Based on the novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, 1947’s The Red House is, on the surface, a fairly straight forward thriller that focuses on the dangers of jealousy and the secrets and lies that can come from contained lust. The film stars legendary actor Edward G. Robinson as Pete Morgan, who with the help of his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson) has raised a girl named Meg (Allene Roberts) from an abandoned baby girl to a teenager climbing towards adulthood. Despite their unusual situation, their family unit is quite stable; however, things begin to change for the family when Mr. Morgan, who has lived much of his life as a cripple, decides to hire one of Meg’s schoolmates, a young man named Nath (Lon McCallister), to help with some of his daily choirs.
Nath is the kind of boy who could be considered a popular kid. A good-looking young man who has a lot of charm and as much tenacity to go with it. He has a bright future, he’s eager to work and he even has himself a very attractive girlfriend named Tibby (Julie London), who loves him as much as he loves her. His character greatly contrasts that of Meg, who is painted as socially inept, but for no other reason than she is simply a little shy and certainly sheltered. It is revealed early on that her odd family situation is cause for gossip filled whispers at her high school. The chit-chat is not necessarily a direct result of how she carries herself socially but more a result of her personal home life. Regardless, she is very innocent to the world in almost every way; it’s a characteristic that she exudes from her very being and how she presents herself.
While shy, Meg is at an age where naivety brings about an intense curiosity of the world outside of the one she has always lived in. It is this curiosity that is prodded by Nath who, after learning that the surrounding woods near the Morgan’s home is plagued by some sort of unnatural danger, decides to investigate. Despite the numerous warnings given by Mr. Morgan, Nath is driven by his own brand of curiosity, and Meg is quick to follow Nath in his quest to learn more about what wicked things haunt the woods and what answers lie within the Red House.
For much of the film, there is a bit of a power struggle between the persistent Nath and the adamant Mr. Morgan. Mr. Morgan constantly asks Nath to just stay away from the woods. But despite Mr. Morgan’s warnings of the danger they present, and regardless of the proper head that he carries on his shoulders, Nath is too stubborn and, to a point, too egotistical to listen. While Mr. Morgan is not at all okay with Nath’s persistence, he is more concerned for the safety of Meg, who he has clearly been protecting from the secrets of the Red House and possibly the real reason she is as sheltered as she is. Nath’s desire to explore rubs off on Meg, and for Meg this is more than just a little adventure, which is what scares Mr. Morgan most.
While there is much to be said story wise about director Delmer Daves’ The Red House, what makes it stand out as being more than your basic, albeit well made, thriller is the complexity of the characters. It’s what really sets the film apart, specifically with the characters of Nath and Meg, who carry a level of subtext worthy of completely overtaking my attention in this review.
The character I find to be most interesting is Meg, who is driven by a desire to learn about what secrets are being kept from her and how they might affect her past, and Nath is the catalyst that sets her on this path. However, this runs parallel to a budding sexual subtext, where Meg is not only exploring her past, she is exploring her own individuality both as a woman and as a sexual being. And again, Nath is clearly the catalyst in this situation, too.
This all plays right into Mr. Morgan, who clearly perceives Meg as a daughter and fears that she will be greatly hurt by what she can learn from the past. Despite the fact that he is basically only her caretaker, Meg looks at Mr. Morgan as a father figure, and she is very much treated like daddy’s little girl, regardless of whether she actually is or not. Meg is growing into a woman, and as is the case with almost every girl who matures into womanhood, she is gravitating away from someone who has been her protective father figure to someone who can give her more than fatherly love. Deep down, this is what I believe truly frightens Mr. Morgan about Meg and Nath's growing relationship.
While her budding sexuality is a clear subtextual character trait, Meg is never exploited in a sexual fashion or any fashion whatsoever. In fact, she remains pure sexually and, more importantly, as a character throughout the film. Meg's curiosity about her past and as a sexual creature is played off innocently, and when in contrast to the more outwardly lustful character of Tibby (Nath's girlfriend), her character’s arc and structure benefit from it. She becomes the character that the viewer (or at least me, to be more specific) and Nath come to fall in love with, and this is indeed a natural progression throughout the film.
With her expressive doe like eyes that feel as if they are staring directly into your soul with a loving innocence, Meg is a character who slowly takes over the film by becoming the character that the viewer cares about most. In my opinion, falling for Meg is a necessity for The Red House to be successful, and it gives the film a density that helps it be much more than a mere thriller. It's the story of a woman becoming a woman, on her own terms and without the constraints of authority.