Kino Lorber has released Universal’s 1940 adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables on Blu Ray. The Gothic melodrama has strong horror elements but, strangely given the studio never goes full on in that direction. It was directed by German émigré and silent film pioneer Joe May and stars Margaret Lindsay, George Sanders, and Vincent Price along with a number of fine character actors.
The Production: 3/5
The House of the Seven Gables is an efficient and well crafted, if not particularly inspired adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic novel first published in 1851. The movie begins with a shot of an elegant, leather-bound book that opens while the camera pushes in. Movies that open with an elegant, leather-bound book scream LITERARY to viewers; this must be serious. The text reveals that in the late 17th century, aristocratic Colonel Jaffrey Pynchon swindled commoner carpenter Mathew Maule of his land by accusing him of witchcraft. As the innocent Maule is about to be executed, he places ‘Maule’s Curse’ on Pynchon and his descendants. Pynchon ignores the curse and builds his estate on the stolen land with tragic results.
The movie proper opens nearly two hundred years later in the 19th century. On a stormy night Jaffrey Pynchon (George Sanders) returns from law school where upon meeting his composer brother Clifford (Vincent Price) is informed of the desperate family financial condition due to their father Gerald’s inability to curb Jaffrey’s imprudent investments. Little of the estate other than the house remains.
Jaffrey and Clifford Pynchon are at odds concerning the fate of their ancestral home – avaricious Jaffrey wishes to maintain the home, which he believes contains a treasure hidden in the walls, while disbelieving Clifford wishes to liquidate the few remaining assets and escape with his fiancé cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) the home and everything the house represents.
The next morning the father dies of a heart attack during a loud quarrel with Clifford. Seizing a convenient way to get his brother out of the way and gain complete control of the estate, Jaffrey accuses his brother of murder. Clifford is convicted and before he is whisked away from the courthouse he renews ‘Maule’s Curse’ upon his brother Jaffrey.
Jaffrey is shocked to learn that his father has willed the home to their poor cousin Hepzibah. Hepzibah promptly throws Jaffrey out of the house and seals the house preventing any sunlight from penetrating. The years pass as Hepzibah’s money dwindles and the house falls into disrepair. Desperate, Hepzibah takes in borders and eventually opens a shop on the first floor of the home. This is scandalous in the gossip mongering New England community.
There are three arrivals in quick succession, a young, orphaned cousin named Phoebe (Nan Grey) and a border, a young and mysterious photographer named Holgrave (Dick Foran), and the recently pardoned Clifford. Jaffrey has bided his time while planning to reclaim ownership of the estate along with the ‘hidden treasure’ and potential deed to land in Maine with it.
To turn a sprawling 19th century novel into a 90-minute movie is no small trick. The script by future blacklisted writer Lester Cole does a fairly nice job at compressing the story. There are plenty of changes, cuts and additions to the story; some good, some bad. Some of these are obvious attempts at making the 90-year-old story more commercial to 1940 audiences and other changes seem to reflect the politics of Cole.
In the novel, Clifford and Hepzibah are brother and sister while Jaffrey is the cousin. By making the brother and sister cousins the story gains a romantic and sentimental element not in the novel. I’m sure the thinking was that audiences would a.) have trouble comprehending such a devoted and intense sibling relationship and b.) such devotion requires a romantic payoff. I think this change is perhaps the most egregious in that it supplies a pat, happy ending to an ending that would otherwise be more complex.
The other change is the addition of the theme of abolitionism to the story. I think this is the addition reflects screenwriter Cole’s politics in that it ties slavery and its inherent moral hypocrisy to the moral hypocrisy of Puritan witch burning as a stain on the American foundation. This is interesting if not entirely developed. One of the problems with this is that ‘Maule’s Curse’ is intended to be ambiguous – is it real or isn’t it? It’s metaphorical and almost mystically ambiguous about the sins of the fathers being passed on to their children, whereas slavery is a very real and literal curse, a part of American history that remains a stain to this day. Whatever horrors, hypocrisies, and ironies associated with witch hunting (people who sought religious freedoms persecuting those with different views), it doesn’t compare to the mass suffering and damage to individuals as well as society, done by slavery.
