I can’t think of many other actors I’d like to spend the hallowed month of October with so I’m going to devote the next four weeks to the “Crown Prince of Horror.” To kick start my informal tribute to Vincent Price I thought I’d take a look back at his early stage career in New York working with Orson Welles and the legendary Mercury Theatre.
Vincent Leonard Price (b. 1911) was named after his father who was the president of a candy company. The Price family had made millions inventing, producing and selling baking powder which allowed them many luxuries including formidable educations. In a strange twist of fate (or odd coincidence) Price’s father studied at the University School in Kenosha, Wisconsin where one of his school chums happened to be Richard Head Welles, the father of Orson Welles. The elder Price and Welles enjoyed putting on dramatic magic shows to entertain their classmates and this desire to perform was evidently handed down to their two famous sons who would eventually end up working together.
Price Sr. invested in his son’s artistic ambitions, which led young Vincent to study art history at Yale and pursue a Master’s Degree in Britain at the London University of Art. But while he was there, Vincent Price Jr. became infatuated with the London stage and began devoting himself to acting.
Price’s first major stage role was in Victoria Regina where he played Prince Albert opposite Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. The play was such a success that it eventually landed him on Broadway where it would have a noteworthy two-year run. During that period Price also developed a close working relationship with Helen Hayes who became his acting mentor as well as a dear friend. Besides Victoria Regina, Price was offered roles in a number of other plays including a 1937 dramatic production of Puccini’s Turandot where he starred alongside Anna May Wong. It didn’t take long for critics to notice his undeniable talent and domineering stage presence.
“Physically, he is a child of the gods. Exceptionally tall, he is exceptionally handsome, and exceptionally graceful. He is one man who can be called beautiful in the sense that a thoroughbred of seventeen hands is beautiful. Garbed as an Apollo king of the East, his presence brought glory to the stage. For these gifts, Mr. Price deserves little credit. But for the way he handled himself on the undersized stage and for the thrilling way in which he gave his lines, he merited acclaim and got plenty of it. These showed art and show he’s been hard at work at the task of becoming an actor.”
– Uncredited review of Turandot from Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography by Victoria Price
Price’s talent was also being recognized by his contemporaries and in January of 1938, he was approached by a young man named Orson Welles who asked him to join the Mercury Theatre. At the time the Mercury Theatre was known for revitalizing classic plays, which undoubtedly appealed to Price and he instantly took a liking to Welles. These two handsome and ambitious Midwesterners with unmistakable voices shared a lot in common, including their father’s history. They also both appreciated modern art and participated in anti-Franco protests while supporting the Spanish Civil War relief.
During Price’s time with the Mercury Theatre group he appeared in two Welles’ productions; The Shoemaker’s Holiday and Heartbreak House. Their working relationship started off extremely well and Price spoke fondly of Welles later on saying, “Orson was twenty-one years old, and to work with him was so exciting. He was fresh and new with wonderful ideas, and it was an exciting time in the theater.” Unfortunately, their relationship began to turn sour when Welles revealed his impressive ego and unruly work ethic. Price bemoaned the director’s lack of discipline after he missed rehearsals and in a letter wrote, “Orson is a genius and a grand guy, but I fear the Mercury is his, and that all others are disregarded, even the actors working with him.”
Vincent: I wish I could wire as well as you.
I wish I could wire you firmly and fully the things I mean and can’t say.
And I wish I may go broke wiring you on Mercury openings.
– Orson (1938)
Despite his differences with Welles, Price developed lifelong friendships with other members of the Mercury Theatre group such as Joseph Cotten and Norman Lloyd. He also fell in love with Mercury actress, Edith Barett (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE; 1943, GHOST SHIP; 1943, JANE EYRE; 1943, Etc.) and married her in 1938 at New York’s St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. The ceremony was attended by other theater members including Orson Welles and Norman Lloyd who remembered the day fondly in Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography saying, “I see him (Price) walking down the aisle of St. Thomas’ and we’re all shunted to the back because we were scrungy-looking in all that make-up from last night. And he came down the aisle and looked at us, and I could see what was going through his mind, ‘They’re going to do something, these guys.’ But we didn’t; we behaved. And we all chipped in, as they say in theater, to get him a silver tray with an inscription on it, ‘From the Mercury Players.’ ” Afterward they held a wedding party on the stage of the Mercury Theatre.
Vincent Price’s marriage to Edith Barret lasted 10 years and it marked a turning point in Price’s career. Soon after they exchanged vows the couple decided to move to California and pursue acting in Hollywood. Orson Welles didn’t have to go to Hollywood because the studios came to him but he quickly joined Price in California.
Unfortunately Price and Welles never worked together again but Price did act with other members of the Mercury Theatre group in some films including his wife Edith Barret who appeared with Price in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943) and THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1944) as well as Joseph Cotten who costarred with Price in THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971). And although the fascinating careers of Vincent Price and Orson Welles never crossed paths in Hollywood, it’s fun to imagine if they had.
Knowing Welles fondness for mystery and a good ghost story it’s a shame that he never directed Price in a supernatural thriller that would have undoubtedly benefited from both of their talents. And who wouldn’t want to see Price and Welles costar in a Shakespeare production? Classic film fans can only speculate about the intriguing possibilities of a Price and Welles’ reunion that sadly, never occurred.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for TCM.com and published on October 4, 2013