Gentleman and a scholar

Remaining faithful to his first love: art

Published: May 27 2020, 01:01:am

Monday, August 5, 1974.

THE GREAT JOY OF the horror movie, the melodrama and the Gothic thriller is that they are timeless. A good fright lives forever in the imagination and memory.
    On the other hand, says Vincent Price, “you never see them reviving something like The Man With the Golden Arm. In that kind of movie the problems are all solved and done with.”
    As the screen’s senior scream star, actor Price knows whereof he speaks. In a career spanning four decades, he has been in numerous revivals, remakes and sequels. He has also seen some of his original films remade.
    In at least one case, he can recall playing in two different versions of the same story. Both were called The Tower of London and were based on Shakespeare’s tragic history of Richard III. The most recent edition, made in 1962, featured Price as the villainous Crookback.
    The earlier version, made in 1939, was stage performer Price's third feature film. “I played the Duke of Clarence, Richard's brother,” he says “I had a big scene with Basil (Rathbone, who played Richard) in which we had had a drinking duel for the Kingdom of England.
    “What we were really drinking was Coca-Cola syrup and water. Well, after consuming two or three gallons of this liquid, Clarence passes out. When this happened, Boris (Karloff) came in and they dumped me in a vat of wine.”
    The scene was parodied in Price’s recent horror comedy, [1977’s] Theatre of Blood — “My favourite film,” according to Price. In it, a stuntman doubled for a victimized Robert Coote.
    “I had no double (in The Tower of London), Price says “I had to do it myself. They had firemen standing by with axes just out of frame in cast the top stuck.
    “It did. They had to batter me out before I drowned.” Once out, Price looked around for his co-stars. “I had hoped for some sign of concern or congratulations from these truly great actors, but both Basil and Boris had already left the set.”
    Deeply disappointed, Price was about to leave, too. At that point, Karloff and Rathbone returned, each one bearing a gift for the young actor. “They each gave me a pack of Coke.”
    In Vancouver for the filming of  producer Trevor Wallace’s Journey into Fear, his first Canadian movie, Price recalls growing up “feeling half-Canadian.” Though from St. Louis, Missouri, his family maintained a house in Amherstburg, Ontario, not far from Detroit.
    “I got a letter from my sister a little while ago,” he says. "She came across some family papers and found out that that big, wonderful house had been bought in 1908 for $4,000, including land. Last year [1973], it was sold for over $100,000.”
    His current assignment calls for Price to play — what else? — a smooth-talking villain who comes to a fiery end in the final reel. From here, he goes on to Ohio, where he will don the fingerless gloves of Dickens’s professorial pickpocket Fagin in a Kenley Players production of the musical Oliver!
    Among the other things he has to do are record a new collection of the short stories of  Edgar Allan Poe, and see to the correction of some factual errors in a forthcoming biography. Price is very conscious of how quickly an error or an omission can become an embarrassing fact.
    “I once spent five years of my life trying to prove that I wasn’t English.” Early in his career, Price played the part of the crown consort Albert in a London stage production of Victoria Regina. The show was brought to Broadway by Gilbert Miller, an impresario who was, according to Price, “a terrible snob about English theatre.”
    Miller never let on that Price was an American, “which was ridiculous, because Albert wasn't English, he was German.”
    Originally, Price set out to be a teacher. Before finding his way on to the stage, he taught art appreciation at a boarding school in New York State.
    “I have a theory,” he says, “that anyone who says he didn’t want to become an actor is a liar.” Nevertheless, Price has never forgotten his first love, art.
     Although he sometimes goes on campus with a talk called “The Villain Still Pursues Me,” lecture audiences today more readily recognize him as a ranking art expert. During the past two weeks, Vancouver gallery patrons stood a good chance of rubbing shoulders with the tall, gentle-voiced actor as he made his way among the displays.
    “The things I have in my own collection would probably surprise you,” he says. “Since we’ve been here, I’ve bought a lithograph by a young woman named Olga Froehlich.”
    A man who knows his own taste, Price says “I’d much rather have an Olga Froehlich in my collection than a Renoir, because I discovered her with my own eyes. She’s now, and she’s of my own time.

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I’d grown up with an image of Vincent Price shaped by his best known movie roles — the vengeance-seeking wax sculptor in 1953’s House of Wax; Baka, the sadistic master builder, in The Ten Commandments (1956) — and a selection of films that included the wonderfully gimmicky works of director William Castle and the cheeky gothic horrors produced by Roger Corman. Going into our interview, I was prepared for someone suave, and perhaps a little sinister.
    Today, my memory is of a Southern gentleman or, more precisely, a gentleman and a scholar. Sensing that my preparation probably included one too many Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine profiles, he ever so politely guided our conversation into genre movies that drew upon his background as a serious stage actor, including his then “favourite film” Theatre of Blood, the 1973 black comedy in which he played a Shakespearean actor who takes revenge on all the critics who’ve panned his performances. He maintained his stage connections throughout his movie and TV career and, as he told me in the above interview, he was on his way to Ohio, where he regularly appeared with the summer stock Kenley Players.
    Of course I was delighted to learn about his Canadian connections. While I probably had an exclusive on news of the sale of the former family home in Ontario, I managed to err big time in calling Journey into Fear “his first Canadian movie.” That distinction belongs to 1958’s The Fly, a sci-fi horror film shot in Montreal. Finally, he brought our conversation around to his life-long passion for art. Among serious collectors — a relatively exclusive social circle — Price was legendary. He was also generous. He made a point of praising Vancouver’s Olga Froehlich (and making sure I had the correct spelling of her name in my notebook), a young illustrator and lithographer who’d just graduated from UBC.  

On location: Also interviewed during the 1974 Vancouver film shoot was actress Yvette Mimieux. Sadly, my review of the feature Journey into Fear was not favourable.