Vincent Price, who turned 79 a few weeks ago and who made his first film 52 years ago, in 1938, has been a high priest of haughty horror, a viceroy of villainy, a mogul of Mephistophelean menace, and he admits cheerfully that villains are fun to play.
“The villains have all the good lines,” Price said the other afternoon in his house high above the Sunset Strip. “You’ll remember Jean Kerr’s child’s complaint that the snake has all the lines. Ah, the villainous snake.”
What pleases Price about the three-day retrospective tribute the American Cinematheque is paying him this weekend at the Directors Guild is that while his adventures in scariness are nicely represented, the 10 films being shown reflect the larger range of his characterizations and many have additional reasons for a place in film history.
“They thought at first of a festival of horror films, but I thought, ‘Oh, dear, we’ve been there before,’ and I made some suggestions.”
“Dragonwyck” (1946), with the exquisite Gene Tierney, was, Price notes,” my first Gothic. It was also Joe Mankiewicz’s first film.” It plays Friday at 7. “Laura” (1944; Friday at 9:30) is “just a great film, a classic.” In it Price was Shelby Carpenter, a suave but dubious corn-pone suitor for the mysterious Laura, Tierney again.
“The Tingler” (1959; Friday at 11 p.m.) was one of showman William Castle’s exploitational delights, with the theater seats wired to give slight electric shocks. “They never worked,” Price recalls fondly.
“Forbidden Area” (1956) was the first Playhouse 90, that pioneering dramatic anthology on television. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and its cast included not only Price but Charlton Heston, Jack Palance, Tab Hunter and Jackie Coogan. A thriller about an atomic saboteur, it is double-billed Saturday at 6 p.m. with “The Eve of St. Mark” (1944) a quiet, patriotic wartime piece from a Maxwell Anderson play. Price thinks it may be his favorite film.
The first of his Edgar Allan Poe films for Roger Corman and the one that did most to establish Price’s later image, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1960) screens Saturday at 9:15, followed by a nightcap showing of “Theatre of Blood” (1973), that delicious romp in which Price, a Shakespearean actor, wipes out unfriendly drama critics with the connivance of Diana Rigg as his daughter. The smashing supporting cast includes Price’s wife, Coral Browne, Diana Dors and Robert Morley.
The Sunday offerings include “The Baron of Arizona” (1950; screening at 4), Sam Fuller’s first film and also, Price says, “with wonderful work by (cinematographer) James Wong Howe, the first time he’d had to perform on a very short shooting schedule. If I have any time, I want to talk about the cinematographers: Artie Miller on ‘Dragonwyck,’ Joe La Shelle on ‘Laura.’ They were terrific.”
The delicious early satire on television “Champagne for Caesar” (1950) with Ronald Colman on the ultimate quiz show, screens at 9 and the tribute concludes--how better?--with “House of Wax,” shown in the 3-D in which it was made in 1953, when it was briefly prayed that 3-D might stem the relentless advance of television. “Can you believe,” Price asks in amused astonishment, “they chose a one-eyed man to direct it (Andre de Toth)! He did it but he couldn’t see it.”
Also showing is “Vincent,” a charming 7-minute animated short which Price narrated at the request of a young filmmaker named Tim Burton, better known now as the director of “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.”
Price will appear each night between the first and second features.
Price’s grandfather made a fortune inventing baking powder, but lost it in the crash of 1892, retaining only a failing candy factory which Price’s father gradually built into a very profitable concern in St. Louis. Price attended Yale and went on to Britain to study art history but got distracted into acting. He played Prince Albert in “Victoria Regina.”
“It was in a small private theater club. Had to be a club because you couldn’t portray royalty until they’d been dead for three generations and George V was still alive. Tiny club, and I made $15 a week.” But producer Gilbert Miller brought the play, and Price, to New York, where it made a star of Helen Hayes, and of Price. He and Hayes played it in Manhattan and on the road for three years, after which Hollywood seized him.
Thirty-eight years ago, well-known as an art historian and expert from an appearance on “The $64,000 Question,” he was invited to speak on “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Citizen” at East Los Angeles College.
“I got there and found I was speaking in a Quonset hut on a mud flat,” Price remembered. But he was so impressed by the spirit of the students that he established a Vincent Price study collection, with an initial gift of some 90 pieces of art. There have been many gifts since, from Price and other collectors. Its estimated value now is perhaps $5 million and the gallery can show only a fraction of it at a time.
Recently, Price said with great pride, there have been three exhibitions, “Homecomings,” by now-successful artists nurtured by the college and inspired by the Price collection. Two years ago, the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo came up for a fund-raising banquet honoring Price and aiming to underwrite better housing for the collection. There is a Vincent Price Foundation at East Los Angeles College. The legacy is not simply in chills and thrills.
In his 80th year, Price is still hard at it. He is starting a second 13-week series of shows on the Financial News Network on the appreciation of art (a double-edged concept), looking at all kinds of collectibles, baseball cards among them. Price has also done a cameo for his old friend Tim Burton in a new project. The “Mystery!” series he hosted for seven years keeps rerunning, so Price’s particular urbane charm is still before us 52 years after a forgotten item called “Service De Luxe.”
Retrospective information: (213) 466-FILM.