It appears to be the season for Vincent Price.
Not only has House of Wax, his signature Fifties 3D horror movie, just been reissued on Blu-ray DVD in spiffy style by Warner Home Video, but Turner Classic Movies has selected the actor as its October “star of the month.” The two events are probably commercially linked, but so what? (October also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of Price’s death of lung cancer in 1993.)
Today, we pile on with our selection of Price as our Star of the Week. Put us down as longtime fans within the career limits of what the actor set for himself.
Price was a mini-man-for-all-seasons, an art and antiques aficionado, gourmet cook, author, art adviser to Sears Roebuck, television personality and voracious bon vivant. He married three times, the last to actress Coral Browne. Still, rumors of Price’s bisexuality made the rounds of Hollywood until his death.
What matters to us is how much we have enjoyed his slightly tongue-in-cheek performances in a wide range of films, including, of course, those countless horror outings in the Sixties and Seventies for producer-director Roger Corman and for the aggressively exploitational American International Pictures. These films are not to everyone’s taste (see comment by Orson Welles below) but we like ’em.
Frank actually recalls seeing House of Wax at a first run theater shortly after the film’s opening on April 10, 1953 at New York City’s Paramount Theater. He claims to never have forgotten the experience.
The cast includes Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk and a young Charles Buchinsky (to blossom later as Charles Bronson). Dave Kehr, video columnist for The New York Times, notes that House of Wax director Andre de Toth was “blind in one eye, and couldn’t see the effects he was creating.”
Nonetheless, the Warner Bros. movie — a remake of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum — turned out to be the biggest 3D box office hit of the decade, inspiring the inevitable rush of subsequent 3D titles from other studios. Price plays a put-upon sculptor unhinged when his wax museum is destroyed.
Notes Kehr: Price is able to balance menace with vulnerability, turning the deranged artist — his face horribly disfigure, via some highly creative makeup by George Bau — into a victim as much as a villain….Price adds an oddly effete, foppish quality to the characterization, influenced perhaps by Clifton Webb, with whom Price had appeared in Otto Preminger’s 1944 ‘Laura.’
Price would play variations on this character through the end of his career.
That career actually began in the late Thirties. Price, born in 1911 in St. Louis, Mo., studied art history at Yale, before appearing in London and Broadway stage productions including The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Heartbreak House, both staged by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. His first Hollywood screen assignments were heavily in costume dramas such as 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
We especially appreciate Price’s performances in two very different movies. In Sam Fuller’s 1950 period title, The Baron of Arizona, the actor plays a land grabbing 19th century scoundrel who almost pulls off a takeover of the entire state of Arizona. In the nour-ish 1951 His Kind of Woman — directed by John Farrow with a superb cast including Robert Mitchum, Tim Holt, Jane Russell, Raymond Burr and Charles McGraw — Price turns in a near perfect performance as a ham actor inadvertently caught up in an action thriller.
In his legitimate theater days, Price took himself very seriously, and believed he was an actor of sufficient ability to earn shots at leading Shakspearean roles such as Hamlet. As quoted in the newly published Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox, Welles said he felt Price was “very bitter against me” because he didn’t get those big parts.
He thinks I destroyed his entire career. I don’t think he felt this way until later in his life when he had to find a reason why he was still making terrible horror movies at the age of sixty.