Rebecca (1940) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson. (130 min).

The film of Rebecca begins with the same evocative opening line as Daphne du Maurier’s novel: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderly again.” Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, and the only one of his films ever to win a Best Picture Oscar. However, the Academy Award was presented to producer David O. Selznick, not to him.

Hitchcock’s last British film was another Du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn. He was lured to Hollywood by maverick producer Selznick, with the promise of directing a film based on the Titanic disaster, a project which never came to fruition. Rebecca was an extremely popular book, and Selznick, who had just had his lifetime’s greatest success with his production of Gone With the Wind was attracted to another sure-fire literary property for his next film. The author was an unusual person, much more so, perhaps, than her best selling novel indicates.

Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather was George du Maurier, a writer and cartoonist for the homor magazine, Punch. If known today at all, it is for the novel Trilby in which a beautiful singer seems completely under the sway of her sinister mentor, Svengali.

Daphne was the middle of three daughters born to Gerald du Maurier, a great actor manager and matinee idol of the British theater, and his 3rd wife. J.M. Barrie was a family friend, and Gerald was the star of many of his plays. He was the original Captain Hook, and it was his idea that Mr. Darling and the pirate should be played by the same actor in Peter Pan. The household was unconventional, to say the least. Her father had many young mistresses, but her mother never felt threatened by them, secure in her place in the family. Daphne was shy and imaginative and felt as a child that she was really a boy, a conviction dashed by puberty. Attracted to both boys and girls she loathed the idea of being “Venetian” family code for lesbian. But, she wouldn’t be Venetian, if she were really a boy.

She was sent to finishing school in France, where she developed a serious crush on one of her female teachers, who in turn doted on her. College was never considered, it was inappropriate for a girl of her social standing, her parents bought her a car, instead. She wrote poems and short stories in lieu of higher education.

Her father, who had doted on her and her sisters as girls became irrationally jealous as they displayed interest in the opposite sex, especially as he continued to have affairs with young women scarcely older than his daughters. Barrie wrote a play called Dear Brutus in which Gerald starred that was explicitly about his relationship with Daphne, except the daughter is a fantasy. When this secret is revealed in the play, “the entire theater sobbed.”

In Daphne’s short stories the men were “bullies, seducers and cheats” and the women were weak, dominated and betrayed. She continued to read voraciously, especially Robert Lewis Stevenson, Walter Scott and William Thackeray. The du Mauriers bought a holiday home in the village of Fowey in Cornwall, and Daphne became intrigued by a magnificent old house called Menabilly, hidden amidst the woods and gardens, but facing the sea.

At 22 she published her first short story and had a romance with Carol Reed, who would go on to direct The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, and other popular films. He was the illegitimate son of another great actor-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. She wrote several well received novels, examining rather shocking topics of the day, such as sex without love (mirroring her affair with Carol Reed) her complicated relationship with her father and same sex attraction.

Rather suddenly, she fell in love with Tommy Browning, nicknamed Boy, an army major who wouldn’t sleep with her unless they were married. So, she “put the boy in a box” as she would say, and decided to do the conventional thing, after all. She thought she was marrying a stalwart WWI war hero, but found herself shocked by the PTSD that left him sobbing in the night, and completely overwhelmed by the domestic duties she had absolutely no training for. She hated sleeping with him in a double bed, “we keep waking up and banging into each other…then the other person seems to make such a noise breathing” (Forster 101). Convinced she would have a son, she was shocked when her daughter, Tessa, was born. She had little interest in or involvement with the baby, who was left entirely in care of the nanny.

Her father died suddenly, and she worked through her grief by publishing a biographical portrait of him. But then, she had her first big success with the pirate yarn, Jamaica Inn, modeled after one of her favorite books, Treasure Island. Tommy was transferred to Alexandria, Egypt, and Daphne dreaded having to go with him and be mashed together with the other officer’s wives. Plus, she was pregnant again, much to her dismay. She hated Egypt and never tried to adapt at all. She went back to Cornwall for the birth of her baby, another daughter, Flavia. But then, she left both children in England, returning to Alexandria to be with her husband, and to being work on Rebecca.

