“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review




“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review

Being an aficionado of old Hollywood period dramas, I noticed that it was rare to find movies set in the antebellum North. Very rare. I have tried to think of how many of these films I have come across. And to be honest, I can only think of four or five so far, in compare to the numerous films set in the antebellum South. One of those Northern antebellum tales proved to be the 1946 movie, “DRAGONWYCK”

Based upon Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by him; “DRAGONWYCK” began in 1844 Greenwich, Connecticut; when Miranda Wells, the daughter of a religious farm couple, receives a letter from distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn. Nicholas, the autocratic and charming owner (Patroon) of a Hudson River Valley estate called Dragonwyck, asks if one of Ephraim and Abigail’s daughters could act as governess for his eight year-old daughter, Katrine. Miranda, who daydreams about a more romantic and luxurious lifestyle, manages to convince her doubting parents to let her go.

Upon her arrival at Dragonwyck, Miranda meets the young Katrine and Nicholas’ wife, a gluttonous, yet slightly high-strong woman named Johanna. She also meets the handsome local doctor, Dr. Jeff Turner, at the “kermess” – a ceremony where landowner Nicholas receives the rents of his tenants. Not only does Miranda become aware of the strange atmosphere at Dragonwyck and the tense relationship between Nicholas and his tenants; she also finds herself falling in love with her cousin and employer . . . and he with her. This budding relationship between the pair proves to be quite disastrous for all concerned.

After my second viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that I could never regard it as a personal favorite. The writing for some of the film’s supporting characters struck me as theatrical and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I have to include the Ephraim Wells character, who came off as a clichéd version of the 19th century religious American male and Peggy, the young maid loyal to Miranda. During the film’s third act, the narrative revealed that Nicholas Van Ryn’s lack of religious belief. Was this supposed to cap his position as an immoral and villainous man? Because honestly . . . I realized that I could not care less about his lack of belief. And I found it ridiculous that his status as a non-believer was supposed to be a sign of his villainy. I understand. Perhaps the majority of moviegoers felt differently in 1946. Needless to say, this aspect of Nicholas’ character did not age well over the past 72 to 73 years. I was not that impressed by the film’s finale in which Nicholas had a showdown with his discontented tenants. Although it featured an excellent performance by Vincent Price, I found the actual sequence a bit anti-climatic. I noticed that the film’s ending was different from the one written by Anya Seton. However, I found Seton’s ending in the novel more dramatic, but somewhat ludicrous. I could see why Mankiewicz had changed the ending.

Although I could never regard “DRAGONWYCK” as a personal favorite of mine, I must admit that I found it to be a rather first-rate film. The movie – the story itself – struck me as a prime example of American Gothic literature. In fact, I would go as far to claim that the narrative almost reminds me of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, but with a darker twist. Unlike Brontë’s tale, “DRAGONWYCK” included the specter of murder and class conflict. The latter included the historical conflict known as the Anti-Rent War, in which tenants in upstate New York revolted and declared their independence from the manor system operated by patroons, by resisting tax collectors and successfully demanding land reform between 1839 and 1845.

One would think that the Miranda Wells character would be the narrative’s center or force. A part of me feels sad that I cannot make that claim. For the most interesting aspect of “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be the Nicholas Van Ryn character. Was he supposed to be a mere villain? If a person viewed him from how he had ended his marriage to the voracious Johanna, he or she could regard him as such. On the other hand, I found it difficult to regard his refusal to embrace his wife’s new-founded religious fervor as monstrous. Which meant that in the end, Nicholas became something of a repellent, yet fascinating character to me. A true force of nature. I wish I could have said the same about Miranda. I found her charming and extroverted, but after her marriage to Nicholas turned sour, she became something of an annoyance. Being the offspring of religious parents, I was not surprised that she eventually turned to religion. But I found it annoying that religious fervor was the only literary device used to develop her character and nothing else. Nicholas, on the other hand, proved to be a lot more complex.

A part of me wishes that “DRAGONWYCK” had been filmed in Technicolor. It would have been interesting to view Twentieth Century-Fox’s version of antebellum New York State in color. Especially the Hudson River Valley. I am not begrudging Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography. His work for the film’s interior shots, especially those for the Dragonwyck manor had provided a great deal of atmosphere, adding to the film’s Gothic narrative. But I was not that impressed by the exterior shots. I must admit that I have no memories of the film’s score by Alfred Newman. I thought Lyle R. Wheeler and J. Russell Spencer’s art direction, along with Thomas Little’s set decorations were excellent . . . especially for the Dragonwyck manor and New York City hotel’s interiors. However, I truly enjoyed René Hubert’s beautiful costume designs for the movie. Were they accurate examples of mid-1840s fashion? I have my doubts. But as the images below reveal, they were gorgeous:

