Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition

Margaret Hamilton plays the creepy housekeeper in 13 Ghosts.

Good Haunted Housekeeping: The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition

The Gothic tradition features a host of particularly striking stock characters. We have the mysterious first wife, whether missing, mad, or murdered, the brooding Bluebeard lover, the inquisitive orphaned heroine, and, perhaps the most iconic in modern popular culture, the creepy housekeeper, a curator of keys, cupboards, and the family’s closeted skeletons. In her book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film, Helen Hanson identifies two major tasks set for the housekeeper character in the traditional Gothic film: the first is “to mark the heroine as an outsider,” and the second is “to act as keeper of knowledge about the family” (75). These roles underline the unique power of the character as part of the typical Gothic machinery. In the genre’s often feminized world, the housekeeper’s function as a woman with dominion over the domestic space and its secrets can make her a formidable ally or enemy to the heroine. Her loyalties, however, may not lie with the intruding newcomer; she may choose to protect the secrets of the family or may even devote herself to the house itself. In Gothic films, the housekeeper becomes an especially potent creator of terror and dread through her penchant for lurking in shadows, watching the heroine, and manipulating both characters and audience with her ominous movements and expressions. Looking at classic Gothic films like Rebecca (1940), Dragonwyck (1946), and The Haunting (1963), we can see the housekeeper’s development into a crucial figure of the genre, while later incarnations of the character in films like Young Frankenstein (1974) highlight her importance while simultaneously mocking the clichéd representation of her type.

Tracing the development of the housekeeper character and appreciating her importance to the Gothic film tradition requires some sense of her earliest appearances. Like the modern Gothic novel, Gothic film has its roots firmly planted in the literary traditions of eighteenth and nineteenth-century England. There is no menacing housekeeper in Horace Walpole’s original Gothic text, The Castle of Otranto, but the type had already been established by the time Walpole’s novel first appeared on the scene in 1764.  Going as far back as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740, we can see the housekeeper as an important stock character with a marked potential for duality. Richardson’s novel offers us two opposing but suggestively linked housekeeper models: the first, Mrs. Jervis, is a kindly matron who befriends and defends the heroine, while the second, Mrs. Jewkes, is a masculine monstrosity who threatens and imprisons her. Their shared “J” names hint at their function as two sides of a single character type, and in their complex relationships with the virginal Pamela they also form a version of the archetypal trinity of maiden, mother, and crone.

The dual functions of the housekeeper remain distinct in Charlotte Brontë’s influential Gothic novel, Jane Eyre, which first appeared in print in 1847. Much of the Gothic film tradition that developed in the twentieth century depends on this text, for Jane Eyre is the cornerstone on which both Rebecca and Dragonwyck are built, just as Pamela serves as the cornerstone for Jane Eyre itself. In Brontë’s novel, the official housekeeper of Thornfield Hall is Mrs. Fairfax, a generous, maternal woman who accepts Jane as part of the domestic community and provides her with much-needed companionship, as well as information about the hall’s inscrutable master, Mr. Rochester. Mrs. Fairfax, however, does not possess all of the keys to unlock the mysteries of Thornfield. Her mysterious counterpart in the house, Grace Poole, has knowledge that Mrs. Fairfax and Jane both lack, but Grace Poole keeps the heroine at bay and refuses to answer her questions about the ghostly presence that haunts the hidden room of Thornfield’s highest floor. Like Mrs. Jewkes in Pamela, Grace Poole displays a rough, masculine appearance and functions as a jailer, although it is the heroine’s predecessor, mad Bertha Rochester, who is her prisoner. Mrs. Fairfax, as her name suggests, represents the fair side of the housekeeper figure, a supportive feminine presence capable of educating the heroine about her new home. Grace Poole, however, is the dark secret keeper of the house, the guardian of a forbidden zone hidden within the larger domestic space.

As the Gothic begins to appear on film, the menacing Grace Poole version dominates as the more potent form of the character. We get an early taste of housekeepers to come in the old dark house picture, The Cat and the Canary. Directed by Paul Leni, this 1927 silent film is memorable largely because of its creepy housekeeper, a dead-eyed horror humorously christened Mammy Pleasant. Like later and more familiar Gothic housekeepers, Mammy Pleasant acts as a menacing presence, constantly watching the heroine but refusing to divulge the secrets of the house to her. In addition, Mammy reveals the housekeeper’s evolving taste for a rather morbid, deadpan brand of humor. In one conversation, another character says, “You must have been lonely here these twenty years, Mammy Pleasant,” to which she replies, “I don’t need the living ones.” Mammy also operates as a predictor of doom, alarming the houseguests with her assertion that “something terrible will happen here tonight!” Mammy’s dark hair, dour expression, and thin, tight lips become the standard equipment of Gothic housekeepers forever more, making her an important figure in the character’s cinematic development.

