The Stage Career of Vincent Price
The theatre was one of Price's greatest loves, and I think it's safe to say that the theatre loved him back. It all started in London, where Price was working to complete his Master's degree in art history. Although he was crazy about art, he enjoyed going to plays and became interested in the idea of acting. One day, his flatmate told him about auditions that were being held at a private theater club for Maurine Watkins's play Chicago. Price would always claim that he won his first role because he could walk and chew gum at the same time, a skill that the British hadn't acquired yet since gum was only popular in America at the time.
Exhilarated by his newfound passion, Price wrote to his parents, "How happy I am -- there is nothing in the world like the profession to me. But don't worry dearests, I am not slacking in my work. But please don't be angry as I can no more leave it alone than I can give up my love of life for it is so wonderful. Pray that I make a go of it!" Mr. and Mrs. Price must have prayed very hard for their son was soon cast in the club's next production: Victoria Regina, Laurence Housman's play about Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. Luck was again on Price's side -- he looked very similar to the prince and he was tall like him, too. Price had also traveled extensively through Germany and Austria, so he could imitate the prince's German accent without trouble. On May 1, 1935, Victoria Regina opened to rave reviews and everyone took notice of the dashing new talent playing Prince Albert.
In Helen Hayes, Price found a friend and mentor. He would later write, "I owe so much to Helen. It was she who taught me just how hard I had to work to 'learn the business' after my beginner's luck. Every summer I did stock -- five plays in six weeks, and half the time I fell flat on my butt. That's when I realized the best training is just to keep acting, working, with other actors." When Warner Bros. offered Price a seven-year contract, he was very tempted to accept, but after speaking with Hayes, he decided that he needed to learn his craft more before going into films and turned it down. That meant a lot more summer stock, which is where he met his first wife, Edith Barrett, an accomplished actress in her own right.
After a few more plays (not all of them successful), Price was invited by Orson Welles to join the Mercury Theatre, the infamous repertory company led by Welles that included Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, and Norman Lloyd. "Vincent came into the Mercury as a star," Lloyd recalled. "We were just scruffy individuals. Here comes this long drink of water. 'Oh, this guy's a star, is he? Gonna take all the leading parts from us, is he?' That was just our attitude. But he was such a charmer that at the end of the day it was as if he was just another scruffy individual, which of course he never was. It was great chemistry and everyone had a great time with each other."
Funnily enough, Welles and Price's fathers had been classmates many years ago at the University School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and even performed in a magic act together. At first, it looked as if Welles and Price would become friends as well, but Welles's dictatorial behavior made that impossible. "I'm sorry I never got to know Orson Welles better," Price would lament, "but he became a legend before his time. He could have been one of the greatest American theatrical and cinema directors, but he had to act. Whether he directed or acted, a play was his show and finally, for that reason and for the fact that he ignored contracts and gave no one else any credit, the Mercury fell apart."
In 2015, my university hosted a celebration in honor of Welles's centennial, complete with a symposium, film screenings, and an exhibit that was comprised of many of Welles's personal items that were donated to the university by Peter Bogdonavich. Part of the exhibit focused on the Mercury Theatre and included a poster for The Shoemaker's Holiday, one of the productions Price starred in. It was quite an experience to see.
Exasperated by Welles and newly married to Edith Barrett, Price left the Mercury and headed to Hollywood, where he signed a contract with Universal that he made sure allowed him to continue doing plays. After the release of his debut film, a cute romantic comedy co-starring Constance Bennett called Service De Luxe, Price successfully returned to Broadway in Outward Bound, which was directed by Otto Preminger and marked a comeback to the stage for Laurette Taylor.
By the time they found a producer, though, Edith decided to stay in Hollywood and work on her film career, which was slowly beginning to gain momentum. Her part in the play was given to Judith Evelyn, Leo G. Carroll was cast as the third lead, and Five Chelsea Lane was rechristened Angel Street. The play was a smash, becoming the longest-running melodrama in Broadway's history, and later became the exceptional film Gaslight (1944).
Throughout his movie career, Price would go back to the stage any chance he could. Except in 1953, when he was offered the opportunity to go back to Broadway for the play We're No Angels, which would have capitalized on his wonderful comedic skills and might have led to more comedies. Instead, Price chose to do the film House of Wax. Back in March, I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Price's daughter, Victoria, for Indiana University Cinema in anticipation of Victoria's visit to the campus. She described the impact her father's decision had on his career, saying "House of Wax was his first 'horror' film -- and at a time when many of his peers were fading away as younger stars like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman came to prominence, the rise of the horror genre gave my dad a new career and a new fan base. I think it was one of his best roles, because he played a villain whom people 'rooted for' -- people understood why he had gone crazy and sought revenge. That was part of his success in the genre -- he gave people a way to understand villainy." (To read my full interview with Victoria, click here. It's easily one of my proudest moments.)
Regardless of New York's tepid reception, the show was a personal triumph for Price. Everyone who saw his performance, from the critics to his friends and family, believed that Oscar Wilde was his best role, Victoria included. For many years, Price traveled with the show around the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Hong Kong. "Playing Oscar Wilde proved a turning point for my father," Victoria wrote in her biography of Vincent. "His success in a very difficult role changed his view of himself as an actor. He regained his confidence and found an authority he never knew he had. ... But most important, it was a success in my father's life and career, as he came to realize that he didn't need the Broadway critics or the New York audiences to validate him. For the first time in many years, he had validated himself as an actor."
Out of all of the actors I've watched and read about, Vincent Price is the one who remained the most active. His curiosity and enthusiasm for life never wavered, nor did his incredible talent. Whether on the radio, in film, or on the stage, Price always gave audiences performances that they would cherish for the rest of their lives.
This is my second entry to the Broadway Bound Blogathon. Check out the other entries here, and be sure to return for my third and final contribution!