April 1, 2020

The House of the Seven Gables: Special Book Report Edition

Poster - The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
Universal Pictures, 1940. Directed by Joe May.
Now that my wife and I have made one last daring grocery run (for awhile at least) and are hunkering down in self-imposed isolation with our stash of supplies, the comfortable home routines -- reading, writing, watching movies, painting, playing games -- are more important than ever in keeping us reasonably sane.

Fortunately we’ve both been retired for a couple of years, so we’re not having to learn a lot of new tricks to keep ourselves busy. And of course all the little home projects that had been sitting quietly in the corner are now staring us in the face and saying, “you have no more excuses.”

The other day I decided to tackle the project crying out loudest to be done: the Great Spring Cleaning and Ritual Purging of unused, unneeded stuff. Careful not to stir up so much dust that my coughing and sneezing would set off alarm bells, I got going on my remorseless purge.

I was so thorough that I discovered boxes hidden behind other boxes that hadn’t been moved in years. To my amazement, I found a box of old school papers from my junior high and high school days. It got me wondering -- who would have saved this stuff in the first place (I wasn’t the best of students to say the least), and how did I not manage to throw it all out ages ago?

My curiosity got the better of me, and I spent quite some time shuffling through yellowed pages that made me feel like I was 104 instead of … whatever. But lo and behold, I ran across an old book report on Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables that was preternaturally perfect for the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon (graciously hosted by Paul at Silver Screen Classics).

Perfect because I remember basing it on my memories of the Vincent Price movie I’d seen on the late show rather than the book itself, which I had brought home only to find a couple of days later that my dog had chewed it up along with a shoe and several Playboys that I’d hidden under the bed. The rest of my “research” for the report consisted of asking various family members about things in the film that confused me.

So, for what it’s worth, here is a 13-year-old’s perspective on classic literature on film from an alternate universe long, long ago and far away.

To capture the spirit of a simpler time and a simpler me, I decided not to correct any mistakes (except to add a few editor’s notes and screencaps from the film to provide additional context and clarifications). So, take everything that follows with a grain of salt. Or maybe a whole shaker.

One final warning. Spoilers abound, if you can make out what the 13-year-old me was trying to say. Spoilers or not, proceed at your own caution.


Book Report: The House of the Seven Gabels by Nathanel Hawthorn
By [Name Redacted]


A book report from an alternate universe
Nathanel Hawthorn was an author born a long time ago when people mainly lived on the east coast and lived in log cabins and hunted bears and stuff. He wrote romantisism-type books. My mom really likes those kinds of books, but she hides them because my dad thinks their junk. I hide my horror comics because otherwise both my dad and my mom will throw them away.

His best known book is The Scary Letter, about a girl named Ester Primm who walks around with a big letter A pasted to her forehead and people make fun of her and stuff. He also wrote something called Twice Baked Tales. I don’t know much about it, exsept that it was made into a movie with my favorite horror star Vincent Price. I never saw it, but my friend Jerry saw it at the drive-in and said it sucked.

Another author who lived around the same time was Washington Erving, who joined the Philthydelphia ‘76ers and fought the redcoats during the Revolutionery War and then wrote some cool stories about a headless horseman and Jack The Ripper Van Winkel. I really wanted to do the report on The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Horror, but since somebody else checked it out, I guess House of the Severed Seven Gabels will do.

I asked my mom and dad if they had red the book, but they hadn’t. My dad said that it might be up my ally anyway, because he thought it might be about a haunted house or something. I was exsited since The Haunting is one of my all-time favorite movies ever, where the people stay in the creepy old haunted house and the one lady thinks she’s holding the hand of her friend in the dark but it turns out to be a ghost.


Turner House in Salem, MA, 1915. Public domain, Detroit Publishing Co.
The Turner House, built in 1668 in Salem, MA, was the
inspiration for the Seven Gables house. (Photo: 1915)
It turns out the House of the Seven Gabels isn’t very scary. There’s a lot of talking but not much happens. There’s no nosy ghosts trying to break down doors like in The Haunting. And the house doesn’t look like much. The Munsters and the Addams Family houses are way cooler. [Editor’s note: at this point as I was rushing to get the report done, I abandoned all pretense that I had read the book and was desperately trying to describe the movie from memory. Needless to say, this did not earn any bonus points with my English teacher.]

