Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Monday, January 17, 2011

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon - "Rebecca"


There are some opening lines of books or movies that stay with you forever. Years later, just hearing those words evokes memory and feelings experienced the very first time. I am reminded of the beginning of the immortal Moby Dick -- "Call me Ishmael." Or the whispered "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane. The first words of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, Rebecca, are among the most famous -- "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Director Alfred Hitchcock created what is to me a movie like a dream. The story is dramatic, suspenseful, incorporating controversial and sordid issues, and yet it is the dream that I remember.

Rebecca is a story of many levels which begins with a shy and unsophisticated young girl (Joan Fontaine) meeting and marrying widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the epitome of British wealth and aristocracy. What seems like a dream come true for the girl turns into a nightmare of insecurity, hostility, crippling self-doubt and what seems to be the crumbling of the love she believed Maxim shared with her. You see, there was Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, whose shadow was everywhere. In a brilliant literary technique, du Maurier gave the girl no name. She is only referred to as Max’s wife, or the second Mrs. de Winter, or darling, or madam. Only the name of Rebecca dominates. Everyone the girl meets is openly surprised to see the little timid girl who has become the second Mrs. de Winter, and all say variations of the same thing: “Maxim simply adored Rebecca.”

Rebecca was beautiful, accomplished, at home in the world of high society, everything that the second Mrs. de Winter was not. Her handwritten initial “R” appears on household books, her pillowslip, handkerchiefs – so powerful is Rebecca in the girls’ mind that when the phone rings and a servant asks for Mrs. de Winter, the girl says “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. de Winter is dead.” The magnificent mansion, Manderley, is frightening to the girl, and the strangely hostile housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is intimidating and mysteriously unwelcoming to the new wife. Maxim’s moody behavior causes great anxiety in the girl, and she is convinced that he cannot forget Rebecca.

Mrs. Danvers eventually reveals her obsessive love for Rebecca in an unforgettable scene in Rebecca’s stunning bedroom suite, which has been closed off since her death. The lesbian undertones of Mrs. Danver’s love and Rebecca’s possible bisexuality are clearly evident as the strange woman lures the girl to look at Rebecca’s furs, lingerie, even her custom-made underclothes. To Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is and always will be the mistress of Manderley, and the girl is an insignificant intruder. To Mrs. Danvers, even Rebecca’s death by drowning meant that her indomitable life force could not be quenched by any human being, only by the power of the sea.

Through many twists and tangles, the story of Rebecca is high suspense, and I don’t wish to mar anyone’s possible first viewing with more information. One very subtle hint I will share with you -- when the girl asks Maxim’s accountant, Frank, a kind but reticent man, to tell her what Rebecca was really like, he answered reluctantly “I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.”

Producer David O. Selznick obtained the rights to the best-selling novel, and Alfred Hitchcock, already famous for his British films, was brought in to direct. Selznick was already well known for his micro-managing of films in progress, and Hitchcock, no pushover himself, found some clever ways to assure that his directorial vision would be the winner. Selznick was overwhelmed with the filming of Gone With the Wind, which turned out to be lucky for Hitchcock. For one scene in particular, Selznick wished to have smoke spell out the letter “R”. Hitchcock felt this “lacked subtlety” probably a nice way of saying it was a stupid idea. So Hitchcock shot the scene, using a technique of editing it in camera, so that Selznick could not change it when he got around to looking at it.

The final ensemble of actors in Rebecca is wonderful, but the part of the second Mrs. de Winter was difficult to cast. Among other actresses, Vivien Leigh was considered. Olivier, obviously prejudiced by his love for Leigh, was insistent that she get the part. However, Selznick and Hitchcock finally decided upon young Joan Fontaine, which infuriated Olivier so much that he was very unpleasant to Fontaine throughout the filming. Shades of Wuthering Heights when for the exact same reason, Olivier was not nice to Merle Oberon. It appears that Mr. Olivier did not like to be crossed. However, the idea of casting the stunningly beautiful Leigh as a plain, unsophisticated girl was ludicrous. Rebecca's domination as the beautiful, unforgettable woman would have been diminished by another beautiful woman.

Special notice must be given to Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. With her great, cold eyes, her marvelous clipped speech and aura of madness, she created a character that will love on in movie history. Joan Fontaine, although a lovely woman, played the part of the shy, plain girl wonderfully. Robert Donat had originally been considered for the part of Maxim de Winter, but Olivier was finally chosen, a better type for the part in my opinion. The ever-charming, always handsome George Sanders played Rebecca’s shifty cousin and did it with his usual charisma. Other supporting players included well-known actors Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith and Gladys Cooper.

One supporting player I believe stands out in her short but significant role as Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, an American society woman who had employed the girl as a companion on her trips through Europe. Her name is Florence Bates, and she is perfection as a vain, silly, yet sometimes shrewd woman who is completely blind to her unpleasant effect upon Maxim de Winter, and annoyingly determined to be allowed into better circles. Bates was flawless in her depictions of such women, and lends a touch of humor to a dark story.

