Dragonwyck A Spooky and Charming Little Old Film
By Kristin Battestella
I was a bit surprised when I stumbled upon this 1946 title starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, for I had never heard of it before. Based upon 1944 novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is a creepy little gothic tale of frightful mansions and murderous tendencies.
Miranda Wells (Tierney) dreams of bigger things than her family’s Connecticut farm, much to the chagrin of her devout parents Ephraim (Walter Houston) and Abigail (Anne Revere). When a letter arrives from Abigail’s distant and wealthy cousin Nicholas Van Ryan (Price), Miranda takes the offered opportunity to serve as companion to Nicholas’ daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) at the Van Ryan’s legendary Hudson Valley estate Dragonwyck. Once at the mansion, however, tales of hauntings, local unrest, and the uneven relationship between Nicholas and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) can’t deter Miranda from falling in love with Nicholas. But of course, he is married, and spends far too many nights in his secret tower room…
Though not a horror movie or thriller per se, Dragonwyck has many fearful moments and suspense-filled sequences, largely due to the simplest suggestions of intrigue. The black and white cinematography, creepy angles, spooky lighting, and haunting score by the famed Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won, The King and I, Camelot) give just the right amount of suggestion that not all is well at Dragonwyck. Screenwriter and first time director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra) makes great strides in giving us the basis of the novel’s complex time and place, but some sequences in Dragonwyck do seem ill edited. Quick references to a change of time and place aren’t enough to indicate the move-sometimes it seems like you’re watching a film ‘edited for content and cut to run in the time allotted.’ Thankfully, performance and story win out with the help of great costumes and gothic sets.
I don’t know much about Prince Aly Khan, except that he seemed to mentally ruin not one, but two Hollywood ladies- Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney. Perhaps more well known today for her many romances, Tierney (Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her To Heaven) was pretty and she could act. Maybe her beauty draws the viewer in, but Tierney’s expressions of innocence, naiveté, and love keep us interested in Miranda. We want her to find joy and happiness-even if the high society life at Dragonwyck clearly spells doom. Likewise, parents Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre) and Anne Revere (National Velvet, The Song of Bernadette) are stern and respectable parents with only the best interests at heart. Observant viewers will also see a young Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) as Peggy, the crippled Irish maid with a good heart.
It’s pretty plain to see that the ‘low’ farming folk have more values and morals than the ‘high’ Hudson folk, but Vivienne Osborne (Tomorrow at Seven) earns a piece of sympathy as Nicholas’ wife Johanna. She seems chubby and more interested in food than her daughter, but we feel that in some ways, this snotty style is not her fault. Her callous upbringing and lack of attention from her deceitful husband help blur the lines between this detailed look at the early Victorian lifestyle and Hudson society. But of course, Vincent Price (The Ten Commandments, The Pit and the Pendulum) plays a man who is not always what he seems. He’s thinner and more subdued than what we expect from the maniacal old horror maven to come in later films. Price’s Nicholas looks the waistcoat and top hat society man, we believe he can be respectable and a good love for Miranda-and yet we should know better. Price shows his range through Nicholas’ love, flagrant callousness, addictions, and other… nefarious… tendencies.
Dragonwyck is not a perfect film, and it is a little dated in some respects. Mankiewicz’ inexperience as a debut director also hampers some scenes. Nevertheless, gothic lovers and fans of classic suspense can enjoy Dragonwyck. Younger audiences may not understand some of the historical back-story about patroon landowners keeping tenant farmers in feudal like arrangements, but the spooky air is just right for a youthful scare or two. But of course, the DVD edition of Dragonwyck is now out of print. Thankfully, fans of Vincent Price can pick up a copy in several horror sets. It’s a strange placement, but fans of the cast and viewers who love a little bit of Bronte suspense will enjoy getting their hands on Dragonwyck. I’m tempted to find the book now, too!