Honored to be asked to speak at the funeral event for Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore on October 11th, here is the eulogy that I'll read:
“What exactly is it that occurs at the moment of death, especially to a man, who in that moment, is not permitted to die…” …“The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who can say where the one ends and where the other begins?”
These immortal words were written, of course, by—screenwriters Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Robert Towne. They were spoken by the actors Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone or Ray Milland. And they were committed to the medium of film by director Roger Corman. And that, not too surprisingly, is how I first encountered Poe. Vincent Price as the oh-so-sensitive Roderick in Corman’s 1960 film House of Usher. Up late one Saturday night as a boy in Baltimore, watching old horror movies on Channel 45’s Ghost Host…or was it Channel 20’s Creature Feature? I can’t remember which, and it doesn’t really matter. These old horror movies they used to run were my doorway to literature, and to the works of Poe. Been hooked ever since.
Edgar Allan Poe has been part of the cinema almost since the birth of the medium itself . The first film known to be based on a Poe story was adapted from Murders in the Rue Morgue, and the film was entitled, you guessed it--- Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery. An American film from 1908. It’s clear, even a hundred years ago, who the more popular detective was… But the plot of a murderous ape was taken from Poe. The first biographical drama about Poe the man, and the second Poe film of record, was made and released exactly 100 years ago in 1909; one hundred years after Poe’s birth. It’s simply called Edgar Allan Poe, and was directed by the Father of Cinema himself, D.W. Griffith. Poe was played by the popular Broadway star Herbert Yost, and the silent one-reeler took its story points mostly from the poem The Raven and from the sad episode of Virginia Poe’s death.
Griffith would make two more Poe-inspired films just before World War One…and since the silent era, hundreds of films have been made based on Poe’s works—with more coming. Lugosi and Karloff starred in a clutch of films for Universal in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, mostly only using Poe’s captivating titles, and nothing more. On stage--operas, ballets, musicals, one man shows, puppet shows, street performers---radio plays, records, CD’s, MP3s, Poe lives--And in technologies not yet known—Poe will live on!
But it’s Roger Corman, I think, with his cycle of Poe films in the 1960’s that introduced a generation to the literature of Poe, outside of reading The Raven in High School, that kept Poe alive for us today.
As an aside, I’m really pleased that Corman will receive an honorary Oscar next year for his prolific body of work. Fitting that the announcement was made this year, on Poe’s Bicentennial.
And for those who claim that the film adaptations aren’t “as good as the book” or complain that “they ruined the book”, I can only summon no greater authority than author and screenwriter Richard Matheson, who, as I mentioned, adapted some of the Price/Corman Poe films. When someone said to him, after seeing a film based on one of his works, in great sympathy and horror, “look what they did to your superb novel I Am Legend”, Matheson smiled, pointed behind him and said, “They haven’t done anything to my novel. There it is. On the shelf for anyone to read.” And so are the works of Edgar Poe.
I, myself, have played Poe on film; it’s really only a portrait of the universal struggle of the artist. I didn’t intend to make it. It happened while adapting Poe’s stories into new film scripts. But I came away wondering-- just who this complex man was, and what happened that fateful week in 1849. Poe taught me a great deal. And I discovered, although I’m an actor, that he and I have something in common—something in common with all artists. Beyond the struggle, the need for recognition, --we share compulsion—we are compelled to create and tell stories. To the very end.
I think Poe would approve of all of us who have strutted our “hour upon the stage”, trying to get into his skin and the spirit of his work. After all, Poe’s parents were actors. He was practically born in a trunk. There’s something of the actor in all writers. Our tools come from the same creative toolbox.
And so, on behalf of all my fellow players and filmmakers who have spoken Poe’s words and have attempted to give life to his ideas and stories in other mediums; this is my tribute: learn your lines, don’t bump into the furniture, and remember, Poe’s original work is always within reach, on the shelf.
Image and text (c) Mark Redfield, 2009