“Dragonwyck” (1946) is a fine example of gothic suspense, beautifully filmed. Another in our series this month of movies where the setting of a house drives the story, Dragonwyck of the title is a manor on the Hudson River of upstate New York in the days of the great Dutch landowners or “patroons.”
Set in 1844, at the height of the land reform battles wherein sharecropping farmers were demanding entitlement to their farms, Vincent Price plays the patroon of the Dragonwyck estate. He is a haughty autocrat unwilling to bend an inch in the life of hereditary privilege he has known. Gene Tierney plays a Yankee girl from Connecticut who is brought to Dragonwyck as a companion and teacher to Mr. Price’s young daughter, and finds herself captured under the spell of elegant living among the rich. But it comes at a price, for Dragonwyck is a place of secrets, and family curses, and restless spirits, and murder.
The mansion in this film does more than just provide a setting for the story; it serves to represent the proud heritage of its owner, Vincent Price, and the source of his haughtiness, his self-superiority. It is the brick and mortar personification of the man himself. Even his tower room, where he seeks privacy and solace, the highest room in a great mansion on a hill, places him physically above everybody else.
Price plays his cultured, arrogant autocrat with an irresistible mixture of charm and implacable stubbornness. Probably another actor might not bring the same multi-layered characterization to the role, and might play the patroon as only conceited or stomping about with one-dimensional meanness. But Price brings a fascinating appealing nuance to the role, and seduces the audience as much as he does Gene Tierney. It is his film.
Mr. Price as master of Dragonwyck, the sole ruler of this minor kingdom, controls with almost god-like power the lives of his tenants who must remove their hats before him and pay tribute.
He is self-satisfied, and stands before his ornamented windows admiring the requisite “dark and stormy” night outside, “There is no thunder in the world like the thunder of the Catskills. The lightning seems to set the mountains on fire and they roar back.” The only source of his displeasure is his gluttonous, neglected wife, who has given him a sweet daughter, but whose being female makes her useless to him. His wife can bear him no more children, not the son he desires for the sole purpose of inheriting Dragonwyck. Enter Gene Tierney.
The gothic premise of an innocent young girl brought to an imposing mansion where evil may lurk had been a device used by writers for nearly a couple of hundred years. It was already so popular at the turn of the 19th century that Jane Austen parodied it in her novel “Northanger Abbey” (1803), and was just as successful for Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” (1847).
The difference here is we have an American story, and though the mansion and the Dutch heritage of its patroon does give the setting an “Old World” feel, nevertheless this is a film that explores the entirely American story of antebellum land controversy in the state of New York, where patrician landowners manipulated the peasant class which worked their lands, and consolidated power against the urban businessmen and the first rush of the rabble of immigrants. The Roosevelts were part of this Dutch wealthy elite, but their 20th century progressive programs would have made their ancestors, like the character played by Vincent Price, blanch.
Walter Huston steals scenes as the crusty Yankee farmer father of Gene Tierney, who prays aloud that the Lord will deliver them “from hankering after fleshpots,” and Anne Revere brings her customary authentic hardscrabble mother role as his wife. Jessica Tandy has a small, but scene-stealing role as the sprightly, steadfast and comical Irish maid devoted to Gene Tierney. Spring Byington has one of the most interesting roles of her career as the housekeeper of Dragonwyck. She plays the role with a slightly off-center brittleness, punctuated by a nervous giggle and somewhat crazed demeanor. She appears unstable, perhaps dangerously so.
She notices things and speaks aloud what she should not, remarking to a newly-arrived Tierney, “You like the feel of silk sheets against your young body. And one day you’ll wish with all your heart you’d never come to Dragonwyck.” It is prophetic, for Miss Tierney matures from a flighty young girl to a sadder but wiser woman through tragedy.
We have class wars, a lesson in regional American history of the 1840s, murder by oleander, drug addiction, and a ball sequence. You can’t beat that for stacking the deck.
Unlike many costume dramas of Hollywood’s heyday where the depiction of certain historical eras seems like somebody’s wild guess, this film actually portrays the 1840s in hair styles, costume, furniture, and props with admirable accuracy. I take exception with only one minor point, the line where Gene Tierney, dismayed at being rebuffed by the wealthy young ladies at the ball who represent the Dutch landowning families, laments, “I’m not from the top of the Hudson. I’m from the Connecticut River bottom.” Her hometown Greenwich, Connecticut is not located on the Connecticut River.
(Come to think of it, Katharine Hepburn lived on the Connecticut River bottom at Fenwick, so it must not have been such a bad address.)
Here, like “The Spiral Staircase”, (see post here) an outside character in the form of the local doctor provides a lifeline to the heroine, a hero upon whom she can depend for a sane point of view, who represents a brighter, kinder reality beyond the walls of this sinister place. Just as in “Staircase”, the doctor does not actually save the young lady; she must save herself. But we imagine that they will be together when the dust settles.
The mansion, we are told, is haunted by the ghost of a tragic ancestor, and we see how both Price and his daughter fall under the spell of this restless spirit, but the real horror of the story comes not from the supernatural, but from Price’s own actions, and his inability to adapt in a changing world that is ever encroaching upon his cocoon of Dragonwyck. Two terrific close-ups of Vincent Price are the scene where he gazes into the bassinette of his newborn son, like a greedy man looking upon a stash of gold he has found, awestruck that he has it, but somehow anxious that someone might take it away from him.
The second is at the end of the film when he notes with prideful satisfaction that the tenants before him are removing their hats, and he assumes it is because of their respect for his position as patroon. He never faces the truth. The gothic film ends with an inspired note of irony.
I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read the novel on which the film was based.
Here is an interesting series of clips of photos and production stills from “Dragonwyck” as posted on YouTube. Accompanied by Enya’s “Tempus Vernum”, it drips gothic intrigue.