Visiting H7G in 1940: Everything Wrong is Wrong Again
Last weekend, I watched the 1940 Universal Films adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables. “Why did you do that?” you may be wondering. Well, for one thing, The House of the Seven Gables is like, obs, the best thing in the world. The other thing: Vincent Price.
I don’t know if you even know who he is. I am young enough and old enough to know that I first saw Price in his last major film role, as the mad inventor/father figure in Edward Scissorhands (the scissors in the hands are symbolic). Price acted in a lot of movies and TV shows. He has 206 acting credits. He is most famous as a lead in low-budget horror films of the mid-twentieth century, including those based works of Edgar Allen Poe: The Raven, The Fall of the House of the Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Although less known for romantic, dramatic, and comedic roles, Price played his fair share of such roles in such films, including The Ten Commandments (1956) alongside Charlton Heston.
Most relevant to our purposes, Price played major roles in two movies related to Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables: the aforementioned 1940 film, and an original sequel in the 1963 film anthology, Twice Told Tales, where Price plays a descendant of the Pyncheons who returns to The House to search for secret treasure. And if that is not enough, Price narrated the 1990 documentary on “The House of the Seven Gables: A Guided Tour with Vincent Price”, made by and about the actual House of the Seven Gables Museum.
Also: “Price was an art collector and consultant with a degree in art history, and he lectured and wrote books on the subject. Additionally, he was the founder of the Vincent Price Art Museum in California. He was also a noted gourmet cook.”
I know. This Price character sounds impressive. If Vincent Price is cool, then Vincent Price + Nathaniel Hawthorne must equal Great, right? Still, I have to admit that as I watched the film I sometimes wondered why I did that.
But on the other hand, while watching it, and watching it, and even rewatching it, and reflecting on the film while writing this blogpost, the 1940 film version of Hawthorne’s novel (hereafter known as H7G 1940) awakened me to surprising parallels between WWII-era anxieties over authoritarianism and the growing concern for democracy that many people have developed of the current age, our age that Frederic Jameson, popularized as “late capitalism” in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late-Stage Capitalism (1991).
Yes, reader. I have bad news. According to my reading of H7G 1940, everything wrong in 1940 is either still wrong, or is wrong again, almost eighty years later in 2019.
H7G 1940 is a remake of a 1910 Edison Studios version of Hawthorne’s story. No copies of the 1910 film are extant, so we don’t know how that version of H7G influenced the many major and minor liberties that H7G 1940 takes with the novel. In spite of these deviations, H7G 1940 remains true to Hawthorne’s themes of class conflict and political corruption, though it reduces the novel’s conception of pervasive and irresistible original familial/national sin into a mere plot device.
Universal Studios appears to have made the film as part of a series of horror b-movies after movie versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and King Kong achieved box office success in the late 1930’s. According to other sources, “ it was unclear why Universal chose to make the film.”
More than innovation to, or even a bland fascimile, of gothic/horror conventions; more than a showcase for brilliant acting by a young, virile Vincent Price; the film views like a vehicle for the not-entirely-misplaced socialist and anti-authoritarian ideologies of the WWII era.
Like Hawthorne’s book, the film begins in the 1820s, in an unspecified New England town. Through allusions to the Salem Witch Trials and other historiogeographical markers, the film producers liken the location to Salem, MA (as does Hawthorne). The film centers on the Pyncheon family and faithfully replicates the novel’s backstory of real estate fraud, corruption, and murder during the Salem Witch Trials. The Pyncheon family’s wealthy, politically powerful progenitor acquires the family fortune by accusing a poor villager named Matthew Maule of witchcraft, having him hanged, and taking his land through fraudulent land-deeds.
As in the novel, Matthew Maule pronounces his curse, “let them have blood to drink,” which is said to doom future generations of Pyncheons. The plot revolves around characters descended from Colonel Pyncheon named Clifford, Jaffrey, Hepzibah, and Phoebe, all of whom live in the same House of Seven Gables, upon the land stolen via Matthew Maule’s Witch Trial. There is a character named Holgrave who comes to rent a room in the Pyncheon house and is later revealed to be a descendant of the Maule family.
The plot of the movie follows these characters through kind of generally the same course of conflicts as the book, which climax with a similar, blood-curdling death that fulfills Maule’s curse. But there are crucial differences. Although movie and novel both start in the 1820’s, the movie’s plot unfolds over several decades, to an unspecified point just before U.S. Civil War.
In the book, Hepzibah and Clifford are brother and sister. The movie makes them cousins. This is probably best, because the movie also features a romance between them. Jaffrey Pyncheon, in the novel their cousin, is still the aristocratic villain, but he is now Clifford’s brother. Clifford, for some reason, is a gifted musician on the cusp of hitting it big. Jaffrey Pyncheon still falsely accuses Clifford of murdering his father (in the book Jaffrey kills the family patriarch, but in the book the patriarch dies of a heart attack) for which Clifford is falsely imprisoned for decades.
