Roger Corman celebrates Vincent Price’s 100th Birthday in St. Louis

In 1960 when Roger Corman cast Vincent Price in The House of Usher he never had any thoughts about  making a whole series of Poe films, but box-office success quickly changed his mind. As a result, between 1960 and 1965, Corman and Vincent Price went on to make eight films together, which most people agree are the highlights of both men’s careers.

To celebrate Vincent Price’s 100th birthday (on May 27, 2011)  Roger Corman flew to St. Louis to pay homage to Vincent Price at the Vincentennial celebration, speaking before sellout crowds on  May 21 and 22 about working with Mr. Price after screenings of their last two (and best) Poe films, The Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia.

I spoke with Mr. Corman about working with Vincent Price earlier this month when he was in San Francisco, on May 6, 2011, to receive an honorary degree from The Academy of Art University.  In 2006, Joe Dante and I also  had a long conversation with Roger Corman, along with Daniel Haller,  which Joe felt was quite good, so I’m glad he has endorsed my more recent talk with Roger at his  new Trailers From Hell  blogsite Here.

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LAWRENCE FRENCH: I see you will be in St. Louis to help celebrate Vincent Price’s 100th birthday.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, they asked me to come and speak and I have always had a great admiration for Vincent. We did a number of Poe pictures together, although at the time we did the first one, The Fall of the House of Usher, neither Vincent nor I knew we would end up doing a whole series of Poe films. We both thought we were just doing one film, but after House of Usher became so successful, we ended up making seven more pictures together. Vincent was a very dedicated actor and we both enjoyed working together, so I was delighted to be asked to go to St. Louis and help celebrate his centennial.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Looking back, Vincent Price was ideal casting for the role of Roderick Usher. Do you remember if you considered any other actors for that part?

ROGER CORMAN:  No, I don’t. I think Jim (Nicholson), Sam (Arkoff) and I all jointly agreed that Vincent was the best choice for the role. What we would normally do is discuss various cast members in-depth, come up with three or four leading men and then jointly decide on the man we wanted. I don’t recall now if we considered anyone else, because Vincent was our first choice, right from the beginning when we were working on the initial idea until we had the final script. When the script was finished, I contacted Vincent through his agent and sent him the script with an offer. After Vincent read the script, he liked it and suggested we meet to talk about it. We then met for lunch to discuss it and we got along very well. We talked about the picture and the character of Roderick Usher and he agreed to make it.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Sam Arkoff said he made the deal to sign Vincent Price for House of Usher who went on to become AIP’s biggest star.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, that’s correct. After we all agreed on using Vincent, it was actually Sam who made the deal to sign him.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: In your book, you quote Vincent as saying whenever he came over to your house for a story conference he would be mystified to find only a few cans of Metrecal in your refrigerator when he went for a snack.

ROGER CORMAN: Yes, that’s why we’d often have good dinners at Vincent’s house, when he and his wife were cooking, but never at my house!

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  In House of Usher, Roderick Usher is both a painter and a musician, which somewhat mirrors Vincent Price’s own real life cultural attributes.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, that was one of the main reasons I wanted Vincent for the part. Roderick is educated, sensitive, and quite cultured, so the role is very close to Vincent’s own persona. I felt Vincent was perfect in getting those qualities into the role. We were dealing with a cultured and refined man, whose mind becomes unhinged and slowly starts to unravel. So he descends into madness by degrees.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  It’s interesting that Roderick Usher is actually quite reasonable and gentle throughout the film. He never resorts to overt violence. Even when Madeline is roaming through the house, he simply plays his lute. It’s actually Philip who becomes overtly violent and threatens Roderick with physical harm.

ROGER CORMAN:  That’s a perfect example of where the one who actually has the least power, is the most physically violent. The person, who has the greatest power, does not have to use physical violence. Concomitant to that, was the fact that I didn’t want to have a traditional bad guy. I felt the audience shouldn’t be afraid of Roderick Usher based on any sinister features or brute strength. I wanted the audience to have a more unconscious reaction to him. So if you were afraid of him, it would be on the basis of his superior mental qualities. I felt that would be a deeper and subtler fear than any physical violence, per se.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Vincent Price told me that you’d come to him and discuss your Freudian theories, which he said helped to stimulate his performance, but that he also took it with a grain of salt. Were those Freudian theories something you really believed in, or were you just trying to stimulate the actor’s performance?