Of course, the lynchpin figure in the evolution of the Gothic housekeeper is Mrs. Danvers, the terrifying antagonist who protects the territory of her dead mistress in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. The nameless heroine recalls her first encounter with Mrs. Danvers thus:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame.
She came towards me, and I held out my hand, envying her for her dignity and her composure, but when she took my hand hers was limp and heavy, deathly cold, and it lay in mine like a lifeless thing. (67-68)
The heroine’s language loads Mrs. Danvers with images of death and horror, and it also sets the stage for the housekeeper’s function as the guardian of the dead Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper not of a living home but of a tomb that enshrines the memory of her lost idol; she rejects the new mistress of Manderley as an interloper and seeks to drive her away. Obsessive, manipulative, and in total control of the house, Mrs. Danvers imprisons the new Mrs. de Winter in Manderley while simultaneously trying to eject her from it. When she feels that Rebecca’s ownership of Manderley can no longer be protected, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to the house rather than see the second Mrs. de Winter successfully inhabit it.

            Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Rebecca is a watershed moment in the history of the female Gothic film, not least because it perfectly captures the menacing allure of Mrs. Danvers’ character. Among its eleven Oscar nominations was a Best Supporting Actress nod for Judith Anderson, who delivers a truly iconic performance as Mrs. Danvers. Her appearance in the movie owes something to Mammy Pleasant while capturing the spirit of du Maurier’s description, if not the letter, for Anderson’s version is menacingly alive, with piercing eyes and a coiled braid of black hair perfectly arranged above the severe white line of her part. On screen, Mrs. Danvers controls the heroine with her gaze and her gestures; we can see her watching Joan Fontaine’s mousy victim with a predator’s glittering interest. In the famous bedroom scene in which Mrs. Danvers tries to drive the heroine to commit suicide, Hitchcock faithfully recreates du Maurier’s written description, but the visual representation lends the moment an additional sense of suspense and horror. Mrs. Danvers leans over the heroine, her burning eyes intensely fixed on her victim, her power over the younger woman tellingly displayed in their physical positions. In this scene and in others throughout the film, Anderson creates a definitive image of the Gothic housekeeper, endowing her with characteristics and mannerisms that will be hallmarks of the character in the popular imagination from 1940 onward.

Edith Barrett as Mrs. Fairfax
The box office success and Best Picture Oscar of Rebecca inspired a wave of female Gothic films in the early 1940s, including, somewhat ironically, a 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, also starring Joan Fontaine as the heroine. For the housekeeper character, however, this is a throwback to the pre-Danvers era, back to the dual figures of good and bad household guardians. Edith Barrett plays a nervous, rather frail Mrs. Fairfax, with English stage actress Ethel Griffies in an uncredited appearance as Grace Poole (Hitchcock fans might remember Griffies as the skeptical ornithologist in The Birds). Barrett again plays the family secret keeper in the same year’s Eyre-inspired Val Lewton horror film, I Walked with a Zombie. Lewton’s picture has no menacing housekeeper; the most important domestic servant is Alma, a cheerful young black woman played by Theresa Harris. Barrett, however, fills in for the housekeeper as Mrs. Rand, the mother of the two male leads; she alone knows what really happened to her son’s first wife, the zombified Jessica. Like the motherly housekeepers of older Gothic stories, Mrs. Rand tries to help Frances Dee’s heroine even as she withholds the most important family secrets from her, but she lacks a menacing female counterpart.

More interesting, perhaps, is the 1946 adaptation of Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, Dragonwyck, written after both the original novel and the film version of Rebecca and thus ostensibly able to capitalize on the evolving conventions of the female Gothic genre. The film trailer, in fact, proudly announces the new picture’s appeal to fans of the earlier work. Like Rebecca, Dragonwyck draws from Jane Eyre as its source material, but it translates the Gothic action to nineteenth-century New York and the upper class Dutch society of the Patroons. Differences between the novel and the film affect the representations of the housekeeper characters, but both offer some insight into the type’s importance to the genre by showing the pitfalls of tinkering with effective conventions.

