Vincent Price & Gene Tierney: A Doomed Romance

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Throughout the course of Vincent Price’s long career he worked with some of my favorite actresses such as Barbara Steele, Diana Rigg, Jennifer Jones and Linda Hayden. But if I had to point to Price’s most important costar I would single out the incomparable Gene Tierney who appeared in four movies with Price beginning with the historical adventure HUDSON’S BAY (1941) followed by Otto Preminger’s film noir masterpiece LAURA (1944), John M. Stahl’s suspenseful dark drama LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ spooky gothic thriller DRAGONWICK (1946). The last three films form a cinematic triumvirate loosely linked together by unbridled passion, suppressed madness, family secrets, romantic treachery, personal greed and ghosts. These elements become a large part of the dramatic template for many of Vincent Price’s best horror films including HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), HOUSE OF USHER (1960), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963), THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1965) and THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1970) but they can be traced back to the three films he made with Gene Tierney.

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He (Shelby Carpenter) was a wonderful character, a real ‘upper-class-scum!’ but really elegant. Everything about him was charming but he was still a sleazy character. He was a terrible man and he was such fun to play because he didn’t know it. Most villains don’t know they’re villains at all. The great thing about the film is that everybody in it was a little sleazy. I thought that was one of the marvelous things that Preminger achieved in that film and it’s the best film he ever made.” – Vincent Price

In LAURA, Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, a greedy social climbing playboy engaged to the exquisite and enigmatic Laura (Gene Tierney). When Laura is presumably murdered by a shotgun wielding maniac Shelby becomes one of the prime suspects and it’s in this role that Price really began to shape his villainous persona. Shelby is handsome, quick-witted, well dressed and likable but underneath that slick veneer is a self-serving snake. He seems to be an ill-matched partner for Gene Tierney’s lovely Laura, who haunts every frame of the film like an enchanting apparition, but she has her own motives and methods that make her intentions questionable. The madness that runs through LAURA takes the shape of Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) but it’s Shelby and Laura’s suspicious and strange romantic liaison that sets Lydecker’s mental collapse into motion. By the end of the film Lydecker’s madness has run its unfortunate course and Laura seems destined to find real romance with the crime solving hero Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). But as Shelby slinks into the shadows with Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), I can’t help but assume he’ll have regrets later on once he becomes bored with Ann and her money runs dry. Will the enchanting apparition of Laura, which tormented better men, finally come back to haunt Shelby? It’s very possible. When Shelby’s on his deathbed I suspect that he’ll be calling (or cursing) Laura’s name.

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This one (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) is in Technicolor. That means that the audience will also get the force of those Tierney green eyes. Now maybe they’ll understand why scriptwriters have me go off the deep end every time I’m in the same picture as her.” – Vincent Price

The tables are turned on Vincent Price in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. This time he plays Russell Quinton, an ambitious district attorney engaged to the beautiful, self-serving and psychotic Ellen (Gene Tierney). When Ellen decides to marry another man (Cornel Wilde) she quickly and coldly ends her relationship with Quinton. He’s stunned and deeply hurt but this time he doesn’t slink into the shadows. Quinton tells Ellen in their final exchange that he still loves her and always will. These words will come back to torment him after Ellen commits suicide and makes her death look like murder in an attempt to destroy the budding romance between her uncommitted husband and cousin (Jeanne Crain). The lovelorn Quinton takes the thankless job of prosecuting the victims of Ellen’s twisted crime and in the film’s final minutes he rails against the assumed criminals while defending the ghost of his lost love. Quinton’s relentless tirade and inability to see the darker and more monstrous side of the woman he worships is commendable but Ellen is merely taunting poor Quinton from beyond the grave. Her laughter seems to fill the courtroom and it’s easy to imagine the specter of Ellen whispering in Quinton’s ear and promising him her heart while she drags his perplexed soul to the depths of hell with her. Like LAURA, this isn’t a conventional ghost story by any stretch of the imagination but in both films Price is haunted by the ever present phantom of Gene Tierney.

