes”) made him more a figure to be pitied than scorned. Price would later make two additional movies with Laura co-star Gene Tierney, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Dragonwyck (1946), and he began to develop a reputation for screen villainy with choice parts in films such as The Web (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948), The Bribe (1949) and The Baron of Arizona (1950).
Playing the part of the Duke of Clarence in 1939’s Tower of London — a horror movie that co-starred Boris Karloff, a thesp with whom Price would work with time and time again — offered Vincent an indication of the direction his career would later take as a horror icon…and a year later, appeared as the titular undetectable character of The Invisible Man Returns. (Price would also play the unseen individual in a joke cameo near the end of the 1948 comedy classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.) His active participation in the horror genre reached full swing in 1953 with another unforgettable turn in the 3-D horror romp House of Wax, and Price followed that with such vehicles as The Mad Magician (1954), The Fly (1958) (and the 1959 sequel, Return of the Fly), The Bat (1959) and two movies he made for schlockmeister William Castle —
House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). The actor would occasionally get high profile gigs in movies such as The Ten Commandments and While the City Sleeps (both 1956), but by the 1960s, horror had a new name in Vincent Price, who would make many of his most memorable films during that decade…the ones that endlessly captivated me as a child watching “Chiller Theater” on Saturday nights while my parents were out for the evening.
Price starred in several films directed by “King of the B’s” Roger Corman that were heavily influenced by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, beginning in 1960 with House of Usher. Classic examples of the horror movie genre followed in the same vein, including Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). These movies serve to remind film buffs that, despite his B-movie pedigree, Corman was capable of turning out incredible work (particularly Pendulum and Red Death) but they also saddled its star with a reputation for “hamminess” that he simultaneously embraced and rejected. An example of Price capitalizing on this status is undoubtedly his starring turn in 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (a role he reprised in the sequel, 1972’s Dr. Phibes Rises Again) but Vincent demonstrated that he could reign in his hambone tendencies with an understated performance in Witchfinder General (1968; aka Conqueror Worm). As religious fanatic/evil madman Matthew Hopkins, Price could have pulled out all the stops but wisely chose not to do so…and for many fans (myself included), General ranks with some of the finest work Vincent ever did onscreen.
There are those who believe that Price agreed to undertake a starring role in Theater of Blood (1973) — a film in which a Shakespearean actor takes revenge on the critics who denied him recognition — as an answer to all those naysayers who time and time again dismissed him as a big slice of ham but Price enjoyed himself in this movie because it allowed him to indulge in another of his passions, performing the words of the Immortal Bard himself. (Needless to say, Blood was one of Price’s particular movie favorites.) Vincent’s involvement in films began to peter out around 1975 (mostly because the kind of horror movies he specialized in were on the wane) but by that time he was already making frequent guest appearances in shows on TV, including memorable turns in episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, F Troop, Get Smart, Night Gallery, The Brady Bunch, Columbo, Ellery Queen and The Bionic Woman. His best-known TV gig is probably that of his multiple appearances as the villainous Egghead on Batman, a program on which he started a legendary food fight by lobbing hen fruit at stars Adam West and Burt Ward. He also was a frequent panelist on the boob tube game show Hollywood Squares and a fixture on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he was in high demand as a raconteur telling tales of both show business and the culinary and art worlds.
I mentioned Price’s expertise in gourmet cooking in the first two paragraphs of this essay; it was such a lifelong passion of the actor’s that he authored several cookbooks (including one with second wife Mary Grant, A Treasury of Great Recipes) and hosted a TV show entitled Cooking Price-Wise. But Price also excelled as an authority on art, having graduated from Yale with a degree in such and founding the Vincent and Mary Price Gallery at East Los Angeles College in the 1960s…kick-started by a donation of some 90 pieces from his personal collection to the school in 1951. Today, the gallery contains some 2,000 works, estimated at more than $5 million, and remains a testament to Price’s legacy. Price’s celebrity status was put to maximum use in merchandising not only art (Sears and Roebuck successfully touted art works under the banner of “The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art”) but books (a series of mystery and detective novels offered in a mail-order book club), games (he was the spokesman for several board games put out by Milton Bradley), recordings (his one-of-a-kind sinister voice can be heard on albums by Alice Cooper…and most famously, Michael Jackson), theme parks and commercial products like Polaroid and Tilex.
In the 1980s, Vincent Price continued to maintain a presence on television and in film; beginning in 1981 he appeared weekly on public television stations as the host of Mystery! (a series he relinquished in 1989 due to failing health) and continued to appear in the occasional movie such as The Great Mouse Detective (1986; he supplied the voice of “Professor Ratigan”) and The Whales of August (1987), which gave him a wonderful showcase alongside such old pros as Bette Davis, Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern. And though it wasn’t his last project in the business it can be said that his final moment of celluloid glory was an appearance (unfortunately curtailed due to his precarious health) as the inventor of Edward Scissorhands (1990). Price had worked with director Tim Burton previously, narrating the memorable short Vincent (1982)…about a little boy who, appropriately, wants to be just like Vincent Price. Years devoted to “coffin nails” finally caught up with Price, however, and he succumbed to lung cancer in October 1993.
At We Are Movie Geeks, the proprietors of that website came up with a Top Ten list of the film performances they felt represent the crème de la crème of Price’s career…and while I certainly agree with the majority of their choices (I especially enjoyed that they included his — if you’ll pardon the pun — priceless comedic turn in 1950’s Champagne for Caesar…though I would have moved Laura up the list some) they left off one of my personal favorites (they explain, however, that all of the movies on the list will be shown at the ten-day Vincentennial celebration currently underway from May 19-28): 1951’s His Kind of Woman. Robert Mitchum is the star of this spoof of he-man heroic adventures (doing his patented sleepy-eyed lug schtick) and Jane Russell plays his love interest…but Price walks off with the film as (what else?) a hammy actor who comes to Big Bad Bob’s rescue when Mitchum is kidnapped by thugs working for deposed mobster Raymond Burr, who plans to croak Bob and use his identity to get back into the country. Price’s antics are falling-down funny in this one: I love his facial reactions as he watches an assembled crowd watch one of his movies (in which he engages in some swashbuckling derring-do) and such memorable lines of dialogue (spoken to rally volunteers who will help Price’s character save Mitchum) as “Survivors will all be given parts in my next picture.”
Victoria Price once commented that her father had so much fun making both Woman and Caesar, and the proof is in the pudding — but then I can’t imagine there ever being a time in the actor’s life when he didn’t have fun and make the most of his brief stay here on Earth. Chef, art collector, gardener, opera devotee, author and an exemplary performer in nearly all worlds of show business — Vincent Price was one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century. And as far as this fan goes, he is so terribly missed to this day.
Labels: Abbott and Costello, Bette, Books, Carson, Corman, Curtiz, de Havilland, Erroll Flynn, G. Tierney, Karloff, Mitchum, Music, Preminger, Shakespeare, Television, Theater, Tim Burton, Vincent Price