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Produced at Twentieth-Century Fox by Darryl F. Zanuck and an uncredited Ernst Lubitsch, Dragonwyck (1946) was the first directorial effort by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would go on to a storied directing career, including Oscar® wins for his work on A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). Dragonwyck, based on a novel by Anya Seton, proved to be a genre-blending picture rooted in the sort of Gothic romance that made Rebecca (1940) and Jane Eyre (1944) box-office hits, but it was also a historical drama based on the Dutch-style patroon landowner system that existed in the Hudson Valley area of New York in the mid-1800s. In addition, the film further explored social themes dealing with class structure, and added a dollop of supernatural horror for good measure. While some critics reacted to this mlange negatively at the time of release, in retrospect Mankiewicz accomplished a deft balancing act; the mixture comes off as perhaps more acceptable to a modern sensibility and the accomplished cast certainly helps pull this off. The picture was built around Fox star Gene Tierney, who is believable in a not-always-sympathetic role, but the supporting cast truly shines and features Walter Huston and Anne Revere as the parents of the heroine, Jessica Tandy in a small but memorable part, and especially, Vincent Price in a deliciously villainous mode - a role that helped define the Price persona we think of today.
Synopsis: In 1844, proud Connecticut farmer Ephraim Wells (Walter Huston) and his wife Abigail (Anne Revere) receive a message from their distant relative Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). Van Ryn is a wealthy landowner living on a huge estate called Dragonwyck, located in the Hudson Valley in New York. He asks Wells if one of his daughters would consent to live at Dragonwyck and care for eight-year-old Katrine (Connie Marshall), the daughter of Van Ryn and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne). One of Wells' daughters, Miranda (Gene Tierney), is restless and feels suffocated by her strict upbringing and mundane surroundings; she is all too anxious to be sent to the estate. Nicholas Van Ryn proves to be an imposing, arrogant figure; he is from a long line of Dutch patroons, and he lords over the tenant farmers that work his land. Van Ryn's wife is a gluttonous, spiteful woman, while daughter Katrine worries and hears the presence of long-dead Van Ryns in the house. Miranda falls in love with Van Ryn, who expresses his displeasure that his wife cannot bear him a son. Miranda eventually meets Dr. Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan), who despises Van Ryn's treatment of the tenant farmers. Nevertheless, Turner arrives at Dragonwyck to treat Johanna for cold symptoms; he is amazed, and begins to fear for Miranda's safety, when Van Ryn's wife suddenly dies.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz began his career in the movie industry in 1929, but it took seventeen years until he was in a position to direct his first film. Mankiewicz started as a writer, first penning title cards for silent pictures, but he was soon turning out screenplays for such diverse movies as Skippy (1931), Million Dollar Legs (1932), Alice in Wonderland (1933), and Manhattan Melodrama (1934). He shifted gears in the early 1940s at the request of Louis B. Mayer, and became a producer at MGM with such high-profile films as Strange Cargo, The Philadelphia Story (both 1940), and Woman of the Year (1942), in which he was the first to team Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Mankiewicz arrived at 20th Century Fox as a writer-producer eager to become a triple-threat talent by adding directing to his resume. He got his chance in a roundabout fashion following his production of The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), co-written with Nunnally Johnson and starring Gregory Peck and Vincent Price. Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck purchased the film rights for the Anya Seton novel Dragonwyck while it was still being serialized in Ladies' Home Journal. Mankiewicz "covered" the story for the studio ("cover" being Hollywood lingo for the process of evaluating a pre-existing property for its potential in being adapted for the screen). In his book on the writer/director, Bernard F. Dick reported that "...he wrote that there was 'less... than meets the eye,' calling Seton's knowledge of politics 'nave, oversimple.' Yet he begrudgingly admitted that 'the opportunities for production values are exciting.'" Zanuck assigned the film to another recent arrival at Fox, the celebrated filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch had signed a director/producer contract with Fox in 1943, but soon after suffered a major heart attack which curtailed his activities severely. Lubitsch chose Mankiewicz to direct.
