From the Vault: An Interview with Vincent Price

On October 20, 1985, I had the good fortune to interview Vincent Price for a non-profit journal of the arts that I edited at the time, an


James Plath's picture
James
Plath

On October 20, 1985, I had the good fortune to interview Vincent Price for a non-profit journal of the arts that I edited at the time, an award-winning magazine called Clockwatch Review. The interview took place on a Sunday morning at Price's suite at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, where he was in town to film a commercial. We had breakfast together while we talked, Price the perfect gentleman pouring tea for me. He had just written a book about American art, and since he received a BA in art history at Yale in 1933, it seemed a good place to start. The following is an excerpt from an interview which was published in Clockwatch Review Vol. III Number 1 (1985).

Plath: How would you characterize American art? You said we've just begun to find an identity?

Price: You know, in my profession, when they removed the censorship from the movies, the movies just went completely overboard in language, plot, sex, and violence . . . which is unfortunate. Because while some of the movies technically are wonderful, they are boringly realistic. And there is a kind of thing in the greatest drama--Ibsen and the realists--where there is a form which is brilliant, artistic, and yet somehow beyond life, larger than life.

It seems to me that one of our problems as American artists was that we were playing to the lowest common denominator. Television is the prime example of it. And I lump television and motion pictures and theater and everything else all in one thing. To me, art is everything. Everything that man does, as discriminated from the works of nature. The ultimate expression of man is art, and since I believe that everything man does is art, I believe in that ultimate expression of man's doing.

Great art is communication to the few, unfortunately. It is not communication to the many. Your magazine will never have the circulation of the Enquirer [laughs]. The Enquirer is probably a perfect example, or "Laverne & Shirley" on television or "Rambo" in movies. I watched one of the Rambo-type movies last night, and it was the most puerile piece of writing I've ever seen in my life. It was just rounds of ammunition, but no rounds of dialogue.

Plath: At what point does something become art, then? It seems that you're trying to make a distinction between legitimate and commercial art, but you also said that everything man created was art.

Price: You see, I don't believe in definitions. I have a hard time putting it into the language you want me to use, because I really believe that art is all the works of man.

Plath: As a representation of culture?

Price: Yes. Children's art . . . . Your children do things spontaneously. Without any foreknowledge, they're directly expressing themselves. Some children's art is absolutely brilliant, and then you can almost trace it until the day they go into high school, when it dies. You know, it is killed because that is not what high school is for. Primary school is for that.

The extraordinary snobbery of the American definition of art is probably best illustrated by antique art, in that we relegate everything that is made by hand--like pottery, weaving--to a word that we look down on, "crafts." But a vase, if it was done by a great Greek vase-painter, is a work of art. It is no longer a craft, and yet we are probably producing the most beautiful pottery in the world today.

Plath: Time will make it art?

Price: Sure, sure! And art lifts the spirit. It edifies. For me, it's the great escape!

Plath: If we could talk about your film career for a while, critics have always been rather kind to you, no matter what they had to say about the film itself. Have there been elements of art which you have consciously used to elevate your work in film?

Price: [Pause] Acting, no matter what they say, is the same kind of art as a pianist or a violinist. We are interpretive artists, we interpret the script; the major thing is the script, the play. And we are as good as the scriptwriters. A certain couple of movies I've done, like "Laura," really hold up, and are as fresh today as they were 35 years ago, because the script was so good. "Laura" happened to be a classic movie because it was well-made, well-cast, and the music score became probably the most popular song written out of a movie. That's the kind of thing one longs to do. One doesn't get that many of them.

Plath: You were involved with quite a few of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films. Now if the script is the thing, and you're an interpretive artist, I'm wondering . . . . Richard Matheson, I think, said that the "House of Usher" and "Masque of the Red Death" were the only ones that were really true to the original Edgar Allan Poe?

Price: It's really very difficult to translate a short story into a long movie [laughs].

Plath: Like "The Pit and the Pendulum," which is all of one scene that you have to stretch out . . . .

Price: Exactly. It is an incident, so you have to, in the movie, explain how he got there, what he got out of. I think that the best one, the one that came closest to it, was the "Tomb of Ligeia" . . . which really did have the basic plot of it, and it was a very dicey plot at the time because it really was about necrophilia, which was not a subject given to motion picture-making at the time that it was done. It had to be only hinted at. But the best of those movies that I did were the ones that made fun of themselves.

