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Sunday, January 15, 2017

DRAGONWYCK (1946)

Writing, and then producing since the Talkie transition, Joseph Mankiewicz finally made his directing debut with this slice of Gothic hooey. A mash-up of JANE EYRE, REBECCA and GASLIGHT, it made an odd choice for a Hollywood literary sophisticate. Set in 1830s New York State, a backstory has independent tenant farmers breaking away from Vincent Price’s land baron, while its front story gives Price a rare romantic lead, falling hard for Gene Tierney, his invalid wife’s beautiful companion. Passion, poison, scandal, a new heir, a progressive country doctor with bedroom eyes to match his bedside manner, it all goes exactly as you expect. If only there was a bit of swing to the presentation; or if it had more fun running the course. Mankiewicz, always a bit stiff shooting his own scripts, gets a handsome look from ace lenser Arthur Miller (interiors at Tierney’s parents’ might be out-takes from HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41), but plot holes & disappearing characters take a toll. So too Price in the sort of role James Mason, Anton Walbrook & Charles Boyer all but owned at the time.* Ersatz Gothic has its place, but this one isn’t a convincing fake.

DOUBLE-BILL: Whether called ANGEL STREET or GASLIGHT, Walbrook (in London), Boyer (in Hollywood) and Price (on B’way) all took a turn at the sadistic romantic cad who drives his young bride to the brink of madness. But to see what Price misses here, look to James Mason’s breakout perf in THE MAN IN GREY/’43.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The film’s missing producer was the ailing Ernst Lubitsch who assigned the project to Mank as director, but removed his own name after disagreements. No one is quite sure why as Mank adored Lubitsch. Best guess is that Tierney, who Lubitsch did wonders with in HEAVEN CAN WAIT/’43, was made to play her gauche outsider with such polished elegance, the film’s dramatic structure collapsed. (Next year, Mankiewicz would make a spectacular course correction with Tierney on THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR/’47.)

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