Vincent Price. Just saying his name makes me want to smile. It’s also a name that brings to mind many different things for many different people. For some, he is the ghoulish introduction to “Thriller;” others recognize him as a symbol for horror movies; classic film fans know him from a wide range of things, such as Laura (1944), While the City Sleeps (1956), and The Song of Bernadette (1943). Price’s achievements weren’t confined to movies and a Michael Jackson song, though. He was a passionate supporter and collector of art, and he published nine books, including three cookbooks that were co-authored by his second wife Mary Grant. He also worked in radio and made over 2,000 television appearances. No one could ever accuse Price of not living a full life.
Price’s impressive career began on the stage. The theater was one of his greatest loves, so it’s a shame that his stage work is often overlooked, especially since it contains some remarkable accomplishments. For example, for his American debut, Price starred on Broadway in Victoria Regina with Helen Hayes, a major star whose moniker was “the First Lady of American Theater.” Price then became part of the Mercury Theatre, the infamous repertory company led by Orson Welles that included Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, and Norman Lloyd. Once Price went to Hollywood and signed with Universal, he ensured that his contract allowed him to continue doing plays. In 1941, he had the lead in the Broadway premiere of Angel Street, Patrick Hamilton’s suspenseful drama that became the exceptional Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight. Decades later, Price gave what many consider his best performance as Oscar Wilde in the one-man show Diversions and Delights.
In 1938, Price made his first film, Service de Luxe, a romantic comedy where he is surrounded by women who swoon over him and want to take care of him. One female character practically collapses just from standing next to him. As Price banters and falls in love with his leading lady, glamour girl Constance Bennett, you can see the path his career might have taken. With his dashing good looks, quick wit, and unmistakable voice, Price very well could have been a matinee idol. But that wasn’t what he wanted.
As his daughter Victoria said during our recent interview, “The actors he admired the most were character actors like Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, or Edward G. Robinson. He always felt that the romantic leads and the good guys were the most boring parts. When he realized that the way he could be a character actor was by playing Gothic villains, he felt he had found his groove. He believed that playing villains was a way of reflecting back the deeper, darker, more dangerous and complex parts of the human psyche. Given that he was one of the ‘nicer guys’ on the planet, this is wonderfully ironic!”
Before he became a horror icon, Price appeared in a variety of genres, illustrating a versatility that he isn’t always given credit for. In the satire Champagne for Caesar (1950), for example, he is hilarious as the unhinged CEO of a soap company. If any other actor had attempted such a daffy performance, it would have been too much, but Price is just pitch-perfect. The same could be said for his comedic work in His Kind of Woman, a steamy crime drama starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.
Three of the greatest films Price did were, coincidentally, three of the four films he made with the glorious Gene Tierney: Laura, Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and Dragonwyck (1946). A film noir classic, Laura gave Price a substantial role as Shelby Carpenter, an opportunistic southern gentleman. Price himself believed that Laura was the best film he made. “The ensemble cast of amazing actors, the complex/multi-layered script, the superb direction all made it a classic,” Victoria explains. “My dad played a very nuanced character in a cast of nuanced characters — all slightly despicable, all in love with the same woman. Such a great concept. He was also proud to have been in such a terrific film.”
In Leave Her to Heaven, Price plays the man Tierney tosses aside when she becomes obsessed with Cornel Wilde. It’s not a huge role, but Price is still able to create a character who projects dignity and confidence to mask the heartbreak and slight desperation he feels. Tierney’s vicious femme fatale plays Price like a fiddle, a fact that eludes him until her final act of vengeance forces him to realize that the love of his life was not who he thought she was.
Dragonwyck sees Price finally win Tierney, but happiness is far from guaranteed. As the cruel and tortured Nicholas Van Ryn, the intense malevolence Price possessed is explored to make him the ultimate Byronic hero. There is something profoundly romantic about the actor in this film. Part of this is his chemistry with Tierney, a radiant actress who was one of his best screen partners. But I can’t discount Price’s own radiance. There’s a reason why People Magazine called him “the Gable of Gothic” in their obituary of him. Brooding, mysterious, and — let’s face it — dreamy, Price is magnificent, turning Nicholas Van Ryn into one of his finest roles. When I asked Victoria what films of her father’s she wished were more well-known, she replied, “I think he would have wished that his comedies were better known — and some of his earlier little-known films like Eve of St. Mark. I like encouraging people to watch the [20th Century] Fox films from the early 1940s — Dragonwyck, Song of Bernadette, and Laura.”
In hindsight, movies like Dragonwyck and The House of the Seven Gables (a splendid but rarely seen gem from 1940) seem like preparation for Price’s work with director Roger Corman. The partnership, which was one of the most rewarding the actor had in his film career, produced eight films, seven adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories, several curses and hauntings, eight of Price’s onscreen deaths, and one epic sorcerer’s duel between Price and Boris Karloff. (Not even kidding.) Before Corman, Price had certainly done his share of horror movies, such as his films with William Castle. After Corman, though, Price was immortalized as “the Master of Menace.” When asked why their partnership worked so well, Victoria replied, “Mutual respect and similar ideas about collaborative filmmaking and innate generosity. I think both Roger and my dad embody these ideals, and they made for an extremely fruitful collaboration.”