Plath: Why is that?

Price: [Smiles] Because they didn't take themselves seriously. Roger Corman, for instance. When we did "The Raven, " "The Raven was the title of a poem. There is no plot. You can't make a movie about "The Raven"!

Plath: And so you're left with nothing but parody?

Price: Exactly.

Plath: The American horror film emerged as a genre in the early Thirties with such films as "Dracula," "Frankenstein," and "The Mummy." They were Gothic, certainly, but how much of an influence did the German Expressionist film of the Twenties have on the American horror film?

Price: Enormous. Whether they admit it or not. "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "M" by Fritz Lang. And Fritz was finally brought to America to recreate his great thing, but American censorship made it impossible for him to do it. "The Golem" (1920), which was one of the very earliest of those films, was really long before "Frankenstein"--which is the very same story of a man creating man out of the parts of man . . . a morality play.

Plath: Would you say that we've received more in terms of what the horror film is from German Expressionism than we have from the Gothic novel?

Price: No. The Gothic novel is still the heart of it. I've just been the subject of several film festivals--one in Paris, one in Rome, one in Madrid--where they looked at this genre picture that I did with great seriousness, so much so that it worried me. They do not call them horror films; they call them films of fantasy. The word "horror" was invented in America, and none of those films were horror films per se. They were Gothic novels.

Plath: Where has film been more or less successful in approximating the romantic anguish, the dreamstates, and the hazy happenings in the mind which occur in these Gothic novels and Poe's short stories?

Price: I would think [Alfred] Hitchcock is probably the finest maker of that kind of film, and he was able to tie it in with a very contemporary thing, which was drawing-room comedy . . . you know, where they run around the monument, Mt. Rushmore, with Cary Grant. But it was a romance which then turned into a thriller. 39 Steps was the same thing. Hitchcock had a genius for being able to do that. He blew it a bit on the short ones. I see where they don't hold up.

Plath: Getting back to Poe, what kind of preparation did you have to do in order to play someone like Roderick Usher?

Price: It was Richard Matheson, who was a very good writer, who wrote the script. We had a long talk about it and I said, "Can't you get more of the flavor of Poe into it?" Because you still are stuck with a thing that is a short story, and it really doesn't have a beginning and an end. And I think Roger [Corman] was instrumental in capturing that. He hired something really daring at its time--a modern painter to paint the ancestor portraits. Roger just decided that the thing to do with it was not to get somebody to copy Old Master portraits, but to get somebody who was a psychological painter of his period, who was painting in a modern style.

At first it was a big problem for me, because I am, after all, an art historian. [Smiling] You know, to look at them and say, "What the hell are these things doing in the "House of Usher"? But I took it in my mind that someone of the Usher family had had an advanced view of art, and had not hired John Singleton Copley, but hired, say, Thomas Eakins.

Plath: The American horror film seems to have a resurgence every ten years . . .

Price: [Laughs] Every ten minutes.

Plath: The Thirties had the Gothic horror, the Forties saw the horror films drop to "B" grade status, the Fifties saw the emergence of science fiction . . . . You played most of your roles tongue-in-cheek. Was this self-defense, a survival, some sort of astatement . . . or was spoof all that was left by the Sixties?

Price: When they decided to use me for a series of Poe pictures, I sat down and I read Edgar Allan Poe, and I found out something which I suppose in the back of my mind I'd been told at some time, but I really didn't realize: that about 70 percent of Poe's work is satiric. It is NOT horror. It is not thriller. One that is called "The Sphinx" ends up a very funny thing, and there are a great many of Poe's poems--actually many more than straight Gothic tales--that involve horror, but which also have a comic twist at the end which is alleviating. And this, I decided, should be added to Poe. If I am going to do a Poe picture, I must add that essential twist of Poe's character.

Plath: What was the reaction to that? Did Roger Corman go nuts, or did he approve?

Price: No, no, Roger had to approve [laughs], because he had Boris Karloff, and myself, and Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone as people who found them funny, and who said, "Let's scare the hell out of the little kiddies and then make them laugh at themselves." That is the one thing that is missing in contemporary horror films. They have no sense of humor, neither do they have any logic.

Plath: And so, do they become more detrimental than entertaining?

