DRAGONWYCK: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1946) Twilight Time
In one of his last interviews, in 1990 Vincent Price was asked “If there were only one of your pictures to survive the ages, which do you think it should be?” Without hesitation, Price replied, “I think Dragonwyck (1946). It was a challenge to play a manifestly mad individual who does not think of himself as such. But I think it’s a good performance in a great picture.” And it is saying a great deal of Dragonwyck’s reputation, unanimous applause filled the auditorium immediately thereafter, considering the short-sightedness Fox Home Video showed, having resisted a home video release of Dragonwyck anywhere until a DVD in 2006. The picture, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz – his first, and truly, one of his very finest – was a colossal box office success. And while most every historian posthumously praising Price’s career, has erected a signpost at 1953’s House of Wax to delineate the actor’s shift from playing ‘male beauties’ vs. anti-heroes of varying shape and misshapen size, Dragonwyck is, in retrospect, that moment when audiences were first introduced to all of Price’s deliciously overwrought madness, given the right part.
Dragonwyck hails from the tail end of a cycle in American cinema whereupon Gothic/romantic thrillers, invariably featuring a winsome heroine trapped in the confines of a dark old manor house, were still all the rage. Indeed, Anya Seton’s novel – on which this movie is based – owes its bleak heritage to the likes of the even more disturbing literary waxworks, contributed by the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley and, of course, Seton’s contemporary – Daphne du Maurier, whose Rebecca had been transformed into a celebrated motion picture in 1940. The movie version of Dragonwyck is another Gothic gemstone of this latter-era ilk, reworking the template as a tarnished tale about a willful ingenue brought down a peg or two and into conflict with a supposedly ‘important’ man living in a great house; only to discover his importance is governed by paranoia, fear (and a horrific drug addiction), and, his home has been corrupted by an unspeakable ancestry of suicides and murder. Initially, Hollywood legend, Ernest Lubitsch had aspired to direct as well as produce Dragonwyck; a project, lavishly appointed and personally supervised by 2oth Century-Fox mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck. Ill-health prevented and Lubitsch decided to pass along the reigns to his protégée, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Alas, very soon the cordial alliance between ‘master’ and ‘mate’ would rupture over artistic temperaments; so much, that Mankiewicz appealed to Zanuck to bar Lubitsch from the set, and Lubitsch, implored Zanuck to have his name stricken from the project altogether.
In hindsight, Dragonwyck also bears some of the stigma of whatever became of its star, Gene Tierney. Indeed, Tierney – branded ‘the most beautiful woman ever to appear in the movies’ by Zanuck’s publicity machine – had risen through the ranks within only a few short years of her arrival in Hollywood; despite an inauspicious start that initially marked her as ‘the worst find of any actress’ in 1940. Tierney’s performance in Dragonwyck is good – if not great, preceded by her turn as the eponymous ‘victim’ in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), to be capped off by her superb rendering as the lonely widow, again directed by Mankiewicz in 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. What followed this golden epoch was, professionally at least, an uneven spate of projects; Tierney’s private life too, spiraling out of control with the troubled birth of her brain-damaged daughter, and a series of fruitless marriages that left the actress feeling friendless and emotionally fragile to the point where she was institutionalized, suffering greatly under experimental shock therapy. Ironically, observing Vincent Price in Dragonwyck, transfers these impressions of a hideous emotional disfigurement to Tierney’s own final years of grave unhappiness.
By contrast, Vincent Price emerged from a rather fallow period immediately following Dragonwyck’s release, and, with a newfound screen following, not as the ‘male beauty’ but everyone’s favorite morbidly disturbed ghoul: a caricature he forever cemented in the public’s estimation with House of Wax. The cycle of B-grade horror movies that followed this were, at times, unworthy of Price’s formidable talents; though, he elevated virtually even these lesser pictures by his presence and professionalism, ensuring his reputation as a consummate actor would prevail above the content. The rest of the roles in Dragonwyck are plumped out with a gallery of stalwart supporting players: Spring Byington, as Magda – a maid teetering on the verge of her own bizarre psychosis; Glenn Langan, as the benevolent hunk du jour, Dr. Jeff Turner; Ann Revere (Miranda’s temperate mother, Abigail); Vivienne Osborne (Nicholas’ bedridden, plain and gluttonous wife, Johanna) and finally, brilliant child star, Connie Marshall, as the couple’s reluctant and self-loathing daughter, Katrine who openly confesses to Miranda that she does not love either her mother or father.
