June 8, 2011

Tornado's Over Vincentennial or How I Saw Margaret Hamilton On A Broomstick Outside My Hotel Window!

"I'll get you, my pretty David!"

I recently visited the tornado ridden town of St. Louis as a guest of Tom Stockman and his VINCENTENNIAL. While I was only there for one day and night it proved to test all my courage to fly into what became the eye of the storm on Wednesday,May 22nd, two days after the city of Joplin, Missouri was nearly destroyed by a monster tornado.

I left LAX that morning fully expecting for the flight to be canceled as the weather channels were all predicting another major tornado to hit St. Louis. A month before, the airport there had taken a bad hit, ripping off the roof on one of it's terminals.

The reason I am explaining all this is mainly to account for why my one and only event, introducing Vincent Price's only daughter, Victoria, to the Vincentennial, as well as, interviewing her after screening my 1987 interview with her father, was attended by an extremely low turn-out, on a night when tornado alerts had gone off only an hour before our 7pm opening at Brown University.

"Welcome to my birthday party. There'll be food and drink and tornados."

My greatest fear, after flying over what was one of the worst storm seasons in Missouri's history, was to finally get there, only to have my event cancelled because of the weather. I mean, just three days before, Roger Corman was there with crowds of over 400 die-hard fans in attendance with no worries from mother nature. It just wasn't fair to do this to Victoria Price or me for that matter.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August."

In any case, the event did go on as planned and I stood upon the small stage introducing THE WHALES OF AUGUST, one of Vincent's last films, to an audience of about ten(!) people. There was still hope that by the time Victoria arrived to watch her dad talk to me, there would be more of a crowd.

Myself and Ms. Gish.
Despite the understandable lack of attendance, I managed to say some intelligent things about this film which starred not only Price but the amazing combination of Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. Now what I completely forgot to mention during my event was my encounter some 40 years earlier with Ms. Gish (the first lady of the silent screen) during my high school days in Sacramento, California. Way back in 1967, I went to see Lillian Gish in person doing her one woman tour to promote her then new book, THE MOVIES, MR. GRIFFITH AND ME. If you can imagine me as a teenager then you will also not be surprised that I phoned ahead that morning telling her staff that I was the entertainment editor for my high school paper, THE TOMAHAWK, and wanted a few moments with the star. In those days, I knew no shame and to my surprise they gave me a few minutes to interview her after the lecture and before she would be signing copies of her book.
D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.
My memory of all this is still with me and as I recall, she was almost as radiant in person with a kind of glow that comes from having been a star almost as long as the Cinema itself. Ms. Gish presented a full program of clips including BIRTH OF A NATION and WAY DOWN EAST. During the latter, she described in detail, being placed on the ice without real protection and at one point the film crew had to watch in horror as the current took their star, still lying on the ice, down the river without any means to save her. She made you truly understand what it was to be a pioneer in the struggling art form. Lillian Gish always referred to D.W. Griffith as "Mr. Griffith" and this never varied. It is remarkable to recall after watching a clip from BIRTH OF A NATION that one of her first comments afterwards was, "I have always loved the negro." Can you imagine making that remark today? Griffith invented the close-up, something that came back to haunt her in the current film I was introducing in 2011, as that film's director Lindsey Anderson found out when he complemented Gish on a particular close-up she gave while filming, only to have Bette Davis shoot back with, "She should....the bitch invented the close-up!"

When I finally had my ten minutes with her it was clear she was at her best when referencing D.W. Griffith and not so clear on herself. I asked about NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and she replied "Next to Mr. Griffith,
Charles Laughton was the only genius who ever gave me direction. I also asked about DUEL IN THE SUN for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Her comment on that one was, "It was so nice to watch Lionel (Barrymore) act again since we had been friends for many, many years by then." She told me about trying to direct a film herself and why she would never step into the domain of Mr. Griffith again. Why I did not bring all of this up that night in St. Louis I will never know, except for the fact that only a handful of folks would have heard it, may well explain it.

After the WHALES OF AUGUST screened, I noticed Victoria had arrived so I went over and introduced myself. We had met many years before but she was a teenager and I am sure had no real memory of it. We were both at her father's memorial, at his museum in East L.A. right after his death but we were not formally introduced at that time.

Yours truly and Vincent Price during our "Sinister Image" interview.

I sat behind her as she watched for the first time my interview, VINCENT PRICE: THE SINISTER IMAGE. I had done a screening of this type once before at an Academy screening with Tippi Hendren, as she watched her daughter Melanie Griffith rock the screen in Jonathan Demme's SOMETHING WILD (1986). Tippi's body language was very telling, as she watched her daughter do a bit of S&M on Jeff Daniels, a taste of things to come since this film would catapult her daughter into major stardom for awhile.

Anyhow, Victoria dutifully sat thorough her father's 62-minute chat with yours truely and then it was time for my introduction and then our on-stage interview. The first thing one notices about Victoria is her smile, which is contagious. Fortunately for me, she is one of those interviews where dead air is not an issue.Victoria has a story to tell and is not shy in getting down to it. I asked her about her half brother, Barrett, and why he has remained so distant from his father's legacy and her reply explained it all. His mother, Edith Barrett, had been an actress when she married Vincent and theirs was not a happy union. By the time Barrett was 10-year-old he was tramatized to the point of asking his father to take custody of him just to get away from her madness. Victoria's life was also effected by the third of Price's wives, Coral Browne. Vincent's divorce from Mary Grant left Victoria at sea as far as her father was concered because Coral was not the motherly type and soon found reasons to distance her husband from both his children.

However, Victoria's book is not a DADDY DEAREST by any means and she is remarkably objective when discussing this aspect of her life. The book is a must read for anyone with the slightest interest in Vincent Price. The early chapters were the most informative for me, as I did not know that Price had met and even dined with Mrs Bram Stoker!

Victoria Price with her father's life mask and a familiar face.

The on-stage interview lasted about 45 minutes I believe, since it went by so quickly and then there we were, staring out at more than 50 people, where earlier there were barely 10. I was somewhat relieved at this later on as I was told that on Friday Victoria hosted her own special tribute to her father to a packed house of over 400 fans. They even had to turn away about quite a few people from the theater for lack of seats! If only the powers at the Vincentennial thought to combine our events, I might have been able to show Vincent's interview to a full house.

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