The House of the Seven Gables (1940)


Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess, as their exclusive patrimony, the gift of practical arrangement. It is a kind of natural magic that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of things around them; and particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their home. A wild hut of underbrush, tossed together by wayfarers through the primitive forest, would acquire the home aspect by one night's lodging of such a woman, and would retain it long after her quiet figure had disappeared into the surrounding shade.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables

Not only was this a first-time watch for me, but I was also previously unfamiliar with the story of The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. While the movie mentions curses, witchcraft, and hidden stairways, it plays more like a straight drama. Even the “thrills” of this thriller are tied more closely to family dynamics than to the supernatural.

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This is not a complaint, just a friendly reminder should you see the name Vincent Price and think The House of the Seven Gables is another House of Wax or House on Haunted Hill. This was Price’s sixth film and he’s terrific as Clifford Pyncheon, giving a tour de force in which his character evolves from an excitable younger man to a broken older man over the course of 20 years.

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He's the hero, the opposing force to his brother, Jaffrey (George Sanders), eager to sell the family estate and move to New York City with his love, his cousin, Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay.) Jaffrey is opposed, believing the legend that the original deed to the house, as well as a fortune in gold, is hidden within its walls.

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Their conflict peaks in 1828 when their father, Gerald (Gilbert Emery), dies unexpectedly, and Clifford is wrongfully convicted for his murder. Hepzibah and her attorney, Philip Baron (Cecil Kellaway), make repeated visits to the Governor’s office until, finally, they are successful, in 1848, at getting Clifford’s sentence commuted.

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The titular house is a metaphor for the family, healthy and vibrant when the movie begins, and old and damaged over the passage of time. In fact, shots of the house, particularly the garden, literally decay before our eyes. As the camera pans right, flowers dissolve into weeds. Shutters that Hepzibah closed the day Clifford was convicted now fall from a house in disrepair.

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As a result of the characters’ machinations, soap bubbles threaten to occasionally appear. However, The House of the Seven Gables moves at such a rapid pace that they would burst before cheapening the production. In fact, 89 minutes seems brief for the film’s sprawling story, merely touching on subplots such as slavery and abolition.

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The pace increases even more during its climax, as if the production was literally going to run out of film and had to finish the story before the 90-minute mark. It’s a little pat, with characters closing loose ends with language rather than action. Again, this is not a complaint. I like it a lot and recommend it, especially for Vincent Price fans familiar with only his horror films.

 

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