 

I might as well focus on the movie’s actual performances. Were there any bad performances? No. “DRAGONWYCK” can honestly boast some solid or excellent performances. The supporting cast featured some solid performances from the likes of Harry Morgan as one of Nicholas’ angry tenants, Connie Marshall as Nicholas’ daughter Katrine, and Trudy Marshall as neighbor Elizabeth Van Borden. Future Oscar winner Jessica Tandy’s portrayal of Miranda’s Irish-born maid Peggy O’Malley struck me as a bit theatrical. I could also say the same about another future Oscar winner Walter Huston, who portrayed Miranda’s religious father Ephraim Wells. Anne Revere’s portrayal of Miranda’s mother Abigail Wells seemed a lot more subtle . . . and skillful. Spring Byington portrayed the Van Ryns’ manipulative and slightly creepy maid Magda. A part of me wondered if it was Mankiewicz or Seton’s intention to create a more benign version of the Mrs. Danvers character from “REBECCA”. Vivienne Osborne, on the other hand, gave a very skillful performance as Nicholas’ first wife, the gluttonous and insecure Johanna Van Ryn. I did not know whether to share Nicholas’ disgust for her or feel any sympathy toward her for being married to a creep.

I was prepared to dismiss Glenn Langan’s performance as the handsome local physician, Dr. Jeff Turner, who befriends Miranda. I had assumed that he would be another one of those bland leading men that the Hollywood system tried to transform into a movie star. After my recent viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that Langan gave an interesting performance by skillfully conveying Jeff’s barely concealed anger toward Nicholas’ arrogance. However, my vote for the best performance would go to Vincent Price’s portrayal of Nicholas Van Ryn. I thought he gave a brilliant and dynamic performance as the arrogant, yet charismatic Nicholas, whose villainy proved to be rather enigmatic. Gene Tierney did an excellent job in carrying the film as the lead Miranda Wells. I was very impressed by her portrayal of the more ebullient and naive Miranda during the first two-thirds of the film. But once Miranda’s marriage to Nicholas began to fail, Tierney’s portrayal of the character fell flat. I do not blame her. I blame the manner in which the character had become one-dimensional, thanks to Anya Seton’s novel and Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay.

Overall, I rather enjoyed “DRAGONWYCK”. It was not perfect. No film is. But I was a little put off by some theatrical acting in the film, the decline of the Miranda Wells character and the writing overall during the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes. But I must admit I enjoyed most of the film’s narrative. Many would dismiss it as costume melodrama. Personally, I see no reason to dismiss melodrama. It can be appreciated, if written well like other forms of fiction. Thanks to Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay and direction, along with a competent cast led by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price; “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be more entertaining than I had previously surmised.

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Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1950s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1950s

1 - A Nero Wolfe Mystery

1. “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” (2000-2002) – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred in this adaptation of novels and short stories about the New York City based private detective from Montenegro, Nero Wolfe.

 

2 - The Company

2. “The Company” (2007) – Robert Littell produced this three-part miniseries adaptation of his 2002 novel about the Cold War during the mid and late 20th century. Half of the series is set during the 1950s. Chris O’Donnell, Rory Cochrane, Alessandro Nivola, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton starred.

 

3 - Agatha Christie Miss Marple

3. “Miss Marple” (1984-1992) – Joan Hickson starred in this adaptation of Agatha Christie murder mysteries featuring the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The series was produced by George Gallaccio.

 

4 - MASH

4. “M*A*S*H” (1972-1983) – Larry Gelbert developed this Award winning adaptation of the 1970 movie and Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel, “M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” about a U.S. Army field hospital during the Korean War. Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers and Mike Farrell starred.

 

5 - Agatha Christie Marple

5. “Agatha Christie’s Marple” (2004-2013) – Both Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie portrayed Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novels about the elderly sleuth.

 

6 - The Hour

6. “The Hour” (2011-2012) – Romola Garai, Dominic West and Ben Whishaw starred in this series about a BBC news show set in the mid-to-late 1950s. The series was created by Abi Morgan.

 

7 - Magic City

7. “Magic City” (2012-2013) – Mitch Glazer created this STARZ series about a Miami hotel owner during the late 1950s. The series starred Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Olga Kurylenko.

 

9 - Ill Fly Away

8. “I’ll Fly Away” (1991-1993) – Regina Taylor and Sam Waterston starred in this series about a Southern black housekeeper and her complicated relationship with her employer, a white attorney in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series was created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey.

 

10 - Grantchester

9. “Grantchester” (2014-Present) – James Norton and Robson Greene starred in this adaptation of “The Grantchester Mysteries”, James Runcie’s series of mystery stories that feature an unlikely partnership between a Church of England vicar and a police detective during the 1950s.

