Serious but Funny
G.K. Chesterton says the test of a good encyclopedia is that you find the thing you’re looking for but also a thousand things you are not looking for. The same could be said for the Internet. Not long ago I was looking for something but instead I found Vincent Price. That led to watching old movies and interviews with him. What especially struck me in the interviews was his warmth and charm and wit and love for life. But also, he said things that sounded positively… Chestertonian. There must be a connection, I thought. I decided to investigate further.
Vincent Price was born in St. Louis. His father was like G.K. Chesterton’s father: a successful businessman who really wanted to be an artist. And Vincent Price and G.K. Chesterton both wanted to become artists themselves, but instead found very successful careers as something else. After graduating from Yale, Vincent went to study art at the University of London, the same place where Chesterton studied art. But like Chesterton, he never finished. His studies were cut short when he was cast as Prince Albert in Victoria Regina in London, and then invited to play the same role on Broadway opposite the legendary Lillian Gish.
From New York, Vincent eventually went on to Hollywood, where he had some early successes in films such as The Song of Bernadette and Laura. He also lent his great voice to several radio productions, such as Simon Templar in The Saint, but by the late 1950s he found himself typecast mostly as villains and monsters in horror movies, or as he preferred to call them, “Gothic tales.” This would be his lot for the next three decades. In addition to his multiple celluloid renderings of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations were his gorgeous, if gory, signature pieces, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and The Theater of Blood. Variety magazine called him “the rock generation’s Boris Karloff.” Marcello Mastroianni, the great Italian leading man, once said that his favorite American actor was Vincent Price. “I know he does these genre films, but I think he is so good. He can do so much with his words. He is serious but funny… he is always so good because the tongue is in the cheek.”
Vincent enjoyed horror movies because they are paradoxical. They are meant to be an intense experience, but also not to be taken seriously. Horror movies fail when they are taken seriously. When his career stalled in horror films, however, he felt he did not have the respect of other actors. But in the late 1970s, he did a one-man stage show of Oscar Wilde that played to packed houses all across the country and to rave reviews. By the end of his life, Vincent had achieved legendary status of his own, and his final film appearance was a fitting exclamation point to his career, playing the inventor of the “monster” Edward Scissorhands.
Although his stage and film career brought Price fame and some fortune, it was only his career. His true love was always art, and began at a young age, lasting his whole life. He bought his first work of art from a local dealer in St. Louis when he was twelve and paid for it in installments. But it was a good buy: a Rembrandt etching.
During his Hollywood days, Price ran an art gallery and eventually donated his collection to East Los Angeles College, which is now home to the Vincent Price Gallery. He dedicated himself to promoting a wider popular appreciation of art. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s he traveled all around the country giving lectures on art, wrote a syndicated column on art, and worked with Sears-Roebuck to acquire original art for purchase by the common men and women who shopped for power tools and washing machines.
He was utterly unpretentious about a subject that is usually prone to pretentiousness. (“I never could afford to buy what other people said I should like.”) He looked at art “wide-eyed and openmouthed,” but his observations were astute. He said, for instance, that a sketch can capture what the camera cannot. Both are immediate, but the sketch “has so much more humanity” because “life is quicker than the eye.”
He was an avid collector and promoter of native and folk art, and defended these artists against their highbrow critics with a line worthy of Chesterton: “At least they haven’t lost the ability to see directly in their own directions.”
When he looked at the work of great artists, he realized that God-given talent was one of the things that make it easy to believe in God. “I had always felt that art and religion were inextricably tied together.”
He traveled all over the world, hunting down art and going to extra lengths to appreciate it more fully: getting mayors to let him into locked museums, or getting priests to let him into locked churches, climbing the scaffolding on a cathedral under renovation in order to see the exterior sculpture up close, gaining access to Mayan ruins after the grounds were closed so he could climb the pyramid under the full moon.
Vincent Price was a good actor because he was a good audience. He was a good audience because he had made a decision early on to become “the most receptive human being I could become,” and discovered many of the characters that he would play by seeing them in paintings. “I became an audience for the drama of the eye. And once you accept that fact, it is almost impossible ever again to be bored with life.”
Vincent had “an enormous relish for life.” He epitomized the Chestertonian trait of always being jolly. Like Chesterton, he was serious but funny. And he shared something else with Chesterton: he was a Catholic convert.
So did I find the Chesterton-Price connection? Well, first of all, even though I still can’t prove it, I am absolutely convinced they met in person. It would have been January of 1931. Chesterton was giving a lecture at Yale; Vincent was a sophomore there. He certainly would have attended the lecture because he was smitten with celebrity. He also may have attended the debate between Clarence Darrow and Chesterton that took place in New Haven, a warm-up for the main event that occurred a few nights later in New York City. But they also might have met in London in 1935, when Vincent was studying there, as Chesterton returned to the Slade School of Art at the University of London to hand out awards. In any case, Vincent would have been familiar with Chesterton as a writer. But where was the proof? Where was the actual citation?
After reading a delightful biography of Vincent Price (by his daughter) and an even more delightful autobiography (which focused on art and barely mentioned acting), I still had nothing. Finally, I decided to return to the Internet. And there it was, the thing I was looking for: a recording of Vincent Price talking about G.K. Chesterton.
To listen to Vincent Price’s talk about Chesterton, click here.