I recently reviewed the film Dragonwyck. If you are ever in the mood for a classic gothic film double feature while we’re in lockdown (or any other time), you can’t go wrong pairing it with the 1940 film The House of the Seven Gables. Both films star Vincent Price (in quite different kinds of roles) and both feature a house that may or may not be cursed.
Loosely based on the Nathanial Hawthorne novel of the same name, the film begins with a prologue that explains how a 17th century ancestor of the Massachusetts Pyncheon family stole land from a man named Matthew Maule by accusing him of witchcraft. At his execution, Maule cursed Pyncheon and his descendants.
Fast forward to 1828, where the house built on the stolen land is called The Seven Gables. The family is in deep financial difficulty and it looks like the only solution is the sell the house and land. Jaffrey (George Sanders) is fanatical about keeping the house in the family. He is convinced somewhere in the house is a treasure hidden by the original Pyncheon.
His brother Clifford (Price) is of a different mind all together. In love with their distant cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) and anxious to begin a new life in New York and perhaps later Europe, he presses his father Gerald (Gilbert Emery) to sell the house.
It looks like Clifford is going to get his way until at the last moment, when Jaffrey convinces their father to cancel the sale. During an argument with his father, Gerald has what appears to be a stroke and dies. Neighbors witness the fight and become convinced that Clifford caused his father’s death.
Clifford is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Jaffrey believes he has won. To his horror, his father will leaves the house to Hepzibah. She throws Jaffrey out of the house and shutters it, angry at how Jaffrey destroyed the man she loves.
Hepzibah remains loyal to Clifford for two decades, trying relentlessly to get him pardoned. The lovely, happy girl turns into a sad and bitter woman. She is forced by circumstances to open a cent store in the house, which scandalizes the neighbors. Another distant Pyncheon cousin, Phoebe (Nan Grey) arrives to the house and helps Hepzibah make it a success.
A young man named Holgrave (Dick Foran) rents a room from Hepzibah. In reality a descendant of Matthew Maule, he helps Hepzibah and Clifford get revenge on the greedy and malicious Jaffrey.
I read the book a very long time ago and the movie departs from it in significant ways. For one thing, in the book Clifford and Hepzibah are not lovers, they are brother and sister. The change of course adds a heartbreaking love story, enhanced by the surprisingly poignant performances by both Price and Lindsay. (I say “surprisingly” because we tend not to think of Price as a romantic lead these days.)
But the screenplay goes even further. While Hawthorne wrote quite a bit about the hypocrisy and greed of colonial America, screenwriters Lester Cole and Bob Herzberg, both who had leftist views, took it even further. The film is an indictment of capitalism and the slave trade that funded it through much of early American history. Clifford’s trial is a kangaroo court where the outcome is decided by the judge and the jury doesn’t even bother to go into the jury room to convict. Holgrave is an abolitionist in the film but not in the book. Jaffrey is so terrified of the abolitionist “radicals” that they literally frighten him to death.
The politics of the film don’t overtake it that much. It’s quite possible to enjoy it simply as a gothic melodrama. What a treat to see Price and Sanders as antagonists. Sanders was reportedly difficult during the shoot but Price only had kind things to say about him.
Lindsay is outstanding here. Watching the film made me wonder why she didn’t have a career with more prominent leading roles. Price sings a song and while he did sing in a few other movies, it’s a wonder he didn’t get to do musicals more often. He’s very good!
If you want to curl up with some gothic goodness about cursed houses featuring Price is roles that are almost polar opposites, definitely consider making a double feature out of The House of the Seven Gables and Dragonwyck.