Dragonwyck's Depths

Dragonwyck's Depths

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Apr 10th 2018

Opening 72 years ago today, Dragonwyck (1946) remains a defiantly hybrid movie not easily pigeonholed, with screenwriter and first-time director Joseph L. Mankiewicz blending together an unsettling mix of well-researched historical fiction (Anya Seton’s bestselling source novel), social caste-crossing romance (country-born but ambitiously dreamy Gene Tierney would take care of this), psychological horror (Vincent Price, nonpareil in delivering on this element), ghost yarn (a “haunted” family legacy and a formidable, gloomy manor house designed by the art direction/set decoration team of J. Russell Spencer, Lyle R. Wheeler and Thomas Little covered this department in spades), murder mystery (an ill-fated first wife unable to deliver a male heir to the family dynasty added to references of the rare qualities of the oleander plant) and an agitated local community of average citizens chafing at the yolk of outmoded baronial rule. It’s no wonder that Dragonwyck’s rich brew garnered a mixed reception at the time, save for the commanding Price, although the masterful Mankiewicz would later win over audiences with even denser screen offerings in the years ahead. Nowadays, Dragonwyck’s complexities and contradictions fascinate even more. 

For example, Pictorial blogger Kelly Faircloth brought fresh eyes to the piece when she watched it a few months ago: “The movie does that incredible “women’s picture” loop-de-loop of acknowledging the desire to do something other than marry whatever local guy your family likes and moving into a domestic arrangement that bears a greater resemblance to postwar narratives about suburban living than a real-deal 19th-century rural New England community – “A woman ought to get a man first, then want him,” her pipe-smoking father [Walter Huston] grouses – then presenting the risk that your lust for the finer things (‘Peaches out of season and the feel of silk sheets against your young body,’ the obligatory creepy housekeeper [Spring Byington] puts it) will get you shackled to some power-tripping nightmare of a man. And yet, nothing expresses unease with power imbalances within the home quite like the gothic romance, an entire genre about houses where something is very, very wrong. Don’t ever tell me these mannered, aggressively theatrical products of the studio system aren’t frightfully relevant!”

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody also notes the skills inherent in this film’s swirling balancing act: “With its blend of historically accurate political debates and macabre mysteries, it plays like a blend of Poe and Tocqueville. The story concerns young Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney), a pious Yankee farmer’s daughter, who enters service as a nanny in the lavish (and haunted) Hudson Valley mansion of Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). But Van Ryn has designs on the young woman and plans to marry her – once he disposes of his wife. As ‘patroons’ (descendants of the region’s original Dutch settlers), Van Ryn and his wealthy peers ludicrously re-create European court culture – and feudal dominion – in the foothills of the Catskills, but the local farmers rebel. Mankiewicz builds the drama around real-life events in New York State’s violent Anti-Rent War, including a famous murder trial, the election of Governor John Young on a land-reform platform, and a doctor (played by Glenn Langan) who leads the strikers. Mankiewicz’s incisive visual prose deftly parses the characters’ political psychology along with the lurid romance; he reserves his most poetic flourishes for the whirling dance that snares Miranda in Van Ryn’s web of intrigue.” 

And whether or not 1946 audiences grasped it at the time, these observations from the Scott Ashlin-curated B-Masters Cabal essay on the film expounds on even more content within this history/horror mashup: “What most stands about this movie is its overtly political handling of that old gothic standby, aristocratic decadence. The Hudson Valley Rent War is Dragonwyck’s answer to the crack in the foundation of the House of Usher. Throughout the film, the course of the conflict serves as a symbolic benchmark for Van Ryn’s descent into madness and evil. The closer the anti-renters get to overthrowing the system of patroonship, the more depraved Nicholas becomes. Miranda’s disenchantment with her cousin-turned-husband has a political dimension, too, for the decisive factor is Peggy O’Malley (Jessica Tandy, from The Birds and Cocoon), the crippled Irish halfwit whom she hires to be her handmaid. Miranda takes Peggy in both as an act of Christian charity and as a Yankee incitement to self-betterment by hard work, but Nicholas is horrified at the prospect of sharing his home with so defective a specimen of humanity. His disgust with Peggy’s disability is what fully opens Miranda’s eyes to his true nature. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a film made roughly a year after the liberation of Auschwitz would have its socially and politically powerful villain express such sentiments, or that the same villain would also espouse a specifically Nietzschean form of atheism in which the nonexistence of God implies the unreality of morals. Nazis and their sympathizers had been the go-to baddies of so many other genres for five or six years, why not slip one into a gothic romance, too? But there’s also more going on here, I think, than Hollywood just having Hitler on the brain. I think Mankiewicz was deliberately pointing out an essential parallel between Nazism and feudalism – and indeed between either of them and practically any system of oppression. They all start with the premise that some people are just better than others, and that the inferior masses have no rights that the nobility, the Herrenvolk, the Übermenschen need respect. To draw that point out and then to situate it in an American historical context was pretty nervy of Dragonwyck’s creators. And it sure as hell wasn’t something I ever expected to see in a mid-40’s gothic romance!” That’s why Dragonwyck – on a marvelously outfitted Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray loaded with extra features – defies pigeonholing as one thing or another. It’s merely spellbinding.