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Based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic American novel, The House of the Seven Gables (1940) was adapted by Harold Greene and turned into a tautly constructed gothic melodrama by director Joe May and screenwriter Lester Cole. Hawthorne's multi-generational story of avarice was compacted into an 89-minute running time with its narrative high points and theme intact.
The film begins with a close-up of a book opening to a series of turning pages that reveals the back story of the Pyncheon family, beginning in the 17th century. The intertitles depicted on the book pages allow the filmmakers to convey a maximum amount of back story in a few minutes while reminding viewers of the film's prestigious literary roots. In the mid-1600s, Colonel Pyncheon stole a valuable piece of land from Matthew Maule by accusing him of witchcraft. Maule is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. While standing on the scaffold he curses the Colonel and his family, shouting, "God hath given him blood to drink." Pyncheon builds an elaborate home, the Seven Gables, on the property, but on the day the house is completed, he falls dead of a constriction of the throat.
The central story begins in 1828 when lawyer Jaffrey Pyncheon returns to Seven Gables one rainy night. He discovers that his older brother, Clifford, has decided to sell Seven Gables to pay off debts incurred through bad investments made by Jaffrey and their father. A talented composer, Clifford hopes to marry cousin Hepzibah and move to New York City, which is modern, alive, and full of vitality compared to old-world Boston with its stuffy, narrow-minded aristocracy. Convinced by family legend that a fortune lies hidden in the walls of Seven Gables, Jaffrey schemes to prevent the sale. After a heated argument with Clifford, old man Pyncheon keels over and dies from the curse--a constriction of the throat. Jaffrey accuses Clifford of murder, sending his older brother to prison for over 20 years. But, Jaffrey is shocked to learn that he will not inherit Seven Gables: Instead, the house was put in Hepzibah's name to avoid seizure by creditors. She banishes her corrupt cousin Jaffrey and secludes herself inside Seven Gables, turning into a hardened spinster.
Twenty years later, Hepzibah has decided to take in boarders to make ends meet, including a mysterious photographer named Matthew Holgrave and her niece Phoebe Pyncheon. She also opens a scent shop, much to the embarrassment of Jaffrey, who has become an important judge. When Clifford is released from prison by the Massachusetts governor, old wounds are opened as the two brothers face off over the future of Seven Gables.
Produced by Universal in 1940, The House of the Seven Gables was a well-mounted but no-frills production that relied on good performances and solid direction. The three principal characters age twenty years over the course of the film, but the aging process is accomplished with a simple makeup design devised by Universal's legendary Jack Pierce, made famous by his makeup for the monsters of Universal's 1930s horror cycle. The actors also alter their speaking patterns and physical mannerisms to suggest middle age. A young George Sanders plays Jaffrey Pyncheon as an articulate but oily cad, a character type that would become Sanders's stock and trade as a movie star. In an early role, Vincent Price shows off his acting skills as Clifford, who is bold and boisterous as a young man but quiet and beaten down after 20 years in prison. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Robert Cummings was originally cast as Clifford, but illness forced him to bow out. Though handsome and likable, Cummings lacked Price's vocal range and control. With this performance, Price's star was definitely on the rise.
Margaret Lindsay, forgotten to most movie fans, offers a tremendous performance as Hepzibah Pyncheon. In one scene, Hepzibah goes through an instant transformation that amounts to a complete change in her personality. After Clifford is convicted, Hepzibah is fiery, optimistic, and full of youthful vigor as she prepares to leave Seven Gables. When she learns she has inherited the huge house with the ill-fated curse, she begins to harden into a stern spinster almost immediately. Her posture stiffens, and her expression freezes into a solemn stare. She tosses out Jaffrey and then shuts herself inside Seven Gables, closing the shutters behind her. Thereafter, she walks straight and stiff with her arms to her sides, suggesting the character's repressed emotions. Lindsay has to carry the middle of the film as the stern, middle-aged Hepzibah, because both male characters are absent from the story at this juncture, and it is a testament to her performance that the presence of Sanders and Price are not missed.