ROGER CORMAN:  No, I believed then, and do believe now in the essentials of the Freudian psychoanalytical approach. I think it’s possible to say Freud was not correct in all of his theories, and I never did believe that it should be taken as total gospel, but the basic concept of Freud’s teaching, which is the concept of the unconscious mind, is something I definitely believed in, and still do believe in. I would use that for myself, and work with the actors along those lines. And if Vincent wanted to take it with a grain of salt, that was all right with me, as long as he utilized it in his performance.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Vincent Price was very pleased that you allowed him such a free hand for his interpretation of Roderick Usher’s character.

ROGER CORMAN:  Well, Vincent was a very experienced actor and at the time I was a young director, so I didn’t feel I should try to give him a lot of intense direction. Also, I’ve never believed in giving line readings to actors. I think that’s very bad. I prefer to talk about what is going on in the character’s mind and what the actor is feeling so you get a more organic performance. I had training in the method with Jeff Corey, while Vincent was more of a classically trained actor, so what I did was talk about the character of Roderick with Vincent beforehand—what his childhood was like, how he grew up, where he stood at this point in his life—delving more into the thoughts and motivations of the character. Then, on the set, we would discuss the scenes just a little bit, in the morning or just before shooting for the key scenes. That worked out very well for both of us.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  What did you think of Vincent’s performance in The Pit and The Pendulum? Some critics felt he went a little bit over the top.

ROGER CORMAN:  No, I think Vincent was brilliant in the part. He was able to convey the intensity and the madness of the character, bringing it to its fullest extent, without really going over the top.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Vincent Price told me the performance really demanded a “larger than life” approach otherwise it wouldn’t come alive.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, and we were very careful about that. We tried to make it a full emotional performance, knowing that for a motion picture, an actor has to hold back a little bit, especially a stage trained actor, as Vincent was. That was especially true for close-ups.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  It must have been marvelous working with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre on The Raven.

ROGER CORMAN:  Oh, absolutely! It was a real pleasure. All three of them were superb actors. With some actors you have to keep working on them, imploring them to give a performance, but with Vincent, Peter and Boris as well, they would give you all you could ask for and more. It was really very fascinating to be working with them.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Vincent Price told me he really enjoyed the shooting of The Raven and I imagine you probably tried to maintain a jovial atmosphere on the set.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, particularly since we were playing The Raven for humor. I haven’t done that much comedy, but when I have, I’ve tried to keep that feeling going both on and off the set. You can’t very well be working intensely serious in the preparation, and then come in and tell somebody to be funny for three minutes in front of the camera, and then go back. I think you have to try and maintain that spirit all day long, as much as possible. And because it was a comedy, I took a different approach not only towards the acting, but also with the sets and the photography. It was not nearly as somber as I had used in the earlier films. Overall, I would say that we had as good a spirit on the set of The Raven as any film I’ve ever worked on, except for a couple of moments with Boris. There was a slight edge to it, because Boris came in with a carefully worked out preparation, so when Peter Lorre started improvising new lines it really threw Boris off from his preparation.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Vincent Price felt that Tomb of Ligeia was the best of his Poe films.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, and I agreed with Vincent—Ligeia is one of the best Poe pictures and Vincent’s performance in the film was very good.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  That was one of the nice things about Ligeia. All of the acting was quite good. Both Vincent Price and Elizabeth Shepherd gave marvelous performances.

ROGER CORMAN:  Yes, I felt both Vincent and Elizabeth were excellent in Ligeia. What happened there was when Bob Towne and I started to go in the direction of a love story with Ligeia, we decided to make Rowena a much stronger character than she was in Poe’s original story. In the previous pictures the love element was either non-existent or very slight. So beforehand, I discussed with Vincent the new approach we would be taking with Ligeia. In the previous pictures, although Vincent had always been the star, he had never been what you would call a romantic leading man. So we deliberately tried to go for a more restrained approach with Ligeia and we both agreed he would be playing more of a leading man type of role.

LAWRENCE FRENCH:  Vincent Price told me he always regretted you stopped directing the Poe films. Did he ever talk to you about doing a non-horror film?

ROGER CORMAN:  No, not really, but I did have the feeling Vincent may have resented being typecast because he had started out as a star, in some cases playing a romantic leading man, in other films as a character leading man and I think he lost some of that momentum along the way. He was older when the Poe pictures came along, but he enjoyed making them and I think they brought him back to a certain degree. At the end of his career, I don’t think he was that happy with the reputation he had as a horror star, although he accepted it, but that was really only one aspect of his career.

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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