(1946) Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Based on the novel by Anya Seton; Starring: Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, Glenn Langan, Anne Revere and Vivienne Osborne; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD
“I didn’t expect you to understand – how could you? Don’t be offended. By ordinary standards, you’re quite intelligent. But I will not live by ordinary standards. I will not run with the pack. I will not be chained into a routine of living which is the same for others. I will not look to the ground and move on the ground with the rest. So long as there are those mountaintops and clouds, limitless space.” – Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) to Miranda (Gene Tierney)
Many thanks to my excellent co-host, Gill Jacob from RealweegiemidgetReviews, for helping make The Vincent Price Blogathon a reality. I’m excited to be part of this three-day multi-blogger event, covering numerous topics about this fascinating, multi-faceted personality. Be sure to check out all the exceptional posts!
The eminently watchable Vincent Price made a career out of protagonists that you loved to love, and villains you loved to hate. This movie fan, however, enjoys Price best when he’s portraying characters at their worst. With his refined manner and velvet tongue, he could deliver a curse and make it sound like a benediction. Price shines in his landmark role as landowner Nicholas Van Ryn,* the brooding patriarch of Dragonwyck Manor.
* Fun Fact #1: Before Price was ultimately cast, Gregory Peck and Laird Cregar (who died tragically young) were considered for the role of Nicholas Van Ryn.
Based on Anya Seton’s 1944 novel (set in 1844), Dragonwyck displays many of the hallmarks of a gothic romance, including a headstrong heroine in a love triangle, treacherous dealings, and a shadow-filled mansion harboring dark secrets in every corner. The big budget ($1.9 million) production marked the directorial debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, taking the reins after the original director, Ernst Lubitsch suffered a heart attack. Their creative partnership initially went well, but due to Lubitsch’s meddling or (depending on your interpretation of events) the broadening chasm between their artistic differences, Lubitsch had his name removed from the credits.
Gene Tierney plays the naïve yet strong-willed Miranda Wells. After her mother (Anne Revere) receives an invitation from Nicholas Van Ryn, a wealthy distant relative, Miranda jumps at the chance (overcoming objections from her father) to venture out of her sleepy farming community of Greenwich, Connecticut to Dragonwyck estate in New York. She finds her benefactor a charming host, but all is not as it seems with Nicholas or the dark legacy he’s inherited. Much to Miranda’s consternation, Van Ryn’s young daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall) views her father and mother Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) with loathing. Nicholas is also reviled by the townspeople, who toil on land he owns, with no possibility of purchasing a plot for themselves.* He enjoys privileged status as quasi-royalty in his private fiefdom, collecting rent from the poor farmers.** A young, idealistic local doctor, Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan),*** sides with their plight and takes a keen interest in Miranda. Turner vies for Miranda’s affections, but Miranda (thanks in part to Nicholas’ machinations) only has eyes for Nicholas.
* Fun Fact #2: This system, a carryover from wealthy Dutch immigrants settling in America, was known as a patroonship (Say it, it’s fun!). You can find out more here: https://u-s-history.com/pages/h3966.html
** Fun Fact #3: T.V. fans might recognize one of the angry farmers, Klaas Bleecker, played by Harry Morgan (aka: Henry Morgan) of M*A*S*H fame.
*** Fun Fact #4: IMDB lists Langan’s height at six feet, two-and-a-half inches, while the Blu-ray commentary stated that he was six feet, five inches. Whichever source you believe, Langan was similar in stature to co-star, Price, who was six feet, four inches. As imposing as he seemed in Dragonwyck, Langan would appear in his biggest (wink, wink) role, 11 years later, as Lt. Col. Glenn Manning in The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).
Veteran character actor Walter Huston plays Miranda’s pious, controlling father Ephraim, who’s skeptical of the world outside his family’s tight-knit community. He takes umbrage at what he perceives to be her shift in loyalty, shunning their simpler way of life for the extravagance of Dragonwyck. Ephraim and Nicholas are polar opposites, representing constraint anchored in religious fundamentalism, contrasted with indulgence and atheism. Nope, there’s not much of a middle ground here, but it’s a story told in broad strokes, consistent with its romantic underpinnings.
While Vincent Price received third billing behind Tierney and Huston, he effectively steals the show from his co-stars as the alternately charming and tyrannical Van Ryn. His character’s true nature is gradually revealed to Miranda once she falls into his trap. He abhors imperfections (“Deformed bodies depress me”), and regards those who work under him as inferiors, not equals (reserving much of his anger for Miranda’s maid Peggy, played by Jessica Tandy). Immediately after his wife’s sudden death (under dubious circumstances that we can spot a mile away), he expresses his intentions to Miranda, as it becomes abundantly clear that his primary goal is to find someone who can provide him with a son. It’s a little too simple, however, to paint Van Ryn as a sneering monster, with his mercurial temper and scheming ways. As expertly portrayed by Price, Nicholas Van Ryn is a man of refinement and contradictions. The ruminative, tortured quality of Price’s performance has invited comparisons to his Poe characters a decade and a half later (coincidentally, in a scene that was in the book but unfortunately omitted from the screenplay, Van Ryn would have met Edgar Allan Poe).
Dragonwyck includes many visual touches that make it rise above simple historical melodrama. Miranda’s introduction to Dragonwyck Manor, perched on a cliffside, is especially memorable, viewed from the deck of a steamboat. Inside the mansion, an ominous portrait of Van Ryn’s great grandmother (who killed herself many years ago) watches over the residents’ heads. Later in the film, when Miranda summons the courage to makes the trek to Nicholas’ secluded attic hideaway, we’re treated to expressionistic flourishes, with the intimidating staircase shrouded in distorted shadows. There’s also a hint of the supernatural, as Van Ryn and his daughter Katrine are tormented by harpsichord playing and ghostly sounds in the night.
Whether or not producer Lubitsch’s alleged meddling created significant waves, it pales in comparison to the contentious relationship 20th Century Fox experienced with Joseph Breen and his Production Code Office, which imposed multiple revisions to the script and even the women’s costumes. In the film Van Ryn mentions his drug addiction, but makes no mention of opium (referenced in the book). Although oleander plays a significant part in the story, Breen wanted to omit any references to how the toxic plant was employed, out of fear that some moviegoers might try to duplicate the deadly results. One of the largest concessions to the Production Code, which dictated that the perpetrator must be punished for his crimes, prescribed eschewing the ending from the book (Spoiler Alert), in which Van Ryn heroically sacrifices himself to save some drowning victims of a steamboat accident. Arguably, the ending that was created for the film works just as well.
Much like its antagonist, Dragonwyck becomes progressively darker as we delve into the mystery of Van Ryn. It’s a fractured love story, depicting a clash between classes, and the perils of unchecked entitlement. Despite her strong performance, co-star Tierney reportedly wasn’t much of a fan of the film. She looks radiant though, and is utterly convincing as a young woman as much in love with a dream as she is with a man. Dragonwyck boasts a uniformly excellent cast, great atmosphere, stunning cinematography and a lush score by Alfred Newman. Price has never been better as Nicholas Van Ryn, in a performance that would set the template for many characters he would subsequently play in other films.
Sources for this article: Indicator Blu-ray commentary by Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr; 2008 featurette: “A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck”