Dragonwyck (1946)

*. A movie best known today for some of its credits, though these aren’t the ones it would have been identified with at the time. In 1946 this was a Gene Tierney vehicle, because Darryl Zanuck thought she was the most beautiful woman in the history of the movies. It was also an Ernest Lubitsch production (he was slated to direct before getting ill), but his name was taken (at his request) off the credits because of his creative differences with fill-in writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz, whose first film as director this was.
*. So at the time you wouldn’t have thought much of the name of Mankiewicz, or of Vincent Price (another fill-in, in his case for Gregory Peck). Price’s billing is even below that of Walter Huston’s.
*. But as Steve Haberman points out on the DVD commentary Dragonwyck is the movie that, in the rear view mirror, can be seen as launching Price’s career in a certain type of role: what Haberman calls “the prototypical Vincent Price character.”
*. What’s that? A sinister, decadent, and usually somewhat depraved aristocrat associated with various characters out of Poe (it was the Poe connection that actually allowed Price to finally understand his character here). There’s often a dead wife floating around somewhere too. Price would even joke that this was the first of his “dead wife” movies. He’d do countless more.
*. In Dragonwyck this figure is made a little more interesting because he’s crossbred with a Byronic hero manqué. The poltroon Nicholas Van Ryn is so anachronistic he’s ready to restart the American Revolution all on his own, but isn’t quite up to playing the Prince Prospero of the Catskills. It’s quite an anticlimax when Miranda (Tierney) climbs the tower to his secret chambers and finds not a Bluebeard stash of corpses but only a drugged-up derelict.
*. Though perhaps underwhelming, this is at least something a bit different. The thing is, it’s just thrown into the mix with a whole bunch of other stuff that doesn’t stick together. As Lucy Chase Williams puts it, Dragonwyck showcases “all the tried-and-true elements” of the gothic romance genre, but they’d don’t cohere.
*. To take the most obvious example, what is with the story of Van Ryn’s great-grandmother Azilde, her portrait, and the haunted harpsichord? What does any of that have to do with the rest of what’s going on? Whenever it gets reintroduced it seems shoehorned, not to mention baffling. And why did Van Ryn have to bring that oleander from Rappacini’s garden into his wife’s bedroom to poison her? Wasn’t that a bit suspicious?
*. Even the romance angle is both weird and disappointing. Why does Miranda marry Van Ryn? She doesn’t seem in love with him so is she just a gold-digger? That’s not very sympathetic. Nor is there much chemistry between her and Dr. Jeff (Glenn Langan), who represents the new aristocracy. He’s just another one of those tried-and-true elements that go into the romance formula. He’s young, good-looking, a doctor. Of course they’ll get together after a suitable period of mourning for ol’ what’s-his-name.
*. This is a movie that makes you think of lots of other novel-movies — from Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Uninvited, down to all the later Poe/Price entries — only it’s not as good or quite as much fun. As a foreshadowing of that later development Dragonwyck is noteworthy, but despite its top-drawer talent (Mankiewicz, Alfred Newman’s music, Arthur Miller’s photography) and prestige-picture budget (nearly $2 million), it’s not much of a movie. Still worth seeing for all of the reasons mentioned, but unlikely to be a favourite.

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