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Gene Tierney is completely un-dated. She looks like the most modern girl of today. There was something extraordinary about this girl . . . She seemed to remain constant. She was not a (conventionally) pretty girl, her teeth sort of crossed over and Darryl Zanuck wouldn’t let her smile or frown but she really came out as one of the great beauties of the motion picture industry.” – Vincent Price

In their final (and my personal favorite) screen appearance together, Price takes the reigns as the handsome, suave and utterly mad Nicholas Van Ryn in DRAGONWYCK. Van Ryn lures the innocent and naïve Miranda (Gene Tierney) to his sprawling Dragonwyck estate by promising her a governess job but the two are immediately smitten with one another. Both actors are ridiculously gorgeous in this costume drama that makes the most of their edgy on screen chemistry. Their relationship begins to blossom under the watchful eyes of the mansion’s musically inclined ghosts but Van Ryn is already a father and husband and his marital commitments limit his ability to court another woman. He eventually comes up with a plan to murder his unlikable wife and replace her with the lovely Miranda but their romance is doomed from the start. Trying to build a solid long-lasting relationship on the corpse of your murdered spouse is never a good idea but Van Ryn and Miranda give it a good go and it’s nearly impossible not to root for their success. But Nicholas Van Ryn’s growing reliance on drugs and escalating madness can’t be contained when his newly born son and heir dies. He blames the mutually grieving Miranda for his misery and begins to design his revenge but the family phantoms haunting the dark halls of Dragonwyck have other plans for him. DRAGONWYCK is a genuinely spooky film that makes no attempt to hide its more supernatural elements but its gentleness and romantic sensibility keep it from being easily defined as a horror movie.

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During the making of DRAGONWYCK, Gene Tierney was undergoing a divorce from her husband, designer Oleg Cassini (coincidentally he was somewhat of a Price look-alike), and she fell in love with a handsome young man–and future president–named John F. Kennedy who visited the set. Their affair ended when Kennedy supposedly told Tierney that he couldn’t marry her and Tierney eventually reunited with Cassini but their divorce became final in ‘52. Soon afterward Vincent Price would find himself starring in a number of noteworthy horror films but Tierney’s career ended prematurely after she suffered a serious breakdown brought on by the difficult birth of her first daughter as well as other personal and professional struggles. She briefly resurfaced in the ‘60s but Price and Tierney never worked together again.

Vincent Price spent the following decade making a string of successful horror films for Roger Corman before heading to England where he continued his career as the “master of menace.” It’s fun to imagine what kind of movies Price and Tierney might have made together if she had followed his lead and continued to work in Hollywood. Could she have become a horror icon in the same vein as Price? I think so. Tierney’s haunting presence is undeniable. She has a shimmery mystique that seems ideally suited for playing the heroine of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. And in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN she showed us a villainous streak that would have made her the perfect mature female foe for Price. I can’t imagine why producers and directors didn’t try to get them back together again but why complain when we have LAURA, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and DRAGONWYCK to enjoy? Price and Tierney appeared together in three of my favorite films of the 1940s and that’s worth celebrating. I only wish these doomed onscreen lovers had gotten the opportunity to end a film together with their romance intact.

14 Responses Vincent Price & Gene Tierney: A Doomed Romance
Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 17, 2013 11:18 pm

personally i think Price had more more dimension that we give him credit for,yes he could could ham it up (not in a bad way)but underneath it all,he was the epitome of the matinee idol,…handsome,charming,urbane,quirky,neurotic,egotistical,…but you always LIKED him,even if he was the villain..he was the equivalent of the early Shakespeare actors you often hear about,but have never seen…but he had a twinkle and wink that elevated him above the actors that took themselves a bit too seriously,and that’s why we’re still talking about him

Posted By LD : October 17, 2013 11:19 pm

Thank you so much Kimberly for this post on Price and Tierney. I have yet to see Hudson’s Bay but LAURA is one of my favorite movies and the only DVD that I have literally worn out. “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died……”. Shelby is such a self serving cad that by the time Dana Andrews’ character gives him a great punch to the abdomen one can only cheer or at the very least smile.

In LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN Price, as a D.A.,has a cross examination scene with Jeanne Crain that I don’t think is equaled until George C. Scott’s in ANATOMY OF A MURDER. Tierney is chilling, especially in the scene in the rowboat.

DRAGONWYCK is a movie that I have seen a few times but have yet to purchase. For whatever reason I remember Jessica Tandy playing the maid.

Still, LAURA is my favorite. Do I need to mention the music? After all, “…….a silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass”……..

Posted By Aubyn Eli : October 17, 2013 11:23 pm

I love the Vincent Price/Gene Tierney team and your article perfectly captures why they’re so fascinating together. I agree with all your points. They do make a surprisingly sexy couple in Dragonwyck. Unlike say Gaslight, you really do get the sense that these two are genuinely, passionately in love, at least until Price goes off the deep end.

