A poor and impressionable young woman arrives at a grand mansion and is blown away by its magnificence—and by the attractive man who is master of the manor. Except that the manor (and the man himself) may have secrets to hide…
Dragonwyck begins at the Wells farm in Connecticut. The Wells are stolid peasant stock: hard-working, sensible, god-fearing. One of their two daughters, Miranda (Gene Tierney) is somewhat less stolid than her parents—especially her father Ephraim (Walter Huston)—would like her to be. At the start of the film, Miranda comes racing into the farmhouse, bearing a letter for her mother Abigail (Anne Revere). The fine envelope and the grand address from which it’s come—Dragonwyck—are enough to convince Miranda that this is a letter of some worth.
The letter is from a Nicholas Van Ryn, who introduces himself as Abigail’s distant cousin (Abigail, on examining the relationship more closely, concludes that there is no blood relationship between them). He is very wealthy and makes an offer: he would like one of Abigail Wells’s daughters to come and stay at Dragonwyck for as long as she would like. While she is there at Dragonwyck, she could also act as companion to Nicholas’s eight-year old daughter, Katrine.
Abigail is not enthusiastic; even less so is her husband. Ephraim Wells does not like the idea of Miranda going to Dragonwyck at all (Miranda’s sister firmly says she has no desire to go anywhere). But Miranda has her heart set on going to Dragonwyck, and (knowing her father’s love for scripture) urges him to use bibliomancy to find out what the Lord wants them to do. As luck—or God, or whatever—would have it, the message is clear: Miranda should go.
Ephraim Wells accompanies her to New York City, where Nicholas Van Ryn will come to fetch Miranda. Miranda is dazzled by New York; her father is disdainful. At the hotel where they’re to meet Nicholas, Miranda is awestruck when their mentioning Nicholas’s name opens the most glittering doors, beyond which lie plush rooms and a fine dinner. Ephraim despises it all.
When Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) puts in an appearance, he does nothing to convince Ephraim that this trip of Miranda’s is a good idea. On the contrary, when they start talking, Nicholas explains that he is a patroon, one of the originally Dutch ‘aristocracy’ of around the Hudson River. He has tenant farmers, who cultivate the land and pay him an annual tribute. Ephraim, good self-respecting farmer that he is, is appalled at this state of affairs. Nicholas is adamant, though: what is wrong in his family upholding their old traditions? The patroons have been there for the past 200 years, and Nicholas and his heirs will continue to hold on to their privileges for generations to come.
Despite the disagreement between Ephraim and Nicholas, however (since the Lord has willed it), Miranda goes to Dragonwyck with Nicholas. She is so excited that she’s almost leaping with joy on the boat when she catches sight of the place.
Once inside the house, at dinner, Miranda gets to meet Nicholas’s wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne; Dragonywck was her last film). Johanna seems abstracted, gluttonous, and a bit of a hypochondriac. She’s going on and on about how unwell she feels, and she makes it a point to ask Nicholas if he remembered to buy her pastries from New York. She is also too intent on eating to pay much attention to her new guest.
During dinner, their daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall) also comes to the table, and turns out to be a diffident, listless-looking child.
After dinner, the adults move to the Red Room, a chamber which is graced by an old harpsichord and a portrait of a young woman. Nicholas explains to Miranda that the woman was his great-grandmother, who hailed from New Orleans, and who died young. The harpsichord was hers.
Johanna starts to say there’s something spooky about the Red Room—that the ghost of this woman still haunts it—but Nicholas puts a stop to that. It’s servants’ gossip: Johanna should neither be paying heed to it, nor repeating it.
But the housekeeper at Dragonwyck, Magda (Spring Byington), also says something to the same effect, that Nicholas’s long-dead great-grandmother still comes to the Red Room at night sometimes to play her harpsichord. Miranda brushes it off and tells Magda that’s just kitchen gossip. Magda, however, isn’t convinced.
Quickly, Miranda gets swept up into everyday life at Dragonwcyk.
For 4th of July celebrations, Dragonwyck hosts a day-long celebration, followed by a ball. A dress has been ordered for Miranda from New York for the ball, and she’s very excited about the upcoming party. Before that, however, during the day, Nicholas’s tenant farmers flood the grounds. Miranda and Katrine watch from the outskirts, and Katrine introduces Miranda to a friend: Dr Turner (Glenn Langan). He’s a friendly, welcoming man, and seems to find Miranda attractive.
Dr Turner may be friendly towards Nicholas’s daughter and his guest, but not so much to the man himself. Miranda, watching the proceedings, sees a somewhat medieval custom being enacted. Under a old tree, a low platform has been erected, and on this a 200-year old chair has been placed. Nicholas Van Ryn, as patroon, is seated on it with great ceremony, and begins to call each of his farmers forward, demanding their yearly tribute.
The first couple of farmers who come forward come empty-handed. One is timid and easily brow-beaten by an imperious Nicholas, but the other fights back. This is America, a free country. He’s a citizen of a free country; why should he pay Nicholas anything? Dr Turner comes forward to support the man in his defiance of Nicholas’s high-handed ways. There is much anger on both sides.