Selznick deliberately held Rebecca to release in 1940, as he knew that Gone With the Wind would dominate the 1939 Oscars. His plan was right -- Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1940, and cinematographer George Barnes won for his beautiful work in creating the atmosphere of Rebecca. Selznick could not find a mansion great enough to represent the majestic Manderley, so it was done with miniatures, and the reality of its look is a tribute to Barnes. Hitchcock’s direction was, as always, a great achievement.

Perhaps it is Waxman’s haunting score, perhaps the cinematography that gave the film its diffused, hypnotic quality, but Rebecca is like a dream remembered, and certainly takes its place as one of the best of the Golden Age of movies

24 comments:

  1. Great review! Rebecca has always been one of my favorite movies, and you did it justice with this review. I hope all of the readers who have yet to see it will seek it out!

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  2. Becky, thanks for a lovely, well-written review of one of Hitchcock's true classics. I couldn't agree more about the memorable opening line (it hooked me from the start the the first time I saw REBECCA). I never really picked up on any sexual undercurrents between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, but the latter's obsession with her mistress surely justifies some deeper analysis. Leonard Jeff wrote a great book called HITCHCOCK & SELZNICK that provides insight into the collaboration between the two men. In making REBECCA, Hitchcock and Selznick prodded and pushed each to new heights; they made some great movies together during the 1940s. REBECCA was a grand choice for the Hitchcock Blogathon and I thoroughly enjoyed your write-up. (P.S. The British remake with Diana Rigg as Mrs. Danvers is pretty good, too).

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  3. It's no secret that Rebecca is my favorite film hands down and that I was a bit disappointed that it was taken. However since I'm not a film "reviewer" I worried that I would screw up such a masterpiece of Hitchcock's work.

    My fiancée had the pleasure of seeing Rebecca for the first time recently and even though he isn't a huge fan of old film it was this one that changed his mind. Such a perfect cast! Even George Sanders and Reginald Denny stand out.
    I'm glad you chose it and even happier that you included such interesting facts that I didn't know.
    A splendid review of a wonderful film.

    Page at My Love Of Old Hollywood
    http://myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/

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  4. Wonderful write-up Becky. I laughed out loud at the story about Selznick wanting the smoke to form the letter "R." I'm so glad Hitchcock didn't listen.

    Anyone wanting to see how much great character actors can add to a film should just look at "Rebecca."

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  5. I always enjoy reading your posts, Becky, and this one is no exception. Rebecca was one of my favorite books in high school, and though I was upset by some of the changes to the film (made necessary by the Production Code), I still really like the movie version of the story. Like you, I think Judith Anderson is marvelous as Mrs. Danvers, and I also really love George Sanders as Rebecca's supposed "cousin"--he's so perfectly oily in the part!

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  6. Great post! I love this movie. We watch it once a year, and I never tire of it. You nailed everything here. Have you ever seen it on a big screen? The physical size of the Manderly interiors dwarf Joan Fontaine even more, the house playing another character in this story. And that bedroom suite scene ... one of my favorite all-time Hitchcock scenes, because it had to be the perfect physical representation of what Fontaine thought Rebecca to be and chilling at the same time. It's also when you really see that Mrs. Danvers is dangerous in her unhealthy devotion to Rebecca ... and I do pick up on those sexual overtones between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Thank you so much for the wonderful post.

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  7. Wonderful review of one of my own Hitchcock favorites, Becky.
    Joan Fontaine was perfectly cast as the second Mrs. D, as was Olivier as Maxim. Loved the eventual transformation of Fontaine's awkward paid companion into a stronger, more polished woman. As so often was the case w/Hitchcock, a wonderful supporting cast: Judith Anderson, George Sanders, Florence Bates, Leo G. Carroll, Nigel Bruce...the wonderful Gladys Cooper. Though I know Hitchcock and Selznick did not like collaborating with each other at all, this production of "Rebecca" is magnificent.

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  8. Wonderful post Becky, on a wonderful clasic film that has surprises around every turn. I thought Joan Fontaine was very believable in her performance. Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, was also perfectly cast.

    This is a definite "must have" in any suspense / horror / Hitchcock / classics movie
    collection.

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  9. While attending Marshall University in the early 1980s, I got the privilege to meet and chat with Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, who was at that time plugging his Hitch bio "The Dark Side of Genius." Someone in our group mentioned that the people who showed movies at MU on the weekend had some of Sir Alfred's movies scheduled and when Rebecca was mentioned Spoto sort of dismissed it by saying: "Rebecca isn't a Hitchcock film, it's a Selznick film."

    While I'm on record as preferring the same year's Foreign Correspondent I genuinely like Rebecca despite its...oh, "Selznickness," if I can call it that; the performances in the movie are what makes it such a favorite, particularly Dame Judith as the unforgettable Mrs. Danvers (she's evil...eeevilll!!!). Very nice write-up, Becky...take a victory lap!

