Having seen Dragonwyck several times over the years in rather battered prints, the picture quality on Fox’s new DVD release of the film is quite a revelation. I’ve certainly never seen the film look as good as it does here. What is even more astonishing, is how prescient the film was, especially in terms of Vincent Price’s future career in Gothic horror films. Dragonwyck could easily be called Price’s first Poe movie, especially since it has as much or more to do with Poe than many of Roger Corman’s films that are based on Poe’s poems, such as The Raven and The Haunted Palace.
However, what I find really strange, is that it took 14 years before Roger Corman and AIP would give Price the chance to actually make a follow-up to Dragonwyck. This, despite the fact that Price gives one of his greatest film performances in Dragonwyck, for which he was reportedly under serious consideration for an Academy Award nomination as best actor (Fredric March won that year for The Best Years of Our Lives.)
Instead, Dragonwyck actually signaled the end of Price’s contract with Fox. Afterwards, he made only one more film for the studio, Moss Rose, before he was dismissed from the lot and moved over to RKO, under the control of it’s new owner, Howard Hughes. Price didn’t return to Fox until 1958, when his supporting role in The Fly helped that movie become the sleeper hit of the year.
While the new Dragonwyck DVD features a superb restoration of the film itself, it’s rather unfortunate that no important Vincent Price scholars (with the sole exception of Lucy Chase Williams), were invited to talk about the film. There is a passable commentary track (that contains several factual errors) by Steve Habermand and DVD producer Constantine Nasr, although I’m not familiar with the work of either one of them. There is also a short documentary on the film that contains nothing new, since few of the more qualified genre experts on Vincent Price, such as Tom Weaver, David Del Valle, or myself were included. (as mentioned, a few of Lucy Chase Williams comments are included, but were obviously cut to ribbons.)
Of course, what would have been especially nice, would have been hearing some of Vincent Price’s own comments about the film, whose point of view is completely absent from all of the supplements. If nothing else, I could have supplied Mr. Price’s own beautiful reading of Poe’s poem Alone as an audio supplement, or better yet, as an opening prelude to the film itself, for as Price notes below, it was how Anya Seton opened the book.
The following comments from Vincent Price regarding his work on Dragonwyck are culled from a special screening of the film Mr. Price hosted at the Opera Plaza Cinemas, during the San Francisco Film Festival on April 14, 1985, followed by a lavish dinner party for film festival patrons at Modesto Lanzone’s Restaurant. Additional comments from Mr. Price are from my interview with him, conducted during Mr. Price’s four day stay in San Francisco during the film festival in 1985.
VINCENT PRICE: Didn’t I look beautiful in Dragonwyck? You know, Dragonwyck is one of my own favorite pictures, along with the other films that were shown this week: Tomb of Ligeia, Theater of Blood, Champagne For Caesar and Laura.
Dragonwyck was based on a wonderful novel, by a woman named Anya Seton. It was also the last of four films that I made at Fox with Gene Tierney. Walter Huston and Jessica Tandy were also in it, but I had already made three pictures with Gene Tierney and I absolutely adored her. I think she was a very underrated actress.
Anyway, I had already been under contract for about five years at 20th Century-Fox, when they asked me to play the role of Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck. I thought the part was really the ideal Aristotelian villain. He had everything in the world he wanted: he was charming, attractive, educated, rich, plus he owned a marvelous place on the Hudson River. He was also a huge egomaniac. He felt you should never tolerate anything second-rate and therefore he wanted to eliminate anything he thought was second-rate from his life. Well, the one thing that was very second-rate in his life was his wife. She had given him a daughter, but he really wanted a son to carry on his family name and she couldn’t have any more children. In the meantime, he had met Gene Tierney and he felt she would make a much better wife, to provide him with a son. Then because he was neglecting his first wife, she started drinking and eating too much, and the doctors warned her she was eating herself to death, so he decided to help her along. One night he came into her room and told her he had a little surprise for her, her favorite cake. But in the frosting he had ground-up some Oleander leaves, which are deadly poison. If anyone wants the recipe after dinner tonight at Modesto Lanzones’s, I can give it to you! Anyway, she eats the cake and dies, so he got to marry Gene Tierney, who is certainly not a second-rate wife. Not by any means!
