by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the 1946 film Dragonwyck, based on a 1944 novel by Anya Seton that seems to have acquired the status of a trash classic — it remained in print for decades and even inspired an early-1980’s spoof, Gaywyck — and starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price, Glenn Langan (so two of the cast members of this prestigious major-studio film went on to make stupid horror movies for American-International!) and — wasted in a too-small role — Jessica Tandy. It’s basically a splinter off the log that gave us Jane Eyre and Rebecca: in 1844 (so Seton set her story exactly 100 years before she published it) “patroon” Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) — a landowner whose tenant farmers are bound to him by law and custom in a social arrangement that seems more believable in medieval Europe than 19th century New York — asks that Abigail Wells (Anne Revere) send one of her two daughters to live with him at his estate, Dragonwyck — the usual crumbling Gothic pile the tenant farmers’ work has paid for.
Nicholas refers to the daughters as his “cousins” even though they’re not at all blood relations — it seems that Abigail was briefly married to a Van Ryn before he died on her and she married Ephraim Wells (Walter Huston), a Connecticut farmer who’s so God-fearing he uses his Bible as an oracle, thumbing through its pages at random and, with his eyes closed, running his finger down the open page until he hits upon the verse that will tell him what to do next. One of the daughters couldn’t care less about going to Dragonwyck but Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) couldn’t be more excited about the prospect — and she meets Nicholas in New York City and they have a series of adventures with the usual fish-out-of-water gags before settling in at Dragonwyck. Nicholas is married to Johanna (the marvelous villainess Vivienne Osborne in her last film) but the marriage is unhappy and he has some of the predictable heavy-breathing attractions to Miranda — and soon enough Johanna dies from overindulging herself on cake (at least that’s what we think happened) and Nicholas marries Miranda, either for love of her or because he wants a son to continue the Van Ryn name and inherit the estate, and Johanna was only able to give him a daughter, Katrine (Connie Marshall).
Things deteriorate quickly thereafter; Miranda gets pregnant and has a son, all right, but as Dr. Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan) warns Nicholas, the baby has a malformed heart and dies. Then Dr. Turner does some more research on poisons and realizes that Johanna didn’t just die — Nicholas killed her by spiking her cake with poison — and Nicholas disappears from the main residential parts of Dragonwyck for hours on end, hiding out in a tower and telling Miranda, when she comes to see him there, “I have become a drug addict” — a shocking admission in a 1946 film, when the Production Code forbade any mention of narcotics (though earlier laudanum — opium dissolved in alcohol — was mentioned as an anaesthetic). Just when we’re expecting that the finale will be Dragonwyck burning down à la Manderley in Rebecca, the tenant farmers stage a revolt — encouraged by a new governor of New York who has got a law through the legislature ending tenant farming and allowing the farmers the option of buying the land they work — and Nicholas is shot down, Miranda plans to return to her family’s small farm in Connecticut, and Dr. Turner plans to join her there.
Dragonwyck might have been a more interesting movie if the original plans had been followed — Ernst Lubitsch was set to direct and Gregory Peck to play Nicholas — but Lubitsch, whose health was iffy at the time (he would die two years later in the middle of shooting the movie That Lady in Ermine and Otto Preminger would replace him — much to the disgust of that film’s star, Betty Grable, who had enjoyed working with the easygoing Lubitsch and hated the notoriously tyrannical Preminger), dropped out of the project and Peck decided he didn’t want to do the film with the replacement director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz — who, as usual, insisted on writing the script as well. What’s good about Dragonwyck is the Gothic atmosphere — surprisingly, since Mankiewicz was not known as a big one for atmosphere, but he had two experts in creating this sort of mood and he made full use of both of them. Cinematographer Arthur Miller gives us exactly the sort of visual sense this story needs — rich and fully expressive of the Gothic sensibility of the story — and composer Alfred Newman writes one of his most amazing scores, almost constantly dissonant.
Though Newman is one of the most highly respected composers in film music history I still think he’s quite a bit underrated; he’s often written off as someone who only did film music (he didn’t have the successes in the concert hall or the opera house Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rosza or Bernard Herrmann did) and who therefore expertly composed the kinds of glossy, unthreatening scores most mainstream producers wanted. But there’s surprisingly little mainstream about his score for the 1944 film The Song of Bernadette — though there are a few cues in which he lapses into the usual treacle Hollywood generally slapped onto religious films, much of the score for Bernadette is surprisingly dissonant and seems to have been influenced by Wagner’s Parsifal; and in Dragonwyck Newman pushes the limit of his art and gives us a far richer, more complex musical palette than one would expect from a Hollywood composer scoring a commercial Gothic romance.
The acting is more problematic; Vincent Price actually turns in a great performance as the anti-heroic lead, credibly romantic enough to make us believe Miranda falls in love with him and also rising to the scenes of dissipation at the end — I’m not sure Gregory Peck could have done it any better (just as I’m not sure Lubitsch, whose greatest films were his romantic comedies and musicals, could have done a better job of direction than Mankiewicz: a pity no one at Fox thought of coaxing James Whale out of his unhappy retirement!), but Mankiewicz is unable to get Gene Tierney to do much more than simper and one misses the finely honed acting Rouben Mamoulian and Otto Preminger got out of her in Laura and John M. Stahl did in Leave Her to Heaven. Glenn Langan is good as the doctor, Walter Huston overwrought (but entertainingly so!) as the father and Jessica Tandy almost totally wasted in the part of Peggy O’Malley, Miranda’s personal maid (whom she insists on hiring even though Nicholas hates her because she limps — at least we’re told she limps; she seems to move around quite capably — and Nicholas regards physical disability as a sign of inferiority).
Dragonwyck is sometimes cited as one of Vincent Price’s early horror films — he didn’t work in the genre between The Invisible Man’s Return in 1940 and House of Wax in 1953 (and it was the success of that film that “typed” him as a horror star thereafter) and Dragonwyck doesn’t really count; though there’s a relatively unimportant hint of supernaturalism in the plot (a song called “Creole Lullaby” that wafts through Dragonwyck at times and is supposedly being played on a harpsichord and sung by the ghost of a New Orleans woman one of the Van Ryns supposedly married a century earlier and made so miserable that in less than a year she killed herself), and a line when Miranda confronts Nicholas in that tower that’s unintentionally funny in the light of Price’s subsequent career — “I don’t have an altar to Satan in here,” he says (just you wait, Vincent, that would come!), it’s mostly a Gothic romance in the Jane Eyre and Rebecca mold; and Price, for all the fineness of his acting, hardly matches Laurence Olivier’s performance in a similar (but more sympathetic) role in Rebecca.