On that note, I’ve always thought that Tierney had much better chemistry with leading men who were a little “off” in some way, like Vincent Price, George Sanders, Rex Harrison, or Dana Andrews. Next to a straightforward, virtuous type like Tyrone Power, she gets less interesting.

On a final note, I really like your idea of giving Tierney a second career as a horror icon. It would have been a great fit for her.

Posted By doug : October 18, 2013 12:26 am

Thank you many times, Kimberly, for this fine post. I picked up “Black Widow” which I guess was Gene Tierney’s last film or nearly last-she was excellent.
I have the Blu ray of “Laura” which I hope to find time to watch this weekend.
I’ll be looking for their other pairings-Vincent is always well worth the Price.

Posted By cyndi : October 18, 2013 3:04 am

I love this wonderful tribute to one of my favorite screen couples of all time. Thanks so much.

Gene Tierney is my very favorite actress and I would like to point out that the birth of her first child, Daria, was a terrible blow she never recovered from…the famous story of how she contracted german measles while pregnant from an over-eager fan which, in turn, left Daria blind, deaf, and mentally handicapped for life, used by Agatha Christie in one of her mysteries. Gene went through electric shock, attempted suicide, and never really recovered her equilibrium, despite the birth of her second daughter, whom she loved very much. She remained extremely fragile the rest of her life and shunned the light of celebrity, which only reminded her of her beloved daughter, Daria.

I think she was one of the most lovely stars that ever shone in Hollywood, and was a fine actress as well.

Posted By Jenni : October 18, 2013 3:51 am

Dragonwyck one of my fave movies-loved your post on Price and Tierney teamings!

Posted By LD : October 18, 2013 10:55 am

In the movie ON THE RIVIERA the portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura can be seen in color.

“The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side” is the Christie story supposedly based on Tierney. It was made into the movie THE MIRROR CRACK’D with Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple.

Posted By robbushblog : October 18, 2013 2:11 pm

Great post. I’ve always loved Laura and really enjoyed Leave Her to Heaven and Dragonwyck, both of which I watched for the first time in the past year. I must say that I cannot agree with Price about Gene not being pretty. Certainly, her teeth made her unconventional as a beauty, but they did not detract so much. She was still beautiful.

Posted By robbushblog : October 18, 2013 2:12 pm

Kimberly- Have you not seen Hudson’s Bay either? I’m not even familiar with it.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2013 2:31 pm

Love Dragonwyck, for me it remains the ultimate gothic thriller, and an impressive directorial debut for Joseph L. Mankiewicz before going on to give us A Letter to Three Wives, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and of course All About Eve.

As far as I know, it’s only available in a triple feature Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2 DVD set (the first set combined two Laird Cregar titles plus The Undying Monster), but you also get Bela Lugosi in the fun Chandu the Magician and the Dr. Moreau-esque Dr. Renault’s Secret in the bargain (apparently it has turned up in some bargain bins at retail, keep yer eyes peeled!).

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 18, 2013 4:43 pm

Thanks for all the great comments! It’s nice to see that there’s so much love for Price & Tierney.

Doug – I have seen a bad copy of HUDSON’S BAY on Youtube and it might still be available there. Tierney gets very little screen time and I really can’t recommend it unless you like plodding historical adventure stories set in Canada. I suspect that if someone is interested in Canadian history they might appreciate it more but it’s an area I’m unfamiliar with.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2013 7:47 pm

My early Quebecois family history is tied up to some degree in the early Hudson’s Bay Company (according to a book on them, there were a few “coureurs des bois” among my ancestors, the Desnoyers) so I should probably watch the film at some point, plus it’s got Laird Cregar as a woodsman named “Gooseberry”. It’s available through 20th Century Fox’s MOD “Cinema Archives” collection, which is likely the best quality copy you’ll see any time soon.

http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/20087/HUDSONS-BAY-1940/

Posted By Doug : October 20, 2013 12:07 am

Well, “Laura” and Gene both worked their magic on me again tonight;there is a fine biography on the Blu-ray which helps make all the more clear the vulnerability and inherent elements which made her so special.
Yes, was she beautiful, but that was surface. She was GOOD.

Posted By Laura (1944) – Review # 6 | kittydee : November 15, 2013 12:15 am

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