D- Alfred Hitchcock W- Joan Harrison, Robert E. Sherwood~ from a novel by Daphne DuMaurier
DP- George Barnes, A.S.C.
Rebecca was producer David O. Selznick’s big prestige follow up to his then-current certain-to-be success Gone with the Wind.
Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock over from England and secured him to a multi picture contract, and the first film to be produced was Rebecca. Consequently, it was also Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. While Wind was in post production, Selznick and Hitchcock fought furiously over how the film was to be scripted and shot. Hitch wanted to use the novel as a mere springboard for his own story ideas, much like, 22 years later, he would use another DuMaurier story, The Birds as a mere outline for the actual scripted film. Selznick was having none of it. In telephone tirades and memos to Hitchcock, he was absolutely adamant that Rebecca receive the same fanatical devotion to source as Gone with the Wind had. “We bought (the novel) Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca!“ He furiously wrote in one of his 10, 000 memos to Hitchcock.
Larry Olivier and Joan Fontaine ~lovers with a dark secret between them
The story concerns a young, common English wallflower ( a PERFECT Joan Fontaine)who is employed as a traveling companion to a fat old Rich American gasbag in Monte Carlo. She meets, by chance, Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier), the wealthy Heir to, and owner of, one of Cornwalls biggest country estates, Manderly. He is recently, within the last year, widowed and appears quite devastated by his loss. His dearly dead was the beautiful, witty, gorgeous, talented, super socialite, extremely well bred Rebecca. Maxim and the girl (who is only known in the book as “I”) are attracted to each other at once. He because she is the refreshing opposite of all the rich, vain, awful women he has known, and she because he’s …. well… Rich and hot.
In fairly short order he wooes her, proposes to her, and packs off the old gasbag back to America, thus freeing her. After a quick French marriage and honeymoon, he takes her back home to Manderly. And that is when the honeymoon ends. The girl finds out in short order that although Rebecca is dead, her spirit lives on in every room, couch, table tchotcke, bed, bathroom, fireplace, mysteriously blowing curtain, and probably clothes hamper in Manderly. The servant staff is subtly contemptuous of her and her assumed station, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is A) obviously evil, B) obviously obsessed with the memory of her former mistress, and C) obviously totally crackers . Mrs Danvers is played to A B S O L T E delicious, evil perfection by Judith Anderson.
(semi spoiler alert!)
Events occur which reveal that Rebecca was really a hateful, awful, sexually deviant megabitch, and that Maxim really hated her because she shammed him into marrying her and blackmailed him into keeping her on as his wife, all the while she was cheating on him. She reveals to him that she is pregnant with another man’s baby, and in a fit of passion, he….. well…see it for yourself. I’ll say no more!
Rebecca is a masterpiece on many levels. Black and white Cinematography by second choice George Barnes is simply stunning. I think that it rivals his protege, Gregg Toland’s best work in it’s sophisticated, luminous black and white. In many instances, it achieves a dreamlike, trancelike beauty unmatched in current or future film photography. The score, by Franz Waxman is beautiful and engaging, and I feel is an immense addition to the overall spell the film casts. I’m sure many, though, cite this score as the perfect example of an overly intrusive score which constantly informs the viewer how to feel. Almost every moment is punctuated by the score. In my opinion, I think that for this film, since it’s done with such grace, wit and beauty, it adds so much more. The only imperfections in the film, which distract not a whit, are some poor foley work, poor dubbing in a couple of places, and some of the best bad process shots ever. At one point, as Maxim and the girl are strolling through the garden, the background is moving at about 35mph. In another process scene when Maxim stops the car by visibly pulling the brake, and the soundtrack has the motor clearly quitting, the background continues to move for a second longer. Oh well.
Joan Fontaine, who at that time was a relative unknown, positively shines in every scene she’s in (which is about 90% of the picture). She absolutely nails the part to perfection. Her frailty, awkwardness and shyness which gives way, later in the film, to a growing strength of both character and will, is amazing to watch. It absolutely kills me that the Oscar that year (1940) went to the far inferior Ginger Rodgers for (gah!) Kitty Foyle. It was a great upset, and many people believe that Joan Fontaine’s 1941 Best actress oscar for Suspicion was really as recompense for the egregious error of her loss in 1940. Larry Olivier was obsessed with having his wife, Vivien Leigh, play the part. She screen tested, twice, and was simply awful. She basically played Scarlett O’hara in both tests. Can you imagine the ball crusher Scarlett O’hara as a shy, awkward wallflower? Well, thank God, Neither could Selznick or Hitchcock. Olivier was angry and took his anger out on Joan Fontaine, whom he despised. “It won’t work, old boy, Fontaine’s awful. She must be replaced.” He’d say over and over to Hitch. His (Olivier’s) performance is great, of course, but I really wonder what first choice Ronald Coleman would have done with it.
Judith Anderson lost as best supporting actress to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. In any other year, with any other actress, I’d say it was an outrageous mistake, but I can’t take away from Darwell’s stunningly awesome performance in Wrath, which is the best motion picture that this country (or any other) has ever produced. Anderson playes Mrs Danvers like she’s chisled out of pure black obsidian. She positively drips with menace, all the while simmering insanity on the back burner. Ravishing. Mrs. Danvers is one of my favorite characters in film of all time. She’s shoulder to shoulder with the Wicked Witch of the West. Love her.
In all, Rebecca benefitted enormously from the ill fitting match of both Hitchocks and Selznicks different, opposing geniuses. It produced a hybrid work that was at the top of the roster of both men’s greatest work.