Later that evening, Miranda gets another taste of just how officious and supercilious the patroons can be. At the ball that evening, Miranda finds herself increasingly on the outside. She is excluded from conversations, when she is unable to understand the French-speaking high society types, all of whom seem to know each other intimately. And a group of young women are astounded when Miranda defiantly tells them she’s from a farm in Connecticut (and that she’s plain old Miss Wells, not Van Wells).
The general attitude is one of such disdain and contempt, even if it’s in couched in superficially polite language, that Miranda runs out onto the terrace, weeping. She is followed out onto the terrace by Nicholas, who consoles her, reassuring her that the others are no better than her, and she has no reason to feel humiliated by them.
He is so reassuring and kind (and attentive, in a way that no man married to another woman really ought to be towards a woman not his wife) that Miranda is bowled over. He waltzes her back into the ballroom, and Miranda is laughing and happy. Looking at the two of them, one can’t help but think of them as an item, and it’s obvious from the expressions on people’s faces that that’s the general consensus.
Then one evening, Johanna takes to her bed, feeling unwell. Nicholas visits her, brings her some cake, and even has one of his favourite plants—a beautiful oleander, one which he’s very proud of—brought into Johanna’s room and placed near her bed.
Later, when he goes downstairs, Nicholas is told that Dr Turner wants to speak to him. As Nicholas suspects, Turner wants to talk about Nicholas’s oppression of the peasantry. Nicholas is dismissive, and has already told Turner to take himself off when Miranda comes by, and exchanges greetings with Turner. The sight of her seems to cause a change of heart in Nicholas: he insists Turner stay for dinner, and that he also look in on Johanna.
Turner does examine Johanna, and says there’s nothing wrong with her except for a cold. She will be fine.
By this time, it’s quite late, and it’s raining outside. Nicholas, surprisingly for a man who was till so recently very antagonistic to Turner, now insists the doctor spend the night at Dragonwyck. Turner agrees.
Later that night, Miranda finds Katrine missing from her bed. When she finds the girl, Katrine is very frightened: she can hear music, she tells Miranda. There, coming from the Red Room, a woman’s voice singing [we can hear it too, an eerie wailing note]. Miranda hears nothing, and gently persuades Katrine to go to bed.
She tucks Katrine in, and just then, discovers that there’s more cause for worry: Johanna has taken a turn for the worse. Turner, Nicholas, and Miranda rush to her room, and find her dead.
Nicholas, to Miranda’s surprise, recovers very quickly from the shock of being widowed. Even before Johanna’s in her grave, he tells Miranda something even more shocking: he and Johanna were never really happy, and after Katrine was born, it turned out that Johanna would never be able to have another baby. Since then, they’ve drifted even further apart.
But with Miranda—with Miranda, Nicholas wants a new start. He loves her, and he knows she reciprocates. Surely she cannot deny it. Miranda (though her face says she has feelings for Nicholas) is distressed, and tells him no. It cannot be, not so soon after Johanna’s death.
So Miranda goes home to Connecticut. En route, Dr Turner, seeing her leave Dragonwyck, stops her to say goodbye, and to confess his feelings for her. When an uncomfortable Miranda turns him down, Turner admits that’s yes, he’s figured it out: she loves Nicholas, doesn’t she? He is gracious enough to not push Miranda or try to get her to change her mind.
And Miranda, home with her family, sinks into a gloom which grows as the months pass by… and changes into radiant happiness only when Nicholas turns up one day, wanting to speak to Ephraim Wells to ask for Miranda’s hand in marriage. All is bliss. Or is it?
I must admit I guessed where Dragonwyck was leading from the moment the oleander was carried into Johanna’s room. This film has shades of everything from Rebecca to Suspicion to Gaslight: a naïve young woman, a suave and handsome husband who seems initially very charming but begins to appear sinister after a while. But how sinister he can get is anybody’s guess…
What I liked about this film:
The atmosphere, the Gothic feel to the whole thing, which is very well done. Plus Gene Tierney and Vincent Price make for a handsome couple. The acting, other than some hamminess in the climactic scene, is good.
What I didn’t like:
The pointlessness of the ‘haunted Red Room’ angle. Is that there only to add to the Gothic horror feel of the film? There is never any real explanation provided for it, unless one assumes that the two people who are shown hearing it are both somewhat batty. It does not tie in to the rest of what happens, and why it’s even part of the story is unclear.
Talking of one of the people who hear this eerie music: what happens to Katrine once Nicholas marries Miranda? The last we see or hear of Katrine is when Miranda tucks her into bed on the night of Johanna’s death. After that, Katrine mysteriously disappears from the story, and there’s no explanation offered (or none that I heard).
And, I fail to understand why the oleander had to be in the room. To let a canny amateur sleuth be able to put two and two together?
Plus, why isn’t Miranda put off by the way Nicholas treats the peasants? I can understand that a naïve young woman, her head turned by the attentions of a handsome and attractive man, would fall head over heels in love with him; but is she so blind that she completely refuses to see how brutal he is to these people (who are, all said and done, not so very different—when it comes to circumstances—than her own family back in Connecticut). A more believable situation for me, and one which would have absolved Miranda of some of the guilt, would have been if she had never been privy to the 4th of July episode with the peasants.
Overall, while Dragonwyck looks creepy enough (and Vincent Price does justice to the role in both his avatars as the two faces of Nicholas Van Ryn), it just isn’t as well made as any of the other films I’ve compared it to.