The people in the story wear old-time cloths and talk real formal, but parts of it seem like it could happen in real life, like the one guy doing really mean things to his brother and getting him locked up and stuff. Like, my brother steals and breaks stuff of mine all the time, and when I try to get back at him, I’m the one who gets in trouble.

The two brothers live in this big old house with their dad who looks like he’s about 102 years old. Their names are Jeff and Cliff Pinchum. [Ed. - George Sanders as Jaffrey Pyncheon and Vincent Price as Clifford.] There’s also a cousin living there whose too poor to live on her own. Her name is Hapsiba. [Margaret Lindsay as Hepzibah].

Jeff is snooty and all about money, and Cliff is like this musican who plays on this tiny piano and sings songs. He wants his dad to sell the house so he can run off with his cousin to New York and sell his music or something.


Still - Margaret Lindsay and Vincent Price in The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
Clifford plays the harpsichord in the house for Hepzibah. Say that three times real fast!

I kind of got confused about the cousin thing, because I thought you weren’t supposed to marry your cousin. When I asked my dad, he said that back in those days, there weren’t that many elagibel people to marry, so a lot of people married their cousins. He also said that mom’s family was mostly cousins who married each other. When mom heard that, she threw her Good Housekeeping at him.


At first the old dad wants to sell the house really bad, because he’s broke and the house is supposed to be cursed because his ansester got the land by accusing the owner, Mr. Mall, of whichcraft. After the ansester built the house he didn’t get to enjoy it much because he died from the curse. There’s a legend that he hid a lot of gold somewhere in the house before he croaked.

Jeff gets his dad to change his mind about selling because he wants to look for the gold. So then Cliff gets really mad because that means he can’t go to New York. The old man and him start yelling at each other, and then the old man grabs his throat and keels over, clunking his head on the desk as he goes down.


Still - Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) prevents Clifford (Vincent Price) from strangling his brother. House of the Seven Gables (1940).
"It's okay Hepzibah, I was just helping Jaffrey adjust his tie."
Jeff comes into the room and then goes all Columbo on his brother, acusing him of murder. This gets Cliff all mad because he never even touched the old man, but he almost strangles Jeff instead. A bunch of townies and old biddies outside happen to be watching through an open window, and this does Cliff no good at all. I could relat a lot to this, since my brother does this to me all the time.

I asked my mom why so many nosy people would stand around an old house like that. She said that back in the old days, before there was any TV or even radio, people entertaned themselves by peeking in everybody’s windows and then blabbing about what they saw like it was Johnny Carson or something.

So then Cliff gets a speedy trial that we learned in Government class is everybody’s right. The trial is so speedy that the jury doesn’t even have to deliberat, they just pronounse him guilty, which I guess is their right to. So Cliff gets sent off to the pentitentury penatenatry state pen, and Hapsiba goes from being happy to being real sad.

Jeff thinks he’s in the catburg’s seat, but then gets a big surprize when he finds out the old man gave Hapsiba the house before he died. She throws him out and then closes all the shudders in the house and then sits around mopping for like the next 20 years.

This is where the story gets real hard to figure out. Cliff becomes friends with Mat [Ed. - Dick Foran as Matthew Maule] who is in jail with him. It turns out Mat is the desendent of the guy the Pinchums stole the land from and who cursed everybody, but they act like its no big deal.


Still - Vincent Price and Dick Foran in The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
"False accusations of witchcraft, land theft, curses... aw, what the heck,
let's let bygones be bygones..."

Mat gets out of jail and then goes and rents a room from Hapsiba at the Gabels house, exsept he uses a different last name, I guess because he doesn’t want to scare anybody. Mat is into a lot of stuff, like he’s one of those old-time photografers whose got one of those cameras that’s bigger than a TV set, and when he takes a picture the people have to sit there for two hours and not move.


He is also an abolishinist abolitstinist anti-slavery guy who meets with a bunch of other towns people to figure out how to help the slaves escape. So all in all he’s a pretty good guy.

Even with Mat paying rent and everything, Hapsiba opens up a store in her house to get more money. For some reason all the town busybuddies put her down for it, kind of like if she opened one of those shops with the funny pipes and incest sticks like the one at the mall that all the hippies go to.


