“The House of the Seven Gables” (1940)
by A.J. Hakari
Had Universal decided to make The House of the Seven Gables five years before it did, we might’ve had one of the most bitchin’ literary adaptations of its time. Though unread by me, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original novel is renowned for its dark subject matter, which would have made a hell of a match with the expressionistic manner in which the studio’s classics The Black Cat and The Raven were presented. However, the Gables that came about in 1940 opts for the romantic drama approach in lieu of filling the screen with doom and gloom aplenty. But you know what? It’s still a pretty good movie. While obviously not what it could’ve been, The House of the Seven Gables still sells its chosen angle like a champ, bolstered by a spiffy cast and a script that nicely brings the themes it does run with to the forefront.
For nearly two centuries, the Pyncheon clan has made its fortune off of the misery of others. Each new descendant adds something to a legacy of lies, crime, and corruption, but no more. Clifford Pyncheon (Vincent Price) dreams of Etch-a-Sketching his life and using the family name to do some good for once, starting with selling off his ancestral mansion. This doesn’t quite sit well with his brother Jaffrey (George Sanders), who remains convinced that the key to a veritable treasure lies somewhere within the joint. A few little white lies sends Clifford off to jail on bogus murder charges, although Jaffrey will come to regret that decision, for his brother comes to encounter a man all too willing to help make the Pyncheon bloodline pay for its misdeeds.
Though it’s based on a novel steeped in Gothic history and imagery, The House of the Seven Gables doesn’t exhibit such unnerving visuals very often, if at all. In fact, so little of the titular abode is actually seen, you wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking it for any average rundown shack on the block. But what it lacks in elaborate production design and faithfulness to its source material, The House of the Seven Gables compensates by telling a solid, effective story. Though the sanitized script differs dramatically from Hawthorne’s words, Clifford’s journey remains no walk in the park. He suffers a miscarriage of justice, his own brother’s betrayal, and the dissolution of a budding romance prior to plotting his revenge, which may or may not make him another victim of the Pyncheon brood’s tailor-made circle of violence.
In any case, The House of the Seven Gables should be on any vintage film buff’s radar just to see Vincent Price at such an early stage in his career. The notion of Price cast as the wronged hero in a period romance is strange alone, but it’s even more odd not to see a single shred of the mannerisms or campy acting style for which he’s been lampooned by every and their dog for decades. Price delivers a great, passionate performance as Clifford, so full of caring in his youth and so weary in his post-prison years. As Clifford’s tortured love interest, Margaret Lindsay mirrors his emotional breakdown, coming as equally chameleonlike in her role. Sanders is all slimy charm as the movie’s boo-hiss baddie (when you’ve got the voice of Shere Kahn, it sort of comes naturally), and Nan Grey (so memorably victimized by Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter) is innocence personified as a distant Pyncheon relative who comes to brighten up the old place in her own way.
Accuracy is not on the agenda of The House of the Seven Gables, but I think we can cut it some slack. It’s a perfectly respectable picture that establishes the ideal mood for the story it wants to tell and assembles the on-/off-camera talent to make it click. Not only is The House of the Seven Gables a nice place to visit, you wouldn’t mind staying there after all.