Sunday 18 February 2024

Dragonwyck (1946)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on the novel by Anya Seton
Stars: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price and Glenn Langan

Index: The First Thirty.

My mother had lots of Anya Seton novels on her bookshelves and I inappropriately thought of them alongside the gothics of the centuries before, because of their shared period settings. This, for instance, is set in early 19th century New England, and speaks to historical themes like the patroon system and Anti-Rent Wars, both of which made it into the movie, and the Astor Place Riots and steamboat racing on the Hudson, neither of which did.

However, when 20th Century Fox adapted this novel, it was so recent that it was still in stores, having been published only two years earlier. While this picture sits well alongside an earlier Vincent Price, The House of the Seven Gables, the authors of their respective source novels were born a century apart, Nathaniel Hawthorne before the Victorian era, in 1804, but Seton after it, in 1904.

In both, Price’s character is a member of an old family who lives in the sprawling mansion of the title. However, in this one, he’s wealthy and influential, friend and neighbor to Martin van Buren, the previous U.S. president, and his estate Dragonwyck is thriving, not least due to him being a patroon, meaning that he owns a significant amount of land that tenant farmers work for him, paying him substantially in rent and tribute at the annual kermesse.

He’s Nicholas van Ryn and he’s a focal point of this film, but Price is billed not only behind its star, Gene Tierney, but also Walter Huston, emphatically the most established actor in the cast, with three Oscar nominations already to his name and a win overdue but ready to show up two years later. After all, while Price made a lot of his top billing a film earlier in Shock, it was a B-movie and this was very much an A.

Tierney is the narrator, Miranda Wells, who starts out in 1844 as a farm girl in Greenwich, Connecticut. Huston is her extremely religious father, Ephraim, whose scenes are relegated to the bookends of the film for the most part. It’s not about her life in Greenwich; it’s about her life at Dragonwyck, after van Ryn invites one of the Wells girls, who are distant relatives, to be companion to his young daughter, Katrine.

The early scenes are all about comparison, almost as overtly so as The Beverly Hillbillies. In Greenwich, Ephraim and his wife Miranda are honest, godfearing farmers, working hard and living free. They think of themselves as truer Americans than those Dutch patroons on the Hudson, however much money they have.

When Ephraim accompanies Miranda to the city, he finds a different world. He doesn’t like van Ryn’s money or his politics but he likes his manners. Miranda just likes the sheer sensory overload of it all: the food that seems painted, the elegant music, the fact that people dance the waltz.

Tierney is excellent as a wide eyed country girl who wants life to give her a lot more than it did her parents. Price is note perfect as the landed American gentry, happy to do his duty in taking tribute from his tenants but refusing to acknowledge that the age of the patroons is almost over in a country built on the notion that all men are created equal.

Miranda asks questions. How many rooms does Dragonwyck have? Van Ryn answers with true privilege. He’s never counted them. How many servants? Well, he’s never counted them either. Ephraim reads the bible. Van Ryn plays the harpsichord (weirdly starting out with an Enya song, I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, that was new in 1844, created for The Bohemian Girl, an opera written a year earlier).

Initially, Miranda adores Dragonwyck, even with a sinister gothic backdrop. Van Ryn tells ghost stories about his grandma, who brought his harpsichord from New Orleans and, even long dead, is still believed to play it. However, Spring Byington, as a maid called Magda, has a real relish in turning them into horror, a curse on the van Ryn line.

Things change at the first kermesse, which is not the joyous community fair she expects. There’s a passionate anti-rent movement that is given life by an angry Henry Morgan, long before he became known as Harry, playing a tenant farmer called Klaas Bleecker who wants to buy the land his family has farmed so long. He’s so angry that he comes at van Ryn with a knife, which doesn’t go well for him.

It’s at the kermesse that Miranda meets Dr. Jeff Turner, in the form of Glenn Langan, who gets to play an increasingly visible role as the film runs on. He’s not a tenant farmer, though he is on their side, which van Ryn knows and dislikes. However, he’s there at the right time to attend the patroon’s ailing wife, Johanna, who promptly dies of what Turner is fair to believe is natural causes but which is strongly hinted to us is through oleander poisoning.

And so Miranda goes from distant relative to Mrs. van Ryn just like that. They’re married and she gets pregnant and life is grand with a son on the way, something that Johanna never gave Nicholas. Of course, this is a gothic so it’s fair to say that this newfound happiness for the newlyweds doesn’t last but I don’t need to spoil the rest of the film.

What I will say is that, as good as Tierney is in Dragonwyck, though the part doesn’t call for any particular range, and as great as Price is in a role that could have been written for him, Jessica Tandy steals the show at this point.

Apparently, Gregory Peck was the first pick to play Nicholas van Ryn, but he dropped out when pre-production was delayed after Ernst Lubitsch, the initial director, fell ill. Of course Price wasn’t the star in 1946 that Peck was, but he’s a far better choice. He has the elegance of a patroon but he adds the sinister edge needed for a gothic. It helps that he’s often hidden in half shadow. In hindsight, it’s hard to think of a better choice to play van Ryn than Price.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to think of Jessica Tandy as an elderly actor, given highly popular late performances in films like Cocoon, Fried Green Tomatoes and Driving Miss Daisy. It’s almost shocking to realise that she won a Tony as early as 1948 for playing Blanche DuBois in the original Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire. This was her seventh film and she owns every scene she appears in as Peggy O’Malley, a gloriously outspoken Irish maid with a limp, who’s loyal to Miranda even though Nicholas despises deformities.

In the end, of course, history wins out and the all powerful patroons become footnotes in it, for actors like Vincent Price to resurrect in movies like this. Which seems fair to me.

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