 

8 - Ordeal By Innocence

10. “Ordeal of Innocence” (2018) – Sarah Phelps wrote and produced this third adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel. The three-part miniseries starred Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor and Anthony Boyle.

 

 

The AMERICAN REVOLUTION in Television

Below is a selection of television productions (listed in chronological order) about or featured the American Revolution: 

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION IN TELEVISION

1. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (aka Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow)” (NBC; 1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this three-episode Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Mars”. James Neilson directed.

2. “The Bastard” (Syndication; 1978) – Andrew Stevens and Kim Cattrall starred in this adaptation of the 1974 novel, the first in John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” literary series. Lee H. Katzin directed.

3. “The Rebels” (Syndication; 1979) – Andrew Stevens, Don Johnson and Doug McClure starred in this adaptation of the 1975 novel, the second in John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” literary series. Russ Mayberry directed.

4. “George Washington” (CBS; 1984) – Barry Bostwick starred as George Washington, first U.S. President of the United States – from his childhood to his experiences during the American Revolution. Directed by Buzz Kulik, the miniseries starred Patty Duke, Jaclyn Smith and David Dukes.

5. “April Morning” (Hallmark; 1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The television movie was directed by Delbert Mann.

6. “Mary Silliman’s War” (Syndication; 1994) – Nancy Palk starred in this Canadian-produced television movie about the experiences of a Connecticut matriarch during the American Revolution. Stephen Surjik directed.

7. “The Crossing” (A&E; 2000) – Jeff Daniels starred as George Washington in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1971 novel about the Battle of Trenton campaign in December 1776. Robert Harmon directed.

8. “John Adams” (HBO; 2008) – Emmy winners Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams in this award winning HBO miniseries about the second U.S. President from his years as a Boston lawyer to his death.

9. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC; 2014-2017) – Jamie Bell starred in this television series that is an adaptation of Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. The series was created by Craig Silverstein.

10. “The Book of Negroes” (BET; 2015) – Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. starred in this television adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel about the experiences of an African woman who was kidnapped into slavery.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

 

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

This 1962 movie was among the last of the old-fashioned “epic” films that was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Filmed using the Cinerama widescreen process, it featured an all-star cast directed by at least three directors. 

After making the decision to use the Cinerama wide-screen process, MGM decided to produce a cinematic adaptation ofLIFE magazine’s 1959 series of articles about the history of the American West. Screenwriters James R. Webb and John Gay (uncredited) achieved this by focusing the film on two to three generations of family that migrated westward from western New York, to Southern Ohio, to California and finally to the deserts of Arizona. The story stretched out in a period of fifty (50) years from the late 1830s to the late 1880s. According to Wikipedia, the movie was set between 1839 and 1889. Yet, Webb and Gay’s script never indicated this. The movie consisted of five segments that were directed by three directors, Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall.

“The Rivers”, which was directed by Henry Hathaway, focused on the Prescott family’s journey from western New York to Southern Ohio, in an attempt to reach the Illinois country via the Erie Canal and the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins, who falls in love with eldest daughter, Eve; encounter murderous river pirates; and are caught in some dangerous rapids during their trip down the Ohio River. The last part of their journey ends in Southern Ohio, when the patriarch and matriarch of the Prescotts are drowned and Eve decides to remain there. She eventually marries Linus and her younger sister, Lilith decides to head to St. Louis.

In “The Plains”, Lilith Prescott is a dance hall entertainer in St. Louis, when she receives news of an inheritance – a California gold mine – from a former patron. In order to join a California-bound wagon train, Lilith becomes the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Agatha Clegg. She also becomes the romantic object of two men – the hard-nosed wagonmaster Roger Morgan (who has a ranch in California) and a professional gambler named Cleve Van Valen. Lilith eventually forms an attachment to Cleve. But when her inheritance turns out to be a bust upon their arrival in California, Cleve abandons her. He eventually reconciles with her on a Sacramento River steamboat and the two marry. Hathaway also directed.

John Ford directed “The Civil War”, a short segment about the experiences of Zeb Rawlins’ (Eve and Linus’ elder son) at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Although Zeb survives, his father was killed during the battle, and his mother died before his return to the family’s Ohio farm. Zeb decides to remain in the Army after the war.

“The Railroad” was about Zeb’s experiences as an Army officer during the construction of the railroad during the late 1860s. He tries and fails to keep the peace between the construction crew led by a man named Mike King and the local Arapaho tribe. The Arapho incites a buffalo stampede through the railroad camp after King breaks another promise. And Zeb resigns from the Army. George Marshall directed.

