Wednesday 17 January 2024

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

Director: Joe May
Writer: Harold Greene, based on a story by Lester Cole, in turn based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Stars: George Sanders, Margaret Lindsey, Vincent Price, Dick Foran, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway and Alan Napier

Index: The First Thirty.

Universal continued to try out new genres for Vincent Price. From comedy to historical, from sci-fi horror to jungle adventure, here’s a gothic drama loosely based on the classic 1851 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’ve seen this before and relatively recently, but I found that I liked it more on a second viewing.

It changes the book, but it’s closer than the average Hollywood adaptation and adheres to its spirit. The two largest changes are a shift from revelatory flashbacks to a chronological approach that fits a ninety minute feature and a new romantic angle between two of the lead characters, which works surprisingly well.

The former means that we learn the history behind the Pyncheons from moment one. Back in the 17th century, Col. Jaffrey Pyncheon, an important colonial government leader, stole the land of Matthew Maule by accusing him of witchcraft. He’s hanged, of course, but curses Pyncheon, who’s found dead in the mansion he builds on Maule’s land, a day after moving in. Maule’s curse continues down the years.

Fast forward to the 19th century and Seven Gables is still in the Pyncheon family. Now it’s the colonel’s great-grandson Gerald who rules the roost, with three more Pyncheons present: his two sons, Jaffrey and Clifford, and a cousin of theirs, Hepzibah.

This new Jaffrey, to whom George Sanders is able to endow a suitably slimy demeanour, is starting his career as a lawyer. Clifford, whom Price initially plays in a very light manner, is a budding composer very much in love with his cousin, who, in the form of Margaret Lindsey, happily returns all his affections. This is a new romantic angle, because Clifford and Hepzibah were brother and sister in the book.

What really matters in the story is that this family landscape ought to be promising but it isn’t because they cannot forget the past.

Part of that is because legends suggest that Seven Gables holds secrets. Treasure may be hidden within its walls and a land deed signed by Charles II that gifts a large chunk of Maine to the family, may be there too. What’s crucial here is that Jaffrey believes these legends and aches to find these hidden riches. Clifford and Hepzibah don’t and, when it becomes clear to them that Gerald and Jaffrey have lost enough money to make staying there non-viable, they plan to sell the house immediately.

The larger part is the greed of Jaffrey, both the one in the past, which prompted the curse of Matthew Maule, and the one in the present, which sends Clifford to prison.

Oh yeah! Jaffrey is livid about the idea that the house containing a hidden fortune that he can spend might be sold, depriving him of his family’s legacy. So he persuades his father to throw Clifford out. Naturally they argue and in a manner loud enough to prompt attention in the neighbourhood. Which is why, when his father collapses and bashes his head on a desk, dying immediately, and when Jaffrey walks in and cries “Murderer!”, everyone believes that Clifford must have done it. He’s found guilty in a heartbeat. The jury doesn’t even retire.

And so everything changes. Jaffrey rubs his grubby little hands in glee, but is floored when Mr. Barton, the family lawyer, points out that Hepzibah doesn’t just get an allowance from a good insurance policy but the house too. She’s actually leaving when the news arrives, so she slams the door on Jaffrey’s face and closes the entire house up. For decades.

Fast forward again and everyone’s older but things are about to change once more. A new prisoner is thrown into Clifford’s cell, only for ten days for pushing abolitionism but enough for the two to introduce each other. Hepzibah puts a room to let sign up and that prisoner is the tenant who moves in, using another name. There’s a further change too. A new Pyncheon will be coming to stay: a distant relative called Phoebe whose father has died. Hepzibah opens a cent store downstairs, to which Jaffrey, now a powerful judge, objects vehemently. And...

Well, you’ll need to watch yourself to figure out where we’re going from here, especially as the film doesn’t have quite the same ending as the book, but again it’s close.

I liked this immediately on my first viewing. Having watched Price in a couple of historical dramas set in England, it was refreshing to see him in one set in his own country. Also, after Green Hell, it was clear that both Sanders and Price benefitted from the period setting. Both their enunciations deserve dialogue like this, even when it uses simple words. “You go too far, sir!” Sanders states. “I’ll go further!” Price responds. Both are delicious and, given their unmistakable voices, you can hear them recite those lines in your heads right now.

For some reason, I initially felt that the film slowed down when Clifford is sent to prison, a view I didn’t maintain on a second viewing. I’d perhaps responded to the change of mood, the powerfully subdued midsection clashing with the vibrant earlier scenes and indeed vibrant later ones, once Phoebe arrives, in the lovely form of Nan Grey, appearing in her third film in a row alongside Price, after Tower of London and The Invisible Man Returns. I’m going to miss her in future Price films, but she retired from acting in 1941, even before she settled down in 1950 to be Mrs. Frankie Laine.

The whole cast is impeccable. Sanders has a bluster that works perfectly as Jaffrey. Price is more nuanced as Clifford, moving from a light touch to a heavy one after his conviction. It’s fair to say that Sanders is the star here but it’s Price’s show early on and, when he’s relegated to a cell, it becomes Lindsay’s film, shifting in tone with the picture from carefree to austere, dressed in black rather than white, signalling that we’re unmistakably in a gothic now.

In support, Nan Grey is a breath of fresh air, almost literally given how long Seven Gables has been shuttered; Cecil Kellaway, so good in The Invisible Man Returns, is excellent here too as the family lawyer, Philip Barton. There are few other characters with much screen time because it’s such a focused story, but I’d praise the sets and the writing too. Oddly, it was the score that landed the film’s only Oscar nod, but there were a rather excessive seventeen nominations in 1941. Pinnochio won.

And so Price shone in another genre, but a genre that’s horror adjacent. Surely next...

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