F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood novel, “The Last Tycoon,” is an admiring roman à clef about the visionary studio boss Irving Thalberg, who, in his early twenties, had more or less invented the producer-centric studio system. The novel, drawing on Fitzgerald’s time working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, includes a sardonic depiction of an assistant producer named Jacques La Borwits, an obsequious yes-man who’s always wrong. He’s based on another boy genius, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was a twentysomething writer and producer at M-G-M when he and Fitzgerald butted heads. (Mankiewicz offended Fitzgerald by rewriting his dialogue; he saw its literary merit but thought it was ill-suited to performance.) In Fitzgerald’s working notes for the novel, he wrote, “La Borwitz. Joe Mank—pictures smell of rotten bananas.”
Perhaps if Fitzgerald, who died in 1940, had lived longer, he’d have changed his mind, because Mankiewicz was soon to distinguish himself from Thalberg in one crucial regard: he became a director. What’s more, his directorial début, “Dragonwyck,”—produced in 1945 and streaming on the Criterion Channel starting September 1st—immediately showed him to be one of Hollywood’s most original filmmakers. It was a time when directorial débuts had begun to matter, thanks to the enormous impact of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.” (That movie was co-written by Mankiewicz’s older brother Herman—the “Mank” of David Fincher’s recent bio-pic—who had brought Joseph to Hollywood in 1929, when he was nineteen.) In the wake of “Citizen Kane,” a generation of youngish filmmakers, though firmly ensconced in the industry, made highly personal films that, in many cases, set the tone for their entire career.
“Dragonwyck,” based on a historical novel by Anya Seton, is set in the eighteen-forties and is remarkable for the way it fuses macabre, gothic melodrama with a highly analytic view of American politics and society, including the menace to women posed by absolute patriarchal rule. The protagonist is a young woman named Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney), who lives on a Connecticut farm, under the stern rule of her religious father, Ephraim (Walter Huston). She receives an invitation from a wealthy distant relative, Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price), to live at the Hudson Valley estate of the title, in order to be a companion to his eight-year-old daughter. Ephraim has misgivings, but Miranda, dreaming of a grand world beyond the farm, persuades him. The family she joins is an unhappy one—there is talk of a family curse—but she is dazzled by the elegant, imperious, epicurean Nicholas. When Nicholas’s wife dies suddenly, he soon proposes to Miranda and, again prevailing over her father’s doubts, she accepts, and quickly discovers that she has married a monster.
Nicholas is a patroon—that is, a landowner descended from New York’s seventeenth-century Dutch settlers, who, in this period, were still allowed to run their estates on a quasi-feudal system. Local farmers couldn’t own their land and were instead rent-paying tenants of grandees like Nicholas—aristocrats in all but name. Nicholas glories in this unjust, antiquated system and is determined to preserve it. In a most un-American way, he sees the tenants not as fellow-citizens but as subjects, and he is obsessed with passing on his estate to his son. (He doesn’t have one yet, but hope springs eternal.) But the farmers, who chafe under this system, challenge it, led by an earnest young doctor, Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan). This part of the plot is modelled on a series of events known as the Anti-Rent War. In 1839, farmers began to organize, holding protests and resisting tax collectors. After standoffs with the county sheriff and the state government, several activists were sentenced to prison. Eventually, in 1846, John Young, an anti-renter, became governor of New York (his election triumph figures in the movie), leading to definitive reforms.
By the time Mankiewicz made “Dragonwyck,” he had written or co-written dozens of movies—when he was just twenty-two, he got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay to “Skippy”—and his work as a director proved to be highly literary. The movie’s dialogue is sharp-edged, copious, and crystalline, and Mankiewicz’s direction is attuned to its subtle shifts. He never seems to be merely recording actors delivering lines; instead, his images inconspicuously but authoritatively parse the dialogue, reflecting its emphases with a kind of visual music. Mankiewicz doesn’t hesitate to underline important moments with hefty dramatic effects. When Nicholas arrives at the modest Wells home, in order to ask Ephraim for Miranda’s hand in marriage, Mankiewicz films his entrance from a high angle that takes in the newel of a staircase; then the right side of the frame is blocked by a puff of dark fabric, which turns out to be part of Miranda’s dress, as she comes down the stairs, her face unseen, and calls Nicholas’s name with shivery ardor.
Despite the movie’s strong aesthetic identity, “Dragonwyck,” like most of Mankiewicz’s work, is ultimately a cinema of ideas. For all its romantic melodrama, the movie is a masterpiece of structuralist cinema; characters, locations, and events are tightly and lucidly ordered. The result is a kind of transparency: beneath the dramatic surface appears an anatomy of American life, with all of its contradictions and fault lines. Miranda’s destiny unfolds as if plotted on a graph with three axes: ethical, political, and metaphysical. The ethical axis contrasts Ephraim’s rigid Protestant moralism and austerity with Nicholas’s arrogant amorality, which is given a florid, quasi-Nietzschean or even Randian tinge. Where Ephraim, encountering the luxuries of New York’s Astor House, scoffs that “Everything is what no man should ever want,” Nicholas is given a virtual aria, in which he declares himself an atheist and insists that he “will not live by ordinary standards” and that he is preparing to shake Matilda’s “God-fearing, farm-bred, prayer-fattened morality.” (Mankiewicz shot a scene in which Nicholas declares his amoral philosophy even more explicitly, but the studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, cut it before release.)
The film’s political axis consists of the way that Mankiewicz takes this very local historical episode and drills down to the most fundamental expressions of the theoretical issues involved. Nicholas expressly rejects the government’s authority to take from him and his family what he considers inviolably theirs; it is telling that the redress of inequities comes ultimately not from the mobilization of protest (vigorously staged though it is) but by the offscreen power of the modern regulatory state, via constitutional amendments which place limits on private prerogatives in the interest of a fairer civic order. In short, what’s at stake is the very idea and ideal of freedom as manifested in American history, to the present day.
Finally, the metaphysical axis establishes itself with the story of the family curse. It’s embodied by a harpsichord in the mansion’s cavernous so-called red room and by a portrait of its original owner, Nicholas’s great-grandmother Isild, that hangs on the wall behind it. The curse we learn is bound up with her life story—the scorn, humiliation, and mistreatment that she suffered and her desperate response to patriarchal cruelty—and it highlights the choice, or, rather, the lack of choice that Miranda faces. While submitting to the rule of her father, who makes her ask permission for almost anything that she does, she also endures that of Nicholas, whose apparent adoration masks plans that mainly involve the production of a male heir. The need for a male heir brings us back to the issue of the Van Ryn’s property: the family curse, though supernatural, in effect proves to be the need to sustain an irrational and unnatural social and domestic order. The main agent of progress is the young doctor, Jeff Turner, a leader of the protests. (One of the leaders of the actual historical protests was also a doctor, named Smith A. Boughton.)