The 1944 Gothic novel Dragonwyck was written by Anya Seton, one of my favorite historical novelists when I was growing up. She is probably best known for her novel Katherine, about John of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford, whose descendants included Henry VIII.
By the way, why has no one made a movie or miniseries out of this novel? The recent resurgence in costume dramas would seem like a perfect time to bring it to the screen. It’s kind of like Game of Thrones without dragons.
But I digress.
Seton was not known as a Gothic novelist. While Dragonwyck contains many of the elements of a Gothic novel—a huge and beautiful house that hides all kinds of secrets and horrors, a lovely, naïve heroine, the perfect victim for the darkly handsome owner of said house who happens to have an inconvenient wife—it also includes the history of the time and place, the Catskills in New York State during the Anti-Rent Wars, when tenant farmers rebelled against the Patroon system.
The 1946 film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, keeps most of the elements of the novel intact. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney), the dreamy daughter of a Connecticut farmer (Walter Huston) is thrilled when a sort-of relation of her mother’s (Anne Revere) invites her to come to upstate New York to care for his daughter.
This man, Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) is a “patroon,”—a land owner who has tenant farmers. This appalls Miranda’s father, a fiercely independent man who can’t fathom farmers working on land they don’t own. Nevertheless, he agrees to allow Miranda to go to Van Ryn’s home, Dragonwyck.
Nicholas has a wife he clearly does not love, Johanna (Vivienne Osborne), who takes comfort from food because her husband ignores her and their daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall).
Miranda is captivated by Dragonwyck and Nicholas. When his wife unexpectedly dies, she agrees to marry him, rejecting another suitor, Dr. Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan), who supports the Anti-Renter movement.
It isn’t long before it’s obvious to Miranda that her husband isn’t as he seems. When their son is born with a malformed heart and dies, Nicholas retreats to a tower room and becomes a drug addict. Dr. Turner soon realizes that Nicholas is trying to poison Miranda, the same way he poisoned his first wife. Nicholas is killed when he is confronted by the law and his angry tenant farmers.
Tierney and Price, who acted together in the 1944 film Laura, have a strong chemistry that helps convince you that she would fall for him, even though his treatment of his wife and daughter should seem concerning even to the most casual observer.
In the book, Nicholas is redeemed somewhat (he dies saving lives during a fire) but the film makes him quite the interesting baddie. In his drug-induced state and with the ease he gets away with murdering his first wife, he convinces himself he is above the law and can do as he pleases without fear of consequences.
Miranda is also more complex than the average Gothic heroine. Her attraction to Nicholas and Dragonwyck fulfills her fantasies of a life far more luxurious than the simple farm she was raised on. She is warned, by her mother and the (of course) weird housekeeper at Dragonwyck, that there is a steep price to pay for her dreams becoming reality. Jane Eyre, clearly an inspiration for the novel Dragonwyck, was uninterested in and uncomfortable with the wealth of her dark and secretive suitor, Mr. Rochester.
All of this is wrapped up with an impeccable production, acting (Huston in particular is terrific as Miranda’s stern father), and crackling Mankiewicz dialogue. (Mankiewicz took over the direction from Ernst Lubitsch, who was ill at the time.)
It might seem a little strange now, since Vincent Price had a long career playing villainous characters, but he had to wage a strong campaign to play the role. He knew it would help make his career and he turned out to be right. It’s the first time he got his toes wet playing a bad guy, and his performance is really quite wonderful, since he has to be convincing as both a romantic lead and a wife-murdering fiend. As we all know, he got quite good at the fiend part.