Vincent Price was born on May 27, 1911 in St Louis, Missouri. The son of the president of the National Candy Company, Price had a secure, upper-middle-class childhood. While attending Yale, where he had studied art history, he had become interested in acting so in his spare time he made the rounds of various New York theatrical agencies--with no success whatsoever. After graduation he decided to become an art historian and went to London where he studied for his Master's degree at the University of London. In London he was an avid theatre-goer, which rekindled his interest in acting. He began to audition for parts and was eventually hired, mainly for his American accent, to play a policeman in the London production of the play Chicago. This was in 1935. His next part was a bigger one--that of Prince Albert in Victoria Regina--and later that same year he found himself back in New York when the production moved to Broadway. He was hailed by New York critics as a "talented new discovery."
More stage roles followed and he spent a period with Orson Welles's experimental Mercury Theatre Workshop before making his film debut in 1938 in a comedy called Service Deluxe (Rowland V. Lee). In 1939 he signed a contract with Universal after making one film for Warner Brothers--The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz), the costumed soap opera that starred Bette Davis and Errol Flynn (Price played Sir Walter Raleigh). His next film was another costumed melodrama--Tower of London (Rowland V. Lee, 1939), and his co-stars were, significantly enough, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. He did three more films for Universal before his contract expired in 1940, including The Invisible Man Returns (Joe May, 1940), the first of the many sequels to The Invisible Man (1933). It was a role in which he used his smooth, velvety voice to good advantage, as had his predecessor, Claude Rains.
In 1940 Price moved to 20th Century Fox where he made Brigham Young (Henry Hathaway), playing the part of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion. The following few years were probably the best for him as far as his career as a "straight" actor was concerned. During this period he appeared in The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943), Wilson (Henry King, 1944), and the now classic Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) in which he played the weak-willed fiance of Gene Tierney. Also in 1944 he appeared in The Keys of the Kingdom (John M. Stahl) which starred newcomer Gregory Peck. More good roles followed in films such as A Royal Scandal (Otto Preminger, 1945), Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945), Shock (Alfred Werker, 1946) (the villainous role in the latter was a foretaste of things to come) and Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946). In Dragonwyck he again worked with Gene Tierney and gave a fine performance as her husband.
In 1947 his contract with Fox wasn't renewed, and this marked the beginning of a decline in his career. It was in 1953 that a major turning-point in his career arrived. This was when he was offered the simultaneous opportunity to do a Broadway play directed by Jose Ferrer, My Three Angels, and a film, The House Of Wax. Price chose the film. "I would have loved to have done that play," he said later. "It was an enormous success, but so was the film." A remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1932), House of Wax, directed by Andre de Toth, was the first Hollywood feature film to be made in 3-D. The plot, about a man hideously scarred in some catastrophe who returns to wreak revenge on his enemies, was similar to that of Phantom of the Opera (1925) and continued to serve in such Vincent Price films as The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973).
Price didn't appear in another horror film until 1958. The Fly, directed by Kurt Neumann, was a lavish-looking production in color and wide-screen, which was unusual for horror films in those days. In 1959 Price made The House on Haunted Hill for director/producer William Castle, who went on to specialize in low-budget horror films. Later Castle claimed credit for "resurrecting" Price's career though by then the actor was already in demand for horror roles. That same year he also appeared in The Return of the Fly (Edward L. Bernds), and The Bat (Crane Wilbur) as well as in one of his last non-horror pictures for some time--though it depends on one's definition of the word "horror"--Irwin Allen's The Big Circus, in which he played the ringmaster.
In nineteen sixty he made another Castle film--The Tingler, which, like The House on Haunted Hill, was slightly tongue-in-cheek. That same year he made the first of the Roger Corman Poe films--The Fall of the House of Usher, which was closely followed by another Richard Matheson-scripted production, Master of the World (William Witney), based on two books by Jules Verne. Next came another Poe/Corman film--The Pit and the Pendulum. That same year, 1961, Price made three pictures in Italy. Two of them were non-horror subjects but the third, The Last Man on Earth (Sidney Salkow), was based on Matheson's classic horror novel I Am Legend about a solitary man in a world full of vampires--the ultimate paranoid fantasy.
Nineteen sixty-three was a busy year for Price. He made five feature films as well as narrating a documentary about the life of the artist Chagall. His films included The Raven, a spoof which Price's customary acting style suited perfectly, Diary of a Madman (Reginald Le Borg), and Beach Party (William Asher), the first of AIP's successful "teenagers and sand" pictures with Price making a guest appearance as Big Daddy among such luminaries as Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Probably his best film that year was Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur), the Matheson-scripted comedy about a group of undertakers. The cast included Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone.
In 1964 he made The Haunted Palace, another Corman picture that successfully combined Edgar Allan Poe with H. P. Lovecraft, and it remains one of the best of the Corman horror series with a better-than-usual performance from Price in a dual role. Then came Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia in 1965, the last of the Poe/Corman films. Both films are beautifully photographed and Price gives a good performance in each. Price returned to England in 1968 to give one of his best performances for a long time in Witchfinder General (released as The Conqueror Worm in the US so as to give the misleading impression that it was based on one of Poe's works).
His next three films--The Oblong Box (Gordon Hessler, 1969), Scream and Scream Again (Gordon Hessler, 1970), and Cry of the Banshee (Gordon Hessler, 1970)--were all rather disappointing after Witchfinder General (though Scream, a strange mishmash of horror themes--vampires, artificially-created people and so on--is becoming something of a cult film). In 1971 he made The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971), one of his most successful films in recent years. Fuest, a former set designer, produced a stylish spoof that combined humour with a number of grotesque murders. It was a fairly easy role for Price, apart from the discomfort caused by the make-up, and he repeated it in both the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (Robert Fuest, 1972), which was just as amusing as the first though not nearly so successful, and the similarly themed Theatre of Blood (1973).
With the passing of years, good parts became fewer. Price often appeared on television and even spoofed his "image" in TV commercials. His indelible identification with the macabre had its benefits: in the 1980s he was selected to host the PBS anthology series Mystery, and was asked to recite a poem as a part of Michael Jackson's widely seen music video Thriller (1982). Toward the end of his life he had a handful of good parts, including the kindly inventor who brings the title character to life in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990). He was visibly frail in that film, but rose to the occasion, a thorough professional to the end. Price's final appearance was in the cable-TV movie The Heart of Justice (1993). He died in Los Angeles on October 25, 1993 from lung cancer at the age of 82.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Vincent Price films.
Find Vincent Price on eBay.com
A selection of Vincent Price in books.
A History of Horror
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