The novel itself takes a problematic dual approach to the housekeeper figure. As in Jane Eyre, we have two domestic characters who highlight the heroine’s outsider status and possess power and information that might be able to help or harm her. The official housekeeper, Magda, resents the heroine’s arrival and persistently gives her the cold shoulder, reserving her loyalty for the mistress of the house. Seton does very little with Magda, failing to provide even a single detailed description of her appearance. She gives greater attention to the other, more ominous domestic secret keeper, the ancient mixed-race servant, Zélie. Zélie gets all of the creepiest, most Gothic scenes, revealing to the newcomer the haunted history of Dragonwyck and foretelling the doom of the Van Ryn family members. Seton gives this character a suitably striking introduction:
The door opened and a strange woman walked in, shutting the door behind her. A thin old figure in a shapeless black dress who came over to the bed and gazed down at the frightened girl. The woman was nearly six feet tall and erect, her coarse black hair, which showed no gray, drawn back into a scraggy knot, her face a ruddy brown crisscrossed with wrinkles from which peered two shrewd little eyes as black as dewberries
“What do you want?” whispered Miranda.
“Me old Zélie,” said the woman in a harsh accented voice, touching her slab-like chest. “I want to see what you look laike.” (49)
Unfortunately, Seton abruptly writes both Magda and Zélie out of the book about a third of the way through, and no similar character fills the resulting gap. The problems with Seton’s treatment may help to explain why her novel is little read today, since she mishandles two different variations on one of the genre’s most important character types.

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film adaptation makes some marked changes to Seton’s novel, especially in the housekeeper department. Sadly, the movie completely drops Zélie, who would be quite provocative, to say the least, to see on screen. It transfers her ominous warnings and insider knowledge to Magda, revising Seton’s flat, barely described character into something audiences might more properly expect in a female Gothic tale. Played by the very capable character actress, Spring Byington, the movie Magda embodies both the menacing and the maternal, and the result is a woman who strikes both the audience and Gene Tierney’s heroine as slightly insane. In one early scene, for example, Magda suddenly veers off from seemingly friendly talk to warn, “One day, you’ll wish with all your heart you’d never come to Dragonwyck.” Byington’s character occupies a middle distance between Mrs. Fairfax and Mrs. Danvers, which makes her interesting in terms of the housekeeper’s changing role in the genre, but the movie, like the novel, drops Magda midway through, and thus the potential for a really serious engagement of the housekeeper figure remains unrealized.

Unlike Anya Seton, Shirley Jackson takes full advantage of the creepy housekeeper in her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which was adapted into the film, The Haunting, in 1963. The film makes a number of changes to the original text, but it faithfully preserves the unnerving housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley, while also highlighting her relationship to Mrs. Danvers through casting and costume decisions. Like earlier housekeepers, Mrs. Dudley possesses insider knowledge of the house she oversees, and she resents the presence of the newcomers who disrupt her routine. Hill House has no master or mistress to command her loyalties, and Mrs. Dudley’s feelings about the house are never quite clear, just as everything else about Hill House remains shrouded in questions and doubt. Jackson does, however, hint at the connection between Mrs. Dudley and Hill House near the end of the novel, when she describes Mrs. Dudley as “shudder[ing] in her sleep” from six miles away when the heroine touches a kitchen door (171). In contrast to the visitors, Mrs. Dudley seems to understand and respect the house, never trespassing against its unspoken rules, and in return the house never affects her as it does the others.

Jackson offers little description of the character when she first appears in the novel, but she does provide a truly memorable exchange with the protagonist, Eleanor, a few paragraphs later.
“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs. Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before the dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“We live over in the town, six miles away.”
“Yes,” Eleanor said, remembering Hillsdale.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose-“
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
The ominous warning from the housekeeper becomes a kind of nervous joke between Eleanor and Theodora, but it sets the stage for the horrors to come and provides both characters and readers with important information about Hill House. The locals are afraid of the place, none of them will have anything to do with it, and the residents can expect no assistance when their presumptuous occupation rouses the house into action. The inmates of the house laugh at Mrs. Dudley just as they laugh at the strange things that happen in Hill House; both frighten them, although they cannot necessarily explain why. 

            The film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise, reflects these elements of the novel and builds on them by making the most of the character conventions established by earlier films like Rebecca. Rosalie Crutchley, whose earlier roles had included the terrifying Madame Defarge in a 1958 adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, is just the sort of actress for the Gothic housekeeper role, with a thin face, dark hair, and a most unnatural smile. Her somber attire and pinned-up hair, both black of course, signal her sorority with Mrs. Danvers and Mammy Pleasant, and Crutchley delivers Mrs. Dudley’s lines to great effect, especially in the scene mentioned earlier. Building on the character as originally created in Jackson’s novel, the film reveals the conventional traits that have come to be associated with the Gothic housekeeper. Mrs. Dudley, as much an insider as Hill House allows, lays out the house rules to Eleanor and the other guests in a way that emphasizes her own power and position of authority. “I don’t wait on people,” she tells the newcomers firmly. “What I agreed to, it doesn’t mean I wait on people” (27). She clearly knows more about the house than she is willing to tell, and her veiled warnings serve only to alarm the visitors and the audience without helping them prepare for the terrors that they will face. Like Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. Dudley projects menace rather than maternal comfort, and the film emphasizes this aspect by eliminating a kitchen scene in which Jackson has Mrs. Dudley gossiping about the young people in a very motherly, ordinary fashion. Unfortunately, by the time the next film adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House arrived in 1999, the Gothic housekeeper character had become so familiar that Mrs. Dudley is merely a cliché, another stale note in an over-played symphony of horrors.

