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Victoria Price | Vincent Price's Vincentennial

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He translated Albert’s lines back into German to better understand how the German prince thought, and trained himself to think in the language as well. Then he played the part in English with a German accent.

 

  

Victoria Price is a proud daughter, and well she should be. Her father, Vincent Price, was best known as the master of horror, but he was so much more. She writes in the prologue to her biography of him: “He was a Renaissance Man in an age of specialists, a Victorian aesthete who mastered the twentieth century’s media. Although he is most vividly remembered as the cinema’s ‘King of Horror’—indeed his name is virtually synonymous with the genre—fewer than a third of the more than 100 pictures he made in his forty-five year career as an actor were horror movies.”

I recently got the opportunity to ask Price some questions. First she shared a bit about her father’s St. Louis family. Born in 191l, the youngest of four (by seven years) he was every bit the baby of the family in the conventional sense. Vincent was named for his father, Vincent Leonard Price, Sr., a kind man who was successful in the candy business. His mother was Marguerite Wilcox. They had both died by the time Victoria was born. “I am very sorry I didn’t get to know my grandmother,” Victoria said. “She must have been a pistol, but who knows? The two of us might have butted heads.”

According to Victoria, the younger Vincent “modeled a wonderfully loving gentle man in his life [his remarkably demonstrative father], and he wanted to please his mom. She took great pride in her lineage and might have been a snob about ‘show business.’ But both his parents encouraged him [in his ambitions to become an actor]. She was a drama queen; in some article my dad kidded that he thought he was his mother reincarnated.” Both parents were proud of Vincent’s degree from Yale. He was an undistinguished scholar at first, even repeating a year of high school (for St. Louis readers, that would be Country Day), but he began to get high marks later on and nurtured his passion for the visual arts during his time at the Courtauld Institute where he studied as a fellow after college. He also got work on the stage there, including his first appearance as Prince Albert.

Vincent married New York actress Edith Barrett when he was 27 and she 34 (though she claimed, even to her husband, to be 26). Two years later, their son was born; six years after that they were divorced. Edith was jealous of her husband’s success, unable to find satisfactory parts in movies herself, and she became a reclusive alcoholic. Apparently, they both tried to save the marriage, but it ended with a bitter parting of the ways. In the late 1940s, he entered into a 24-year marriage with Mary Grant, a costume designer. They formed a family unit with Vincent’s son, Vincent Barrett, called “Barrett” or “Boo-Boo.” Incidentally, such nicknames were common in Price’s social class. The “master of horror” was himself called “Bink” or “Binks” by his parents and siblings, and not just when he was a child.

Vincent hated being an absentee parent and made the most of the time he was allowed with Barrett, who was 7 years old when his mother left. Most surprisingly, 12 years into his second marriage, when Mary and Vincent were 45 and 51 respectively, Victoria was born. Her father was absolutely delighted, and he and his daughter were very close until he left the family when she was 12 to be with Coral Browne (another actress). During her father’s18-year-marriage to Browne, Victoria describes herself as “on the outside looking in,” because while her father never deserted her completely, they spent little time together due to Coral’s jealousy of his children.

Despite his prodigious talents Vincent was unsure of himself in many areas, not the least of which was parenthood. But when Victoria was in college, they kept up with each other through letters, and after her stepmother’s death (two days after Vincent turned 80), Victoria, with her father’s help and input from friends and family, wrote Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. She doesn’t appear in the book until Part II. Most interestingly, she was able to achieve enough distance to write a critical study of her father and his work during his first half century without imposing herself upon it.

Victoria said everyone agreed that her father was “beyond nice.” His interests were wide; Vincent Price was a stage and film actor, “movie star” (he didn’t consider them the same thing), art collector, sometimes curator and historian, and a gourmet cook who wrote three cookbooks. He loved animals and the outdoors, the sea especially. “He was simply a workaholic. He hated being idle, and [these activities] kept him happy and young,” Victoria said.

Vincent Price’s first real break came when he was only 24 and cast as Prince Albert in Victoria Regina, this time on Broadway, with the revered Helen Hayes as the Queen. He was a great success in the part, for which he prepared by doing a bit of “method,” as Victoria relates in the book. He spoke German, so he translated Albert’s lines back into that language to better understand how the German prince thought, and trained himself to think in the language as well. Then he played the part in English with a German accent.

Hollywood beckoned, but Vincent wasn’t yet ready to go. This showed unusual restraint on his part, considering he was 6’4”, handsome, and had a patrician bearing and mellifluous voice. He could easily have been a leading man along the lines of Errol Flynn or Ronald Colman. But, as Victoria pointed out, “Except among film buffs, those actors are largely forgotten. My father cultivated a whole new audience with the horror films, a younger audience. And today, everyone still knows who he is.” His last appearance was in the film Edward Scissorhands, so he isn’t likely to be lost to cinematic history any time soon.

“On Helen Hayes’ advice,” Victoria said, “he studied his craft. And he was able to work with some of the best stage actors of the day, even the legendary Laurette Taylor, among many others.” He was involved with the Mercury Theatre for a while but became disillusioned there when it turned out to be Orson Welles’ ego trip, for the most part (Welles was “not one of the more popular people in Hollywood,” Victoria notes, with characteristic understatement). Still he was learning, always learning. He finally accepted a contract with Universal Pictures at 27. That studio wasn’t known for its actors; rather for its directors, one of whom was James Whale, the man at the helm of Frankenstein. Vincent wasn’t heading toward horror yet, but he did make friends with such genre stars as Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr. He also met Boris Karloff who, though typecast for the rest of his career by his turns as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, was proud of what he did. In due time, Vincent Price would feel the same way.

