Gourmet cook. Quiz show champ. Yale graduate, art historian, star of “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine” (1965). Vincent Price played all these roles to elegant perfection. And while he will always be known as the Master of Ceremonies of camp horror classics, Price led a full, rich life of high culture and refinement that belied his often trashy film parts.
Vincent Leonard Price was born on May 27, 1911, in St. Louis, Missouri. His father ran a successful candy-manufacturing company and the family was very well off. Young Vincent attended the best private schools in St. Louis before moving on to Yale University to study art history. After graduation he toured the great museums of Europe. While continuing his studies in London, he auditioned for a role in the play “Chicago.” The production (which starred a young John Gielgud) desperately needed some authentic-sounding American accents. He modulated his refined voice to the pitch of a tough-talking American gangster, won rave reviews, and was hooked on acting.
Price’s beautiful voice and 6′ 4″ frame made him a natural for the stage. Soon he was starring as Prince Albert opposite the great Helen Hayes in a London production of “Victoria Regina.” Repeating the part on Broadway, he hooked up with Orson Welles and became part of the latter’s Mercury Theater Company. Hollywood noticed Price and by the late 1930’s he was working in movies. His refined good looks and aristocratic accent pushed him into high-brow films like “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939), “Tower of London” (1944), “The Eve of St. Mark” (1944), after which he appeared in one of film’s great noirs, “Laura” (1944), as Gene Tierney’s effete fiance.
Despite his success, Price never took himself too seriously. Art, cooking, and traveling occupied his time away from acting, and by the 1950’s his lack of burning ambition landed him in second-rate productions. No one could confuse “Casanova’s Big Night” (1954) and “Son of Sinbad” (1955) with A-list attractions, but Price’s genius lay in buttressing B-movies with his undeniable sophistication. “House of Wax” (1953) afforded him an opportunity to add a knowing wink to the horror genre. Roger Corman, the great maverick low-budget filmmaker, knew a bargain when he saw it and used Price to add class to his cheapskate productions. “The House of Usher” (1960), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), “Tales of Terror” (1961), and “The Raven” (1962) all reaped the rewards of Price’s refinement.
While Price continued to work in the horror genre throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, he did appear in gentler fare like “The Whales of August” (1987). Big fan and “Batman” director Tim Burton used him in the elegant “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), a fitting film finale for such a courtly actor and man. Vincent Price died of lung cancer in 1993, appropriately just days before Halloween.