In her fantasies, she roamed around the grounds of Menabilly, a house she longed for and wished to live in. She fretted that her husband, who liked a well run home, was exasperated by her inability with the servants. She also incorporated her feelings of isolation and a distortion of reality which she experienced living in Eygpt. She returned to England with a quarter of the novel finished, her publisher snapping at her heels for another hit like Jamaica Inn. She avoided her children as much as possible so she could write. “I’ve tried to get an atmosphere of suspense…the ending is a bit brief and a bit grim.” But, the critics felt, “the new Daphne du Maurier contains everything the public could want” (Forster 135).

She did not want the story to be a romance, but to be rather about the balance of power in a marriage. She chafed at comparisons to Jane Eyre, another gothic Cinderella story, where everything that should be comforting becomes a threat. The 2nd Mrs. de Winter’s dismay over the broken cupid is an indication of all that should be happiness and love has shattered.

Eventually Daphne had a son, and she did eventually manage to rent her dream home, Menabilly. She loved the house with an unreasoning passion, even though it was freezing cold and filled with bats and rats which the children found terrifying. Daphne thought they should be perfectly happy wandering around the beautiful grounds with only each other for company, and couldn’t understand why they would want to go to school or play with other children.

And, after many years of marriage, when Tommy returned from WW II even more demanding than he had been before, she let the boy out of the box. First, an unrequited passion for the wife of her American publisher brewed for years, and then finally, she had a love affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence. She published many more acclaimed novels and stories, one of which, “The Birds” even provided another excellent story of Alfred Hitchcock. But Rebecca is considered her masterpiece.

The film version, produced by David O. Selznick announces in the opening title: “Selznick International presents its picturization of Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated novel” and is scrupulously faithful to the book with a few significant deviations.

One of the most recognized movie costumes of the 1940s. Was it designed by Irene?

Selznick always took great care with his casting, and considered many actors before settling on those who would eventually star in the film. William Powell, Leslie Howard and Ronald Colman were all considered for Maxim. Colman refused the part, because he thought the role was too negative, and the story too female centered. However, one of Olivier’s biographers said that Selznick had always wanted him, when reading the novel and came to the description of Maxim, ‘His face was arresting, sensitive and medieval in some strange, inexplicable way’ he had penciled Olivier’s name in the margin (Barker194). Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who would soon be maried. had once resolved not to act together, but this intention was eroding. After he was cast, Vivien hoped she would play the 2nd Mrs. De Winter. Selznick, who had cast her perfectly as Scarlett O’Hara, thought she was unsuitable for the part, no doubt because he felt audiences would not accept her as meek and passive. Margaret Sullivan, Loretta Young, Olivia de Havilland and Anne Baxter were all considered before the part was offered to Joan Fontaine. She was only 22, and although a veteran of a number of films was not yet considered to be a star. This film would make her one.

A 1940s publicity photo of Joan Fontaine saved by my Aunt Claire in her movie star scrapbook.

Hitchcock considered it “a completely British picture: the story, the actors, and the director were all English. I’ve sometimes wondered what that picture would have been like had it been made in England with the same cast. I’m not sure I would have handled it the same way. The American influence on it was obvious. First, because of Selznick, and then because the screenplay was written by the playwright Robert Sherwood, who gave it a broader viewpoint than it would have had in Britain” (Truffaut 128). Selznick had searched for a British screenwriter to provide dialogue, but always feared that something in the dialogue, accents or expressions would not be understood by an American audience. In Britain, there would have been an opportunity for location shooting, to give Manderly a sense of place. Not only was a house a miniature, but so was the lane leading up to the mansion. But the special effect techniques gave the setting a sense of isolation and the story the atmosphere of a fairy tale.

There is not much in the film that seems, in retrospect, “Hitchcockian” although Mrs. Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, is a sinister character worthy of his gallery of villains. The director said in an interview with Francois Truffaut, “Mrs. Danvers was almost never seen walking and was rarely shown in motion. If she entered a room in which the heroine was, what happened is that the girl suddenly heard a sound and there was the ever-present Mrs. Danvers, standing perfectly still by her side. In this way, the whole situation was projected from the heroine’s point of view; she never knew when Mrs. Danvers would turn up, and this, in itself, was terrifying. To have shown Mrs. Danvers walking about would have been to humanize her” (Truffaut 130). Without a doubt one of the most memorably chilling scenes is Mrs. Danvers showing the 2nd Mrs. De Winter Rebecca’s bedroom. The seemingly innocuous tour of Rebecca’s personal items becomes both a reproach and a sinister warning.

