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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The House of the Seven Gables (Blu-ray)
The House of the Seven Gables (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // April 23, 2019 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 15, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Despite appearances, The House of the Seven Gables (1940) is in no way a horror movie, though Universal Pictures seems to have been at least partly motivated to produce it on the strength of the resurgent interest in that genre. Rather, the film, adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1851 novel (and, more explicitly, an earlier silent version) is a Gothic melodrama, something like a low-rent, road company version of the literary adaptations made a short time later by director David Lean. Though made on the cheap (a mere $161,625) it tells a compelling story with flashes of imaginative direction by Joe May, and the performances, while variable, are at times excellent. Some elements, such as a once-grand estate allowed to fall into a state of gloomy disrepair while its psychologically troubled owner rarely leaves it, to say nothing of the presence of actor Vincent Price, anticipates Roger Corman's Poe films of the 1960s. It's a modest but effective little movie.

A prologue informs the movie audience that, in the 17th century, Jeffrey Pyncheon falsely accused carpenter Matthew Maule of witchcraft in order to steal his land. Maule was hanged and Pyncheon built a lavish but cursed colonial mansion on the estate.

One hundred and sixty years later, young lawyer Jaffrey Pyncheon (George Sanders) is called home by his father, Gerald (Gilbert Emery), Jeffrey's great-grandson, with news that the family is nearly broke and the house is to be sold. Jaffrey, convinced by local legends that a fortune in gold is hidden somewhere in the house, is horrified, but his brother, aspiring composer Clifford Pyncheon (Vincent Price), doesn't believe the stories and wants to use the money from the sale to start a new life and marry his devoted distant cousin, Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay). The next morning Clifford and his father, disapproving of his son's career ambitions, get into a terrible argument, culminating with Gerald collapsing from a never-identified congenital attack. Seizing the moment and with nosy neighbors watching from the street, Jaffrey accuses Clifford of murdering their father, so that he will inherit the property alone.

A sham trial follows, with Clifford convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Gerald, however, has bequeathed the house to Hepzibah, who throws Jaffrey out, shutters all the windows, and over the next 20 years the house falls into a terrible state of disrepair. As her beauty fades, "old maid" Hepzibah fuels her waning energy into working with family attorney Philip Barton (Cecil Kellaway) to secure Clifford's release.

The screenplay, by Lester Cole from Harold Greene's adaptation, alters mostly through additions Hawthorne's original novel, while condensing other plot elements. Cole, later blacklisted and one of the Hollywood Ten, embellishes the character of Matthew Maule (Dick Foran), a descendant of the original character, who under the alias Holgrave, lives at Seven Gables as a border. In the movie but not the novel, he's part of an abolitionist society whose funds are entrusted to Deacon Foster (Miles Mander). The deacon unwisely allows smooth-talking cad Jaffrey to secretly invest the $5,000 raised, which he uses to finance an illegal slave-trading ship. This subplot, along with Jaffrey's duplicitous nature, the perennially cash-strapped dandy conning his way through life, blithely leaving others to ruin while he keeps up appearances of wealth and prestige, is Cole's sly and subtle criticism of capitalism at its most corrupt.

The back story concerning alleged witchcraft, the family curse and supposedly haunted house suggest Universal was hedging its bets with The House of the Seven Gables, probably thinking it could be marketed either as a moderately tony literary adaptation, and/or as a horror film, a kind of faux-Poe. (The same thing was done years later, with 1962's Twice-Told Tales, also starring Price.) After a several-year moratorium on horror films, Universal struck gold with Son of Frankenstein, released early in 1939, following it up with the similarly uneasy mix of historical melodrama and horror, Tower of London (1939), and then The Invisible Man Returns (1940), also directed by Joe May with much the same cast that would appear in Seven Gables. Those were expensive films ($420,000, $580,000, and $815,000, respectively), but after Tower and Returns lost money, Universal decided any further toe-dipping into horror genre waters would be done on the cheap. Their next effort, Black Friday (1940), came it at just $125,750, and Seven Gables, the next production, a bit more than that.

The picture nonetheless looks more expensive and classier than its budget suggests. Austrian director Joe May, one of the pioneers of German silent and early-talkie cinema, adds much vitality to the backlot-restricted production, his use of the period-dressed streets and extras not dissimilar to Orson Welles's more expensive The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Of course, May's film doesn't remotely approach the delicate beauty of Welles's and couldn't have given the short shooting schedule and tight budget, but May handling of certain scenes (gossipy neighbors, the gradual decline of a once-wealthy family) has obvious parallels.

Many will be drawn to the film because of actor Vincent Price, making his sixth film appearance. Twenty-nine at the time of filming, Price's relative inexperience is present in early scenes, particularly a long-winded but passionately delivered speech near the beginning, where he's quite hammy. Ironically, as the film progresses (and his character ages), Price gets better and better while his co-star, George Sanders, gets worse and worse, his last scene being particularly over the top.

However, full acting honors go entirely to Margaret Lindsay, barely 30 at the time, whose Hepzibah undergoes a startlingly believable personality change over the course of the story, and in whom the audience invests the most sympathy. Lindsay had been a longtime contract player at Warner Bros., in supporting parts in "A" features with James Cagney and Bette Davis, while starring in lesser features for the studio. She appears to have freelanced after that, appearing in movies at Universal, Columbia, and MGM, among others, while bigger roles became increasingly fewer, eventually at Poverty Row outfits before television came along. The supporting cast, including frequent Universal players Mander and Alan Napier (as a doddering postman) are fine, and Nan Grey is perfectly cast as distant cousin Phoebe, who brightens Seven Gables with her youthful personality. Dick Foran, better-suited to Westerns and contemporary roles, seems a bit out of place, though even he's not bad.

Video & Audio

Presented in 1.37:1 standard format, The House of the Seven Gables looks good on Blu-ray, on par with other Universal black-and-white titles from the same period also on Blu-ray. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono is likewise fine and the disc is Region "A" encoded with optional English subtitles.

Extra Features

The lone supplement (not counting trailers for other Kino releases) is a fairly good audio commentary track by Troy Howarth.

Parting Thoughts

Universal seems to have split its library, sublicensing to Kino and Shout! Factory simultaneously (along with Criterion and others), Shout! nabbing many genre fan favorites leaving Kino to pick over the leftovers. But The House of Seven Gables is a welcome release, a very good film despite its modest budget. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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