Price and Sanders may have been at the beginning of their careers, but director Joe May was nearing the end of his and directed only three more films after The House of the Seven Gables, a lackluster end to an amazing career. Born Julius Otto Mandel in Vienna, May began by directing stage operettas in Hamburg, Germany. He took his stage name from his wife, Mia May. Around 1911, he settled in Berlin, where he became involved with Germany's budding film industry. He joined Continental-Filmkunst GmbH as a writer-director; two years later, he was given his own unit, Abteilung May, where he distinguished himself with a spate of detective films known as the Stuart Webb series, starring Ernst Reicher. In 1914, he formed the Stuart Webbs Film Company-May & Reicher, but the outbreak of war prevented any production. May served for a brief time in the Imperial Austrian Army before forming another company, May-Film.
Despite the hardships of war, the German government was determined to prevent their burgeoning film industry from collapsing. They used state funds to centralize several small production companies, including May-Film, under one umbrella organization, Universum Film A.G. (Ufa). May became a key figure in the early German film industry as a producer and director. He gave E.A. Dupont, Fritz Lang, and Theo von Harbou their starts in the film business before the end of World War I. He also built a studio facility near Berlin where he produced a series of exotic adventure films featuring his wife, Mia. After the war, the film industry, which was back in the hands of private investors, thrived artistically as part of the German Expressionist artistic movement. But, the financial instability of postwar Weimar Republic made it difficult for Ufa and its satellite production companies to survive. May was forced to reorganize his studio and holdings in 1923, putting his brother Leo Mandel in charge. Two years later, high costs further hindered production at May-Film but did not completely halt it.
In 1929, May directed his most acclaimed film, Asphalt, which is about a traffic policeman who commits an unintentional murder. Asphalt is part of the genre known as "street films," in which ordinary people are driven to nefarious deeds because of a rapidly deteriorating morality in the face of social decline and a failing economy. With its chiaroscuro lighting, high angles, visual symbolism, and deliberate mise-en-scene, the film makes use of the German Expressionist style.
With the rise of the Nazi Party, May left Germany, as did many German directors of the Expressionist era. In 1934, he landed in Hollywood under contract to Universal. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal, had an open-door policy to members of the German film industry who needed a place of employment after immigrating to the United States. That same year, May directed his first Hollywood film, Music in the Air.
Like many German directors who assimilated into the Hollywood industry, May often brought an Expressionist touch to his films. In The House of the Seven Gables, certain scenes reveal Expressionist characteristics. Throughout the film, whenever Hepzibah descends the staircase at Seven Gables, her shadow is cast against the wall, which is the classic indication of a doppelganger - a character with two sides. In Hepzibah's case, it represents the two ages of her character, the youthful girl and the repressed spinster. In key scenes, the mise-en-scene suggests the characters are trapped by the curse, the house, or by circumstances beyond their control. When Clifford witnesses his father's death, he looks out a window of paned glass at the town's residents who have witnessed the argument between them. One pane perfectly frames his head, which visually traps him in this moment that will change his future. After Hepzibah accepts her fate as mistress of Seven Gables, shadows from the Venetian blinds create bars across her body, conveying her entrapment inside the cursed house.
According to Vincent Price, May had difficulties speaking English clearly, which hampered directing actors. On The House of the Seven Gables, screenwriter Lester Cole served as dialogue director. If May never achieved the heights of Asphalt in Hollywood, he added a solid directorial presence and visual flair to his films that elevated them above their minor status.
Producer: Burt Kelly for Universal Pictures
Director: Joe May
Dialogue Director: Lester Cole
Screenplay: Harold Greene and Lester Cole based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editor: Frank Gross
Art Director: Jack Otterson
Set Decorator: R.A. Gausman
Gowns: Vera West
Musical Director: Charles Previn
Cast: Jaffrey Pyncheon (George Sanders), Hepzibah Pyncheon (Margaret Lindsay), Clifford Pyncheon (Vincent Price), Matthew Holgrave, alias for Matthew Maule (Dick Foran), Phoebe Pyncheon (Nan Grey), Philip Barton (Cecil Kellaway), Fuller (Alan Napier), Gerald Pyncheon (Gilbert Emery), Deacon Foster (Miles Mander).
by Susan Doll