While I was studying for the part of the first villain I played—a man by the name of Jack Manningham, in a play I first did on Broadway, Angel Street—I started to read all of Krafft-Ebing’s Pschopathia Sexualis. It was a book that dealt with the case histories of psychotic murderers and all that type of thing. It was fascinating to study, but it scared the hell out of me! But the reason I wanted to read it was because I had no idea what these kinds of really determined men would actually do. So I was trying to figure out where these characters actually got the arrogance and assurance that they had. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a psychopathic killer! So, I thought I better find out what these kinds of people were really like. Then, when I started to prepare for the part of Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck, I thought, “I’ve never actually known anybody who felt the world should only be lived in, according to their own set of rules.” So I re–read the book again, to try and discover just how Anya Seton developed the character. The interesting thing was Nicholas wasn’t just a villain—he was an educated and rather extraordinary man who had an edge of evil to him, and in a sort of funny way, he justified himself. While I was re-reading the book I finally looked in that place that we seldom ever look: the preface. There I found the clue that I had been looking for. It was a short poem by Poe called Alone. So now I’d like to read it to you. Here is Edgar Allan Poe’s Alone:
From childhood’s hour, I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I have lov’d, I have loved alone.
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain
From the sun that ‘round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.
I think Alone is one of the greatest short autobiographical poems ever written. Poe certainly was born with a demon in his view. Fortunately, for us it was the demon of genius. But Nicholas Van Ryn also had a demon in his view. He believed anything that couldn’t survive deserved to die and that is certainly not the point of view of a humanitarian person. Of course, in the old studio days of the movies, the villain always had to be captured by the law. This was a lovely conceit on the part of the censors, but in real life and in novels it didn’t always work out that way. In many of the great books, the villain might kill himself, or get caught by his own petard, but not by the law. However, at the time I made Dragonwyck, Nicholas Van Ryn had to be punished by the law. The ending of the book was really a wonderful scene that would have made for quite a spectacular climax to the movie, but because of censorship, I had to be apprehended by the law. It was actually a terrible anti-climax for the people who had read the book. In the book Nicholas reforms and goes Scot-free! There’s a big steam boat race down the Hudson River and the boat Nicholas is on with his wife catches fire and starts to sink. Nicholas saves his wife and several other passengers before the boat sinks, but while he’s saving passengers, he gets swept under the river current and drowns. Nicholas still dies, but in the movie they had to change that, so it ends with me getting shot, just as I’m about to be arrested.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you like working with Joseph L. Mankiewicz in his first film as a director?
VINCENT PRICE: Joe was a very good director. He had been a writer and a producer at Fox for several years, so I already knew him, because he had produced The Keys of the Kingdom. I remember a marvelous piece of direction he gave to me for the scene where I proposed to Gene Tierney. I had to lose a lot of weight for the part, because I was playing a drug addict and Joe told me he wanted me to stand very straight and erect, so I’d look as thin as possible. Then, right as we started to shoot the scene, Joe yelled to me, “remember Vincent, nice erection!” Well, everybody on the set was so convulsed with laugher it took us quite a few takes to finish that scene!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you know that Dragonwyck was on TV last night?
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, and some of the kids here (at the theater) stayed up and watched it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s very interesting, because even back then, you where doing a Gothic type of story, very similar to the Poe films.
VINCENT PRICE: Well, in the book Dragonwyck, Anya Seton quotes the Poe poem Alone in her preface. So there is that element of a Poe character in it, by her own admission, there is no doubt about it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Like in most Gothic novels, the house itself is quite important to the story. Your character, Nicholas Van Ryn, lives at Dragonwyck, a manor house that was quite impressively built at the studio.
VINCENT PRICE: Yes, that was a beautiful set built by (Art Director) Lyle Wheeler, right on the stage at Fox. It was a really wonderful house; you could have moved right in, except they tore it down a week after we finished shooting. The exterior of the house was a glass shot, but the interior was a complete house. The only other picture I did which had as complete an interior setting was Wilson, which was about President Wilson. They reproduced the White House, but it was hysterical, because the famous blue room was reproduced exactly, but it didn’t photograph blue. It was in the early days of Technicolor, so they had to paint it all over again.