But while the main action of the novel begins after Clifford’s imprisonment, the novel begins before the death of which he is falsely accused. In this mid-1820’s beginning, the House of Seven Gables is still a grand mansion. The House goes into decay only after Clifford goes to prison, and Hepzibah is left to maintain the mansion alone, in her grief. In the film, Clifford and Holgrave meet while both are in prison - in the book, Clifford and Holgrave do not meet until after Clifford is released, when Holgrave is already a boarder at the H7G. Holgrave, who is in an abolitionist in the movie, is imprisoned only for a short time after arousing anti-slavery unrest. While serving their sentences together, the heroes Clifford and Holgrave develop in a scheme to destroy Jaffrey Pyncheon and restore the family wealth to Clifford. When Holgrave becomes a boarder at the H7G, he does so for the primary purpose of enacting their plot against Jaffrey. There, as in the novel, Holgrave meets the sunny, country cousin Phoebe Pyncheon, and the two fall in love.
And in the movie, as in the book, it all works out in the end. The movie does not quite follow the book in its plot resolution, but it probably isn’t important, so I’ll skip to the end. After Clifford’s release, his and Holgrave’s scheme succeeds. Jaffrey dies of a fit of apoplexy. Holgrave is revealed to the audience to be a descendant of Matthew Maule. Holgrave and Phoebe, and Clifford and Hepzibah, marry in a double wedding (which is OK because remember in the movie Clifford and Hepzibah are only cousins, not brother and sister, as in the book) and the two newly-wed couples ride away in a carriage, leaving the House of Seven Gables behind them.
H7G 1940’s romance between Clifford and Hepzibah, its hole-riddled plot - along with the faux-gothic costumes, garish movie sets, and melodrama - feel hopelessly mired in the distant past. Yet I find the thematic message of Hawthorne’s novel is strangely enhanced, even made more relevant to the 21st-century, by some of the film’s minor plot details.
For instance, when the film’s Holgrave meets Clifford Pyncheon in prison, Holgrave has been sent there for exciting insurrection by printing abolitionist literature. Later, when he resides at the Pyncheon house, we find that he is involved in running the underground railroad and helping escaped slaves to their freedom. In the novel, Hawthorne confines himself condemning the wealthy Colonel Pyncheon for his violent abuse of power against Matthew Maule. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Hawthorne’s avoidance of slavery in a novel obsessed with the sins of founders is conspicuous. Even though it is not part of Hawthorne’s book, the film’s portrayal of Holgrave as an abolitionist corrects Hawthorne’s gross lapse in judgment by acknowledging slavery as one of the United States’ founding national sins.
The film’s Holgrave is not only a champion of racial equality, but social equality more broadly. In the film, Holgrave is openly socialist - lauding the virtues of work and rejecting hereditary wealth of a corrupt capitalist aristocracy. This aspect of Holgrave rings true to novel’s use of Colonel Pyncheon to symbolize a society ruled by an oligarchy that uses its powers to bend laws and public fears for their own self-enrichment. This message - already present in the novel but accentuated by the film’s blatant class conflict - appears especially relevant here in the early 21st century United States, where the richest 1% of the population collectively owns more wealth than the poorest 90% of people, where this same 1% wield massively disproportionate political influence that allows them to perpetuate their oligarchy.
H7G1940 portrays Colonel Pyncheon’s descendants as an inherently corrupt, exploitive ruling class. As Price’s Clifford informs viewers in a sarcastic rant, Ethan Pyncheon, a ranking officer in General Washington’s army, enhanced the family fortune by “secretly selling supplies and military information to the British.” After the end of the revolution, Jonathon Pyncheon contributed to the family’s wealth by cheating discharged soldiers in “shady land deals.” And Clifford and Jaffrey’s grandfather conspired during the War of 1812 for the secession of Massachusetts to Canada because the U.S. government sought to prosecute him for illegal financial transactions.
All of these Pyncheons put their own personal fortunes over God and Country, a scenario that echoes into our own time as new information comes to light daily that implicates our own President, his family, and his immediate circle in alleged money laundering and suspicious real estate transactions. In our own time when wealthy politicians like Jaffrey Pyncheon, after he becomes governor, will write laws that benefit his business interests and suppress voting rights.
But it would be Clifford’s words to his cousin Jaffrey that gave me the most pause. “I would rather see you dead,” Clifford tells Jaffrey, “than chained to the poverty of your traditions.” At this point in the film, Clifford is trying to convince Jaffrey to sell the House of the Seven Gables. Clifford knows that his family’s legacy is forever tied to the crimes of Colonel Pyncheon, and hopes to persuade his cousin to reject this house, this prison of material wealth that yields spiritual poverty. And he believes it would be better for Jaffrey to rest in peace than to perpetuate the Pyncheon family’s legacy of violence, corruption, and sin.
We live in a precarious time. Will citizens of our increasingly fractured nation one day prefer to “see each other dead” than tolerate what some view as an abject failure to fulfill our own national ideals? Will a blue-red civil war be one day fought across our nation, perhaps stoked by fake news transmitted via Facebook and Twitter? Is another French Revolution on the horizon? Will we ever go so far (again)?
I don’t know, reader. Sometimes I just don’t know.
After watching H7G1940, the only thing I know for sure is that young Vincent Price was a real dreamboat. So good at the kissing. I had no idea.