|| By LUCY CHASE WILLIAMS
If you happen to find yourself on a desert island in
the new Millennium with nothing special to do, you'll
discover in the films of Vincent Price a glorious diversity
of entertainment: everything from murder and madness,
to love and laughter, to Tinglers & Pendulums &
Flies -- Oh, my!
In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Vincent Price
(1911-1993) matured from a Broadway matinee idol in
the mid-1930s; to a reliable if under-challenged character
actor in the '50s; to the baby boomer's ubiquitous,
favorite wicked "Uncle Vinnie" in the '70s. Fans may
be surprised to learn that only about 30 percent of
VP's 100 feature films were actually in the genre that
made him famous as the Master of Menace. The rest included
swashbucklers, westerns, comedies, even an Elvis movie!
A few were truly of Oscar caliber: The Song of Bernadette
garnered Jennifer Jones a statue for Best Actress, and
The Keys of the Kingdom a Best Actor nomination
for Gregory Peck. The Ten Commandments lost Best
Picture but remains a perennial holiday favorite. A
few were ... well, worthy of inclusion in the Medved
Brothers' notorious collection of "The 50 Worst Films
of All Time" (fittingly, the titles speak for themselves):
Bloodbath at the House of Death (incredibly stupid),
and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (incredibly
stupid and dubbed to boot).
As a lifelong VP buff, I can find something enjoyable
in just about anything he did. For the less forgiving,
I've selected 10 sure-fire hits. My must-haves for Vincent
Price desert island viewing enjoyment (in chronological
Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Judith Anderson,
Vincent Price. Dir: Otto Preminger.
Laura is one of the most highly acclaimed productions
in which VP appeared and remains a true classic of film
noir. Much more than a glossy Manhattan murder mystery,
under the skillful hands of director Preminger, the
picture is a meditation (within the bounds of the Production
Code) on sexual obsession; virtually all the characters
in Laura have some degree of sexual perversity,
either well or inadequately hidden. The movie is most
famous for the portrait of its eponymous lead, a nifty
twist in the central plot, and the evocative score by
David Raksin. VP excels in the role of a Southern gigolo
with more charm than cash, believable as both an urbane
lover and an amoral cad.
The Eve of St. Mark (1944)
William Eythe, Michael O'Shea, Vincent Price, Stanley
Prager, Harry Morgan, George Mathews, Anne Baxter, Ruth
Nelson, Dir: John M. Stahl.
Unknown to most of his fans, and most moviegoers,
for that matter, Eve of St. Mark gave VP what
was arguably the best (and best-written) role of his
career. Based on Maxwell Anderson's moving Broadway
play about war and duty, the film follows World War
II soldiers through service training and weekend leave.
Posted to remote combat duty, they must grapple with
the eternal, unanswerable question: "How close must
a man come to being horizontal before he earns the right
to be perpendicular?" As a poetry-spouting Southern
private whose shield of affected cynicism masks his
own poetic soul, Price gives an intelligently conceived,
entirely honest performance.
Champagne For Caesar (1950)
Ronald Colman, Celeste Holm, Vincent Price, Barbara
Britton, Art Linkletter, Mel Blanc. Dir: Richard Whorf.
A comedy cult classic, as well as VP's most ebulliently
comic performance; way ahead of its time as a satire
on television quiz shows and an ironic precursor of
the Charles Van Doren Twenty-One scandal nearly
a decade later. As megalomaniacal soap tycoon Burnbridge
Waters, whose "Masquerade for Money" is bankrupted by
urbane know-it-all Ronald Colman, VP gets to scheme
diabolically, plead pitifully, woo winningly and roar
outrageously in perhaps the funniest portrait I know
of an unapologetically greedy capitalist. There are
rumors in Hollywood about an updated remake ... now
that's a scandal!
His Kind of Woman (1951)
Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price, Tim Holt,
Raymond Burr, Jim Backus. Dir: John Farrow.
A television staple, and with good reason, His
Kind of Woman is an odd melange of romance, violent
film noir and comedy, with VP hamming it up as a second-rate
swashbuckling movie star caught in a real-life drama
at a steamy Mexican resort. Although officially playing
second fiddle to Mitchum and Russell (a pair of sexy
felines who look like they want to claw each other --
then purr), Price has a field day saving the day in
the climactic gun battle. His was the favorite character
of the producing studio's (RKO) mogul, Howard Hughes.
House of Wax (1953)
Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn
Jones, Paul Picerni, Paul Cavanagh, Dabbs Greer, Charles
Buchinsky (Bronson). Dir: Andre de Toth.
The feature film that changed the direction of Vincent
Price's career, House of Wax established VP as
the quintessential (predominantly sympathetic) villain
and set him on a professionally "horrific" path that
would be both a curse and a blessing for the rest of
his life. A combination of terror and grand guignol
melodrama, House of Wax was shot in lurid color
as well as the newest cinematic gimmick, 3-D (who can
forget the street hawker and his paddle-ball?). As the
demented sculptor, Prof. Jarrod, Price runs the gamut:
vulnerable and idealistic about his beloved (but unsuccessful)
historical creations; avuncular and punny giving a tour
of his popular Chamber of Horrors; to quietly, chillingly
mad as he promises his terrified captive, Phyllis Kirk,
"eternal life" before covering her hot, naked body in
hot pink wax.