Dragonwyck is an exceptional Gothic/horror movie; Arthur C. Miller’s superb noir-ish cinematography making the absolute most of J. Russell Spencer and Lyle R. Wheeler’s splendid set design and Thomas Little’s set decoration. René Hubert’s costumes are miracles of fashion, with Price’s high waistcoats adding to an air of the vulture lurking beneath Nicholas Van Ryn’s starched collar. The penultimate dressing is resident composer, Alfred Newman’s haunting underscore; dramatic in the very best tradition of classic Hollywood. Zanuck’s personal supervision and Mankiewicz’s scrupulous consideration to every last detail is complimented by Tierney and Price’s counterpoint enactments. It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that Tierney – as the winsome and doe-eyed Miranda Wells – receives top-billing, followed by Walter Huston, as her stern, Bible-fearing father, Ephraim. After the second reel, there is little doubt Mankiewicz’s screenplay is completed devoted to Vincent Price’s indebtedly wicked and mad patroon.
Dragonwyck opens with a prologue in Greenwich, Connecticut, circa 1844; an ebullient Miranda Wells bounding across a field of live sheep with a newly delivered letter for her mother, Abigail. Pressing Abigail to read its contents before Ephraim and her brothers, Tom (Scott Elliott), Seth (Jamie Dana) and Nathaniel (Mickey Roth) return, Miranda is overjoyed at news their distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn has written, requesting the family send one of their daughters to act as a governess for the Van Ryn’s daughter, Katrine. The natural choice – should one even be made – is the elder, Tabitha (Jane Nigh). As Tabitha cares not to leave her ancestral home for adventures abroad, Abigail puts the question to Ephraim after he returns from his daily chores. Should Miranda be allowed to go to New York in pursuit of ‘better things’? God-fearing in the extreme, Ephraim is against the idea. However, he proposes the family consult The Bible for inspiration. To his everlasting chagrin, the passage randomly selected by Miranda points in her favor. And thus, Ephraim elects to accompany his daughter to the Palmer House Hotel in New York City where they are expected to meet Nicholas for the first time.
Aside: in the novel, Nicholas actually arrives in Connecticut to collect his charge in person; haughty, yet charming, autocratic and atheistic; frowning upon the tenant farmers who work the land. Miranda is entranced by Nicholas’ description of his ancestral home – Dragonwyck and longs to make journey to the imposing Tudor estate. Inevitably, Darryl Zanuck felt the movie version might best be served by a preamble of the ostentatiousness yet to follow; Fox’s back lot facades of ole New York put into service with a lavish display of horse-drawn buggies and scores of extras dressed in period attire. Nicholas brags he is descended from Dutch patroons. While Ephraim remains skeptical of the man and his pedigree, Miranda blindly awaits a future she misperceives will be filled with even more magical moments such as this, and finery and fashions befitting her wildest daydreams of luxury.
The next day, Nicholas and Miranda board a steamer to cross the Hudson River; Miranda, catching her first glimpse of the stately Dragonwyck nestled cliffside. Upon their arrival, the Tudor-styled house is everything Miranda might have hoped; stately and opulent. Miranda’s excitement is slightly tempered by her introduction to Nicholas’ unadorned and greedy wife, Johanna, and, their daughter, Katrine, who is remote and sad. Miranda realizes Nicholas and Johanna have hardly been good parents; entrusting the girl’s care to their devoted servant and housekeeper Magda (an amalgam of traits ascribed to two different characters in Seton’s novel). Magda dispels Miranda’s notions of Nicholas’ grandmother with insidious pleasantness. Slowly, Katrine warms to Miranda’s kindness. Indeed, the pupil and her mistress skulk off like a pair of school girls to spy on the ‘kermess’ – an annual ceremony/picnic where Nicholas bids his tenant farmers pay him tribute for his allowing them to work the land he owns. Miranda is introduced to Dr. Jeff Turner. A mutual spark of attraction ensues, but not before Turner makes his contempt for Nicholas known. Indeed, Nicholas’ feudal conclave seems grotesquely out of step with American democracy; sentiments momentarily expressed by Klaas Bleecker (Henry Morgan), who defies Nicholas by refusing to pay him anything or even to remove his hat in a show of respect for ‘the ruling class’.