Price: They become detrimental, and dated.

Plath: Why dated?

Price: Well, the ones that have lasted, it's really quite extraordinary, because those Poe films have been shown all the time, and they are as popular today as when they came out--more so, because they are now collector's items. It's just something that happened, that I really attribute a lot of it to Roger's acumen, to his knowledge that he was getting a group of people together who knew how to play these things.

One of the funniest films, which Roger didn't direct, was really one of the most brilliant premises ever done for a horror picture. It was a comedy called "Comedy of Terrors," and the premise was a family of out-of-work undertakers! This is a funny premise! How do you get a job? You kill somebody. And you kill the richest man in town, because that's going to be the most expensive funeral.

Plath: Backtracking a bit, relating your career in film to your love for art, what's the common denominator?

Price: [Pause] I suppose for me--and you always have to talk very personal--to me, I have tried to bring a sense of style to the thrillers that was in one way pseudo, phony, too much, and at the same time based on the audience idea of what it should look like, of what I should look like.

In the fall of the "House of Usher," I decided because the man was trapped in this house and couldn't stand the sight of light or sound or anything--a man completely sensitive--that I'd bleach myself like something that lives in a cave. I was completely white and black . . . in the middle of a color picture!

Plath: What about your novelty pictures? I find it interesting that in the same year you filmed a documentary on [painter Marc] Chagall, you also played "Big Daddy" in one of the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party movies.

Price: [Smiles] Oh, yeah, yeah. That was a gag.

Plath: And other movies which parodied your Poe movies, like "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine"?

Price: Actually, "Dr. Goldfoot" started out, in the beginning, as a musical. And it was a very funny idea, with Frankie Avalon and a bunch of kids.

Plath: So these spoofs, then, were really recreation for you?

Price: Absolutely. It was the same reason that I did a thing called "Thriller" with Michael Jackson, which ended up being the biggest-selling album in the business.

Plath: Just for fun?

Price: Right. Just making fun of myself. I did maybe 10 shows with Jack Benny and 25 with Red Skelton and people like that, usually playing a comedy version of myself. So I set myself up in the minds of the public, which took the onus off of being stuck that way. And it's made the public, in some way, remember me, which was a very conscious effort. In the beginning of my career I was a very serious actor, who was neither a leading man nor old enough to be a character actor . . . [smiles] which, in the American public is very difficult. The American public is very opinionated. They think of Robert Redford as Robert Redford. They don't want him to do anything that isn't Robert Redford, and this has hurt Robert Redford terribly because he woulde love, more than anything, to play the "Hunchback of Notre Dame," I'm sure. And he'd be brilliant at it, because he's a wonderful actor. But everybody in Hollywood is typecast, and because the mentality of Hollywood is so mediocre that the do not . . . you cannot tell me that Rambo is ever going to get a chance to play Hamlet. One time they put Henry Winkler in a program of Shakespeare. Disaster! Because he wasn't ready for it. He went too far the other way.

Plath: He wasn't ready for it, or his audience wasn't ready?

Price: Neither.

Plath: I know this is another leap backwards, but don't you think all artists face the same thing? Once they've reached a certain level of style, doesn't the public expect a certain type of painting from them?

Price: They do, but the artist has been fortunate enough in the enormous advance of communication. If Picasso had painted at the time of Durer, for what he was doing in the South of France to reach us in the United States would have taken months to a year. Today, because of the satellite, what Picasso had done in the South of France is seen in New York the same day. Consequently, the artist who is watching other artists is influenced by the great artist. Picasso is the most enormous influence in the world of art, probably bigger than anybody who ever lived, because he had this adventurous personality who saw all art—right to the beginning, even to the cave paintings. Picasso saw that art as his book of reference, and he did everything.

Plath: Greatness and mediocrity have come up more than once in our discussion. One last question: the proliferation of art fairs, sidewalk sales and amateur art . . . is that good, finally, for American art, or bad?

Price: It's good, except in the case . . . . Once again, the reason I accepted the Sears' challenge as their buyer was that, I mean, you go to a thing called "The Garage" or something like that, and they sell this dreadful art which is mass-produced. It costs a lot of money, and people buy it and put it in their homes, and it matches the drapes. I wanted to prove that you could buy something GOOD by a reputable artist, a good artist . . . and you could buy it where you bought the other necessities of life.