It is likely a Hollywood movie made over 70 years ago stumped contemporary audiences when its storyline was subjected to an abrupt change in bearings well into its running time. Mark Fraser finds the explanation for this narrative swerve.
Cinemagoers back in the 1940s should be forgiven if they thought there was something a little bipolar about Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1946 directorial debut Dragonwyck – particularly if their confusion had nothing to do with Vincent Price’s impressive character transformation during the course of the film.
Looking at this movie with fresh eyes some seven decades later, it’s understandable why some viewers who caught this work during its initial release may have been a tad perplexed regarding the direction of its plot, which seems to switch lanes around the half way mark.
At first glance, in what is a seemingly bizarre story development, two characters who look like they might have important roles to play in the evolving narrative suddenly vanish, leaving a gap which is never properly filled – or adequately explained – by the time the final credits roll.
The first is the eight year old Katrine (Connie Marshall), the daughter of Nicholas and Johanna Van Ryn (Price and Vivienne Osborne), whose manner suggests she’s a little weird for her age. Then there’s the chatty housekeeper Magda (Spring Byington), who ominously tells the new guest at the Dragonwyck estate on the Hudson River – Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) – that her host family has some skeletons in its closet, concluding her warning spiel with: “One day you will wish with all your heart that you had never come to Dragonwyck.”
While these two females are not given a great deal of screen time in the film’s first movement, they get enough to suggest both are destined for bigger things as the movie goes down its American gothic path.
Moreover, with the presence of a strange child and the implication that the house (particularly the Red Room) is haunted by Nicholas’ great grandmother Azeil, it’s understandable why viewers of the day may have expected the whole thing to head in the same direction as something like The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 spooky opus about the ghostly possession of two children living in a large English country estate and their nanny’s attempt to rescue them from some malevolent spirits.
But Mankiewicz, who adapted his screenplay from the Anya Seton 1944 novel of the same name, conveniently brushes Katrine and Magda aside to properly concentrate on some bigger picture issues – namely the tyrannical Nicholas’ murder of Johanna, his seduction of (and marriage to) Miranda so she can bear him a son and, finally, his eventual decent into madness and drug addiction.
Fortunately an explanation for this gear shift is given by Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr during their detailed voiceover commentary provided with Powerhouse Films Ltd’s Blu-ray release of Dragonwyck, which should help modern audiences come to grips with this hiccup. It won’t, though, provide any solace for yesteryear’s now-deceased filmgoers, who were probably left scratching their heads over the fact that the set-up in the movie’s first half doesn’t completely correspond with the unfolding events in its second.
According to the pair, it is suggested in both the film (via a few brief lines of dialogue) and Seton’s novel that Katrine has been sent to boarding school after her mother’s death. Meanwhile, as part of a fresh-start process, Nicholas completely changes the house staff following his first wife’s demise – a point which is apparently made clear in the book, but not mentioned in the movie.
While it may be easy to gloss over the latter oversight, when it comes to the first one – the vague explanation regarding the eight-year old’s surprise exit from the film – it must be said the above-mentioned dialogue is far from adequate.
When Miranda returns to Dragonwyck as the new Mrs Van Ryn, there is a scene when she tells the replacement housekeeper Mrs McNab (Betty Fairfax) that: “I’ve just written Miss Katrine that we found her doll. Please make sure it is packed carefully. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.” Following this there is no mention of the girl again.
Looking at this objectively, such a vague reference could mean anything. Yes – Katrine may have been sent to boarding school, but it’s also not out of the question that she’s staying with rich relatives somewhere. Indeed, it’s even possible her father, whose evil nature is fully exposed during the movie’s second half, has had her committed.
Given this, Mankiewicz as the screen writer must take full blame for this confusion, which fortunately has now been cleared up by Haberman and Nasr. As a result, today’s viewers can fully appreciate this otherwise reasonably rich work.
Of course one could argue that Price’s patriarchal performance in Dragonwyck is so good it effectively undermines any narrative hiccups. (It also raises the rhetorical question: Why wasn’t he given second billing behind Tierney instead of Walter Huston?)
At the start of the movie his characterisation of Nicholas is akin to his portrayal of the debonair Shelby Carpenter during the earlier moments of Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). By the end, however, he’s become a little more like The Conqueror Worm’s murderous witch hunter Matthew Hopkins, the protagonist of Michael Reeves’ 1968 grimly dark opus, which features some of the actor’s most wicked work. Watch the theatrical Price at work in Dragonwyck and it soon becomes obvious why he became one of cinema’s great horror stars.
Putting his performance aside, another striking aspect regarding the Mankiewicz movie is the obvious influence of Orson Welles – particularly his 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane and the just as impressive follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
While Arthur C Miller’s black and white cinematography isn’t as expressionist as Gregg Toland’s, or as sweepingly lyrical as Stanley Cortez’, it nevertheless contains many deep focus compositions – ones that do justice to the sometimes lavish sets – which no doubt would have impressed the wunderkind Welles.
An early example of this is at the start of the movie when Miranda’s mother Abigail (Anne Reeves) reads out the letter from Nicholas suggesting one of the Wells daughters – either Miranda or her sister Tabatha (Jane Nigh*) – go to Dragonwyck for an “extended visit” so she can receive “many advantages which she could not hope to enjoy in her present station”; this piece of exposition taking place in the kitchen of the Wells’ farm house in Greenwich, Connecticut.
From a compositional point of view, the scene is lifted straight from a seminal moment in Citizen Kane when, as a child, the future of the titular character (Welles) is arranged by his mother (Agnes Moorhead) and father (Harry Shannon) with banker Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris) in the family’s (poorer) rustic homestead. In this regard even Reeves and Moorhead look kind of similar.
And, as with Citizen Kane (which was written by Mankiewicz’ brother Herman along with Welles), a good portion of Dragonwyck is set in a large dark and gloomy gothic mansion where the rich and powerful patriarch becomes self-absorbed and withdrawn. In addition, both men end up with some serious women problems, although Kane – unlike Nicholas – is an adulterer, not a murderer.
When it comes to The Magnificent Ambersons (which Welles, Joseph Cotton and Jack Moss** adapted from a 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington), it’s interesting to note that, like Dragonwyck, it too concerns itself with society’s need to adapt to changing times. In the Mankiewicz movie, the patroon system which Nicholas has inherited from his Dutch ancestors is becoming obsolete as the 200 tenant farmers start demanding a fairer deal from their tyrannical landlord. A similar fate also faces the Ambersons, who are forced to accept the fact their 19th Century bourgeois influence is being undermined by America’s impending industrialisation.
Furthermore, both works – to a certain extent – end up being about unrequited love. During the first half of Dragonwyck, Miranda catches the serious eye of Dr Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan), a sympathetic medical practitioner who, early on, sides with the farmers and, later, figures out how the evil Nicholas managed to bump off his first wife. Meanwhile, at the start of The Magnificent Ambersons, inventor Eugene Morgan (Cotton) tries unsuccessfully to woo Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but ends up embarrassing her in a clumsy, but unforgivable, incident – a brief moment which eventually prompts her to wed Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway).
Ultimately, it’s this early plot development that helps provide the film with its overwhelming sense of loss and melancholy – emotions which, in their own way, permeate throughout Dragonwyck.
*She is referred as Tibby in the film.
**Cotton and Moss wrote uncredited additional scenes, according to IMDb.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Dragonwyck was released by Powerhouse Films on Blu-ray in the UK on April 22, 2019.