When I was 15, I was hit by a car while crossing the street on my way home from school. I spent several weeks in a cast and weeks more recovering afterwards, and which gave me a lot of time to read. My mother gave me a large paper shopping bag filled with romance novels, bought for a dime a piece at a garage sale. I read them all during those months after the accident, and even at that young age formed a general impression of romantic fiction that hasn’t changed much since. Most of these novels can be placed in one of three categories:
- The ones that want to be Pride and Prejudice. Usually set in Regency England.
- The ones that want to be Gone With the Wind, especially the part where Rhett carried Scarlett up the stairs. Often set against the sweeping backdrop of some major historical event. Bodices will be ripped.
- The ones that want to be Jane Eyre. May or not be historical, featuring a naive young woman who comes to a big and gloomy old house owned by a brooding older man with dark secrets. If the book cover features a woman in a white dress running away from said house, then it’s very likely one of these.
Dragonwyck falls into this last category. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager, but the 1944 novel by Anya Seton was an enormous success when it was first published. The film version followed in 1946 and was also a big hit, starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.
It wasn’t the first time Tierney and Price had appeared in a major film together; she almost married him a couple of years earlier in the noir classic Laura but ended up with Dana Andrews instead. For the best really.
She should’ve avoided making the same mistake this time too. His character’s much worse in this film–it’s one of Price’s earliest villain roles and probably led to the shift from playing junior George-Sanders at Fox to becoming a horror icon at AIP.
The story begins in 1844 on a farm outside Greenwich, Connecticut. Dour Mrs. Wells (Anne Revere, an actual descendant of Paul) receives a letter from her distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn, patroon of a great estate along the Hudson River. They haven’t actually met, but in light of the family connection, Nicholas extends a gracious but somewhat condescending invitation to one of Mrs. Wells’s daughters to come to his stately home, Dragonwyck, to be a companion to his wife and little girl, Katrine. The prim elder daughter isn’t interested in leaving home, but the younger, Miranda (Tierney) is eager to go away–go anywhere, really, but a grand house owned by wealthy relatives she’s barely heard of sounds like the perfect thing. She’s always dreamed of romance and adventure, is bored by the sturdy and unimaginative farm-lads she’s expected to chose a husband from, and wants much more than this provincial life.
Miranda’s father (Walter Houston) doesn’t like the idea at all, but she convinces him to try that spiritual advice game where you open the Bible at random and see what it has to say. The scripture he stabs at refers to Hagar’s journey and appears favorable to Miranda leaving home to seek her own fate. The next thing you know, Dad is escorting Miranda to a fancy hotel in New York City, where Nicholas has arranged to meet them.
Mr. Wells doesn’t approve of anything he sees in the big city: the hotel staff, the plush room he and Miranda are shown to, and the dinner Nicholas has already ordered for them–especially when he discovers that the fruit cocktail has alcohol in it. “Even a little bit of evil can’t be good,” he tells his daughter when she says that it tastes good.
He asks Miranda to pray with him one last time before she goes off to that upstate Sodom and Gomorrah where she might encounter other alcohol-tainted desserts.
Nicholas (Price, whip-thin and exquisitely tailored) makes his entrance just as father and daughter are reading from the Bible: “I will set no wicked thing before my eyes… I will not know a wicked person.”
Dad’s doubts about Nicholas are, if not entirely quelled, at least set in abeyance once the two men become personally acquainted with each other. Nicholas can be charming when he wants to be and presents sufficient appearance of rigid moral rectitude by deploring the public waltzing going on in the hotel ballroom.
Miranda first views her new home via a telescope while she and Nicholas are aboard a boat traveling upriver. Gene Tierney plays the wide eyed, naive farm girl a little too broadly during the early part of the movie. She has a tendency to say “Golly Moses!” whenever something amazes or impresses her. She says it more than once while they’re on the boat, and Nicholas makes an effort to put a stop to this before it becomes annoying. It’s obvious that he’s beginning to be attracted to her in spite of her youthful gaucherie.
They don’t reach Dragonwyck until after dark, when the splendid house looks much more gloomy and forbidding. The house isn’t the only thing that’s strange and off-putting; when she meets Nicholas’s wife and daughter, Miranda can see that something’s very wrong with this family. Johanna Van Ryn seems interested in nothing but the New-York pastries her husband has brought back for her. (The word “sublimation” might cross your mind at the lady’s food obsessions.) Little Katrine is disturbingly listless and seems to care even less about her parents than they care about her.
After dinner, the Van Ryns take their guest into the drawing room for a little music and to introduce the family ghost. A portrait of Nicholas’s grandmother Ysilde hangs above the harpsichord, which once belonged to her.
