A Daughter's Biography
By Victoria Price
St. Martin's. 370 pp. $27.50
Reviewed by Louis Bayard
"It is universally conceded," says the Devil in "Don Juan in Hell," "that the Prince of Darkness is a gentle man." Shaw's words throw a prophetic shadow across the life of Vincent Price -- the kind, mannerly actor whose legacy rests in titles like "Scream and Scream Again" and "The Abominable Dr. Phibes," the art collector who won his greatest fame terrorizing teenagers at drive-ins. If the paradoxes ever bothered him, he never let on; like his good friend Boris Karloff, he remained publicly grateful to the end.
So it falls to his daughter Victoria to show us just how much work went into being Vincent Price. On the surface, it looked easy. Born to a privileged St. Louis family, he traveled to London in 1934 to become an art historian and somehow got himself cast as Prince Albert in a production of Laurence Housman's "Victoria Regina." When Helen Hayes imported the play to Broadway, Price hopped on board. Two years later, he was bound for Hollywood.
Stardom, though, was a long way off. Initially cast in matinee-idol parts, Price carved out a modest niche as silken supporting villain but didn't discover his true calling until the late 1950s, when low-rent film legend Roger Corman cast him in a series of febrile Poe adaptations. Movies like "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Masque of Red Death" made Price a star to die for. And while his work in those seminal Gothics isn't great acting, exactly, there's something great in his abandon: He puts the Grand back in Grand Guignol.
The rest of the time, it seems, Price was busy knowing everything and everybody. Indeed, one of the inadvertent amusements of Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography comes from reading the ever-expanding list of Price's "close Hollywood friends." Being well-liked was clearly important to a man who, according to his daughter, "struggled with feelings of inadequacy, failure, guilt, and terrible, terrible worry."
That worry burbled up in unsurprising ways: bouts of drink, bad career choices, multiple marriages, and fair amounts of geographical and emotional distance between him and his two children. More credit, then, to Victoria Price for writing such a patently sympathetic portrait of her subject. Objectivity requires her to correct the record on such matters as Price's capitulation to blacklisters and his collusion with unethical TV producers. But she's never out to play "Gotcha!" She just wants to understand the remote, charming figure "whom I loved more than anyone in the world."
What she doesn't understand is that we can never be as infatuated with her subject as she is. Hence this fatally long-winded memoir, inflated with the minutiae of home decorating, the machinations of Southern Californian art institutions, even a blow-by-blow rendering of Price's Yale Glee Club tour. Nothing is too trivial to exclude, and nothing in Price's highly variable oeuvre is too minor to neglect. Forgotten the co-star of "War Gods of the Deep"? Trying to recall the plot of "Dr. Goldfarb and the Girl Bombs"? Fret no more!
The logorrhea might be more bearable if the author were a spicier stylist, but her prose runs to flackery: "Vincent Price took Broadway by storm. He could hardly believe his good fortune. . . . Vincent Price was a people person. . . ." The book does perk up a bit in the later years, mostly because Price had the good sense to marry Coral Browne, a fine actress with an even finer tongue. (Decked out in an oversized wig for "Tamurlaine the Great," she complained: "I feel as though my face is coming out of a yak's ass.")
Even in these last sections, though, the repetition and excessive sourcing grind down our enjoyment. A pity, really, because through the padding, we can see the thread of a great memoir, and we can see that Price was the person best suited to cultivating it. The man could write. Here's how he describes one of his art history professors: "He had no age, but you suspected that he had been born old, like a dwarfed Japanese pine tree, and just got more beautifully gnarled as the years went by." And his take on Constance Bennett: "She had a figure like a slice of bent Melba toast, crisp and tasteless, but she wore clothes like a perfectly shaped coat hanger."
Sadly, Price didn't live long enough to knit together his reminiscences, but you can still feel his spirit infusing the anecdotes. When he and fellow actor Herbert Marshall filmed that famous last scene from "The Fly," neither of them could stop laughing at the man-headed fly screaming "Helllp meeee!" "The more they tried to regain their professional composure," Victoria Price writes, "the more ludicrous the whole thing seemed. . . . Each successive take only made it worse, until both men were sitting on the ground with tears of laughter streaming down their faces."
That's as gentle as Princes of Darkness get.
Louis Bayard is the author of the novel "Fool's Errand."