Friday, March 25

Vincent Price

I suspect he would have been a fascinating dinner companion.   He was a writer, a gourmet, a noted art connoisseur and collector, opera lover, an engaging character actor and second leading man, horror film guru and one who likely knew where all the bodies were buried in Hollywood. I see him as overly mannered and principled but I sense he could dish with the best of them.

The first Vincent Price movie I remember seeing was House of Wax (1953) but it wasn't my last.  I have Gene Tierney to thank for getting me interested in him because the pair made four films together and as I caught up on every film she ever made, I certainly noticed Price as well.

It's not a mistake to say that I noticed Price early on... too early to make any inquiries for fear the attention would turn on me.  It wasn't his acting exactly that I noticed and I did not consider him to be handsome, but still I noticed something.  I certainly knew I knew no man like him in central Illinois.  After living in Los Angeles for awhile, I heard rumors and they persisted for far too many years to not have some merit.  I sometimes heard words like fey, effete, snobbish, pretentious and more than any other, flamboyant.  

In 1999, a half dozen years after his death, his daughter Victoria wrote the very rich and compelling Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography.  While she was quite open and eloquent about many facets of his life, I could certainly say I was surprised at the economy of words she used to handle those pesky gay or bisexual rumors.  She certainly never admitted that she knew he was although she didn't outright say he wasn't either.  She skirted around it and framed it, I thought, in a gee-I've-heard-the-same-rumors-you-have manner.

Could she not have known?  Faithful readers here know that I think family is often the last to know and if that's not always true, they are usually the last to speak of it publicly.  Then one adds to the mix that she is a lesbian and shouldn't we then be able to take a page from the old it-takes-one-to-know-one playbook?  

I have since read articles since the book's publication where she purportedly said that he admitted his bisexuality when she came out to him and he said to her...  I know just how you feel because I have had these deep, loving relationships with men in my life and all my wives were jealous.  So what gives?  Why didn't she say that in her book or after all these years have I forgotten she said this?

His third marriage was to a bisexual woman (oh nooooo, not more of that) which gives some further unbalance to the straight-bisexual issue.  To his credit, later in life he was on an honorary board with PFLAG and he was one of the first celebrities to publicly speak out against AIDS.

I think it's safe to say that he certainly never publicly came out and even in his private life I suspect those who knew were fairly restricted to those he slept with.  And as it was in those days when and if sexual peccadilloes became publicly known, it could spell goodbye to a career.  I have no doubt Vincent Price practiced a pretty fair degree of restraint.

I must add, too, that Price and his Laura co-star, Clifton Webb, are the two first famous people that jiggled my brain regarding my own scene.  I think I was about 10 when I first saw Laura and aside from Tierney and the exciting film noir story, I was mesmerized by these two gents.  And both of their characters were in love with Tierney, obsessed by her, really, and I could hardly believe it.  And I mean I could hardly believe it.  

To go even further back, Price was born in 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri.  As one might detect from his speech and manner, he came from a background that oozed culture.  He was one of four children of a president of a candy manufacturing company and his mother was an integral part of St. Louis society.  Young Vinnie always attended private schools.  As a teenager he toured Europe's finest museums.  He would come to earn degrees in art history from both the University of London and Yale.  Unsurprisingly in this heady environment, it was simply expected that one attended the theater.  What was unexpected was how much the theater would consume him.  It seemed a natural progression in his mind that he would start acting although I suspect he was always a bit of a ham. Drawing attention to himself while he spoke was something that always came naturally to him. 

His acting career began in 1934 in London with roles in Orson Welles' Mercury Theater.  In 1936 he appeared on the American stage opposite Helen Hayes, no less, in Victoria Regina.  His first major film role was as Sir Walter Raleigh in 1939s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex opposite Bette Davis.  The following year he was Joseph Smith in Brigham Young and the year after that King Charles II in Hudson Bay, his first film with Tierney.  He was the mean prosecutor in The Song of Bernadette (1943).  He loved playing outright villains or at least smarmy characters and his 6'4" height enabled him to pull off such roles with flourish.

In 1943 he and fellow art lover and character actor, George (Gilda) MacReady, opened up a fashionable little gallery within the gates of the movie community.  They did a nice business while it lasted and it proved to be one of those places actors gathered out of the glare of the spotlight.

Everyone associated with Laura (1944), mentioned countless times in this blog, was most grateful to be a part of it but no one saw it coming as the rousing success it became, the very definition of film noir.  As the slimy cad, Shelby Carpenter, Laura's fiance, he made an indelible impression on most moviegoers. He became an artful scene-stealer.  Here is a photo of  Tierney with her three not-so-straight costars... Webb, Price, and Judith Anderson.

Also in 1944 he played a cynical monsignor opposite Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom.  He would appear with Tierney again in 1945 in the superb Leave Her to Heaven, this time as her cuckolded fiance who later prosecutes her husband for her murder. He had already become a master of the pejorative look that came over his face when things didn't go his way.  In most films things didn't seem to go his way.  With his icy voice, scary laugh, haughty manner and that frequently raised eyebrow, he was wonderful as a murderous aristocrat opposite Tierney in Dragonwyck (1946).  

