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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Dragonwyck’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, it’s little accidents that give you the start you need to go onto bigger things…

Dragonwyck (1946)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Everyone wants to be there from the beginning. We all want to say we were among the first fans, especially if it’s the first of a long list of successes and memories.

The first time a sports hero takes the field. The first time a band takes the stage. The first time a writer starts re-writes on their book…

Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get what we’re going for…

Although the re-writes thing is important, as it aptly applies to this film:

Our film opens in near Greenwich, CT, in 1884, we’re informed by the title card. The Greenwich of that time is full of common hardscrabble farmers, the kind of folks whom modern Greenwich doesn’t want to have anything to do with.

In the first scene, an excited Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) rushes in with a letter brought by post. It’s addressed to her mother Abigail (Ann Revere) written a cousin from the Hudson Valley she’s never met but who knows a lot about Abigail and her family, asking if they could spare a daughter to be the companion to his eight year old daughter. As Abigail reads the letter aloud, we watch Miranda’s face light up the way that someone who wants off the farm yesterday’s does.

Miranda is so anxious to get going, she doesn’t need to ask her mother, who’s probably heard Miranda whine about being stuck out there since forever. Abigail defers to her husband Ephraim (Walter Huston), who doesn’t think much of Abigail’s cousin, part of the snooty upper crust who 90 years later would build mansions on what had been his humble farm.

Ephraim, though, as a God-fearing man, looks for divine guidance on the matter by letting Miranda pick a quote from the bible at random. When she chooses the passage in Genesis where Abraham casts out Hagar, he reluctantly consents and goes with her to New York to pass her off to the cousin.

There, we finally meet the cousin himself, Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). He’s absolutely everything Ephraim isn’t: old money, well connected, highly cultured, doubts the existence of God, and worst of all, a landlord. Nicholas takes possession of accompanies Miranda to his home, Dragonwyck, where she meets the other members of her extended family and their servants.

Miranda’s first meeting with Nicholas’ wife Johanna (Vivien Osborne in her last film role) and their daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall) doesn’t get off to a good start. The unstable housekeeper Magda (Jessica Tandy) shoehorns in a lot of spooky exposition, cycling between creepy and ‘JK’ quickly with a lot of details that get lost in the nearly two-hour run time of the film as it moves ahead in fits and stops.

The only people who don’t take a dislike to farm girl Miranda is the local doctor, Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan) and Nicholas, who manages to tell Miranda that they’re not really cousins once they get to the house. Which makes what happens when Nicholas asks Miranda to dance at a ball he hosts only slightly less awkward than it ends up:

There’s a lot of ground the film tries to cover, which even with its long for its era run length has trouble getting to it all successfully. There’s a throw away encounter with the tenant farmers (their spokesman played by Harry Morgan) that ties into the Anti-Rent War of the 1840s that feels like it should have been the focus of another movie entirely. Ultimately, Johanna dies under strange circumstances, and Nicholas asks Miranda if she wants a change in her position, ifyouknowwhatImean. There’s Nicholas getting anxious to sire a male heir, despite his and Miranda’s best efforts. There’s even some of Magda’s info-dump finally showing up in the movie as Nicholas gets desperate enough to-

It’s at this point that the film draws our attention. We’ve watched in the movie Price’s Nicholas degenerate from an upstanding if stand-offish member of the one percent, falling to the point where he discusses openly with cool menace dripping in his voice what he thinks about and is going to do to the other person on the screen. He has a look in his eyes that screams madness and threatens danger, made all the more sinister with his wild hair and thin facial growth, accented by outfits that suggest wealthy corruption, or the corruption of power if you rather.

In short, we have Vincent Price playing a ptented Vincent Price character for the first time ever.

From Ladies Home Journal, August 1943

We almost never got this moment. When Ernst Lubitsch optioned the second novel by Anya Sexton (which premiered in serialized form in Ladies Home Journal in 1943), the role was initially offered to Gregory Peck. During pre-pro, however, Lubitsch fell ill (most likely from the heart disease that would strike him down 1947), and Peck bowed out. Lubitsch’s second choice was Laird Cregar, who passed away before shooting could begin.

While Price was the film’s third choice for the role, and Dragonwyck was only the second film where he was a male lead, he makes the most as he establishes his signature style. It’s here, in the midst of a middling overstuffed potboiler, with plenty of good performances by a cast that would go on to bigger things later, that we get the first taste of the Vincent Price we remember.

As mentioned earlier, Lubitsch got sick before filming could begin. Unable to helm the film, he turned to screenwriter Mankiewicz to fill in. Mankiewicz in his directorial debut does quite well as a first-time director with the script he wrote, aided by the talent he had on set to keep the film interesting enough.

So, as you watch the origins of Vincent Price the icon, you end up getting two first times for the price of one…

 

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