Ysilde was a Creole woman from New Orleans, and extremely miserable in her new home, especially after her husband made every effort to keep their son away from her. She eventually committed suicide and is said to haunt this very same room. Family tradition has it that when death or disaster strikes the Van Ryns, Ysilde can be heard singing in celebration.
Only the Van Ryns can hear Ysilde singing, or so the spooky housekeeper (Spring Byington) tells Miranda as she shows the girl up to her room later that night. She’s never heard it, nor will Miranda or Johanna. But Nicholas and Katrine will.
The housekeeper has something even more personal to say to Miranda once they’re alone in her ornate new bedroom:
“You like being waited on. I could see tonight was your first time. You like peaches out of season. You like the feel of silk sheets against your young body. And one day you’ll wish with all your heart that you never came to Dragonwyck.”
It’s not quite up to Mrs. Dudley’s “No one can hear you scream in the night, in the dark” speech from The Haunting as far as deliberate creepiness from a housekeeper goes, but it’s enough to unsettle Miranda. Aside from being creepy, however, it’s also a tad premature. Miranda hasn’t done more than look at the peaches on the table, and she hasn’t had a chance to get into bed yet to find out if she likes the feel of silk sheets. Whether or not she’ll regret coming to Dragonwyck remains to be seen.
After this ominous beginning, Miranda settles down into life at Dragonwyck. She acts as governess to Katrine and develops a friendship with the little girl. They sneak out of the house together to attend the local harvest festival, during which Nicholas receives the rents from his tenants.
Upstate New York at this historical period still retained a pre-U.S. feudal system, where a few wealthy aristocratic landholders like the Van Ryns owned a number of farms and received an annual “tribute” from their tenants. Only, this year, some of the Van Ryn farmers feel that they’ve paid more than enough already and have the right to own the land their families have been working on for centuries. They make a stand and refuse Nicholas to his face. At least, some of them do; others chicken out and pay their tribute.
It’s at this festival that Miranda meets the local doctor, Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan, who’s a strapping fellow here, and later on his career will grow to be an amazing, colossal man). Dr. Turner is on the tenant farmers’ side, and he and Nicholas don’t much like each other even before it’s clear that they’re rivals for Miranda’s affection.
The fact that Nicholas already has a wife doesn’t seem to concern either him or Miranda. When some of the neighboring aristocrats’ daughters snub Miranda at the Van Ryns’ ball, Nicholas invites her to waltz with him in front of all his guests.
This sweeping romantic gesture wins Miranda entirely over. The two acknowledge that they’ve fallen in love, but nothing more scandalous happens between them at this time. Miranda is, after all, a good girl no matter what she might feel for a married man.
That winter, Johanna develops a bad cold that prevents the family from leaving their grand but isolated home in the Catskills during these cold and dreary months and spending some time in New York. While she’s bedridden, the usually emotionally distant Nicholas presents his wife with his favorite oleander plant. Johanna is touched by this unexpected gesture of kindness.
During this same conversation, we learn that Nicholas has a secret tower room in which he spends a lot of time by himself. When Johanna asks what he does up there, he refuses to give her a straight answer and makes light of the mystery, saying it involves “anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother.”
Although Dr. Turner doesn’t seem to think her illness is anything serious, Johanna soon takes a turn for the worse and dies suddenly and painfully in the middle of the night.
This is where the ghost comes in, and it’s a lovely, spooky sequence.
On the night that Johanna dies, Miranda finds Katrine on the stairs outside the haunted drawing room. The little girl can hear the beautiful sound of a woman singing and playing the harpsichord. Miranda doesn’t, but fortunately the viewer can.
What makes it so effective is the use of sound effects. The voice of the ghost is echoed and distorted; we can almost, but not quite, distinguish the words Grandma Ysilde is singing. From what I can make out of the lyrics, it seems to be a love song. Every once in awhile, she laughs.
While Miranda and Katrine sit on the stairs, the voice grows louder and more distorted. Katrine becomes frightened by it and covers her ears. Miranda insists that she hears nothing, there’s nothing to hear. Then the singing stops.
Rather than stay on in a house of supposed mourning, Miranda returns to her family farm. Months pass, and she continues to pine. Her father thinks that she’s gotten too spoiled to be content at her plain and honest home; it’s the luxurious life at Dragonwyck she’s missing–those hothouse peaches, silk sheets, and ballroom dances. But Mom understands that it’s not the big, fancy house that’s on her daughter’s mind. She’s noticed that Miranda hardly ever mentions Nicholas’s name.
After what he considers to be a decent interval, Nicholas himself calls at the farm and proves that Mom was absolutely right. Miranda has kept her best dress freshly pressed and ready and, when Nicholas enters the farmhouse, she’s waiting for him on the stairs.
The Wellses have qualms, but Nicholas turns on his charm and apologizes to Mrs. Wells for not introducing himself before. He only saw, and only wished to see, Miranda.