Still - Margaret Lindsay, Cecil Kellaway and George Sanders in The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
Jaffrey wonders where he's going to get toilet paper and
hand sanitizer after Hepzibah tells him the store's all out.
Hapsiba calls it a cent store, which I figure is like a doller store because back in those days you could buy a lot more with a penny. Since he’s really, really old, I asked my grandpa how much a penny could buy back in those days, but he started talking about comminists and something called the federel reserve and how money isn’t worth the paper its printed on, so he didn’t really answer my question.

Anyway, the governer finaly comutates Cliff’s sentence and he gets out of jail and moves back in to the old Pinchum house. Mat is still trying to help the runaway slaves, but he doesn’t realize that one of the other rich anti-slavery guys has given their money to Jeff to invest, but that turns out not to be not such a good idea because Jeff is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg as my grandpa likes to say.

Mat starts telling everbody that Cliff is tearing up the house looking for the hidden gold, and Jeff gets the idea that he can get his brother comitted to the looney bin for tearing the house down, or something like that. There’s a lot of banging going on around the house, but Hapsiba finds out its Mat doing all the pounding, not Cliff. She’s really mad and tries to throw Mat out, but Cliff tells her it’s all right and its part of a plan to get back at Jeff, which I didn’t get at all.

Jeff shows up at the house to tell Cliff that he’s looney toons and he’s going to have him comitted, and Cliff tells his brother that he can have the house if he signs a paper saying that Cliff didn’t kill his dad. Then the guy who gave Jeff all the anti-slavery group’s money shows up, shouting about needing the money back. Jeff says he doesn’t have it, and the guy is so bummed he turns around and shoots himself.


Still - George Sanders in The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
Jaffrey chokes up when he realizes there's no hidden
treasure and no toilet paper.
Since nobody else saw what happened, Hapsiba starts calling Jeff a murderor, and then Jeff changes his toon and agrees to sign Cliff’s paper so long as they don’t accuse him of murder. When Cliff tells him that there was never any gold and it was all a trick that Cliff and Mat Mall pulled on him, he grabs his neck just like the old man and drops dead, probably from the curse, or maybe a heart attack, or maybe both.

So then Cliff and Hapsiba get married, and Matt marries the pretty girl Feebe [Ed. - Nan Grey as Phoebe Pyncheon] that Hapsiba hired to help her run the store, and they leave town in a fancy carriege.

The story was slow and confusing in places and not scary at all, but there was still some stuff you could learn from it. Like a speedy trial isn’t a good thing if you’re always getting blamed for the bad stuff your brother does. And in the old days before TV, people entertaned themselves by saying mean things about other people. And a penny could buy a lot more than today. And turnalot is fair pay. For my next report, I hope to learn a lot more about headless horsemen and that Sleepy Horror thing. 

The End.


Photographic portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mathew Brady - public domain
Nathaniel Hawthorne, circa 1860s
[Editor’s postscript. Of course, there are risks in trying to pass off descriptions of movie adaptations for the real thing in book reports. In their lengthy analysis of the film, Tom Weaver and Michael and John Brunas note that “As is invariably the case when Hollywood undertakes to film a classic story, changes were required for the sake of dramatic interest. The Hawthorne novel is set up quite differently from the Universal film: Most of the action seen in this film transpired before the novel’s page one.” [Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd Edition, McFarland, 2007. p. 224.]

The novel starts out with Clifford, a broken man after all the years in jail, coming back to the house and finding Hepzibah has become a gloomy old spinster. Jaffrey shows up and threatens to institutionalize Clifford if he doesn’t reveal all he knows about the valuable land grant documents that are hidden in the house.

Also, the whole side plot of Matthew Maule/Holgrave being involved with the abolitionist cause and Jaffrey’s theft of their money leading to his downfall was absent in the book, being the brainchild of screenwriters Lester Cole and Harold Greene.

