Remember when movies based on books were watchable?
I watched Dragonwyck (1946) a while back with my dad. Gene Tierney stars opposite Vincent Price as Miranda Wells, the poor cousin of a rich American landowner, Nicholas Van Ryn. Miranda is called up to her cousin’s estate to work as Governess to his young daughter, Katrine, and discovers a world of privilege at the cost of the people. Set in 1884, Nicholas makes his vast fortune by collecting rent on his extensive farmland, ruling over both his tenants and his wife with cruelty and a caustic wit.
Even still, Miranda can’t help but enjoy her new status and the material wealth that it brings as it becomes clear that cousin Nicholas’ intentions are not pure. As Miranda gets closer to her cousin, Nicholas’ wife, Johanna, retires more and more from society. When she suddenly dies, Miranda is more than willing to fill her shoes, only to find out that life as his wife is not as wonderful as she had imagined, and grows closer to Doctor Jeff Turner, an eager confidante who is also smitten with her beauty. Whispers and dark rumours haunt the estate, infecting Miranda with unease.
While on the surface, this film is the usual Gothic thriller, the real enjoyment for me comes from Miranda’s character. On the surface, she is an innocent dreamer and Gene Tierney seems to take this role at face value. The truth is that her idle daydreams are not simply romantic and instead are driven by a pragmatic desire to better herself and get away from life as a poor, devout farmer’s daughter. Miranda never articulates this, and yet it remains clear that she ignores Nicholas’ mistreatment of Johanna and instead focuses on his wealth and status. She has no awareness of the plight of tenant farmers, and while she takes on a servant with a physical disability her charity is always limited in scope (this plot point also seems like a cynical writing device to increase sympathy for Miranda).
When life as a rich married woman in the midst of clashes over renter’s rights and after the sudden death of the previous Mrs. Van Ryn turns out to be less enjoyable than expected, Miranda suffers doubts and actively looks to another man to protect her, Doctor Turner. Miranda courts the Doctor, keeping him in her thrall. In this way, Miranda is no innocent victim, she is very much in control of her own fate, diving into a poorly-chosen marriage for wealth in spite of clear warning signs, and making every move to protect herself. She is flawed and selfish, rather than some paragon of virtue. As with many pieces from the period, the story shows us that the social climber will always fall, and that wealth and social institutions crumble.
I would say that this film is a bit difficult for a modern viewer, it can be slow at times and the characters are really unbelievable (plenty of scenery chewing all around). Vincent Price is perfect as the lead, alternating between oily charm and arrogant disdain with equal aplomb. The costumes and sets are very rich, and help set the mood, making the actors stiff and awkward, and with heavy furniture casting shadows that fill the rooms. Really, the film is interesting more as a look at class and gender relations than as a Gothic piece, although the idea of crumbling social institutions is at the heart of most good Gothic tales (Los pazos de Ulloa), rather than being limited to simpering romanticism (like, say, Jane Eyre).