The House of the Seven Gables (1940) | When Universal adpated Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic Gothic novel
AN ANCIENT HOUSE! A MURDER SECRET! A HIDDEN TREASURE!
For 160 years the New England Pyncheons have lived under a curse after an ancestor had a man called Matthew Maule condemned to hang so that he could steal his land and build his dream house in Salem. When patriarch Gerald (Gilbert Emery) dies during a heated argument with his aspiring songwriter son Clifford (Vincent Price), his other son, Boston lawyer Jaffrey (George Sanders) seizes on the opportunity to claim the house for himself and have his brother sent down for murder.
But when Clifford’s intended bride Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) inherits the family estate, she kicks Jaffrey out and locks herself up in the house and from the outside world. Two decades later, Hepzibah has turned into a bitter sinister, but the arrival of orphaned niece Phoebe (Nan Grey) and the machinations of a mysterious lodger Holgrave (Dick Foran) could prove to change her fortune, and reunite her with her beloved Clifford.
‘What a pity man must inherit their ancestors ignorance, instead of their wisdom’
This 1940 Universal melodrama, directed by Joe May, is a handsome adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, but fuses its Gothic themes of guilt, retribution and atonement with a contemporary take on Cain and Abel and a bittersweet romance over three acts.
Appearing in one of his earliest screen roles, Vincent Price’s native midwestern accent comes through, especially in the first act, where he brings an educated, theatrical quality to his happy-go-lucky bohemian Clifford who despises his family’s dark history. And this is used to great effect in his trial scene (a travesty of justice that infers the Salem witch trials of 1692), in which he evokes Maule’s curse (‘God has given him blood to drink’) on his brother Jaffrey, who has used the most degenerate means to keep the house on the belief a fortune in land deeds and gold lies hidden within its walls. And following Clifford’s incarceration, Price’s voice takes on a melancholy timbre to denote his weariness at his captivity. He would go on to use this sombre tone to great effect in his more famous roles, in which he played cads and villains, but here he shows his mettle as a romantic leading man.
Keen eyed viewers might recognise a scene in which Vincent Price’s Clifford points out the unsavoury professions of his ancestors whose portraits decorate the walls of the family home, for it was later used by Roger Corman in his first Poe picture, The House of Usher, and then spoofed by Price in 1966’s Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
Vincent’s voice also comes in fine form in singing the theme tune, The Color of Your Eyes, by Frank Skinner and Ralph Reed. But it’s not the only time that Price would display his wonderful baritone on screen. He filmed a musical sequence for 1944’s Laura, but it was removed in the final cut, while for many years his singing at the end of Dr Phibes Rises Again (Somewhere Over the Rainbow) and Madhouse (When Day Is Done) went missing in action during the VHS era.
While Vincent Price and George Sanders (at his slimy best) are the star names here, they were virtually unknowns at the time, while 1930s star Margaret Lindsay is a revelation, and watching her Hepzibah change from light and gay sweetheart to bitter crone (whose rasping voice sounds very much like Eva Green’s Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful) is pathos personified.
As Matthew Maule, a direct descendant of the man who cursed the Pyncheons and a committed abolitionist who helps Clifford get his revenge, Dick Foran makes for a engaging hero, but his character also gave the film’s screenwriter Lester Cole the chance to inject some personal political views with lines like: ‘How is it possible to arrest a man for speaking freely of freedom in a country whose constitution guarantees freedom – and justice?’. These left-wing views would later earn the film some notoriety when it was shown on TV in the 1950s during the McCarthy communist witch-hunt era.
But the film’s politics are overshadowed by the film’s two romantic storylines which see Hepzibah and Clifford finally reuniting after so long apart, and Matthew (masquerading as Holgrave) courting and catching Phoebe, while providence and fate work against the vile Jaffrey.
The direction might be a touch too sentimental for modern audiences, but the solid lead performances, Frank Skinner’s Oscar-nominated musical score, the atmospheric photography and the authentic recreation of the original 16th-century Turner-Ingersoll mansion in Salem that inspired the Hawthorne novel, makes this Universal melodrama a classic worth repeating.
The only extra is a 10-minute interview with star Vincent Price on Aspel and Company (1984) in which he looks back at some highs and lows of his screen career, and reveals to the British chat show host Michael Aspel what frightens him most.
Posted on June 2, 2016, in Classic, Hollywood Classic, Must-See, The Vincent Price Collection, Thriller, Universal Horror and tagged 1940 melodrama, Aspel and Company, Communism, George Sanders, Gothic thriller, Joe May, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Penny Dreadful, Screenbound Pictures, The House of the Seven Gables, Universal Pictures, Vincent Price. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.