Weaver and the Brunases are on the whole complimentary of the film, observing that “Universal’s changes made for a tidy, streamlined drama with more incident and less wordy detours than Hawthorne’s original.” They also describe the acting of the leads, Price, Sanders and Lindsay as “first rate”: Sanders is a “dark, brooding cloud that hangs portentously over the heads of the other characters”; Lindsay is “ingenuous, intelligent and appealing”; and Price is “exuberant and impulsive -- but with more than a trace of repressed bitterness seething beneath the surface.” [Ibid., pp. 224 - 225]

My reaction, after watching the film for the first time in decades, is that the film, with its prim, nineteenth century setting and costumes, slow pace, and mannered acting, seems even older than its 1940 release date would indicate. One reason might be that House was directed by a traditional, old school veteran, Joe May (born Joseph Otto Mandel), a silent film pioneer who helped found the German film industry and who fled his native Austria when the Nazis took over. His lifelong discomfort with the English language and dictatorial style apparently did not endear him to a lot of folks in Hollywood, and House would be one of the last films he directed.

Still - Vincent Price in The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
Clifford hits rock bottom when he realizes he has
to share a double bill with Black Friday.
Interestingly, although the film was relatively costly for Universal and had higher than average production values, the studio showed little faith in it, releasing it at the bottom of a double bill with Black Friday, a gangster pic with horror elements starring Universal’s very bankable stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. [Weaver, et al., p. 228]

One wonders if Universal's execs thought they might get a two-fer: a borderline prestige picture -- an historical romance drama -- that could also be marketed to the faithful horror crowd (One of the film's taglines: "AN ANCIENT HOUSE! A MURDER SECRET! A HIDDEN TREASURE!")

What they and audiences ended up with was a film that was neither here nor there. Although the screenwriters' idea of fleshing out the novel's backstory to make it the centerpiece of the film was clever, House of the Seven Gables still falls flat in many areas. The house is an interesting architectural oddity, but it might as well be any old colonial manse, as it lacks any sort of dark, forbidding atmosphere. The "mystery" centers on the old cliche of hidden treasure, and prosaic treasure at that -- old land grant documents. And the best the curse can do is to have a couple of old men (who were probably already susceptible to heart attacks) clutch at their throats and die.

What's left are some good performances by a varied cast of leads and colorful character actors, and a production that nicely captures the mannerisms and fashions of Hawthorne's day.

Although critics of the time were mostly kind to it, and fans at IMDb have given it a very high rating, to me, The House of the Seven Gables strays too far from its source to be a good adaptation, lacks the energy to be a truly interesting historical drama, and hedges on too many opportunities to be an intriguing thriller.

The House of the Seven Gables is available for rental or purchase here.

10 comments:

  1. Hey Brian. I hope you and your family and friends are all keeping healthy. Thanks for posting this. Some good laughs are just what we need in these increasingly scary times. I sometimes feel I'm living through The Andromeda Strain, but wouldn't it be great if we get the same ending: "Coronavirus has mutated to a non-infectious form" ...

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    1. Hi Bill! Thanks so much -- we're doing well, staying home and taking all the precautions. We trust you and yours are staying safe & keeping healthy. Funny you should mention The Andromeda Strain -- was just thinking about it the other day, and what an impact it made on me when I saw it back in the early '70s. And yes, that's just the ending we need!

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  2. Well done. I was royally amused.

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    1. Thanks! I had a lot of fun channeling the 13-year-old me. Now I need to find a polite way to tell him to get out of my head! :)

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  3. Thank you for sharing this fabulous "book report" with us. I thoroughly enjoyed it – and I suspect your English teacher did, too, although she made not have shown it in the grade she may have given you.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words! It's always good to mix things up, and the blogathon gave me an excuse to do something different with an actual classic film, vs. the sci-fi and horror B movies that I usually cover. Plus, it was also an excuse to see Vincent Price in a non-horror role for a change.

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  4. So funny. I read this book years ago, but did not enjoy it nearly as much as this book report!

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    1. Thanks! I remember starting the book at one point, but I don't think I finished it. You've got to admire the courage of filmmakers to try to capture the spirit and essence of a complex classic work in a mere two hours or so. The lazy students of yesterday, today and tomorrow salute you! :)

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  5. Fascinating! Adding this to my list of films to view!

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    1. It's definitely worth a look: first-rate cast, good production values, and an original approach that expands on the novel's backstory for greater dramatic effect.

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