Price had the presence of mind to mostly seek character parts throughout his film career. His first movie was a romantic comedy, and he thought it was a bad picture and that he was dreadful in it. There was something rather menacing about his persona, however, or at least he could access that side of himself and make a success of roles such as Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers, the protagonists in the dark, eerie films Dragonwyck and The House of the Seven Gables, and the mysterious lover in Laura, among others. It was almost a natural progression, then, into the full-blown horror genre. But in real life, he was such a mensch that he even liked Otto Preminger, director of Laura. Few other people in the business could stay the same.

When Vincent was first contemplating Hollywood in his early twenties, he had begun to think that movies were a superior art form to the stage, and I asked Victoria if he always felt that way. “No. He loved the stage and performing for live audiences,” she said. “I just think he was a populist and more people would see him in movies.” Still, once playing in a Broadway show across the street from a movie theatre that was showing House of Wax (1953) he reveled in sneaking into the theatre, and after his character has suffered a horrible death in a vat of hot wax, leaning forward between teenage girls, saying (of the movie), “So, did you like it?” He loved freaking them out every time.

Price was a fun-loving man. He appeared on a game show, The $64,000 Challenge as an art expert. When he went head-to-head with another noted collector from Hollywood, Edward G. Robinson, they both missed the last question. Price became an innocent victim in the quiz show scandal of the 1950s because he was accused of purposely blowing his answer—which he didn’t—but Victoria said that wasn’t nearly as big a deal as “being ‘greylisted’ in the McCarthy era.” Price exonerated himself privately with the F.B.I., and avoided the Blacklist but named no names directly. He did, however, sign a document in which he said he agreed that anyone who took the Fifth (Amendment) under questioning about political activity was “un-American.” Victoria wonders in the book whether he had any sense of guilt for that, but the two never spoke of the matter. “He also never shied away from quiz shows either,” Victoria told me. “In fact, I’d say Hollywood Squares paid for my college education.” Clearly, she inherited her father’s sense of humor.

Though his time as a suspected communist didn’t end his career, it did take a toll, so he eagerly accepted work on two films with a famous horror director, William Castle. Around the time Price made the gimmicky 3-D flicks, House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, American cinema was experiencing a renaissance of the gothic film, and Vincent was the perfect “type” for these. Soon another director known primarily for his B pictures, Roger Corman, decided he wanted to make a series of shockers using Edgar Allan Poe stories. Vincent Price fit Corman’s vision perfectly, and these remain among Price’s best-known movies: The Raven, The Tomb of Ligeia, The House of Usher, and others. He was frequently employed by Universal International Pictures throughout the 1960s and occasionally beyond.

I asked Victoria if other kids teased her during her childhood because her father was the most famous horror movie star of the time? “No,” she said. “They asked me if he was scary . . . but of course, he wasn’t. I was exposed to an amazing number of things. [My parents] made sure I was able to see the world and develop my own opinions. There would have been something wrong with me if I hadn’t developed an artistic eye. I was very much encouraged to be a free thinker.” And her heritage paid off, as she now owns and operates her own design studio in Santa Fe.

In 1969, Price began a three-year relationship with Sears, which was offering a “fine arts line.” Price selected the works and was the spokesperson for the collection. There was some controversy in intellectual circles about this affiliation, but when I asked Victoria if her father was disturbed by the criticism, she responded, “No, I think it was one of the highlights of his life.” Victoria said that the only problem the Sears deal caused for Price was that he was held partially responsible later when issues arose with the authenticity of some of the pieces he bought for the line.

Vincent was disappointed he’d never played any of the major Shakespeare roles, so Victoria tossed around possibilities. “He could have been a good Shylock, or at the end of his life a good Lear,” she said. “But I wonder if the campiness that became a part of his persona would have interfered. When he played Oscar Wilde, he could access both that and the poignancy that comes through in the second act because it was Oscar Wilde—that camp factor. I wonder if Shakespeare would have allowed him to release that. He would have needed an amazing director.”

Victoria was referring to Vincent’s final stage appearance, a one-man show called Diversions and Delights about Oscar Wilde’s last year of life, during which he tried to make money telling his life story to audiences. Victoria and other members of his family consider this performance one of Price’s finest. I was fortunate to see it when it came through St. Louis in 1979, and though he was clearly too old for the part, within a very few minutes, I wasn’t seeing Roderick Usher or Dr. Phibes, or even Vincent Price. I saw Oscar Wilde.

Around his 80th birthday, having lost his wife and with his own health failing, Vincent Price was ripe to re-evaluate his life. He had started but not finished a couple of memoirs, and one of them that Victoria quotes near the end of her own book seems a fitting farewell to the actor who was a man of many parts: “The fiction of one’s life is the truth. There is no lie in living. I have been human to the point of madness . . . to the edge of not accepting myself as myself. Only one escape, not passion, and not love, only through the illumined exit of the arts have I been anchored in my life.”

Vincent Price died in 1993 but as we celebrate the “Vincentennial,” an event happening in many cities but most prominently here in his hometown, it is clear that he lives on for his fans and will for many years to come. | Andrea Braun

http://cinemastlouis.org/vincentennial contains a full schedule of activities planned for the end of this month, including special guest appearances by Victoria Price, Roger Corman, and others, plus ticket information and locations for the showings of his films.

For more info on Price check out http://www.vincentprice.org/ (an overview) and http://www.vincentpricelegacy.com (dedicated to his centenary).

 

 

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