Priceless: Remembering Vincent Price
I just love it when I make a purchase on eBay and then completely forget that I’ve done so. When the item arrives, it’s like Christmas! I can’t say that this happens to me often, but it certainly does from time to time, and it did a couple of weeks ago when I opened a box containing a cookbook entitled A Treasury of Great Recipes by Mary and Vincent Price.
Yes – THAT Vincent Price.
This is actually the second copy of this cookbook that I have owned. I bought the first one in 2011 at a book sale in Hudson, Michigan (part of my now-annual trek to the “World’s Longest Yard Sale” which stretches down the 127 corridor from Michigan to Alabama). Unfortunately, a few weeks after I bought it, during my family’s road trip to Kentucky, my brother used it to help wedge our luggage on the top of his van. The plan worked well the first day, but at some point on the second, as we went barrelling down the highway, the luggage – and my treasured Vincent Price cookbook – went sailing across the highway. Mercifully, there were no accidents, and our 40-year-old Samsonite suitcase emerged with barely a scratch, but the book was a mess, with the cover completely torn off and several of the pages missing. So you can imagine my delight to get my hands on another copy.
Although the mention of Vincent Price’s name these days usually conjures an image of the macabre features that seemed to dominate the latter part of his career, he not only appeared in six features from the film noir era, he was also an art aficionado, a whiz in the kitchen, and once demonstrated his smarts on a popular 1950s quiz show.
Price was more than just a spooky face.
In honor of Price’s birthday, I’m pleased to take a look at the personal and professional life of this versatile, multi-talented performer – and, as a bonus, offer you a peek inside my eBay purchase, too!
Vincent Leonard Price, Jr., was born on May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, where his mother worked as a school teacher and his father held the post of president of the National Candy Company. Price demonstrated his love for performing at an early age, making his acting debut at the age of four in a neighborhood play. In his youth, Price also exhibited a passion for the arts – when he was 12 years old, he purchased an original Rembrandt sketch for $37.50.
After attending the St. Louis Community School (which was co-founded by his mother), and the St. Louis Country Day School, Price enrolled at Yale University, graduating in 1933 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. During his college years, Price performed in the Yale Glee Club, continued to expand his growing art collection, and spent much of his free time at the local movie theater.
“I think I can honestly say I saw every movie, good and bad, made between the years 1930 and 1933,” Price once said. (A pre-Code fan – my kind of guy!)
Price briefly followed in his mother’s footsteps, teaching at the Riverdale School in Yonkers, New York, but before long, his love for performing rose to the top like cream in a saucer of milk – after a year of teaching, he moved to London. There, he pursued a master’s degree in fine arts from the Courtauld Institute in London, joined a local amateur theater company, landed a role in Chicago at the Gate Theatre, and was later cast in the male lead in the Gate production of Victoria Regina. When the acclaimed play went to New York, Price went with it, debuting on Broadway opposite Helen Hayes.
After two years in Victoria Regina, Price appeared in several other plays, including the stock production of Parnell, which turned out to offer more than just a good role – Price fell in love with his leading lady, Edith Barrett, and the two were wed on April 23, 1938. In August 1940, the couple had a son, Vincent Barrett, but the marriage would end in 1948.
Meanwhile, Price’s success on Broadway had caught the attention of Hollywood scouts and in 1938 he signed a contract with Universal Studios, appearing opposite Constance Bennett in his screen debut, Service deLuxe (1938). He followed this with a loan-out to Warner Bros. for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, followed by Universal’s Tower of London (1939), a gothic thriller with Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone. After this feature, Price returned to Broadway, and also appeared on a number of radio programs, including The Chase and Sanborn Hour (sponsored by the coffee of the same name), on which he reprised his Victoria Regina role with Helen Hayes.
As the new decade dawned, Price was seen in The House of Seven Gables (1940) with George Sanders; The Invisible Man Returns (1940), his first film in the horror genre with which he would later become so closely linked; and Green Hell (1940), a disastrous jungle adventure that the actor later dismissed as one of the most unintentionally funny movies ever made. (“About five of the worst pictures ever made are all in that one picture,” Price quipped.) After this box office flop, Universal terminated Price’s contract, but he was quickly picked up by 20th Century-Fox, where he was cast in well-received character parts in Brigham Young – Frontiersman (1940); Hudson Bay (1940), his first of four pictures with Gene Tierney; The Song of Bernadette (1943); and The Eve of St. Mark (1944), where he played an alcoholic Southerner that he later called his favorite role. Between pictures, Price was again lured to the stage, starring for a year in Angel Street and winning praise in the New York Herald-Tribune, where Richard Watts wrote that the actor “has never been nearly so fine as the cold, sneering, implacable husband.”
