"I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation."

- David Cronenberg

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June 30, 2011

Actors: Vincent Price

Hollywood horror actor Vincent Price
Vincent Price was born in 1911 in St. Louis to an affluent family with a history of spectacular success if only gained through abysmal failure. Vincent would apply the harsh lessons learned by his family his entire life in an industry that was known for instability, greed and long droughts.

The Price family business, The National Candy Company, was founded by Vincent's father and namesake Vincent Leonard Price in 1902. His grandfather, Dr. Vincent Clarence Price, invented a popular baking soda in Illinois that made him a millionaire in the 1880's. Dr. Price would lose this fortune in the Panic of 1893. The family's re-established fortune, earned by his father, would provide a young and determined Vincent with an education at Yale.

During his first month in school in Connecticut Wall Street crashed. Fortunes that took lifetimes to accumulate were lost in a few weeks. On October 29th 1929 men, including some of Price's classmates, killed themselves because they could not bear the thought of being anything other than filthy rich. In his first autobiography I Like What I Know, written in 1958, he remembers:

"I've always believed that the Great Depression was the best thing to happen to all of us children of affluent parents. People were hurling themselves out of windows at an alarming rate and oddly enough some of the jumpers included some of the boys about to enter the big three of Ivy League colleges. I guess the idea of being poor was more than they could face. It seemed to me...ridiculous."

After graduation, Price pursued a career in England as a stage actor while America was in the grip of a severe economic depression in the early 1930's. When he returned to the US he found acting work in New York and enjoyed critical success in traveling shows like Victoria Regina in 1935 and played opposite Orson Wells in Mercury Theater's Heartbreak House in 1938. He managed to keep the bills paid by recording several radio ads and episodes of The Saint.

Hollywood producers, attracted to the money making potential of Price's ability and versatility, attempted to turn the handsome stage actor into a matinee idol without success. Vincent leapt at the chance to build a fortune of his own and signed a contract with MGM in 1937. Price's understanding was that he would play the ill fated Emperor Maximillian of Mexico in a movie entitled Juarez.

As it happened, Vincent Price's first film role was in Service De Luxe (1938) and the film was a real stinker. The film was shot in the traditional heavy-handed screwball comedy style of the era. The script was written by the writing duo of Gertrude Purcell and Leonard Spigelgass who would never write a screenplay for a successful movie during their entire careers. Not even Vincent, or his co-star the sullen but sexy Constance Bennett, could salvage any glimmer or spark in the two-dimensional characters they traded lines with in the picture.

Vincent Price in Fall Of The House Of UsherPrice instead excelled at dark, brooding character portrayals and demonstrated a knack in campy roles. His long association with horror films began with The Invisible Man Returns (1940). However, many of his films throughout the 1940s were costumed period piece epics, such as The Song of Bernadette (1943), A Royal Scandal (1945) with Tallulah Bankhead, and The Three Musketeers (1948) with Lana Turner. All of these films were a return to the heavy-handed tradition of early Hollywood that wanted to churn out bigger-than-the-Bible styled epic films.

Price was often cast in supporting roles in these "A" films, such as Laura (1944) with the luscious Gene Tierney, but his starring roles, for which Price would set himself far above the rest, usually came in the form of "B" pictures. His 1953 film House of Wax would eventually set the stage for a series of horror film roles in the late 1950's through the late 1970's.

In the 1960's, Price had a number of low budget successes with Roger Corman and American International Pictures (AIP) including the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Comedy of Terrors (1963), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). He also starred in The Last Man on Earth (1964) a film based on the Richard Matheson classic proto-zombie novel I Am Legend.

Vincent was a life long patron of the arts who has inspired countless artists, writers and directors to pursue their own improbable and unpopular dreams. He donated hundreds of his own personal collections of paintings to establish many SoCal galleries.

Vincent Price's health began to badly deteriorate during the production of Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990). The film was his final major film role before dying of lung cancer in L.A. in 1993 leaving behind three wives, son Vincent Barrett Price and daughter Mary Victoria Price.

Selected Filmography:
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
The Fly (1958)
The House on Haunted Hill (1958)
The Tingler (1959)
The Return of The Fly (1959)
The Pit And The Pendulum (1961)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)
Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Dead Heat (1988)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)



References:
Amazon, Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography Victoria Price, New York: St. Martin's Griffin 2000
I Like What I Know Vincent Price, New York: Doubleday 1958
Wikipedia, Vincent Price
Brian's Drive-In, Vincent Price
Vincent Price P.A., Elizabethtown, KY. Sept. 25, 1980


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