Sunday, March 28, 2010
According to actress Gene Tierney, in her autobiography, Self Portrait, the thing most remembered by her during the filming of Dragonwyck, was her initial meeting of young John F. Kennedy, just home from his service in the South Pacific. “I turned and found myself staring into what I thought were the most perfect blue eyes I had ever seen on a man. He was standing near the camera, wearing a navy lieutenant’s uniform. He smiled at me.” It was the beginning of what would become a heartbreaking romance for the star. But there was certainly much more to remember about the actual film than the off-screen pairing of two very attractive young celebrities. Dragonwyck is a wonderful example of the Gothic suspense genre of films, written and produced in the tradition of Rebecca and Jane Eyre.
Based on Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, Dragonwyck is the name of an enormous estate in the Hudson Valley of New York state in the mid-nineteenth century, owned by patroon Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). Under the Dutch patroon system, a landholder held rights to large tracts of land in the seventeenth century colony of New Netherland (later New York), which were worked by small farmers for a portion of what they produced (think early sharecropping). Van Ryn invites his “cousin” Miranda Wells, a young country lass from Connecticut, to be governess to his young daughter. When she arrives at Dragonwyck, she senses strange goings on and when Van Ryn’s wife mysteriously dies, he asks Miranda to marry him. All is fine until their firstborn, a male child so desperately wanted by its father, dies shortly after his birth.
Tierney is breathtaking as always. One of the biggest non musical stars at 20th Century-Fox during the mid 40’s, her cool glamour is apparent as it is in so many roles she played during the period. She had just reached a career high the previous year with her Oscar nomination for her starring role in Leave Her to Heaven, and the plum dramatic roles on the Fox lot were being offered to her. Co-star Vincent Price, though not billed above the title, garnered one of his rare starring parts during his tenure at Fox, though the role of Nicholas Van Ryn was first slated for newcomer Gregory Peck, but Peck bowed out and eventually, Price was cast. His creepy, eerily manipulative Van Ryn is a foreshadowing of the definitive characters for which he would become famous in later life.
One important note about the movie is that it marks the directorial debut of intelligent screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would go on to win Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve , both also at 20th Century-Fox. Already writing the script for Dragonwyck, he was called on to direct when scheduled director Ernst Lubitsch became ill. Atmospheric and rich in historic texture, it is a respectable first effort and a memorable film. Excellent support comes in the form of Glenn Langan, as a handsome doctor who falls in love with Gene, Walter Huston and Anne Revere as Tierney’s God-fearing parents, Spring Byington as the wise but giddy housekeeper of Dragonwyck and in a small and early role, Jessica Tandy as an Irish maid.