Friday, April 17, 2009

Rebecca: Hitchcock vs. Selznick

"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again". And thus began 130 minutes of intrigue, suspense, mystery and Gothic romance that we know as Rebecca (1940). Of all things Rebecca was or was not, it was definitely a collaboration of two of Hollywood's creative giants, director Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick.

In 1939, while in the middle of producing his masterpiece, Gone with the Wind, Selznick signed Hitchcock to an exclusive contract and brought him over from England, where he had just completed Jamaica Inn. His first American picture would be Rebecca, based on the novel by fellow Brit Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Jamaica Inn). It was the tale of a young gauche bride coming to live on a grand estate, still haunted by the memory of her predecessor, the beautiful and enchanting Rebecca.

But the Rebecca set was fraught with turmoil from the outset. First, there was the issue of casting. Hitchcock wanted Robert Donat for the role of Maxim de Winter. Selznick on the other hand wanted Leslie Howard or Melvyn Douglas among others. Finally, Laurence Olivier was cast, fresh from his first big American success, Wuthering Heights. Next was the plum role of the unnamed second Mrs. de Winter. Selznick tested dozens of actresses for the part (ala Search for Scarlett), including Margaret Sullivan, Loretta Young and Scarlett herself, Vivien Leigh (she and Olivier were in the midst of their torrid love affair and would marry later that year). In the end Joan Fontaine was given the role which was to garner her an Oscar nomination and make her a star.

During filming Selznick was constantly trying to take creative control from Hitchcock, much to the director's chagrin. When the smoke cleared, Rebecca won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1940. This award went to Selznick as producer. Although nominated for Best Director, Hitchcock lost out to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. His was not the only disappointment. Joan Fontaine, who was seen as a favorite, lost the Best Actress award to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle.

As consolation, Fontaine would indeed win her Oscar the following year in Suspicion, ironically another Hitchcock film. The acclaimed director would also try his hand at filming another Daphne du Maurier based story 22 years later........The Birds. This time David O. Selznick had no hand in the production.


  1. Love this movie. It is my favorite Fontaine movie but my favorite person in the movie is Dame Judith Anderson. Now I think that was one heck of a performance. Mrs. Danvers always creeped me out. They wanted to make Mrs. Danvers seem like she was gliding toward Joan and not walking to her so there would be a fear of her appearing at anytime. Oh do I love Hitchcock. I always love the fact you always have to find where he is in every film too! I am a big fan of your blog Rupert.

  2. Hitch loved Du Maurier. Don't forget one of his final British films, based on one of her novels: Jamaica Inn"!

  3. I'm with Jo, Mrs Danvers was the best, and this is also Joan's best film along with Suspicion and the beautiful Letter from an Unknown Woman with Louis Jourdan. Just about everything about RBKR is perfect including all the casting, the sets, costumes and music and the novel translates well. It is amazing there haven't been more versions of this flick...

  4. I first saw this movie about 15 years ago and became a fan of Joan Fontaine. I've enjoyed writing to her over the years. But I have to say that Ms. Danvers stole the show.



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