Hathaway directed the final segment, “The Outlaws”, which featured Zeb’s last days as a law officer, as he tries to prevent a group of outlaws led by a man named Charlie Gant from stealing a shipment of gold. After he is successful, Zeb and his family join his widowed aunt Lilith on a trip to her new Arizona ranch.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won three won – Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It is also considered a favorite of director Ron Howard. I might as well be honest. I have always liked “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. If I had not, I would have never purchased the DVD set. But I cannot see how it was ever nominated for Best Picture, let alone won the Best Screenplay Oscar. It was NOT that great. To me, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was a mediocre epic that featured a small handful of excellent performances, great photography and a superb score.

The fifty year period that spanned “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” struck me as more suitable for a television miniseries, instead of a movie – even if it had a running time of 162 minutes. There was too much going on in this film and its time span of fifty years was simply too long. The 2005 miniseries, “INTO THE WEST” had a similar premise, but it had the good luck to be aired in a six-part miniseries that ran for 552 minutes. And because of the lack of balance between the story’s premise/time span and its running time, the story about the Prescott-Rawlins family seemed half-empty . . . and rushed.

The best of the five segments are the first two directed by Henry Hathaway – “The River” and “The Plains”, which featured the Prescotts treks from New York, to Ohio. Although not perfect, thanks to some plot inconsistency and historical inaccuracy. What makes these two segments superior to the other three is that are longer and if I must be frank, more substantial. I could not decide between the two segments on which was my favorite. I enjoyed viewing the family’s journey down the Ohio River and the exciting battle with the river pirates. On the other hand, both Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck’s performances made “The Plains” very enjoyable for me.

But the worst of the three segments is the third one directed by John Ford – namely “The Civil War”. I hate to say this, but John Wayne did not make an effective William T. Sherman. The recently deceased Henry Morgan did a slightly better job as Ulysses S. Grant – frankly, by saying as little as possible. As for the segment, the screenwriters and Ford did not even bother to feature any plausible battle scenes of Shiloh. Instead, the audience was subjected to a quick montage of Civil War scenes from other MGM movies – probably 1957’s “RAINTREE COUNTRY”. The only good thing about this segment was the beginning scene, when Zeb said good-bye to his mother and younger brother . . . and the last scene, when he said good-bye and handed over his share of the family farm to his brother.

I enjoyed the work of the cinematography team led by the legendary William H. Daniels very much. I noticed that a great deal of the movie was shot on location in many of the national parks in the United States. However, the Cinerama process took away some of the grandeur with the curved lens, which made it impossible for Daniels and the others to film any effective close ups. And has anyone ever notice that whenever two of the actors seemed to facing each other, their lines of sight seemed to be slightly off? It must have been hell for the actors to face off each other in a scene, while being unnaturally positioned for the camera.

There were certain aspects of “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” that made it enjoyable for me. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Henry Fonda, Lee J.Cobb and Eli Wallach gave the best performances, as far as I am concerned. Spencer Tracy did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. But I especially have to commend Reynolds, Baker and Peppard for damn near carrying this film. Without them, this movie would have folded like a sheet of paper. There were some performances that did not ring true to me. According to one scene that featured Linus Rawlings’ grave, Eve’s husband and Zeb’s father was born in 1810. I hate to say this, but James Stewart was too old – at the age of 53 or 54 – to be portraying a 29 year-old man. He gave an entertaining performance, but he was too damn old. Karl Malden, who portrayed Eve and Lilith’s father, struck me as a bit too hammy for my tastes. So were Robert Preston, who portrayed the gauche wagonmaster Roger Morgan; and Richard Widmark, who portrayed the railroad boss Mike King. Everyone else was . . . okay.

What was the best thing about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? The music. Period. It . . . was . . . superb. Every time I hear the first notes of Alfred Newman’s score at the beginning of the movie, I feel goosebumps. I love it that much. As much as I enjoyed John Addison’s score for “TOM JONES”, I find it mind boggling that it beat out Newman’s score for“HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I just cannot conceive this. Newman also provided 19th century music from the era for the movie and it was used beautifully . . . especially in “The Plains” segment. With Reynolds portraying a dance hall performer, she provided moviegoers with entertaining renditions of songs like “What Was Your Name in the East?”“Raise a Ruckus” and the movie’s theme song, “Home in the Meadows”.

What else can I say about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? It is an entertaining movie. I cannot deny this. It featured first rate performances by the leads Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker and George Peppard. It featured beautiful photography shot by a team of cinematographers led by William Daniels. And it featured some gorgeous music, which included a superb score written by Alfred Newman. But it is a flawed movie tainted by historical inaccuracy and a story that would have been served best in a television miniseries. I am still astounded that it managed to earn a Best Picture Academy Award.