They are married the next day, before Miranda has time to have a wedding dress made or put together a trousseau. Not that either she or Nicholas minds; they only want to get back to Dragonwyck. It seems to Miranda that she’s got everything she’s ever dreamed of having.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, and not just for Miranda. The first part of the story has been wonderfully atmospheric, the scenes at Dragonwyck beautifully lit with dramatic play of shadow and light. There were two key characters that helped to set the mood of the place: listless Katrine and the creepy housekeeper. After Miranda returns to the house, both are gone for the rest of the movie. Katrine has been sent away to school and the housekeeper has been dismissed, presumably for her unremitting creepiness.
Miranda now has an extremely young Jessica Tandy as her incompetent, comic-relief Irish maid. The maid limps, and it’s this perceived imperfection in Nicholas’s eyes that leads to the first serious quarrel between the newlyweds. He can’t stand to have the girl in his sight and wants her out of the house. Miranda feels pity for her and enjoys her companionship; she feels lonely most of the time at Dragonwyck.
The argument takes a religious turn, and the godfearing Miranda learns to her horror that her husband is an atheist. “I believe in myself, and I am answerable to myself. I will not live according to printed mottoes like the directions on a medicine bottle.”
Nicholas says he has no intention of trying to convert her away from her own religious prejudices, which doesn’t sound unreasonable even if he again uses a condescending tone when he says it, but Miranda remains alarmed. She’s afraid for the soul of her unborn child.
Unborn child? Yes, she is pregnant and, no, she hadn’t told her husband about it yet. The news comes out during their quarrel and mercifully puts an end to it. The one thing Nicholas most desperately wants is a son to carry on the Van Ryn name–Johanna couldn’t have more children after Katrine–so Miranda’s news is what he’s been hoping to hear since they married. He’s so delighted that he lets her keep her maidservant.
The couple are relatively happy during the months that follow in spite of their religious differences, until the night when Nicholas urgently summons Dr. Turner up to the house to deliver Miranda’s baby.
Dr. Turner tries to break this bad news to Nicholas as gently as he can, but Nicholas refuses to hear it. His son is fine, he insists.
When he gives in to Miranda’s request and has a priest brought in to baptize the baby right away, he says that it’s only a precaution. They’ll soon repeat the ceremony more formally in the village church.
No, says Miranda; they had the baptism just in time. The baby has died in her arms.
Since Katrina isn’t home, she doesn’t hear Ysilde’s song of vengeful triumph, but Nicholas does.
The doctor assures them that there’s no reason why they can’t have more children, but the loss of their infant son puts an effective end to the marriage. Nicholas spends days at a time in his mysterious tower room, until Miranda is finally moved to go up the winding stairs and knock on the door to see what’s going on inside.
She’s somewhat disappointed; the tower room is rather ordinary-looking with a divan and some shelves full of books, and an unshaven and scruffy Nicholas in his dressing gown. No evil twins or pagan idols or convenient altars for blood sacrifices.
Nicholas: “I live.”
What he means by that is that to retreat from the unbearable aspects of his life, he takes drugs (opium, I assume, although he doesn’t specify his dope of choice). Miranda calls this retreat from reality cowardice. She begs Nicholas not to shut her out. They should stand with each other in the face of their troubles, be unhappy together so that they can eventually become happy again. But Nicholas isn’t interested anymore; he considers his second marriage to be as much of a disaster as the first.
Not longer afterward, Nicholas’s oleander sits at the foot of Miranda’s bed. When he hears about this, Dr. Turner, who has remained sweet on her, recalls the circumstances under which Nicholas’s first wife died. He knows now something that he didn’t at the time–that oleander is deadly poisonous. Did Nicholas put some of the plant into Johanna’s dinner on that fatal night? Can the doctor rescue Miranda before she shares Johanna’s fate?
Meanwhile, the social revolution that’s been brewing among the tenant farmers the last couple of years is finally heating up and boiling over. It’s time for the villagers to storm the patroon’s castle.
I’m always a little let down by the end of this movie. In spite of Nicholas’s wife-murdering, high-handed snobbish ways, as long as he’s the elegantly sneering young Vincent Price, I have to root for him.
This film was Joseph Mankiewicz’s first time out as a director. After this, he would work with Gene Tierney again in the lovely ghostly romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, then go on to the acerbic Letter to Three Wives, and the completely fabulous All About Eve. Since he also worked on the screenplay, I assume that the more memorable pieces of dialog are his as well. Whether or not he’s responsible for the ending, where Nicholas’s death is altered from the way he died in the book, I can’t say.
The DVD also has commentary and a featurette about the movie, and most interesting to me, two radio versions of the story in one of which Price reprises his role. A lot of classic movies from the 1940s on DVD have these radio dramas; since I’m doing reviews of audio plays on CD, I should take a closer look at them and see how they compare to the films.