Miranda can see Nicholas’ mediaeval way of thinking is at odds with the growing egalitarian sentiments of these tenant farmers. She is further horrified when Nicholas’ response to Klaas is to evict his family from the only home they have ever known, as a warning to anyone who dare challenge his autocracy. Klaas launches an attack. But Turner prevents any physical conflict, although he sides with Klass’ political views. As a counterpoint to the ‘kermess’, the evening’s festivities at Dragonwyck include a lavish ball. Miranda is quite taken with the event; her moment of elation turned asunder by the hoi poloi, who regard her as an interloper and ostracize her from their polite conversations. Nicholas discovers her sobbing on the terrace and vows to make up the rest of the evening; leading Miranda into the great hall on his arm and choosing to waltz her for the remainder of the evening.
Time passes. But all is not well at Dragonwyck. Turner arrives to plead for Klaas’ life. Apparently, since his banishment the farmer has been falsely accused on murder. Although Nicholas refuses help at first, his empathy is swayed to assist. As recompense, Nicholas asks Turner to examine Johanna who has fallen ill with a nasty head cold. Turner assures the matron there is no need for concern. He then accepts Nicholas’ invitation to dine with Miranda. Johanna is a hypochondriac and a bore. To appease her, and hopefully lighten her mood, Nicholas elects to share his favorite oleander and give her some cake. The tone between husband and wife quickly sours, however. Johanna insists she cannot bear the house or Nicholas when he is in such a snit. Bitterly, Nicholas withdraws. Later that night, Nicholas discovers Johanna has died in her bed. Now, Nicholas confides to Miranda he had fallen out of love with his wife long ago; wounded because she could no longer bear him a son. Unable to resist her feelings for him any longer, Miranda and Nicholas become engaged. Miranda returns home to Connecticut for a brief visit. But she is changed; far-off and wistful. Ephraim does not care for his daughter’s new attitude. Alas, he is unable to deduce its origins until several months later when Nicholas formally asks for Miranda’s hand in marriage. Ephraim and Abigail reluctantly acquiesce to the wedding and shortly thereafter Miranda becomes pregnant.
Again, fate intervenes; the child – a boy – is born with a congenital heart defect. He dies within hours of his birth. Already embroiled in a defense against a new law permitting tenant farms to buy their lands, news of the death causes an angry Nicholas to retreat to his secret locked tower room where he increasingly indulged in illegal substances to dampen his despair. Confessing his addiction to Miranda, the lame nurse hired for her care, Peggy O’Malley (Jessica Tandy) begins to suspect Nicholas of slowly poisoning Miranda with ground-up leaves from his oleander plant. Sharing her suspicions with Turner, the good doctor, never having stopped carrying his torch for Miranda, now makes a daring rescue. Turner confronts Nicholas with poisoning Johanna and Miranda. To Miranda's horror, Nicholas confesses only to using the oleander on his former wife. He then attacks Turner, determined to murder him. Instead, Turner defends himself and Miranda’s honor, momentarily knocking Nicholas unconscious. With no time to waste, Turner hurriedly escorts Miranda from the estate.
Meanwhile, Nicholas, delusional from the effects of his drug abuse and woozy from his confrontation with Turner, meanders to the kermess grounds in the dead of night, torturously screaming for the farmers to honor him with tribute. Stirred to respond, the villagers arrive, accompanied by Turner, Miranda, the mayor and the sheriff. Ravaged with fear, and horrified all his worldliness should have come to this, Nicholas draws a pistol on Turner. He is instead mortally wounded by the sheriff’s pistol, collapsing in his ceremonial chair. As Nicholas lays dying, the farmers, including Klass, doff their caps in his honor. The next morning, Miranda bids Dragonwyck farewell for the very last time. Connecticut is her home. She now realizes she was wrong to ever have considered another in its stead. Still in love with her, Turner sees the coach to the crossroads, vowing to visit Miranda within a week’s time.