Mrs. Slydes frightens a guest in House on Haunted Hill.
Anything repeated often enough to be a cliché is already ripe for parody, and in the years after the original film adaptation of The Haunting the Gothic housekeeper became an obvious target. William Castle had helped to entrench the conventions of the character with films like House on Haunted Hill in 1959 and especially 13 Ghosts in 1960, which featured The Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, as a creepy housekeeper complete with black dress, tight bun, and dour expressions, who also turned out to be a medium able to communicate with the ghosts who haunted her employers’ house. Today, the website, tvtropes.com, even has an entry for “Creepy Housekeeper” that identifies her major traits and aligns her with another stock character, the “Crusty Caretaker.” Most importantly, the incarnation of the creepy housekeeper chosen for the entry’s quote and image is not Mammy Pleasant, Mrs. Danvers, Magda, or Mrs. Dudley, it is Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Gothic horror parody, Young Frankenstein. The character, as written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder and performed by Leachman, incorporates all of the Gothic housekeeper clichés and then revels in them, permanently altering the way in which movie audiences perceive her role. 

Young Frankenstein, as its name suggests, draws its inspiration from James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and 1935 Bride of Frankenstein, and the origins of Frau Blücher can also be found there. In the second Whale film, Irish character actress Una O’Connor plays a frequently hysterical housekeeper named Minnie, although Whale uses her for comic effect rather than horror. Despite her shrieking, Minnie herself is all motherly concern, much like Mrs. Fairfax in Jane Eyre. In Young Frankenstein, Frau Blücher’s costume and position in the household are references to O’Connor’s character, but her creepy and often menacing behavior develops from housekeepers like Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. Dudley. Leachman also sports the thin lips, severe bun, and sinister facial expressions of the more menacing housekeeper type. In fact, Frau Blücher is so absurdly terrifying that horses whinny in fear every time her name is mentioned. Early on, the movie exploits one particularly popular housekeeper trope, in which the taciturn household guardian conducts newcomers through the mysterious domain over which she reigns, often with a large candle in hand. Frau Blücher carries a holder with three candles, all of them markedly unlit, as she warns Frederick to “stay close to the candles. The stairway can be… treacherous.” Like other Gothic housekeepers, but unlike Minnie, Frau Blücher has special insider knowledge about her house and its family. She manipulates Frederick Frankenstein into resuming his grandfather’s research, apparently out of loyalty to the deceased Victor, with whom she was in love. Brooks and Wilder, of course, play all of these plot elements for laughs, but they depend upon the already established conventions of the housekeeper role and show the extent to which the writers expect the audience to be familiar with them. The parody succeeds so well that Frau Blücher usurps the place of earlier, more serious treatments of the character to become the quintessential example of the type. 

The entwined literary and cinematic evolution of the Gothic housekeeper demonstrates the ways in which genre conventions gather force and then sometimes sink under their own weight. In this case, the housekeeper character, along with the rest of her genre’s conventions, developed first in literary works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then gathered new steam with the rise of film. She reached her peak when Rebecca took the world by storm, thanks in part to the ways in which the film version capitalized on her potential. After that, other literary works and films could only repeat what had already been accomplished or twist that representation for parodic effect, since efforts to tinker with the formula were problematic at best. Audiences today will come to any housekeeper character with a very distinct mental image, that developed by the earlier Gothic novels and films, but they will also almost certainly have a sense of the character as inherently clichéd and even ridiculous, given the immense cultural impact of the later parody. We haven’t seen much of the Gothic housekeeper in recent years, perhaps because Mrs. Danvers and Frau Blücher have so completely occupied the spaces in which such a character can stand. Perhaps the recent return of Hammer films will bring the creepy housekeeper back to us in a new but still eerily familiar form. For now, however, it is the housekeeper herself who has become haunted, not by the ghosts of her employers’ house, but by the enduring influence of her own most iconic incarnations.

This essay was written for presentation at the 2012 meeting of the Popular Culture Association in the South (PCAS). The Works Cited page is intentionally excluded in order to discourage plagiarism of the material. This content is the intellectual property of the author and must be properly cited if referenced elsewhere. The author reserves the right to send Mrs. Danvers to have a little personal chat with any plagiarists!

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