Price and Corman might not have worked together, though, if hadn’t been for a fateful decision in 1953 when Price was offered the Broadway play We’re No Angels, which would have capitalized on his delightful comedic skills and might have led to more comedies. Instead, he chose to do the film House of Wax. Victoria describes the impact it had on his career: “House of Wax was his first ‘horror’ film — and at a time when many of his peers were fading away as younger stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman came to prominence, the rise of the horror genre gave my dad a new career and a new fan base. I think it was one of his best roles, because he played a villain whom people ‘rooted for’ — people understood why he had gone crazy and sought revenge. That was part of his success in the genre — he gave people a way to understand villainy.”
With Price’s villains, you always felt sorry to see their inevitable demise. There was a deep tragedy about them, a characteristic that inherently came from Price, if it wasn’t already in the script. Sure, a few of these villains were just downright evil, but others were motivated by grief, dark family histories, or ghastly secrets. In addition to the intriguing complexity that Price was able to convey, what made him delightful to watch was witnessing the pure fun that he had with these characters. He wasn’t afraid to be silly and audiences adored him for it. Sometimes he could be over-the-top and campy, but in my opinion that just makes his work more entertaining.
It isn’t like Price was unaware of this quality, either. He frequently parodied himself and his willingness to let loose served him well in giddy fare like Beach Party (1963) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). My favorite example of Price’s gleeful abandon is his appearances as Egghead on the 1960s TV version of Batman. With a giant bald head and the worst puns in the world, Price is hysterically eggcellent. (I wish I could say I was sorry.)
Funnily enough, I grew up with Vincent Price without even knowing it. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and The Thief and the Cobbler (1993) were two of the many VHS tapes my sister and I devoured at my grandmother’s house. Revisiting them today, I’m still struck by how inventive, wild, and surprisingly dark they are. There are reasons why these movies never left my mind, and one of them is Price’s extraordinary voice work. As a kid, Professor Ratigan and Zigzag the Grand Vizier terrified me — to hear this beautiful, mellifluous voice turn menacing and cruel was jarring. Yet there was also a sense of humor to this voice that made me want to keep watching. That sense of humor was similarly displayed in Price’s Vincent Van Ghoul on the short-lived cartoon The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. Talking about her father’s enjoyment of doing animation, Victoria revealed, “He thought of his voice as an instrument — and used it that way. Voiceovers are the best opportunity to do that — to embody a whole character simply through your voice. He loved doing animation — and felt that Ratigan was one of his greatest roles!”
In a life filled with astonishing accomplishments, Price’s biggest triumph may have been his ability to stay relevant year after year. “My dad loved young people, because he wanted to stay young himself. So he always tried to be a part of new projects, new types of media, new technologies,” Victoria says. “He was in the first Playhouse 90 on television, in the first season of The Muppets — and appeared on countless popular television shows. And, at the end of his life, thanks to Michael Jackson and Tim Burton, he was introduced to yet another generation of fans. Because of ‘Thriller,’ even if they don’t know his name, the whole world will know the voice and laugh of Vincent Price — and that’s very special!”
The last film Price completed was Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), where he played the kind inventor who creates the eponymous creature. It warms my heart that Price was given such a lovely cinematic farewell and that he had the opportunity to provide yet another magical performance. Even though he has now been gone for 25 years, Price is still very much alive thanks to his absurdly prolific career. His presence in pop culture has yet to vanish. Just watch Bill Hader’s wonderful Saturday Night Live impersonation, or see The Big Sick (2017), which features a charming scene where Kumail Nanjiani’s character tries to introduce his girlfriend to The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). It makes me so happy to say that Vincent Price has never been forgotten. Underappreciated, maybe, but not forgotten. Price once said, “My job as an actor was to try to make the unbelievable believable and the despicable delectable.” I think we can all agree it was a job well done.
IU Cinema will be celebrating the unique film legacy of Price with the series Vincent Price: Master of Menace, Lover of Life. Please join us on March 8 for a lecture by Victoria Price on her father’s life and career, which will be followed by a book signing and a screening of The Masque of the Red Death, at which Victoria will also be present. On March 9, come to the Cinema again for a screening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. It’s sure to be an amazing two days!
I’d like to give my sincere thanks to Victoria for our interview. Do yourself a favor and check out the marvelously insightful biography she wrote of her father!
- Vincent Price as Art Collector — a great article on one of Price’s biggest passions and his connection to IU’s Eskenazi Museum of Art!
- Filmstruck’s blog Streamline has a wealth of material on Price. Click here to check it all out.
- A Place for Film’s very own David Carter discusses The Abominable Dr, Phibes on his personal blog here — beware of spoilers!
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.