Dragonwyck is an unusually intense – if occasionally melodramatic – Gothic thriller. Mankiewicz’s prose increasingly lean to the macabre; particularly in the picture’s last act. And here, Vincent Price reveals his truest expertise: playing mental anguish teetering on raving insanity to its full tilt. Although Gene Tierney’s ‘name above the title’ billing references her as the star, it is Vincent Price who effectively walks off with the show. That Fox never dared to exploit Price’s talents in this regard again is something of another mystery; the actor, thereafter repeatedly loaned out to other studios for a spotty slate of productions intermittently using him to lesser effect. Like co-star Anne Revere, Price’s loyalty to the United States would be brought into question during the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunts, erroneously meant to weed out communists and communist sympathizers during the early-1950’s. Mercifully, Price escaped the committee’s outright blacklisting. He was gray-listed for a time. But Revere’s reputation, as innocent of these charges, was not as fortunate.
Dragonwyck was a huge success for Fox, despite a few negative reviews including a rather scathing assessment from New York Time’s Bosley Crowther, who thought Price “picturesque” demonstrating “insolence, that is all” while praising Gene Tierney, only as the “ornamental tortured child bride.” With all due respect to Crowther (a great critic of his era), he seems herein to be reviewing another movie entirely. It is impossible to see Vincent Price’s portrait as this gloomy patroon as anything but moodily magnificent, even at a glance. Price brings a sort of regal contempt and blue-nosed entitlement to his early scenes before convincingly unraveling into a truly haunted man whose animalistic nature is driven by desperation and a full-blown cocaine addiction; scarred with shame, jealousy, and, mental anguish, horrifically spiraled out of control. Gene Tierney’s performance is less easily quantifiable. Most certainly, it never rivals Price’s intensity.
Despite Darryl Zanuck’s PR extolling her physical virtues as ‘the most beautiful woman ever to appear in the movies’ (respectfully, I disagree), Tierney’ best work usually came when her obvious attractiveness was downplayed and she could relax without having to worry about maintaining such glacial ornamentation. Personal opinion of course, but with exceptions made to her work in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, exhibiting a seemingly unrehearsed compassion and whimsy) and Leave Her To Heaven (1945, in which she is ruthless and evil personified) I have always thought of Tierney as queerly ravishing; like a bronzed statue – superficially attractive, but cold, and, with no will of her own; cruelly – a stick figure, bumped out in all the right places, but absent of a soul or even the essence of being able to acquire one secondhand. This is not to suggest Tierney was never a fine actress. On the contrary. But Dragonwyck is decidedly not her finest hour. In her period hoop skirts and bonnets, Tierney is indeed a decorous accoutrement to the film. But her allure very much ends there; her placement of emotions never enough to elevate her performance beyond the dialogue Mankiewicz has crafted for Miranda. While Price’s Nicholas is saturated with a streak of perverse sadism doomed to self-destruct, Tierney plays Miranda Wells as a not terribly precocious girl of many wants but only thumbnail sketches in virtue and sincerity. Regardless, it is Mankiewicz’s pace and prose that elevate Dragonwyck to A-list cinema. In years yet to follow, Mankiewicz would prove his forte in more wordy melodramas in a contemporary setting. Dragonwyck is an anomaly. But oh, what a grand and glorious anomaly it remains; darkly cursed and dripping with the striking textures of a great Gothic masterpiece from another bygone era.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is newly remastered and looks it. While contrast can appear just a tad weaker than anticipated, the B&W image is strikingly handsome with rich tonal textures, razor-sharp clarity and some luscious film grain looking indigenous to its source. This is another quality 1080p transfer from Fox Home Video. It is a genuine shame Fox has all but farmed out its deep catalog to such ‘limited edition’ offerings via third party distributors. Not that TT isn’t one of the premiere houses for such releases. But movies like Dragonwyck deserve a much broader audience, and, Blu-ray transfers this good ought to be celebrated to the rafters whenever and wherever they occur. The 2.0 DTS mono is competently rendered and sounds awesome – particularly, Alfred Newman’s bombastic score. This also receives an isolated track to be heard in its entirety. Also, among the extras - two Biography Specials: the first, on Gene Tierney, the other on Vincent Price. Aside: I seem to recall both ‘specials’ being released independently on other Blu-ray discs. We also get a short featurette on the making of the movie that accompanied its DVD release, plus two alternative radio adaptations and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Dragonwyck on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended. More from Fox and TT: pretty please! How about Star!, The House on Telegraph Hill, a remastered Road House, and, Staircase…for starters?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)