This post was part of my month-long celebration of Vincent Price–TCM’s October Star of the Month in 2013.
Throughout the course of Vincent Price’s long career, he worked with some of my favorite actresses such as Barbara Steele, Diana Rigg, Jennifer Jones and Linda Hayden. But if I had to single out Price’s most important costar I would point to the incomparable Gene Tierney. Tierney appeared in four movies with Price beginning with the historical adventure HUDSON’S BAY (1941) followed by Otto Preminger’s film noir masterpiece LAURA (1944), John M. Stahl’s suspenseful dark drama LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) and finally Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s spooky gothic thriller DRAGONWICK (1946).
The last three films form a cinematic triumvirate loosely linked together by unbridled passion, suppressed madness, family secrets, romantic treachery, personal greed, and ghosts. These elements became a large part of the dramatic template for many of Vincent Price’s best horror films including HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), HOUSE OF USHER (1960), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963), THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965) and THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1970) but they can all be traced back to the three films he made with Tierney.
“He (Shelby Carpenter) was a wonderful character, a real ‘upper-class-scum!’ but really elegant. Everything about him was charming but he was still a sleazy character. He was a terrible man and he was such fun to play because he didn’t know it. Most villains don’t know they’re villains at all. The great thing about the film is that everybody in it was a little sleazy. I thought that was one of the marvelous things that Preminger achieved in that film and it’s the best film he ever made.” – Vincent Price
In LAURA Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, a greedy social climbing playboy engaged to the exquisite and enigmatic Laura (Gene Tierney). When Laura is presumably murdered by a shotgun-wielding maniac, Shelby becomes one of the prime suspects and it’s in this role that Price really began to shape his villainous persona.
Shelby is handsome, quick-witted, well dressed and likable but underneath that slick veneer is a self-serving snake. He seems to be an ill-matched partner for Tierney’s lovely Laura who haunts every frame of the film like an enchanting apparition but she has her own motives and methods that make her intentions questionable. The madness that runs through LAURA takes the shape of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) but it’s Shelby and Laura’s strange romantic liaison that sets Lydecker’s mental collapse into motion. By the end of the film, Lydecker’s madness has run its unfortunate course and Laura seems destined to find real romance with the crime-solving hero (Dana Andrews). But as Shelby slinks into the shadows with Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) I can’t help but assume he’ll have regrets later on when he becomes bored with Ann and her money runs dry. Will the enchanting apparition of Laura, who tormented better men, finally come back to haunt Shelby? It’s very possible. When Shelby’s on his deathbed I suspect that he’ll be calling or cursing Laura’s name.
“This one (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) is in Technicolor. That means that the audience will also get the force of those Tierney green eyes. Now maybe they’ll understand why scriptwriters have me go off the deep end every time I’m in the same picture as her.” – Vincent Price
The tables are turned on Vincent Price in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. This time he plays Russell Quinton, an ambitious district attorney engaged to the beautiful, self-serving and psychotic Ellen (Gene Tierney). When Ellen decides to marry another man (Cornel Wilde) she quickly and coldly ends her relationship with Quinton. He’s stunned and deeply hurt but this time he doesn’t slink into the shadows. Quinton tells Ellen in their final exchange that he still loves her and always will. These words will come back to torment him after Ellen commits suicide and makes her death look like murder in an attempt to destroy the budding romance between her uncommitted husband and cousin (Jeanne Crain).
Price’s lovelorn Quinton takes the thankless job of prosecuting the victims of Ellen’s twisted crime and in the film’s final minutes he rails against the assumed criminals while defending the ghost of his lost love. Quinton’s relentless tirade and inability to see the darker and more monstrous side of the woman he worships is commendable but Ellen is merely taunting poor Quinton from beyond the grave. Her unhinged laughter fills the courtroom and it is easy to imagine the specter of Ellen whispering in Quinton’s ear and promising him her heart while she drags his perplexed soul to the depths of hell. Like LAURA, this isn’t a conventional ghost story by any stretch of the imagination but in both films Vincent Price is haunted by the ever-present phantom of Gene Tierney.
“Gene Tierney is completely un-dated. She looks like the most modern girl of today. There was something extraordinary about this girl . . . She seemed to remain constant. She was not a (conventionally) pretty girl, her teeth sort of crossed over and Darryl Zanuck wouldn’t let her smile or frown but she really came out as one of the great beauties of the motion picture industry.” – Vincent Price
In their final (and my personal favorite) screen appearance together Price takes the reigns as the handsome, suave and utterly mad Nicholas Van Ryn in DRAGONWYCK. Van Ryn lures the innocent and naïve Miranda (Gene Tierney) to his sprawling Dragonwyck estate by promising her a governess job but the two are immediately smitten with one another, which isn’t a surprise since both actors are ridiculously gorgeous in this costume drama that makes the most of their edgy on-screen chemistry.
Their relationship begins to blossom under the watchful eyes of the mansion’s musically inclined ghosts but Van Ryn is already a father and husband and his marital commitments limit his ability to court another woman. He eventually comes up with a plan to murder his unlikable wife and replace her with the lovely Miranda but their shaky romance is doomed from the start. Trying to build a solid long-lasting relationship on the corpse of your murdered spouse is never a good idea but Van Ryn and Miranda give it a good go and it’s nearly impossible not to root for their success. But Nicholas Van Ryn’s growing reliance on drugs and escalating madness can’t be contained when his newly born son and heir dies.
He blames the mutually grieving Miranda for his misery and begins to design his revenge but the family phantoms haunting the dark halls of Dragonwyck have other plans. DRAGONWYCK is a genuinely spooky film that makes no attempt to hide its supernatural elements but its gentleness and romantic sensibility keep it from being easily defined as a horror movie.
During the making of DRAGONWYCK Gene Tierney was undergoing a divorce from her husband, designer Oleg Cassini (coincidentally he was somewhat of a Price look-alike), and she fell in love with a handsome young man–and future president–named John F. Kennedy who visited the set. Their affair ended when Kennedy supposedly told Tierney that he couldn’t marry her and Tierney eventually reunited with Cassini but their divorce became final in 1952. Soon afterward Vincent Price would find himself starring in a number of noteworthy horror films but Tierney’s career ended prematurely after she suffered a serious breakdown brought on by the difficult birth of her first daughter as well as other personal and professional struggles. She briefly resurfaced in the 1960s but Price and Tierney never worked together again.
Vincent Price spent the following decade making a string of successful horror films for Roger Corman before heading to England where he continued his career as the “master of menace.” It’s fun to imagine what kind of movies Price and Tierney might have made together if she had followed his lead and continued to work in Hollywood. Could she have become a horror icon in the same vein as Price? I think so.
Tierney’s haunting presence is undeniable. She has a shimmery mystique that seems ideally suited for playing the heroine of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. And in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN she showed us a villainous streak that would have made her the perfect mature female foe for Price. I can’t imagine why producers and directors didn’t try to get them back together again but why complain when we have LAURA, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and DRAGONWYCK to enjoy?
Price and Tierney appeared together in three of my favorite films of the 1940s and that’s worth celebrating. I only wish these doomed onscreen lovers had gotten the opportunity to end a film together with their romance intact.