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  10. "Rebecca" is one of Hitchcock's films that grows more treasured with subsequent viewings. Your dream analogy is excellent, Becky, and exactly the point that Selznick failed to comprehend in his bizarre smoky "R" suggestion. "R" predominates in all the names: Maxim De WinteR, Mrs. DanveRs, and even MandeRley. Had Maxim's new bride been given a first name I am certain it would have been devoid of an "R." But better yet, she remained nameless, and therefore smaller and less significant.

    The scene with Mrs. Danvers gazing and admiring all things Rebecca in her bedroom suite reminds me of Mark going through "Laura"'s things in her bedroom. Bessie, Laura's maid, tries to make him be respectful. Interestingly, Judith Anderson had a dominating role here, too, but this time her character was interested in Laura's fiance, Shelby.

    I loved your tribute, Becky. Impeccable job!

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  11. My grandma love this movie, my mom love this movie, and I love it too! Great review, I agree with you, the supporting cast is terrific, especially Judith Anderson. Such a brilliant film :)

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  12. What a truly gorgeous, well-crafted review. I'm glad this blogathon has allowed me to discover your great site!

    -Caroline

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  13. This day has been a blast! Everyone's comments are interesting, bring up things I didn't think of, and make me feel really good with such praise. I hardly ever am impressed with my own writing, and usually see glaring holes or awkward phrases. It's great to know that you like it!

    Actually, the day is probably not over yet, since our west coast members are just now getting home from work!

    Good work everybody!

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  14. Let's give credit where credit is due: George Barnes DID win an Academy Award for his beautiful cinematography on Rebecca!!

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  16. Well, put me in front of a firing squad! You are quite right, CineramaRick. I got Waxman and Barnes mixed up. I'd better get in there and correct the error!

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  17. Wonderful review of another one of my favorite Hitchcock films. Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson are perfect. Great contribution, an one of many, to this great blogathon

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  18. Becky, a thorough, well-written, and very enjoyable post on a hugely entertaining movie. You covered all the essentials--the story and its subtexts, Hitchcock's direction, the photography, the enigmatic title character, the fantastic supporting cast (especially Judith Anderson, but George Sanders also stands out for me), and the casting of the lead part and Joan Fontaine's pitch-perfect performance. I'm a huge fan of Margaret Sullavan, and apparently Hitchcock liked her tests very much. But even though she looked right for the part (attractive without being beautiful), I can see that she projected too much self-assurance to bring the tentativeness to the role that Fontaine did. I might be in the minority, but I never thought Olivier was quite right for the part of Maxim, though--a bit too young and too surly. I thought Ronald Coleman, who apparently turned it down, would have been perfect. This was my mother's favorite movie. The first time I saw it on afternoon TV when I was in grade school, the whole first part where Fontaine and Olivier meet had been cut! What a revelation it was to see the movie in its entirety years later, like discovering a previously unknown but beautiful room in a house. A great post of your usual high quality.

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  19. I just feel overwhelmed by your comments, everyone. I'm so glad you liked my article, and I can say without any forced flattery that I was amazed at the quality of all of the blogs. Thank you so much.

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  20. very well done!! REBECCA is a film that is hard to defend, as it is hard to dismiss...I think DAME JUDITH ANDERSON is fantastically cast!!

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  21. Great Review Becky! Interesting that Olivier wanted his wife for the role of Maxim's second wife. I am glad Selznik and Hithcock's judgement to not cast Vivian Leigh overruled. Leigh would've overshadowed the mystery and dominating persona of Rebecca.

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  22. I have always liked Rebecca. I like Hitchcock movies. I have probably seen this movie maybe 40 times and never once in all of those times have I ever considered that Rebecca and Mrs. Danver's were gay...

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  23. Hi, Anon! This is ClassicBecky, and I have to sign in as anonymous too -- Blogger is giving me trouble!

    Possible gay feelings were a very subtle undertone in both the book and the movie. Daphne duMaurier, the author, was bisexual, and you often find such threads in her other works. I never saw Rebecca as gay - perhaps bisexual, more likely asexual actually -- it seemed to me that she would use anyone for her purposes with whatever weapons she had to use. I don't believe she and Mrs. Danvers ever had a relationship -- only that Rebecca could sense Ms. Danvers' inner feelings and used them to her advantage. It's a very interesting issue. I'm so glad you came by and read this -- I love the book and movie!

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  24. After "Rebecca," Hitchcock was scheduled to make another film for Selznick -- an adaptation of the Charles Morgan play "The Flashing Stream," a drama in which Carole Lombard would have starred as an expert mathematician sent to a remote island to help in an aerial torpedo project. It of course was never made, and Hitch and Carole would instead collaborate in the atypical Hitchcock "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." For more on this movie that might have been, visit http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/415029.html

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