Dragonwyck is one of the great gothic romance movies. It’s one of three classic Hollywood gothic romances of the 1940s, the others being Jane Eyre and Rebecca. A gothic romance is not necessarily a horror movie. Rebecca is not a horror movie. Dragonwyck on the other hand is both gothic romance and horror. It is also one of the few great ghost movies made by Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system.
Ernst Lubitsch was to have directed the movie but withdrew due to illness thus giving Joseph L. Mankiewicz the chance to direct his first feature. Mankiewicz also wrote the screenplay. Dragonwyck was released by 20th Century-Fox in 1946.
The studio saw the movie as very much a vehicle for Gene Tierney who was one of their brightest stars at the time. Gregory Peck was to be her co-star but before filming began he was replaced by Vincent Price. With all due respect to Gregory Peck the decision to go for Price as the male lead was a very fortunate one.
The movie is set in 1844. Tierney plays Miranda Wells, a farm girl from Connecticut. Her parents are respectable buy by no means wealthy. Her father Ephraim (Walter Huston) is a god-fearing man but underneath a slightly forbidding exterior he has a good heart and his concern for his daughter’s welfare is genuine. The arrival of a very unexpected letter throws the family into some turmoil. The letter is from Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price), a very wealthy man and a distant cousin. Van Ryn’s letter contains an offer to take one of the two Wells daughters into his home for an extended period. She will act as a governess/companion to Van Ryn’s child. Living with Van Ryn and his wife will offer the daughter enormous social advantages.
Miranda has never been entirely satisfied by life as a farmer’s daughter and she is desperately keen to take advantage of this opportunity. Ephraim is not impressed by the idea at all but Miranda is a girl who knows how to get her own way.
Miranda’s arrival at Dragonwyck, the forbidding gothic mansion that is the Van Ryn family seat, is quite a culture shock for her. Miranda’s lack of education and even more particularly her lack of the social graces will make things somewhat uncomfortable for her.
And there are definite tensions at Dragonwyck. Nicholas Van Ryn and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) seem very ill-matched. Their daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall) is a very strange child, disturbingly melancholy and emotionally distant.
There is also considerable unrest on the part of Nicholas Van Ryn’s tenant farmers. In this part of the United States a form of feudal landholding remains in existence. The system dates back to the early Dutch settlement in the 1630s. There is widespread political agitation to change this system and Van Ryn’s tenants are openly rebellious. Dr Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan) is one of the chief agitators and there is a great deal of hostility between Dr Turner and Nicholas Van Ryn. This will cause complications when the doctor gets drawn into the increasingly tense situation at Dragonwyck.
Dr Turner is clearly taking a romantic interest in Miranda Wells, but Nicholas Van Ryn is just as obviously also interested in her. And Van Ryn clearly has little interest in his wife.
Gene Tierney copes well with a difficult role. She has to make Miranda convincingly naïve without making her seem overly foolish and she also has to make Miranda
Unlike the heroine of Rebecca, Miranda is not a passive victim. She is somewhat naïve but in the early scenes with her family we have already seen that she can be very persuasive when it comes to getting something she wants. Persuasive almost to the point of being manipulative. She is rather more complex than she seems at first to be, and her part in the tragic events that unfold at Dragonwyck is not entirely passive. The challenge for Gene Tierney was to make Miranda naïve without being foolish and mildly manipulative without being sinister, and all the while retaining the audience’s sympathies. It’s a deceptively difficult rôle and Tierney handles it confidently.
While Gene Tierney got top billing Vincent Price has the most crucial part. It’s a kind of dress rehearsal for so many of his later horror movie rôles and he already has the tragic but sinister and decadent aristocratic vibe working to perfection. Nicholas Van Ryn is a monster but he’s a complicated monster.
Glenn Langan is both irritating and bland as the rabble-rousing Dr Turner.
The political sub-plot involving the rebellious tenant farmers asserting what they see as their democratic rights was apparently in Anya Seton’s source novel but it feels rather clumsy. Its main purpose seems to be to show us that Nicholas Van Ryn is a wicked aristocrat, and also to suggest that he is a relic of the past. And indeed he is, as are most classic gothic heroes. Personally I found it had the opposite affect to that which was intended - it made me more sympathetic to him, it made him seem more a victim of his past than a mere monster. Or perhaps that was part of Mankiewicz’s intention, to make Nicholas a more complex monster.
Arthur C. Miller’s black-and-white cinematography is superb. The sets, the costumes, the art direction in general, are all magnificent. This is a gloriously and extravagantly gothic movie.
Dragonwyck was released on DVD as part of the three-movie Fox Horror Classics Volume 2 set (which also includes Chandu the Magician and Dr. Renault's Secret). The transfers are excellent. The Dragonwyck DVD includes a host of extras including a commentary track by Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. Habermann displays a genuine and pleasing knowledge of the gothic literary heritage.
Dragonwyck is outrageous gothic melodrama, enlivened by great performances by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. Highly recommended, more perhaps for its style than its content.