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CAMP DAVID: HALLOWEEN 2008

By • Nov 4th, 2008 •

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DRAGONWYCK: THE GENESIS OF RODERICK USHER

Vincent Price is remembered as more of an icon of the Horror genre than ever in his lifetime. One of the reasons for this rests firmly with the seven films he created with director Roger Corman. When Tim Burton put together his very first film project it was of course called VINCENT, where he furthered the Price mythology by making Price and Edgar Allan Poe the same voice for a generation raised on these films.

All of this began long before Vincent Price ever met Roger Corman or Richard Matheson in 1960. It began while the actor was under contract to 20th Century Fox where he learned that Ernest Lubtisch was to direct a film from the novel DRAGONWYCK.

This film, and Price’s performance, would solidify the persona that Price would take to his grave. The following is an essay from the forthcoming book Prof Samuel Umland and I are working on for Tomahawk Press entitled BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: The Poe films of Roger Corman.

In 1946 20th Century Fox would produce a film that would resonate well into the next two decades due entirely to the presence of an actor who had never held a film together before this one. The film in question is DRAGONWYCK, and the actor was Vincent Price. At the time I am quite sure that studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck assumed the film was a Gene Tierney vehicle since the actress was a top Fox star at the time, not to mention stunning to look at and compelling when given the right material. What Zanuck was oblivious to was the degree that Vincent Price would dominate the film and how much the character of Nicolas Van Ryn would ultimately affect all the genre roles that would follow, making Vincent Price the heir apparent to Boris Karloff by 1960.

DRAGONWYCK was supposed to be directed by the stylish Ernst Lubitsch, who had Gregory Peck in mind for the role of Nicolas Van Ryn. Ironically both Price and Peck had already worked together at Fox in THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM two years before, and were quite different in their approach to acting. Lubitsch fell ill during preproduction and the film was given to a producer and screenwriter who had yet to direct a film – Joseph L Mankiewicz.

Vincent Price and Gene Tierney had already made three films together when they were cast in DRAGONWCYK and adored each other as actors. Price recalled “Gene was so stunning to behold in the flesh, with those gorgeous blue eyes of hers, I used to kid her that if all the men in America could see her as I did they would fall hopelessly in love with her. While we were filming DRAGONWYCK her marriage to Oleg Cassini was beginning to come apart. We had a visitor onset who caught Gene’s eye almost at once, a handsome young politician named John F. Kennedy, and this chemistry soon made it apparent to me that a romance was about to begin, which it did.”

The replacement of directors while filming was a situation particularly familiar to both of them. It had already happened while they were filming LAURA. In that film they had shot half of the picture with Rouben Mamoulian directing when Zanuck pulled the film away from Mamoulian for creating a gay subtext out of the relationship between Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. Otto Preminger took over, reshooting some of the offending material, yet nothing Otto could do really hid the fact that Waldo Leydecker was a homosexual, infatuated with the glamour of LAURA rather than the romance between a man and a woman in the conventional sense.

Zanuck was a well known homophobe in Hollywood and made it known that he did not want homosexuals like Clifton Webb and Laird Cregar working on the Fox lot. He was, however, made to see the light: while he may not have liked it, these actors and quite a few more gay men in every dept at Fox made money for the studio and were far too talented to let sexual preference stand in the way. Nevertheless, Mamoulian was replaced by Preminger, who really understood the perversity of these self-serving characters and wound up making a classic in the process.

We will never know what kind of a film Lubitsch would have made out of DRAGONWYCK’s Gothic romance. What we now had with Mankiewicz in the director’s chair was a brilliant screenwriter who knew next to nothing about directing films but was blessed with a first rate cameraman in Arthur C. Miller. Price would work with Miller a total of four times in his career, the first time in SONG OF BERNADETTE, followed by KEYS TO THE KINGDOM produced by Mankiewicz, then A ROYAL SCANDAL starring Price’s friend Tallulah Bankhead with the original director of DRAGONWYCK, Ernst Lubitsch. This production would be taken over as well by Otto Preminger as Lubitsch’s health began to fail.

I asked Price about working with a first time director in an interview done in the actor’s home in 1985. “Joe was a superb writer as well as being a top producer in Hollywood. I remember how much I wanted to play this character Van Ryn and I must tell you I had my work cut out for me convincing Joe. He had me typed as the somewhat portly priest character I played in KEYS TO THE KINGDOM, so I went on a crash diet, slimming down considerably so that, by the time I auditioned for Joe, I was Nicolas Van Ryn at least in appearance. I knew I could play this part because it was very similar to the character Jack Manningham that I had played on Broadway in ANGEL STREET. That role was really the genesis of what I like to call my Aristotelian villains, and from that day forward I used it whenever I was called upon to play a villain like Nicolas Van Ryn, or Roderick Usher for that matter.”

