DRAGONWYCK made for the directorial debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote the script for the 1946 period drama off Anya Seton’s bestseller novel, a 255-page historical romance published two years earlier. A fine example of studio craftsmanship, it gave luminous Gene Tierney another coveted role as mistress to the title estate, ruled by the icy iron hand of Vincent Price, in one of his best performances.
The story begins in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1844. Farm girl ‘Miranda Wells’ (Tierney) pines for a more romantic life than is offered under the stern religious strictures demanded by her father (Walter Huston). Hope and change come when imposing cousin ‘Nicholas Van Ryn’ (Price) offers her a position tutoring his daughter at his estate in Hudson, New York. The outward luxury of Dragonwyck, and its long tradition of small farm-plot tenants paying homage to the “patroon” (Price’s character) has hidden rot: the ruling family is cold, seemingly cursed, the tenants poised to revolt. Guileless and considerate Miranda has been drawn into a web she can’t easily escape.
With the backdrop of the ‘Anti-Rent War’ that rocked New York from 1839 to 1845, the Gothic-flavored family drama unfolds with excellent characterizations from the stars (the offbeat Price getting his first full-fledged lead) and supporting players. Offering solace or sabotage are Glenn Langan (sympathetic ‘Dr. Jeff Turner’, taken with Miranda), Vivienne Osborne (Nicholas’ sickly wife ‘Johanna’), Spring Byington (against type as silkily malign housekeeper ‘Magda’) and Jessica Tandy (partially lame maid ‘Peg O’Malley’, taunted by Nicholas for her physical imperfection).
Producer Darryl F. Zanuck made sure 20th’s studio resources were put to good use in the art direction (well appointed sets and matte backdrops), costuming, scoring (Alfred Newman, deft) camerawork (rich black & white tones via Arthur C. Miller) and editing (expert Dorothy Spencer; the same year she did Cluny Brown for Ernst Lubitsch and My Darling Clementine for John Ford).
Older sci-fi fans know Glenn Langan was The Amazing Colossal Man, but that amusing 1957 monster matinee was a comedown for the ruggedly handsome actor, who’d once been accorded upward mobility roles in films like Margie and Forever Amber, only to see his career peter out into garbage like Mutiny In Outer Space and Women Of The Prehistoric Planet. When things finally tapped out (bit parts in Chisum and The Andromeda Strain), Langan caught another bug, real estate, and did well by that game. If you’re old enough to grok The Amazing Colossal Man, you may also have fond recall of Spring Byington as the sweet matron on TVs December Bride; that makes her faux-sweet deviousness in this movie a fun peek at another side she could summon and score with (Byington was an interesting person). The underrated Tierney’s Miranda has backbone as well as beauty: she holds her own against Price’s imperious, eventually unmoored aristocrat. Harkening to Laura, this plot contains another daunting portrait on a wall to give Tierney pause to reconsider her fate. I’ll take this surprisingly layered saga over the reputation-inflated Laura: fine, strike me from your cocktail party list: I’ll stagger forth somehow. Everyone has their prejudices, whether they admit them or not and that includes those who persist in piping up about movies (books, music, wine, baseball, peat moss…), obliquely presuming and positing their critical acumen is somehow 100% untainted. Yeah. I’ve always been aware of this title, but ignorantly presumed it would be something to yawn through (period piece, 1840s and “back East, yet”, snooty manners, lots of frilly clothes, no action, zzzz). Fooled myself. Not the first time, undoubtedly not the last.
Forgotten today, Dragonwyck was popular enough to come in 32nd back in 1946, with grosses appearing to be around seven or eight million Truman dollars. 103 minutes, with Anne Revere, Harry Morgan, Addison Richards, Grady Sutton, Walter Baldwin, Trevor Bardette.