On screen, Price entered the realm of film noir with his first and – arguably – his best feature from the era, Laura (1944). In this superb offering, Price played Shelby Carpenter, a charming ne’er-do-well who is suspected in the murder of his fiancé. For his performance of the weak-willed Shelby, Price was praised as “technically brilliant” in the Hollywood Citizen-News, and Dorothy Manners of the Los Angeles Examiner noted his “fascinating portrayal.” Years after the picture’s release, Price himself would call it “one of the best films ever made.”
The following year, Price was again co-starred with Gene Tierney for his second noir, a rare Technicolor example from the era, Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Tierney played Ellen Berent, whose penchant for “loving too much” manifests itself in a lethal manner; in a small supporting role, Price portrayed Ellen’s devoted ex-fiance, earning some of the most glowing reviews of his career. In a typical notice, Lowell E. Redelings of the Hollywood Citizen-News wrote: “Vincent Price, as the prosecuting attorney, rises to new dramatic heights. His performance – brief as it is – shines like a beacon.”
Despite such accolades, Price’s contract with Fox wasn’t renewed two years later, and he returned to Universal, starring in a series of features that varied in quality, from The Web (1947), a first-rate crime thriller, to Up in Central Park (1948), a musical in which Price was miscast as New York politician Boss Tweed. Also during this period, Price was loaned to MGM for his third noir, The Bribe (1949). In this feature, Price played the head of a ring of contraband war surplus dealers; the film earned mixed reviews, but Price was singled out by the New York Times’ critic, who wrote that he “leers with diabolic glee,” and the reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter, who judged him “excellent.”
Off-screen, just 13 months after his divorce from Edith Barrett, Price took a second trip down the aisle, marrying stage and film designer Mary Grant in August 1949. (In 1962, Price and Mary would welcome a daughter, Mary Victoria.) The couple’s 17-room Beverly Hills mansion would become a showplace for their eclectic art collection, and in 1950, Price was elected to the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles County Museum. The following year, he continued to enhance his reputation in the field of fine arts when he lectured at East Los Angeles College on “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Citizen,” and later donated 90 pieces of his personal art collection to the school. The Vincent Price Art Museum is still housed at the institution in Monterey Park, California, containing artwork valued at several million dollars.
During the next several decades, Price continued to evidence his passion for fine arts through a variety of methods; he demonstrated his impressive knowledge of art of the popular quiz show, The $64,000 Question; opened the Modern Institute of Art with such fellow art-lovers as Edward G. Robinson and Fanny Brice; worked for more than a decade as an art buyer for Sears Roebuck and Company; provided the narration for two art documentaries, Pictura (1952) and The Ancient Maya (1952); edited or authored several volumes on art, including I Like What I Know (1959), The Michelangelo Bible (1965), and The Vincent Price Treasury of American Art (1972); and served as a member of such art-related organizations as the Pomona College Art Historian Society, the Latin Arts and Crafts Board of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the art council of the University of California at Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum Friends of American Arts, and the Fine Arts Committee of the White House. In concert with Price’s love for fine arts, the actor demonstrated a zeal for the culinary arts as well, and wrote, with his wife, Mary, three books on cooking, A Treasury of Great Recipes (1965), National Treasury of Cooking (1967), and The Come Into the Kitchen Cookbook (1969).
Between art-related activities, Price was heard on numerous radio programs during the 1940s and 1950s, and in 1951, he signed a non-exclusive contract with RKO, lensing his final three films noirs for the studio: His Kind of Woman (1951), The Las Vegas Story (1952), and While the City Sleeps (1956). In the first, Price played a pretentious film star who helps rescue a professional gambler who’s been abducted by a syndicated boss – although the film was labeled by one critic as “one of the worst Hollywood pictures in years,” Price emerged relatively unscathed; the New York Times’ reviewer wrote that he was “obviously having the time of his life.” In The Las Vegas Story, Price portrayed a wealthy businessman desperate to raise the funds needed to cover his role in an embezzlement scheme, and in While the City Sleeps – the best of the three – he played the slothful son of a recently deceased media mogul.
His noir features notwithstanding, most of Price’s films during the 1950s were fairly forgettable; there were a few notable exceptions, though, including The Ten Commandments (1956), where Price played a sleazy Egyptian architect who meets his end at the hands of Moses. More significantly, it was during this period that Price embarked on the second phase of his career as one of the foremost masters of the macabre. He was hailed for his “splendidly clammy form” as a demented sculptor in House of Wax (1953), and later in the decade was seen in The Fly (1958), playing the brother of a hapless scientist whose molecular constitution is intermingled with that of a housefly. But it was Price’s starring role in House on Haunted Hill (1958), produced and directed by William Castle, that really set in motion the proverbial ball of horror. The following year, Price appeared in Castle’s The Tingler (1959), featuring a gimmick called “Percepto,” which equipped theater seats with vibrating motors that provided moviegoers with well-timed tingling sensations.