Vincent could not have realized at the time of filming DRAGONWYCK how much of his later career would depend on the works of Poe, yet he understood the connection between Nicolas Van Ryn and Poe almost at once by reading the preface to Anya Seaton’s book which contained Poe’s poem ‘Alone’. This unlocked the secret to Van Ryn’s philosophy and especially his sense of “that demon in my view” that Poe refers to about his own inner turmoil as a writer. “When I began to create the character of Jack Manningham, who was a psychotic personality if ever there was one, I read Kraft Ebbing’s PSCHOPATHIA SEXUALIS, which was of great help for me as an actor in attempting to understand this kind of behavior. I read Seaton’s book cover to cover to try and discover what made Van Ryn such an egotist and found the basis for my characterization in Poe’s magnificent poem which I believe to be one of his best. In the book, Nicolas takes Miranda to New York where they actually meet Edgar Allan Poe. It is a shame that in adapting a novel like DRAGONWCYK to film, so much must be sacrificed. We also lost my real death scene as well. In the book I drown saving Miranda from doing the same during a boat race on the Hudson river, which redeems Nicolas as a man whose principals were always above the pack, yet the evil that resided in him was also measured in the good that was beneath the surface.”

It is interesting now to compare just how similar the great house in DRAGONWYCK is to the HOUSE OF USHER, both being haunted by ancestral misdeeds. One might even consider DRAGONWYCK to be the unofficial prequel to USHER. There is a moment in Corman’s film where Roderick Usher surveys the landscape around the house of Usher from his terrace, lamenting the decay and especially the family heritage which will die out with him. Seeing Price slimmed down once again to play Usher, he resembles what Nicolas Van Ryn might have become if he had remained locked in his tower chamber at Dragonwyck, watching the outside world drift away as the house around him decayed into the void.

Anya Seaton’s novel of DRAGONWYCK, like most of her work, is well researched and vivid in its depiction of the Dutch influence that dominated New York in the 1840’s, where a family like the Van Ryn’s could live like feudal lords of the 19th century, creating the role of “patroon” to allow men to farm land they could never own. In the film, Mankiewicz makes a point of depicting the ludicrous attempt by Van Ryn and his followers to recreate the culture of the European court life on the Hudson River, as if America was somewhere else out of reach.

The influences that hover over Seaton’s novel don’t end with Poe; the character of Nicolas Van Ryn owes something to the legend of Bluebeard, with its forbidden tower room and dead wives. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is almost a role model for Gene Tierney’s character of Miranda, although Max De Winter Van Ryn is decidedly not. I remarked to Price that this must have been the beginning of what I referred to as Vincent’s “late wife films.” This made him laugh. ” Absolutely, it was when I realize that my wife in the film is a bit too fond of food and drink as a result of my lack of interest in her altogether, I decide to help matters along by poisoning her with Oleander leaves ground into her desserts. After that, if my wife wasn’t dead by reel two, then she certainly was by the end of the film.”

DRAGONWYCK is by turns a bit of Poe and Tocqueville with a soupsan of Perrault’s COUTES added to the mix. The film as seen today is a tour de force for Vincent Price, which was not the intention of the studio or the director. I asked Price about this situation during one of our interviews in 1985. “Gene and I used to speculate what DRAGONWYCK might have been like if Otto had been the director when we worked on LAURA which, as you know, started out with Mamoulain, who did not really understand the kind of people these perverse New York socialites were or the world they lived in. I mean, there was not one redeemable character in LAURA, and when Otto came on the film he got it at once. He knew these people from his own experience. I believe Otto would have brought out more of the perversity of the faux nobility that Nicolas felt was his right as a patron. Also he would have paced the film with more clarity than Joe was capable of at the time. I think looking back that Joe did the best he could in trying to cope with a production like DRAGONWYCK. The set alone was intimidating; I mean you could actually live in it. Lyle Wheeler was a genius as he unitized an entire soundstage at Fox to create the great house of Dragonwyck. It is ironic to realize that even a major studio like Fox still tore down the whole thing in the same manner we did years later with the Poe films that I did with Roger {Corman}, THE RAVEN, which was a huge set, was taken down in three days, but not until Roger shot an entire other feature at the same time. As you pointed out, DRAGONWYCK may well have been my “first Poe film,” even though it would take my career another fourteen years to bring Edgar Allan Poe full circle with HOUSE OF USHER.”

In DRAGONWYCK, Vincent Price discovered his talent for the macabre, which began on the stage playing the murderer Jack Manningham in ANGEL STREET. From that moment until he was cast as Nicolas Van Ryn, the elements were already taking shape. Vincent clearly witnessed the same “demon in my view” that Poe had seen in his writing. Watching Price as he “hears” the ghostly music of the harpsichord played by a dead ancestor, or watching his descent down the stairs of the Tower room as he explains to his current wife that he is “what is vulgarly referred to as a drug addict, is to see the genesis of his future interpretations of Poe’s characters under the direction of Roger Corman.

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2 Responses »

  1. Brilliant! Makes one salivate over the upcoming book. Bravo!

  2. I am also looking forward to the book!
    There are some typo’s in this article – spellchecker, fact-checker, please.

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