Tuesday 19 January 2010

Dragonwyck (1946)

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Star: Gene Tierney
In 1946 Joseph L Mankiewicz, one of the future big guns of the industry, got to fire off his first shot as a director. He must have had mixed emotions. He was already a thoroughly established screenwriter, having written screenplays for films as notable as Manhattan Melodrama and Alice in Wonderland, along with thirty or so others, including a few segments of If I Had a Million which I thoroughly enjoyed recently. He was also a thoroughly established producer, not least for The Philadelphia Story but also for another twenty or so films. He took the reins of Dragonwyck from his idol, Ernst Lubitsch, and has said that he felt the urge to direct because he couldn't stomach what was being done with what he wrote. Here was his opportunity to show them how it should be done.

It's a historical piece, based on the gothic novel by Anya Seton, written a year before but set in the New York of a century earlier, though we begin in Greenwich, CT in 1844 at the farm of Ephraim Wells. He's an honest farmer with a wife and a host of children to read the Bible with, a down to earth American soul with down to earth American principles. He's played by down to earth American Walter Huston, who often looks remarkably like Harvey Keitel here. He and his family are the future, poor but getting by and with plenty of opportunity. This is the land of it after all, and they own theirs. Their success will be what they make it.

There's another world across the Hudson in New York though, one that seems a long way away until a distant relative by the name of Nicholas van Ryn writes to offer one of his daughters a role as companion to his eight year old daughter Katrine. He's a patroon, a landowner of Dutch heritage, with something akin to manorial rights over his tenant farmers who are freed from paying taxes but instead pay rent and tribute to him. He's also a gentleman, elegant and sophisticated, whose every line is spoken like poetry, hardly surprising given that he's played by Vincent Price, finding here an early echo of the roles he would come to epitomise.
And so to this world goes Miranda Wells, almost like she's being waltzed through a dream into a fairy tale. Dragonwyck is a huge gothic manse sitting on top of a cliff that you get to by steamboat up the Hudson river. Even Van Ryn doesn't know how many rooms he has or how many servants he has because he's never counted them. Of course it has its stories, being about as old as anything in the States, and she soon hears them from Magda, the mischevious gossip of a housekeeper who is amazingly good at left handed compliments. In the hands of Spring Byington they're particularly barbed, even though she usually played such gentle souls.

In particular Nicholas has a portrait of his grandmother hanging in the Red Room above a harpsichord she brought with her from New Orleans, but she was forbidden from playing it. Apparently she met an early death in that very room, driven to suicide by her husband, and the servants suggest that she sings with ghostly voice and plays her harpsichord with ghostly hands, though the sound can only be heard by those with cursed Van Ryn blood. Of course while Miranda can initially discount this sort of melodramatic nonsense she can't avoid the fact that the place is a little strange.

Van Ryn's needy wife Johanna is a glutton, lusting after the latest New York pastries and whining about his lack of attention. We're introduced to Katrine while she's wearing the most outrageously awful dress, something I think young actress Connie Marshall thought too, given how unhappy she seemed to be wearing it. Then again when she finally gets Miranda alone to learn how to write cursive S's, she can't resist asking her what her own parents are like, as if she's hardly met them. And soon Johanna Van Ryn is dead and Miranda finds herself reaching for the stars.
I'm a sucker for gothics, every moment of their iron and oak, legacy and curse, romance and madness. I'd take a gothic historical romance over a more modern chick flick any day, and when it's populated by actors like these and written and directed by a man of Mankiewicz's talents, it can't help but unfold with panache. There's a historical basis in the poltroon system and the anti-rent movement, but that's glossed over with only a few scenes for lead complainant Harry Morgan to have fun with. At heart it's really a romance, full of passion and doom and redemption, and with actors of the calibre of Tierney and Price facing off it can hardly go wrong.

Glenn Langan does well as a grounding in reality for both of them as Dr Jeff Turner, but he doesn't generate the sparks with either that they generate between themselves. This was the last of four films Tierney and Price made together and while it's not up to the standards of Laura it's still great fun. Now I need to find the other two, Hudson's Bay and Leave Her to Heaven, both made earlier in the same decade. Walter Huston is solid as Ephraim Wells though he doesn't have too much screen time and Anne Revere is solid in a much quieter way as his wife, but the show really belongs to Tierney and Price.

Amazingly Price was only the third choice for the part of Nicholas Van Ryn, the casting crew not having the benefit of the next few decades of his films to recognise why he was so right for it. Gregory Peck was first on their list, but I can't see him carrying the fight scene or the addict scene, let alone firing insults at poor Jessica Tandy and her gimp leg. In between Peck and Price was Laird Cregar, who was also in Hudson's Bay but was becoming a huge name in the cinema of madness after The Lodger and Hangover Square. He would have been great here but sadly he died after losing a hundred pounds on an highly inadvised crash diet. He should have paid attention to Price, who certainly paid attention to him, enough to give the eulogy at his funeral. Price only lost thirty pounds for this film and lasted another forty seven years.

1 comment:

The Rush Blog said...

He and his family are the future, poor but getting by and with plenty of opportunity. This is the land of it after all, and they own theirs. Their success will be what they make it.

Ah, the American Myth. The family probably lost their land within a generation.

I keep thinking of Gregory Peck in "DUEL IN THE SUN". Then again, his Lewt McCanles and Nicholas Van Ryn are worlds apart in style.