In the middle of the 17th Century in New England, there lived one Colonel Jaffrey Pyncheon, a powerful leader of the Colonial Government. In order to acquire a valuable piece of land, Pyncheon cold-bloodedly accused its owner, a simple carpenter named Matthew Maule, of practicing Witchcraft.
Thus begins Universal Pictures’ adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, and I mean that literally—the first thing you see in the film is the opening of a book, and then you read those words off its pages. This is a convention much beloved of directors of literary adaptations of the 1930s and 1940s, and rests on the assumption that movie-goers also loved books and had very likely read the source material in question. It’s enough to warm the heart of this old book lover, and is also an efficient way to introduce the backstory of the cursed Pyncheon family.
The plot of Joe May’s film bears some relationship to Hawthorne’s tale, although you are not advised to use this film as a replacement for any assigned reading you may have for English class. The story picks up with the Pyncheon family in 1828, as good brother Clifford (Vincent Price) is preparing to marry his cousin Hepzibah (a radiant Margaret Lindsay), while bad brother Jaffrey (George Sanders) is fretting about treasure he believes is stored in the family home. When their father (Gilbert Emery) dies of natural causes, Jaffrey seizes on the opportunity to frame Clifford, sending him to prison and causing Hepzibah to become a recluse.
Don’t worry, however—this picture was made during the MPAA code era, and evil will be punished and the good restored before the final credits roll. A whole lot happens in the meantime, including—irony of ironies—Clifford having an ancestor of the Maule family as a cellmate. The slave trade and abolitionist movement also make an appearance in the plot, smuggled in by progressive screenwriter Lester Cole (later one of the Hollywood Ten, Cole was blacklisted due to his refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947).
The House of the Seven Gables is an old-fashioned studio picture that skillfully uses the conventions of Hollywood continuity filmmaking to tell an entertaining story and is efficiently directed by May on a B-movie budget (fun fact: the sets had to be altered to accommodate Sanders’ and Price’s height!). It bears more than a passing resemblance to Universal horror classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy: Hawthorne’s tale is properly gothic, resting as it does on the story of the sins of the father being visited upon later generations, while Milton R. Krasner’s cinematography features enough spooky shadows, pouring rain, and apparent candlelight to populate any horror film, while the cast includes Universal horror and noir stalwarts like Price, Napier, Margaret Lindsay, as well as the ever frightening Sanders. | Sarah Boslaugh
The House of the Seven Gables is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian Troy Howarth and trailers for several other films.