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

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011 -- Where Are The Flying Cars?


Now this is what 2011 should look like!  I was a child of the late 50's, early 60's. Remember?  All of the movies, cartoons, comic books, Twilight Zone episodes that portrayed the future -- now the future has come and it doesn't look a whole lot different.  Oh, we have cell phones and computers -- but I wanted flying cars and robot maids who do housework, casual trips to Mars and time machines, "Beam me up, Scotty" and alliances with alien life forms.  What happened?

This is a whole new experience -- grieving for the future that didn't come.  Come on, guys -- step it up!  I want to beam around before I die!  (But I guess I would settle for a robot maid who does housework....)

Happy New Year to everyone!