Silver Screen Standards: Vincent Price
During the Halloween season we naturally think of Vincent Price, that undisputed icon of horror whose many roles in the genre put him in the exalted company of Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee. Price became so associated with horror that he earned nicknames like “The Merchant of Menace,” but the actor with the distinctively plummy voice was truly a man for all seasons, with a long career that encompassed many different genres. Like most Gen Xers I first encountered Price in the late 1970s and early 80s, when he was making kid-friendly fare like Vincent (1982), The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (1985), and The Great Mouse Detective (1986) as well as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” hit (1983) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Once I started seeking out classic movies, I realized what an amazing and diverse career Price actually had and how we don’t really appreciate him fully unless we look at his roles outside of horror as well as his performances in the creepy classics we most remember him for today.
Vincent Leonard Price Jr. was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1911, where his father was the president of a candy company. His wealthy upbringing gave him access to quality education and the opportunity to travel; he earned degrees in the humanities at Yale and then moved on to study art and history in London at the Courtauld Institute. Price made his stage debut in the UK in the 1930s but soon moved into film with his first screen appearance in Service de Luxe (1938), a romantic comedy in which he took the lead role opposite Constance Bennett.
After that he worked regularly, amassing an astonishing list of over 200 credited roles before his death in 1993, with at least one for almost every year. Along the way, he also became known as an art collector and chef and lectured about both of those passions as well as literary topics. Despite his cultured interests and Ivy League background, Price never seemed to take himself or his work too seriously; he played villains with relish and gleefully hammed it up in horror comedies and special appearances like his guest-star turn on The Muppet Show in 1977. Although he was never even nominated for an Academy Award, his fans were legion and his legacy assured when he died of lung cancer at the age of 82.
It’s strange to think that an actor so known for horror got his first film role in a romantic comedy, but Price always had a talent for the comedic, whether that comedy was light or pitch black. It would serve him well in horror comedies like The Raven (1963), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), The Monster Club (1981), and House of the Long Shadows (1983), among others. Price also seems an unlikely choice for a Western, but there he is in the lead role in Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona (1950), a biopic about a real-life swindler who tried to claim ownership of the entire state of Arizona in the late 19th century. You can also find him in Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950), in which he plays a hammy actor, a type he would most memorably return to in Theater of Blood (1973). Even in his later years’ Price still turned up in surprising places, most notably in the gentle, intimate drama The Whales of August (1987), in which he joins other icons like Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern.
Price worked more often in genres that had certain elements in common with his horror pictures, particularly historical dramas where his talents as a heavy came in handy. After his romantic comedy debut, Price made a number of period dramas and demonstrated a high degree of comfort in tights, Elizabethan ruffs, and other antique costumes that he would don many times in his horror roles. His second film was the star-studded spectacle, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, in which Price plays Sir Walter Raleigh. From there he went to roles in Tower of London (1939), Brigham Young (1940), Hudson’s Bay (1940), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and The Ten Commandments (1956). He was always a solid casting choice for a dissipated nobleman, a corrupt priest, or an ambitious schemer of any stripe. His curling sneers and dripping sarcasm made him an actor audiences loved to hate in a juicy villain role. In the Gothic period thriller, Dragonwyck (1946), Price gives a delicious but perfectly serious performance as the Byronic husband of Gene Tierney’s naïve heroine, and in The Three Musketeers (1948) he tackles the role of the main villain, Cardinal Richelieu. Even if he had never become a horror icon his work in these films would have ensured him a place in Hollywood history.
Classic noir is another genre where Vincent Price’s screen persona works well, and his years at Fox saw him in a pair of notable noir pictures starring Gene Tierney, the justly beloved Laura (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). The less successful Shock (1946) merged themes of noir and horror with Price as a murderous psychiatrist who runs a private sanitarium. In His Kind of Woman (1951) Price got another memorable noir role as – what else? – a ham actor who befriends Robert Mitchum’s protagonist. Unfortunately, noir roles dried up fairly quickly, and Price spent much of the 1950s bouncing around in television roles and smaller film parts while House of Wax (1953) and The Fly (1958) prepared the way for the great horror performances that were on the horizon.
Most classic movie fans know and love Vincent Price as a horror star, as well they should. It wouldn’t be Halloween without movies like House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Still, we shouldn’t forget about Price once November rolls around and the jack-o-lanterns get traded in for pumpkin pies. Whatever the season, from The Eve of St. Mark (1944) in April to The Whales of August (1987), there’s a Vincent Price picture to match it.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.