Mrs. Danvers threatens the 2nd Mrs. de Winter.

Although the costuming played an important part in the film, it was difficult to discover who actually designed the costumes, since there is no on screen credit. Deborah Landis solves the puzzle by crediting Irene in her definitive book on film costuming, although Irene’s filmographies in a number of different sources omit mention of her designs for Rebecca. Not only is there one costume (for the masquerade ball) that is a major plot point, but Fontaine’s clothes cleverly define her role. Preferring to wear practical cardigans and wool skirts, she only has girlish gowns in which to dress for dinner. Her attempt at a more sophisticated dinner dress looks ridiculous, and Maxim mocks her for trying to change that one quality (her guilelessness) which first attracted him.

Here is the sophisticated dinner dress that Maxim disdains.

The film version makes some interesting alterations. The shocking proposal, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” is shouted from the bathroom, and not delivered face to face, which would be much more brutal. All the odd Venetian feelings from the book, “I was like a little scrubby schoolboy with a passion for a sixth form prefect” and “I’ll be your friend and companion, a sort of boy…” are eliminated. Maxim’s culpability is also altered, although that was a required concession to censorship of the Production Code.

Selznick, even with such accomplished craftsmen and artists as Hitchcock and the rest of the team was a micro-manager…arguably his taste and opinions shaped the films he worked on into the works that we love. He savaged the first treatment of Rebecca in a letter to Hitchcock “…I would rather say very flatly that I think the treatment is pretty bad, and that it is easier to do a new one than to repair this one. Apparently the original had very little charm for the people who worked on the treatment, because if they felt about it as I do, and as all the other readers of the book that I have ever spoken to do, all their efforts would have been towards seeing exactly how much of the original they could preserve as to incident, reactions, characterizations, and all the other things that have made the book the most successful love story next to Gone With the Wind that has appeared in the last five years…” (Behlmer 270).

In other memos to Hitchcock, he applauded the way he was directing the somewhat inexperienced Fontaine, urging him on one occasion “to be a little more Yiddish Art Theater in these moments and a little less English Repertory Theater, which will make the restraint of the rest of the performance much more effective, in my opinion, and will not make it seem as though Joan is simply not capable of the big moments (Behlmer 292).

But, even an accomplished actor like Olivier was second guessed. “Larry’s silent action and reactions become slower as his dialogue becomes faster, each day. His pauses and spacing on the scene with the girl in which she tells him about the ball are the most ungodly slow and deliberate reactions I have ever seen. It is played as though he were deciding whether or not to run for President instead of whether or not to give a ball…(Behlmer 292). One can only imagine that Hitchcock and Olivier, in particular, were not enamoured of the attention that Selznick gave to every frame of film.

Hitchcock rehearsing with Olivier and Fontaine

But the main difference between the novel and the film is to make Rebecca a full blown romance. Laurence Olivier, used to playing difficult lovers, makes Maxim much more likeable than in the book (although still not very) and Joan Fontaine plays the 2nd Mrs. De Winter rather like a cringing dog who wants to be patted on the head. Yet, she, too is not as annoying as the character in the book. It’s rather a relief to know that du Maurier did not intend the story to be a romance, since it does not play as one. Of course, Judith Anderson as the sinister Mrs. Danvers is perfection, itself, and the whole film is directed masterfully by Alfred Hitchcock, with George Barnes moody cinematography and the mysterious and romantic score by Franz Waxman, and an excellent supporting cast including George Sanders, Nigel Bruce and Gladys Cooper. Rebecca, both the book and film, continue to weave their spell.

Sources include: Daphne Du Maurier by Margaret Forster, The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon and Jim Sangster, Hitchcock/Truffaut by Francois Truffaut, Memo From David O. Selznick, selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer, The Films of the Forties by Tony Thomas, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, The Oliviers by Felix Barker.