Here are some things you may not know about Vincent Price:
He was once a young man.
Before becoming a horror icon in the 1950s, he was a successful character actor. “Only a third of his movies that he made were actually horror films,” says his daughter, Victoria Price. “He made 105 films. People don’t realize he had an extensive career in theater and radio.”
He came from a wealthy St. Louis family and harbored early anti-semitic views and a misguided admiration for Hitler in the 1930s.
He completely changed his views after moving to New York and was placed on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Premature Anti-Nazi Sympathizer list” in the 1950s, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, notes Susan King at the L.A. Times, a list that “raised questions about those who had been against the Nazis before the U.S. went to war with Germany.”
He was a gourmet cook, had a degree in art history, and worked for nine years in the sixties as an art consultant for Sears….
He was blacklisted for being anti-Nazi too early….
After being denied work for almost a year, as Price’s daughter writes in her 1999 memoir, Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, he chose to sign a “secret oath” offered by the FBI to salvage his career. Perhaps not coincidentally, he took a radio part soon afterward in Australia, as a split narrator/Winston Smith in a 1955 Lux Radio Theater adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, perhaps fearful of a future in which secret oaths became the norm.
Orwell himself had made it perfectly clear what he feared. “Radical in his politics and in his artistic tastes,” Lionel Trilling wrote in a New Yorker review the year the book came out, “Orwell is wholly free of the cant of radicalism”; his talent as a writer of fiction is to make “common sense” political observations serve plot and character. Perhaps the most chilling of these arrives in the first few paragraphs of 1984:
In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.
We may be reminded of the distinctions between what “Orwellian” means and what it does not, as Noah Tavlin describes in a recent explainer: if someone’s “talking about mass surveillance and intrusive government, they’re describing something authoritarian, but not necessarily Orwellian.” Authoritarianism is pure brute force. The Orwellian requires a constant misuse of language, a violent twisting of conscience, a perpetual shouting of lies as truth until the two are indistinguishable. No one is served by this but nihilistic oligarchs, Trilling writes:
The rulers of Orwell’s State know that power in its pure form has for its true end nothing but itself, and they know that the nature of power is defined by the pain it can inflict on others. They know, too, that just as wealth exists only in relation to the poverty of others, so power in its pure aspect exists only in relation to the weakness of others, and that any power of the ruled, even the power to experience happiness, is by that much a diminution of the power of the rulers.
Orwellian societies exist solely to spread hatred and misery, even to their detriment, a point Price made at the end of another radio broadcast, a 1950 episode of NBC’s The Saint, in which the actor denounced racism and religious prejudice. Not long afterward, his name appeared on McCarthy’s list.
Price learned that the government could deprive him of his happiness unless he swore fealty to an insanely nonsensical political morality. His daughter offers the experience as one reason for his love of playing villains. “Most of the villains that he played had been wronged in some way. There was a reason for their villainy.”