Jennifer Kellow Fiorini
Vincent Price - The Master of Menace Pt 1
Last October we covered Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff — both foreign actors who found their way to Hollywood in the late 20s and early 30s. Beyond Bella and Boris were Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, both British. Between the high points of Bella and Boris, but just before Cushing and Lee, there was Vincent Price – a horror icon America claims as its own. Born May 27, 1911, in St. Louis Missouri, to a well-to-do family, young Vincent discovered a love for art, reading, and theater early in life. Like other the men in the Price family, he went to Yale, attending in the late 1920s. Post college he traveled across Europe and became a stage actor before reluctantly coming to Hollywood in the mid to late 1930s.
Vincent Price and Constance Bennett in Service Deluxe, 1939.
Headshot from 1935.
His first film was “Service Deluxe,” 1938, with Constance Bennett, which led to the role as Sir Walter Raleigh in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” with Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. With his distinctive, beautiful speaking voice — a wonderful example of the mid-Atlantic accent (best described as a light British accent done by American actors in stage and screen in the 30s and 40s.) — he became sought after for historical dramas like “The House of Seven Gables” and “The Song of Bernadette.”
Price and Gene Tierney in the noir classic Laura, 1944.
One of his most famous non-horror roles came in 1944 when he played the loathsome Shelby Carpenter in the noir classic, “Laura,” directed by Otto Preminger, opposite Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Price quickly starred in two more films with Tierney, “Leave Her to Heaven” in 1945 and “Dragonwyck” in 1946. “A mystery, gothic, thriller, Dragonwyck” was the type of film studios were looking for after the success of “Rebecca” in 1940. Tierney plays a Connecticut farm girl brought to her distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn’s (Price) mansion to be a governess to his daughter. When his wife becomes mysteriously ill and dies, Van Ryn marries Tierney. Price’s character is cold, distant, and isn’t liked by his workers or townspeople. While he got excellent reviews for this role, the film was a flop. However, it set a template for many of the villains Price would eventually become famous for.
Price and Tierney in the ill-fated Dragonwyck, 1946.
Price’s daughter, Victoria, describes him in her book as always being afraid each acting job might be his last and constantly worrying about money. In the early fifties he hoped to redirect his career away from villains for fear of being typecast. He had recently been in a few comedies and his daughter writes, “At one point he received two offers in one week, one for a lead in a Broadway play and the other for a film. His perpetual money concerns won out over higher aspirations, and he chose the film.” The play, “We’re No Angels,” became a hit movie with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov. It was a choice he reflected on with some regret. The film he took, “House of Wax,” was the first full-fledged horror film he made, and would take his career in very different direction. A remake of 1933’s “The Mystery of the Wax Museum,” it had a modern twist for a 1950s audience – it was filmed in 3D. Price claims that director Andre de Toth saved the film from being “schlock” due to having one eye and little depth perception, which meant he couldn’t visually register the 3D effect and therefore used it less.
Vincent Price in House of Wax, 1953.
In the summer of 1953 Price’s career stalled. “House of Wax” had done well but offers dried up and he began to panic. This was at the height of the Hollywood Blacklist. Price was genuinely fearful as word had filtered down that his name was on McCarthy’s list of Premature Anti-Nazi sympathizers. “If you were against the Nazis before we went to war against them, that made you a Communist. I’ll never get over seeing who was on that list. The entire world was on it, except Mr. McCarthy,” said Price.
Price and Jane Russell in The Las Vegas Story, 1952.
After seeing many careers end due to the Blacklist, Price gratefully seized any opportunity to work. In early 1955 he was cast in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and slowly began to work steadily again. In 1958 Price’s career floundered again due to middle age and lack of an identifiable persona like Gary Cooper or Carey Grant, and he was forced to take what came along. What came along would be “The Fly” in 1958 and “House on Haunted Hill,” 1959.
Next month we examine the second half of Price’s career solidifying him as the “Master of Menace.”
Sources for this story
VincentPrice.com Official Vincent Price site by daughter Victoria Price
Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography available on Amazon.