House on Haunted Hill (1958)
Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Alan Marshal,
Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook, Jr., Julie Mitchum. Dir:
The Vincent Price film that's ideal viewing on Halloween
night -- boycott the just-released remake (with brilliant
British actor, Geoffrey Rush, in the VP role) and rent
this thriller to elicit legit screams from your friends
on the 31st. The "cat and canary-esque" plot concerns
a millionaire's irresistible offer to any of five strangers
who can survive a night in a haunted house ("There's
a ghost for everyone!"). The script was perfectly tailored
to the talents of an urbane and sardonic VP, and of
course, producer/director William Castle's legendary
gimmicks (in this case, "Emergo") are the poisoned icing
on the funeral cake.
Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders,
Antony Carbone. Dir: Roger Corman.
VP made seven pictures under contract to American
International Pictures (AIP) based on the tales of Edgar
Allan Poe; Pit and the Pendulum is the most effective
in capturing the writer's foreboding ambience of despair,
madness and death. It was the biggest grosser of the
series, and (perhaps for that reason!), co-producer
Sam Arkoff's favorite. VP gives a full-throttle performance
as the scion of an infamous torturer, growing increasingly
unstable throughout the story (and the speedy shooting
schedule of a Corman production).
Theater of Blood (1973)
Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Harry Andrews,
Coral Browne, Robert Coote, Jack Hawkins, Michael Hordern,
Arthur Lowe, Robert Morley, Dennis Price, Milo O'Shea,
Diana Dors. Dir: Douglas Hickox.
VP hailed this stylish, witty black comedy as his
favorite of his horror films -- not the least reason
for which was that it introduced him to his third wife,
Australian actress, Coral Browne. The story of a Shakespearean
actor who commits suicide after being panned by a circle
of vicious theatre critics, then returns to dispatch
his nemeses in murders directly taken from the immortal
Bard. Required viewing for every VP fan, as well as
every aspiring thespian. In the end, of course, murder
is the ultimate criticism.
(The Adventures of) The Great Mouse
Voice talents of: Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val
Bettin, Alan Young, Candy Candido, Melissa Manchester.
Dirs: John Musker, Dave Miochener, Ron Clements, Burny
The Disney Studios' 26th full-length animated motion
picture was a delightful, exciting pastiche of a Sherlock
Holmes adventure, with its brilliant rodent hero sleuth
matching wits against his own "Napoleon of Crime" --
the evil genius Professor Ratigan. Originally titled
Basil of Baker Street (from the Eve Titus book
series it was based on), Great Mouse is a beautifully
visualized film; the final duel to the death in the
clock tower of Big Ben is a tour de force for Disney
animators, employing computer animation for the first
time. The unutterable glee Price manifests is infectious,
as he leads the audience on an auditory roller-coaster
ride. He voiced many cartoon characters in his career,
but Ratigan remains a performance as engaging and memorable
as the best of VP's live-action roles.
The Whales of August (1987)
Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern,
Harry Carey Jr. Dir: Lindsay Anderson
A somber portrait of old age and last (and lasting)
love, Whales gave VP his first purely dramatic
role in decades. As a penniless emigre who must rely
on charm to survive, he attempts to woo a serene New
Englander, Lillian Gish, into letting him become her
permanent houseguest, much to the objection of her contrary
sister, Bette Davis. It's bittersweet to see these larger-than-life
screen legends so frail and elderly; Price's portrayal
of a veteran gentleman caller draws on so many of his
personal qualities (grace, humor, wit, flawless manners
-- even a love of fishing) that I sometimes think we're
watching the real Vinnie here, Russian accent and all.
I like to think so.
A list like this must by definition be subjective.
Also-rans for inclusion: Dragonwyck (a great
theatrical turn by Price, although insufficient screen
time); Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (believe
it or not, laugh-out-loud funny, bearing no resemblance
to its awful sequel); The Abominable Dr. Phibes
(art deco serial killing, narrowly beaten out by its
story-twin, Theatre of Blood); and the curious
cult-favorite of testosterone-laced buffs, Withchfinder
General (a.k.a. Conquerer Worm).
Finally: players of the game "Desert Island Books"
usually staunchly insist they would lug along a Bible,
so I'd coyly suggest you pack along a copy of the VP
"bible," The Complete Films of Vincent Price
(Citadel Press, 1995) -- in the hope that it will encourage
you to create your own "Top 10 Picks" ... let me know
what you decide!
(Critical contributions were supplied by Richard Heft,
one of those buff boys who votes for Conquerer Worm;
infinitely patient editing was provided, as always,
by Tom Weaver, who is "unaccountably taken with The
Lucy Chase Williams is the author of The Complete
Films of Vincent Price