He finished out the 40s with good supporting roles as the nasty Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (he was clearly made for costume dramas) and as a suave playboy villain in The Bribe with Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Charles Laughton.

He took up television with a vengeance in the 1950s which shows that his movie career was slipping a bit.  What I thought was memorable about the films he made in the 1950s was how even more effeminate he had become.  One of the definitive Price roles in this regard is as the florid actor in the 1951 Robert Mitchum-Jane Russell film, His Kind of Woman.  That fey mincing was most obvious in scenes with the masculine Mitchum.

The following year he costarred with Russell again in the mediocre The Las Vegas Story, this time, a bit embarrassing, as her husband. The fact that she would stick with him instead of old boyfriend Victor Mature seems a bit incongruous.  And in 1954, again opposite the burly Mature, he played a too-femme photographer out to kill Piper Laurie in the so-so Dangerous Mission.

With Phyllis Kirk in House of Wax

His best film of the decade was unquestionably House of Wax (1953), the one that put him in the minds of producers and directors for his career in horror films that was to begin with a purpose in the 1960s.  As the cruelly-scarred sculptor who murdered folks and turned them into wax figures in his museum, Price was absolutely riveting.

He played one of his stock imperious characterizations as a newspaper owner and husband of faithless Rhonda Fleming in the good Fritz Lang film, While the City Sleeps (1956).  He and Lang became fast friends when they discovered they shared a monumental knowledge of art.  Price discovered he shared that as well with character actor Edward G. Robinson with whom he costarred in the leviathan production of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956).  He played Baka, the master builder, with all the relish he could muster.  There can be no doubt he loved his costume. I've always suspected he asked to keep it and probably wore it around the house.  I'm jus' sayin'.

In 1958 he returned to the horror genre in The Fly.  And it was a rare horror film that Price did not have the lead.  That went to David Hedison who played a scientist conducting an experiment in some chamber that accidentally has an ordinary housefly in it as well.  He comes out of the chamber with his own body and the giant head of a fly in place of his own.  Purchases of flyswatters increased significantly in 1958.

The Big Circus (1959) reunited Price with Mature and Fleming for a romp about who's killing all the great performers under the Big Top.  Ha, you think it's Price, don't you?  Well, it's not.  Nor is it Peter Lorre, who must have given Price some tips on how to be creepy in horror movies.

He worked until the early nineties but in my opinion in nothing that equalled his earlier career.  For many, Price is best known for his career from the 1960s on... the horror stuff (mainly through producer Roger Corman and his low-budget American International Pictures).   I saw a couple of those movies although I don't remember which ones and I have seen five or 10 minutes of a few more on the telly.  I have pushed them out of my mind because he was way too campy for my tastes and the films seemed so cheesy with any one indistinguishable from another.  One thing the horror genre gave him, other than a whole new audience, was star billing. I have no doubt he liked that.

His television work continued.   TV's Batman comes to mind.   I'm surprised he never did Peter Pan.  Didn't he and Captain Hook share the same DNA?  Unfortunately he never did anything further that much struck my fancy.  It seems he was never without a project of some sort to work on. He did a few TV shorts on various subjects... horror, art, etc... and worked some on the stage.  He also recorded horror stories, wrote books on art and cooking, worked on the radio in the horror genre and did some narrative and voice work.  Throughout the 80s he hosted the PBS series, Mystery, and also hosted a cooking show with his second wife.  In the 60s he was an art consultant for Sears-Roebuck and sold artwork through them.

One of his favorite horror film roles was as a Shakespearean actor who takes revenge on his critics in 1973s Theater of Blood.  He costarred with Diana Rigg, Jack Hawkins and Robert Morley. One of his victims was Coral Browne and she could be part or all of the reason the film was one he favored.  Price and the bisexual, Australian Browne married in 1974, a union that would last until her death.  She had acquired some well-deserved fame in 1958 for playing Vera Charles to Rosalind Russell's Auntie Mame.  In 1968 she got a little more notoriety for the lesbian drama, The Killing of Sister George.

Price with Coral Browne

I've never been sure how I felt about The Whales of August (1987) and I've given it maybe three tries.  I wanted to like it but I'm not sure I do.  The story of two elderly sisters rattling around in their cliffside home overlooking the beach was difficult to watch because Price and especially Bette Davis looked dreadful.  

I've never seen Edward Scissorhands (1990) in its entirety and am aware that it was the last film Price appeared in but I must have missed his scenes.  I understand he was quite ill when he filmed them.

When Browne died in 1991, Price was already bedridden from bouts of cancer and emphysema.  He had been a smoker most of his life.  He died of the diseases in 1993, at age 82, in Los Angeles.

Hang in there, Vinnie.  Maybe one day we'll have that dinner together.  I have a lot of questions for you.

Next posting:
Pretty Boy

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