The House of the Seven Gables was directed by Joe May, an important figure in silent German film history. The movie is well directed. My favorite bits are the way he shoots and cuts a sequence of towns people gossiping. I wonder if Orson Welles cribbed this when shooting similar scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons? And my favorite scene of the film has absolutely nothing to do with the novel but is a silent sequence that occurs on the night of Clifford’s return from prison. Both Clifford and Hepzibah rummage through chests for long ago stored outfits for their reunion. Both find the desired articles of clothing faded and moth-eaten and each is too embarrassed by their aged appearances to face the other until the next morning.
May is given credit for advancing the career of the young Fritz Lang. May directed the silent version of The Indian Tomb written by Lang and his then wife and collaborator, Thea Von Harbou. Lang would remake these films upon his return to Germany in the late 1950s. May left Germany for Hollywood with rise of Nazism in the early 1930s. His career however, never took off in the states. One of the reasons generally cited is May’s autocratic personality. I can only imagine how difficult he must have been to be a pariah in an industry that tolerated Lang, Curtiz, and Preminger.
My other criticism of this adaptation is that for a movie called The House of the Seven Gables, we don’t get much of the house. In the novel the house is a character in the story as Notre Dame is in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (real title: Notre Dame of Paris) or The Fall of the House of Usher. My remembrance of the novel is that Hawthorne is very explicit about the construction and history of the house. I’ll give this a pass as it is hard to visually dramatize such information, but the house should have been if not more of a presence, at least more atmospheric.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the presence of George Sanders and Vincent Price, both before their screen personas are fully developed. This is that brief period when Price was being miscast as romantic leads; he is far too eccentric for such roles. Sanders was not yet the weary, cynical presence of later films. Both have scenes that require them to act their socks off and both appear awkward. Price would later develop a hammy (in a good way) way of winking at the audience while going over the top. Sanders on the other hand became a master of underplaying and gets more out of an arched eyebrow than most actors yelling, twitching, and spitting dream of.
Margaret Lindsay is the center of the film and handles herself admirably. All three young actors are forced to play most of the movie twenty years older than they are. This is always a hard sell in movies. None of them look old and while Price and Sanders do what they can, Lindsay at least has two notes – winsome and innocent as a youth (qualities on display as a Warners contract ingenue in earlier films) and brittle and clipped as an old maid. I wonder if while doing the spinster schtick she was channeling friend and ex co-worker, Bette Davis?
Other welcome characters actors in supporting roles are: Cecil Kellaway, Alan Napier, Miles Mander, Charles Towbridge, and Harry Cording.
3D Rating: NA
The House of Seven Gables looks good but is obviously an older transfer as the credits and any scenes including text are windowboxed. I’m guessing it was scanned from a fine grain. There isn’t too much damage and Milton Krasner’s (The Bank Dick, The Ghost of Frankenstien, Scarlet Street, Seven Year Itch, and An Affair to Remember) elegant photography shines with nice contrast and deep blacks that don’t looked crushed. Krasner had a great career and is remarkable because he isn’t as well-known as many of the great cinematographers but worked with a number of major directors in nearly every genre. The movies he shot aren’t always good, but they always look good.
The audio is DTS-HD Master 2.0 mono and sounds very good. From the Universal fanfare over the spinning glass globe the music, a good score by Frank Skinner, is mixed well with dialogue and foley effects with everything sounding distinct.
Special Features: 3/5
The extras include:
A commentary by film historian and writer Troy Howarth. Howarth’s commentary is dense and covers a lot of background information from artists biographies to production dates.
Kino’s The House of the Seven Gables is welcome on blu ray because outside of a MOD release by Universal through Amazon I don’t think it got a proper DVD release. It hasn’t the reputation or fame as Universal’s horror films of the era. It is certainly entertaining if not in the same league as other more ambitious literary adaptations of the era (Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Tale of Two Cities). Its pared down and modest production remind me of a Classics Illustrated comic book from my childhood. I was also reminded that my first encounter with this film was a 16mm 30-minute edited version my high school owned and played to teenaged students too lazy to read the novel.
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