Classic Hollywood: Vincent Price screenings at Aero, LACMA

The American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art are celebrating the centenary of actor Vincent Price with showings of some of his best-known horror films, including "House of Wax," "House on Haunted Hill," "The Raven" and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

(The Cinematheque's Aero Theatre's "The Price Is Fright: Vincent Price Centennial" runs Oct. 21 through 23; LACMA's "Price-a-Thon 100!" is Oct. 30.)

But Price, who died 18 years ago, didn't make that many horror films during his 50- plus-year film career. "Only a third of his movies that he made were actually horror films," said his daughter, interior designer Victoria Price, whose "Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography" was published in 1999.

"He made 105 films," she said. "People don't realize he had an extensive career in theater and radio."

But she knows it's his horror fans who have kept his legacy alive. "He has a cult following," she said. "The horror fans don't just love him for the horror films. They love him because he was a gourmand and an art collector."

Her father relished playing a villain. But as Victoria Price said, "Most of the villains that he played had been wronged in some way. There was a reason for their villainy."

Price could also identify with a villain's feeling of being an outsider in the world. He was born to an upper-middle-class family in St. Louis, where his father ran one of the largest candy companies in the country. "There was a certain life expected for you," Price said. "You were supposed to join the country club, get married and become a businessman."

But Price's father soon realized that his youngest son didn't fit the mold and let him follow his dream. "I think my dad had the ability to fit in wherever he went, but in his heart he felt like an artist. He felt like somebody who was never going to be able to stay in St. Louis and look like how he was supposed to look."

He had the good fortune of becoming a star on Broadway at 24, appearing as Prince Albert opposite Helen Hayes in the 1930s hit drama "Victoria Regina." Three years later, he went to Hollywood.

Price played a vast array of characters while under contract to 20th Century Fox in the 1940s — including Mormon religion founder Joseph Smith in 1940's "Brigham Young" and Southern cad Shelby Carpenter in the 1944 noir classic "Laura." He starred as a few baddies as well, such as Gene Tierney's character's oppressive rich relative in 1946's "Dragonwyck."

But he was unemployable for a year in the early '50s because of the communist blacklist. A liberal, Price was on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Premature Anti-Nazi Sympathizer list — so was Eleanor Roosevelt — that raised questions about those who had been against the Nazis before the U.S. went to war with Germany.

"He finally sort of called in some chips and signed some documents and his name was cleared by the FBI," said Price. "After that happened the first things he was offered were a film and a Broadway play. He thought he would cast his lot into this new medium, which was 3-D, and do the film — that was 'House of Wax.' I don't think anybody really anticipated what a hit that movie would be. He always said that the movie was a success because the director, Andre de Toth, only had one eye, so he couldn't see in 3-D. So he concentrated on making a good film with a good story."

Price gets a kick out of her father's performance in "Laura," which also starred Tierney, Clifton Webb and Judith Anderson. "He and Judith Anderson were great friends," she said. "They would just get hysterical laughing together. [Director] Otto Preminger just threw them off the set!"

Her father's favorite film he was in was 1950's "Champagne for Caesar," a spoof of radio quiz shows that starred his friend and idol, Ronald Colman. Price plays the bombastic eccentric owner of a soap company. "He loved doing comedy," said Price. "There were times I would have lunch or dinner with my father and my stepmother [actress Coral Browne] and I wouldn't speak a word. I would just be crying with laughter."

His final film, Tim Burton's 1990 fantasy "Edward Scissorhands," makes Price weep every time she sees it. Price plays a kind, gentle scientist who creates a young man (Johnny Depp) with scissors for hands. The scientist dies before he gets the chance to give Edward real hands.

Price said the role reflected her father's personality. "He was a lovely, sweet man," Price said. "He was larger than life.... My dad was the kind of person who would sit next to you on an airplane and you would be sitting there thinking to yourself, 'Oh, God. It's Vincent Price.' And he would reach over and say, 'Hi, my name is Vincent Price.'"

For information on the Cinematheque, go to http://www.americancinematheque.com; for LACMA, go to http://www.lacma.org

susan.king@latimes.com

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