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Reflection on Vincentennial: A tribute much deserved

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2011 - In a 50-year career that included more than 100 movies, only a third of them horror films, Vincent Price came to be known, according to one obituary, as "the Gable of Gothic," referring to Clark Gable, a favorite leading man from the '30s and '40s.

That's because Price's most memorable work came in a remarkable series of horror films in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- eight films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories and directed by the legendary Roger Corman. They included "House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tomb of Ligeia," which collectively came to be known as "Vincent Price movies."

Aside from theater, visual art was the great love of his life. Almost unbelievably, Price saved up for a year, amassing $37.50 to make his initial art purchase -- a first-state Rembrandt etching -- at the age of 12. At 17, he took off to Europe alone and spent a summer in museums, cathedrals, theaters and galleries. Before finishing college, he was savvy enough to ferret out two Daumier prints for $1 each, and not in some backwater town, but in Paris.

Vincent Price the art expert, collector and benefactor, purchased and gave away whole collections, served on boards and councils, and lectured around the country at universities, civic clubs and museums, sometimes touring through bleak Midwestern winters delivering as many 60 lectures in a two-month stretch.

Price was also a gourmet chef, a writer who authored a famous cookbook, monographs on art appreciation, and an autobiography, "I Like What I Know." By all accounts, he was also a Hollywood rarity, a kind gentleman to all the public, all the time.

Many St. Louisans know some piece of trivia about Vincent Price, born and bred in St. Louis County. He was "the Candy Kid," whose father owned an enormously successful candy company. He lived on Forsyth Boulevard across the street from Washington University. He went to the old Country Day School. All true.

Price remained a loyal St. Louisan all his life, despite decades of living elsewhere, mostly in Los Angeles. His daughter-biographer recounts numerous times when Price would happen to meet another St. Louisan, which would commence long reminiscences about high school and local food, and then they would go their separate ways, now "old friends."

After Yale, then art school in London, Price began a theatrical career that lasted from 1938 to 1990. In the early days, he worked with Helen Hayes, Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich. His career was long enough to work with Michael Jackson and Johnny Depp.

His friends included James Thurber, Alistair Cooke, Roddy McDowall, Joan Rivers, Tim Burton and Michael Feinstein.

As one mark of his wide-ranging work, he was in four different films that have been chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry: "Laura," "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," "House of Usher" and "Thriller."

In "Laura" (1944), he was a philandering pretty boy suspected of murder and stringing along three women simultaneously. In "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), the title tells you all you need to know. In "House of Usher" (1960), based on one of Poe's best stories, Price is the haunted brother who buries his twin sister alive. And people may easily forget he was the "rapping" voice-over in Michael Jackson's monumental "Thriller" (1983) and the generally scary presence that sets the scene as Michael and his date leave the theater after a Vincent Price "thriller."

Nothing ties those four works together except Vincent Price. Often, he was the most memorable feature of his movies.

Vincent Price was sleek, sophisticated, and way beyond normal in his red silk smoking jackets, his razor-sharp Clark Gable mustache and, of course, the sneering eyebrows and arched lips.

So much about him conspired to fascinate. His height (6'4"), his voice (lugubrious), that wavy, unctuous 1940s hair (Elvis had better but not weirder). Price was seriously different. Deliciously bad. On purpose.

He said so himself: "Comedy and terror are very closely allied. We tried to make audiences enjoy themselves, even as they were being scared. My job as an actor was to try to make the unbelievable believable and the despicable delectable."

So Vincent Price made Vincent Price movies, whether he was a beleaguered victim, an insane murderer, a campy crackpot, or all three. I don't mean "Vincent Price movie" as an insult, any more than "Clint Eastwood movie"' is an insult. I only mean that Price came to embody movies that were delightfully frightening, even when they were just pretending to be frightening.

For a modern comparison, the new "Scream 4" (aka "SCRE4M") shows how a self-consciously scary movie works now. The movie is not very scary, is sometimes funny, especially the first 10 minutes, but it's "all meta-meta" as one character scoffs, and mostly cold-hearted and slick. But picture "Scream 4" with Vincent Price in even a bit part. Can't you imagine that he would have brought a little more warm blood to the story?

Price's style was self-aware, too, but his tongue-in-cheek sophistication has weathered well, despite enormous changes of taste in movie-making and movie audiences.

Was he often a ham actor working in cheap B movies? Yes, but.

At his most clownish, Price was good company. "Comedy of Terrors" was notably low-level self-parody, but along with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone, all in one movie, Price serenely transcends the ridiculous script (and even the heaving talents of a blonde walk-on named Beverly Hills).

And consider "House of Usher" (1960), by definition a "B" movie, but a good one, that had to and did hold its own, playing for nearly a year all over the country, even though the "A" movie it was double-billed with was "Psycho."

Near the end of his life, Price returned to live theater, touring the world in a one-man show as Oscar Wilde, doing 800 shows in 300 cities, across the country and from Europe to Australia.

Vincent Price died at home in Los Angeles in 1993, an implausibly beloved icon of gothic horror in his century.

For complete information on the Vincentennial, go to the excellent website (www.vincentennial.com), which provides answers to all scheduling and pricing questions plus 24 pages of detail. 

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has covered movies, books and other topics for the Beacon.