The House of the Seven Gables

Movie Information

Despite tacking on a backstory, Universal Pictures' 1940 stab at Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables clocks in at a tidy 90 minutes. (I have often wished all of Hawthorne's books had a similar economy.) It's also a reasonable approximation of the story, handled with a fair amount of style by refugee German director Joe May — fresh from making The Invisible Man Returns, which also starred Vincent Price. Though Price wouldn't be typecast as a horror star until 1953, the very fact that it's from Universal tends to make one expect a horror movie, which it really isn't. (Musical cues by Frank Skinner common to the studio's horror output only reinforce a certain vibe.) While the backstory probably helps make the story clearer, it's the least successful part of the movie. That has more to do with the fact that the leads — Price and Margaret Lindsay — are both terribly broad here (Lindsay grins like a simpleton), than the film, so it's a surprise that as their characters age and are embittered by life, they become excellent and even quite touching. The results are a good, if far from great, little film.
Genre: Gothic Drama
Director: Joe May (The Invisible Man Returns)
Starring: Vincent Price, Margaret Lindsay, George Sanders, Dick Foran, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway
Rated: NR

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Make no mistake, The House of the Seven Gables — for all its literary roots — is a fairly standard Universal affair. It’s solid, but far from lavish — not a B picture (especially by Universal standards), but it’s at best a minor A picture. This is one of those movies where I look at the opening credits and realize I can identify every billed actor on sight (and a couple more unbilled ones, come to that). That’s both a comfortable plus and a slight negative, since it results in a movie almost entirely devoid of surprises. The only surprise is seeing how good the always pleasant, but rarely impressive Dick Foran can be when he isn’t fighting mummies or riding a horse.




Apart from the cast, probably the best thing about this melodramatic concoction about family curses and wrong-doings old and new lies in Joe May’s direction. It’s easy to forget that May was a major filmmaker in Germany — connected with and sometimes collaborating with Fritz Lang, with whom he shared an obvious penchant for melodrama. While he can’t hide the production’s economical basis, he approaches the film with a keen sense of style. His handling of a segment of gossip — joining the vignettes with swish-pans — is a delight. At the same time, he and cinematographer Milton Krasner make the quiter scenes visually elegant. The little scene where Nan Grey reads her diary — an entry where she tries to make sense of her feelings for Dick Foran — is beautifully and delicate. As examples of a filmmaker getting the most out of a fairly thin budget, it’s hard to find better. That he can’t keep the film’s climax from feeling a little rushed seems more a problem with the material than anything else.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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