In 1960, Price teamed with American International Pictures and producer-director Roger Corman, going on to create a series of horror features beginning with The Fall of the House of Usher (1960). He also teamed with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff in The Comedy of Terrors (1963), a spoof of the horror genre; starred in Scream and Scream Again (1970) with Christopher Lee (another horror icon with whom, interestingly, Price shared his May 27th birth date); and played a demented Shakespearean actor in Theater of Blood (1973). (While filming the latter production in England, Price fell in love with co-star Coral Browne; their highly publicized affair led to the end of Price’s nearly 25-year marriage to Mary Price. Price and Brown would marry on October 24, 2974, and remain together until Browne’s death from cancer in 1991.)
“I’m often asked why I make so many horror films,” Price once said of his spate of frightening features. “Well, the answer is I like to eat. Katie Hepburn rang me up a while ago and asked me to play Prospero in the stage production of The Tempest. I’d have gotten $500 for eight weeks’ work – and I just couldn’t afford it.”
In addition to his feature film work, Price was seen in an estimated 2,000 guest spots on the small screen, once admitting, “I made up my mind . . . to go on every TV show that asked me. I go nuts when I’m not working. I’ll do anything, I guess. I’m an old ham, really.” In addition to guest appearances, Price had a recurring role as “Egghead” on the campy Batman series; made close to 900 appearances on The Hollywood Squares game show; provided the voice of Vincent VanGhoul on the Scooby Doo cartoon; hosted for nine years the PBS series Mystery!; portrayed the “spirit of the nightmare” in rocker Alice Cooper’s 1975 television special; narrated Vincent (1982), a short film by director-producer Tim Burton about “a little boy who is considerate and nice, but wants to be just like Vincent Price”; and provided the “rap” narration for the 1983 blockbuster song hit by Michael Jackson, Thriller. Never abandoning his stage roots, Price also appeared in several regional productions during the 1970s, and starred as Oscar Wilde in a highly acclaimed one-man show, Diversions and Delights, in which he toured for five years throughout the United States and abroad.
In ill health as he neared his 80th year, Price continued to perform, starring with Bette Davis and Lillian Gish in the 1987 made-for-television movie The Whales of August; portraying a kindly inventor in the 1990 feature film Edward Scissorhands, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton; and appearing in the television movie The Heart of Justice in 1992. On October 25, 1993, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and lung cancer, Price died at the age of 82; his ashes were scattered of the California coast of Malibu – along with his favorite gardening hat.
In the annals of Hollywood, Vincent Price was nearly without peer in terms of the vastness of his capabilities, the influence of his knowledge, and the manifestations of his talent. While he is best remembered for his contributions to the horror genre, he must also be recognized for his significant gifts to the fine arts, the literary world, and the mediums of screen, stage, and radio – not to mention the era of film noir!
He was truly, as one columnist once termed him, “priceless.”
Since this post is in celebration of what would’ve been Vincent Price’s 102nd date of birth, I thought it would be fitting to find a cake recipe from the first cookbook he wrote with second wife Mary: A Treasury of Great Recipes. So here, from the Belle Terrasse restaurant in Copenhagen, is the recipe for Danish Apple Cake. In the cookbook, Price says the following: “Danish whipped cream can make almost anything taste good. It is not only marvelously rich and fresh, but Danish cooks use great artistry in decorating a cake with it. This cake, made with apples, bread crumbs, and brown sugar, is the perfect foil for it. I find it as great a temptation as Adam found Eve’s original, unadorned apple – with far less penalty for eating it!”
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farhenheit.
- Peel and core 3 pounds of cooking apples (about 8 cups) and cut into quarters.
- Simmer in covered saucepan with ¼ cup water for about 25 minutes or until apples are soft. Mash and add 2/3 cups of sugar, the grated rind of 1 orange, and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.
- Mix together 2 cups fine bread crumbs, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and ¼ cup brown sugar. Brown lightly in skillet with 2 tablespoons butter.
- Butter a round 8-inch baking dish that is 3 inches deep.
- Alternate layers of the crumb mixture, the apple puree, and raspberry jam (he doesn’t say how much!), and finish with a layer of the crumb mixture on top.
- Using a large wood spoon, press layers down firmly. Pour 1/2 cup melted butter over the cake.
- Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, or until cake is firm.
Red Currant Glaze:
In a small saucepan, heat: 2/3 cups of red currant jelly with 2 tablespoons sherry. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until jelly is melted and bubbling and coats spoon lightly. Let glaze cool slightly.
Cool the cake and unmold on serving plate. With a pastry brush, spread a layer of red currant glaze over top of cake. Decorate with whipped cream.