What better way to celebrate the birthday of those two icons of terror cinema, than to have them talk about their work with Orson Welles.
So happy birthday to Vincent Price and Christopher Lee!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you like working with Orson Welles?
VINCENT PRICE: Orson was a marvelous director. I did two plays with him, THE SHOEMAKER'S HOLIDAY and HEARTBREAK HOUSE. He was a really brilliant director, although I never thought he was a very good actor. I mean he's too Orson Welles. There's absolutely no characterization at all. More he did when he was young, then he does now, because he really is a caricature of himself now. I mean, that fat!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Was Welles as undisciplined as some people have claimed?
VINCENT PRICE: He was completely undisciplined. You see, he had the theater like that! (holds up his hand in a fist). I would have loved to have worked with him again, but everybody in the Mercury Theater had a bit of a falling out with Orson. There were two plays we were supposed to do, Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST, and John Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI (intriguingly described by a Mercury press release as, "one of the great horror plays of all time"). My then wife, Edith Barrett was going to be in THE DUCHESS OF MALFI as well. Orson was going to direct both of them, and the actors had contracts to do them. Then, when we went to rehearse them, Orson never showed up. He didn't show up for either show. He just decided he didn't want to do them, but he didn't bother to tell the actors.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One book on Welles claims he had a fear of completion.
VINCENT PRICE: I think so. Like Michelangelo. I think he could have been the greatest director of the American theater and of the cinema, but there was something missing there.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It's sad, because when Welles directs, his films are so brilliant. I think his CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is one of the greatest films ever made.
VINCENT PRICE: And CITIZEN KANE. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS I saw the other day, and it falls apart completely at the end.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: But the ending of AMBERSONS was re-edited by the studio.
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, I know it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Was there ever any talk of you acting at RKO when you first went out to Hollywood, perhaps working with Orson Welles, or with Val Lewton's horror unit?
VINCENT PRICE: No. I first went to Hollywood under contract to Universal, and then was with 20th-Century Fox for seven years. However, at that time, my first wife (Edith Barrett), made two films with Val Lewton—I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE GHOST SHIP—although I never worked with Val Lewton. Later on, I did THE COMEDY OF TERRORS with Jacques Tourneur, who had worked a great deal with Val Lewton.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I understand you once worked with Orson Welles on a film version of MOBY DICK.
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes, that's right. It was made for television, right after he did his stage version. I've no idea what happened to it. I don't think it was ever shown. Welles played Captain Ahab, Patrick McGoohan played Starbuck, the first mate, and I played Flask, the 2nd mate. Kenneth Williams played Elijah and Gordon Jackson played Ishmael. Joan Plowright, the present Lady Olivier, played the cabin boy. It was a version of his stage play, which I wasn't in, but it was mostly done in mime, drinking from non-existent cups, throwing non-existent harpoons. The notion was that of a play within a play, where the actors step in and out of their roles, in the story of MOBY DICK. I remember one of the first lines in the film. Orson came up to me and said, "If we touch land, Mr. Flask, for God's sake, no fornication!"
Orson was most encouraging, very helpful, appreciative and very, very funny. It's amazing we ever got any filming done, because most of the time Orson would be telling us stories about John Barrymore or Errol Flynn, people like that. He'd also talk all through your scenes, so of course they would have to be looped. We did MOBY DICK at two theater's in London, The Hackney-Empire and The Scala. Another time, there was a scene where I had to say to Patrick McGoohan, "There's bad news from that ship," when the Pequod is approaching The Rachel. Suddenly, Orson voice came from behind the camera, "There's bad news from that ship - mark my words." Well, I looked at Patrick, and Patrick looked at me, because we didn't quite know what was going on. We both wondered why Orson was repeating our lines. Then, on another occasion Orson came down the center aisle of the theater while the cast and crew were all waiting on the stage, turned to the cameraman and said "action," and the cameraman said, "Mr. Welles, I haven't got a set-up yet," and Orson said to him, "find one and surprise me."
Welles was one of the very few people in the history of the cinema to whom the word "genius" could appropriately be applied. He was a great, great filmmaker. I've seen his OTHELLO, and I've seen the other one, his Scottish play, the name of which I won't mention.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You mean MACBETH?
CHRISTOPHER LEE: Yes. In British theatrical tradition, the unluckiest thing an actor can possibly do, is to mention it, or ever quote from it, except when you are actually playing it. That's why we refer to it as "the Scottish play."
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And I've just mentioned it!
CHRISTOPHER LEE: You can say it, but I can't. In fact, in THE DRESSER, there's a scene where Albert Finney forgets what play he's in. He forgets he doing KING LEAR, and starts to quote some of the lines from the Scottish play, which causes Tom Courtney, as the dresser, to have a bout of hysteria. The man on whom that part is based —"Sir" as he's called — the part played by Albert Finney, is supposed to be based on the late Sir Donald Wolfit. He was a remarkable actor, and when I was an actor in the beginning of my career, I worked in Wolfit's company. He took companies all around Britain during the war and after the war, and he was quite an extraordinary man. I have actually seen him say, in rehearsal to the electricians, "The spotlight goes HERE!…and don't move it!" All that sort of thing. In THE DRESSER, when Albert Finney comes off the stage, after everyone is trying to create the storm for KING LEAR, with the wind machine and noises you could hear for miles away, he says, "Where was the storm?!" Well, Wolfit was like that. He was either way up there, like that, or else (whispers), right down here. I introduced him to J.R.R. Tolkien, for which he was always eternally grateful. I gave him THE HOBBIT to read, and I've still got the letter he wrote to me, saying, "Thank you, dear Christopher for showing me an enchanted world." I met Tolkien and I still think THE LORD OF THE RINGS is the greatest literary achievement in my lifetime. I also knew T. H. White who wrote THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. I like fantasy, too!