Mankiewicz is to be admired for attempting to infuse Dragonwyck, at heart a derivative Gothic potboiler, with some interesting observations on class consciousness and for allowing Vincent Price to express the moody villainy that would later serve him so well in the cycle of Poe films directed by Roger Corman in the 1960s. In his analysis of the film, Bernard F. Dick felt that Mankiewicz' emphasis on the social ideas of the story threw the film out of balance, writing that "...the main difficulty was the novel itself. Mankiewicz had two choices in adapting it: he could emphasize the gothic elements (gloomy mansion, lunatic husband, terrorized wife), minimizing or deleting the social and ideological ones; or he could make the clash of the classes (patroon and tenant farmers) and their respective ideologies (autocracy/democracy) the film's axis, weaving the gothic strands around it. Mankiewicz did both; the gothic lost, democracy won." It is difficult to see how Dick came to the conclusion that the gothic elements were pushed to the background, though; Price's emphatic performance alone assured that gloom and mania were at the forefront in Dragonwyck.
Van Ryn, in fact, eventually becomes the central character of the film, and is played with a surprising sense of humor, or at least biting sarcasm. When Johanna asks what he could possibly be doing up in the private tower room, Van Ryn replies, "Anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother." In her book Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, Victoria Price recounts the difficulty her father had in getting the role: "...having made such a success of the villain in Angel Street [Patrick Hamilton's 1941 Broadway play], he was convinced that to play a similar role on screen would be a great boost to his career. But first he had to convince Mankiewicz and the studio heads. This was not that easy. 'I had to fight like the devil for this part. My bosses kept remembering me as the good-natured guy in Laura (1944) and I insisted I wasn't that type.' Furthermore, Mankiewicz, who had produced The Keys of the Kingdom, could only think of Vincent as the portly prelate he had played in that film a long shot from the tall, dark, handsome Van Ryn that he had in mind. Determined to convince Mankiewicz, Vincent lost all the weight he had gained, auditioned, and won the coveted role."
The script for Dragonwyck encountered a few censorship problems. The use of Oleander as a murder weapon proved problematic because the Production Code Administration always forbid the depiction of details when it came to fashioning a poison or other elaborate killing method, for fear of audience members running out of the theater and acting on what they have seen. In their notes, the PCA said, "because of the prevalence of Oleander in this country, and as a detail of crime which could be easily imitated, we must ask that this dialogue referring to being poisoned by Oleander be rewritten in such a way as to confuse the method." The revelation that Nicholas was addicted to opium also had to be obscured. In the final film he admits to being a drug addict, but no specific drug is mentioned or in evidence in Nicholas' private room. In another scene cut from the final film, Van Ryn spoke at Dragonwyck with a French Count played by John Chollot, discussing life and death, culminating in a diatribe against science. Lubitsch felt that the scene was very important, and when it was cut he asked Zanuck to have his name removed from the credits. (Indeed, Dragonwyck has no producer credit, which is very unusual for a studio film from the period).
Variety called Dragonwyck "lucid, often-compelling," and said the film was "...always brooding with never a break in its flow of morbidity. ...[The] mood and atmosphere of the film are grim and shivery enough so to give it a ready audience among the horror film fans." In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther said that, in spite of the horror elements, "...there is so much talk in the script and so little motion in the action that the tale rather tediously unfolds. The demon inflexibility of the master is barely explained, and a sketchy suggestion of class warfare between the landlord and his tenants is soon dropped. Mr. Mankiewicz and his associates have done the whole thing so ponderously that they have drained it of electric essence, and even of the element of surprise." Crowther had praise for Price's performance, though, writing that "...his moments of suave diabolism are about the best in the film."
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch, Darryl F. Zanuck (both uncredited)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a novel by Anya Seton
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Gene Tierney (Miranda Wells), Walter Huston (Ephraim Wells), Vincent Price (Nicholas Van Ryn), Glenn Langan (Dr. Jeff Turner), Anne Revere (Abigail Wells), Spring Byington (Magda), Connie Marshall (Katrine Van Ryn), Henry Morgan (Klaus Bleecker), Vivienne Osborne (Johanna Van Ryn), Jessica Tandy (Peggy O'Malley), Trudy Marshall (Elizabeth Van Borden)
by John M. Miller