Gene Tierney’s Poor Appetite in Dragonwyck (’46)

By: Megan McGurk

Among the bits of business that actors must do on camera, eating proves one of the most difficult, far above the physical dexterity necessary for set pieces that include some athleticism. Maybe only love scenes appear more gruelling. When you’re wrapped up in the electric jolt of performance, something simple as the ability to chew and swallow seems nauseating, if not nerve wracking. I can’t stomach anything to eat before I give a lecture, so there’s no way I could handle a plate of food in the middle of one. No one eats better than George Sanders on film though. He somehow manages to take huge, gusty mouthfuls of food, which he enjoys unabashed, yet he never looks like a slob or a rabid beast, nor does he skimp on delivering his lines with customary caddish panache. He savours a chicken leg in Rebecca (1940) with so much elegance that you can almost see Laurence Olivier turn ashen at the sight of someone stealing the scene—all with a chicken leg stuck in his kisser. When Sanders plays a hedonist based on Gauguin’s biography in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), he takes a hefty piece of rack of lamb with his hands and strips the meat from bone in a few bites. It surpasses the culinary trick of peeling an orange in one piece, because fatty roasted lamb proves a great deal more slippery and juicy. He cleans the bone in seconds without pause or splattering his face and clothing. Had most actors tried that they would have resembled what viewers imagine Ty Power did to the chicken as the geek in Nightmare Alley (1947). Otherwise dapper men like Cary Grant take as few bites as possible in a meal scene. During the luncheon when he hosts the police inspector in To Catch a Thief (1955) he puts his napkin and utensils at rest after maybe three bites of quiche.

During the Depression, audiences saw plenty of women onscreen who sat with an appetite at table, who tucked into dinners they savoured when the next one was uncertain. Amid widespread hunger that culminated in bread lines and soup kitchens, circumstances permitted heroines to eat onscreen without censure. In Thirty Day Princess (1934), not only does Sylvia Sidney steal food from the Automat by slamming her hand against the display case holding a turkey leg and all the trimmings until it opens, she later uses a knife to shovel food in her mouth, much to the horror of straight-laced Cary Grant. For a woman with ‘prospects as high as the gutter’, she doesn’t have time to pay attention to table manners. She’s penniless and starving. She can’t get her fill fast enough.

After the 1930s viewers see fewer depictions of women enjoying food and more pretend eating in film. Marilyn Monroe wrestles with a candy bar in Clash by Night (1952) making it seem as though she’s taken a huge bite and has a cheek stuffed with chocolate, when it really appears to vanish in her mouth with just her tongue standing in for the treat. Instead of chewing the candy, she concentrates on licking her fingers, because I suppose men in the audience find more interesting. Monroe’s boyfriend echoes male displeasure at seeing women enjoy food when he first plucks the chocolate from her hands and warns ‘you’ll spread.’ Perhaps the worst fake eater award falls to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade (1963). She’s supposed to play a woman who eats her feelings, but meanwhile, it looks like she chokes and gags on each bite in an anorectic revulsion. Her arms rival match stick silhouette and her throat stretches paper thin from want. She’s the least likely binge eater in cinema.

In Dragonwyck (1946), Gene Tierney’s Miranda Wells learns within five minutes inside her new home that women with an appetite are frowned upon, endured with barely disguised contempt, and replaced at the first opportunity. Joe Mankiewicz discerned the social codes that kept a rude grip on women, whether it was sexual competition (A Letter to Three Wives 1949) or the trials of growing older (All About Eve 1950). His gothic noir underscores expectations about ideal femininity that felt as rigid and unyielding as the corset and lacing which sewed women up tight.

The first thing we learn about the lady of the house, Johanna Van Ryn, played by Vivienne Osborne, from her husband Nicholas Van Ryn, a dashing Vincent Price:

To my wife, promptness at meals is the highest human virtue.

He delivers the line without an eye roll, because they whole line achieves the same result in linguistic form.

Nicholas leads his young cousin into a lavish dining room, with Johanna alone at the end of a long table laden with food. She looks guilty when they find her having a solitary meal. She’s meant to appear gluttonous, but if you examine her plate, she has a rather small portion, just two or three thin slices of meat, a single potato, a small buttered roll, and a bowl of fruit that may very well be purely decorative. Compared to wasp-waist Gene Tierney, who has had practically nothing to eat that day, as Nicholas boasts, Johanna seems like she’s emptied the pantry for her own pleasure. Rather than ask questions about Nicholas’ trip or what skills the new young charge might add to the manor, Johanna’s first order of business enquires after the pastries she asked him to bring from New York. Did he remember them? The Napoleons, honey puffs and mocha bonbons? Nicholas reassures her in a manner that suggests he knew it was of her primary concern. Price keeps his neck stiff in disapproval and answers her slowly, as though she were a greedy, daft child. Between mouthfuls, Johanna plans a schedule for her sweets: the bonbons before bed, the honey puffs after dinner and the Napoleons for her lunch tomorrow. She fails to include anyone else at table in her confection roster. In a short scene, Mankiewicz’s screenplay establishes a character obsessed with food. She’s always thinking about her next meal, unlike Gene Tierney across the table, served a meagre portion of broth which she barely touches. Caught between two people who have nothing to say to each other, who can blame her? Viewers know before the meal ends that the wife’s days are numbered.

Among the various methods husbands used in an attempt to dispatch wives onscreen in the 1940s (Gaslighting, poisoned milk, poisoned coffee, drugged hot chocolate, strangulation, secret murder tableaux rooms, staged accidents, a dead wife’s ghost) none proves more fantastically gothic than Vincent Price’s death by orchid. He casually installs a white oleander to foul the air in his ‘sickly’ wife’s room. While Johanna worries about which bonbon to eat next, a miasma fills the room and corrupts each breath she takes. She’s soon in the ground with minimal fuss to the Van Ryn mansion. Not even Miranda’s indifference at table prevents a control freak from deciding her room would also improve with a pot of orchids. Fickle husbands rule the noir genre.