Disparate elements combine to deliver a classic exercise in atmospheric suspense.
I've a feeling that before the day is over someone is going to make use of that old-fashioned but somewhat expressive term foul play," drawls the inimitable George Sanders in David O. Selznick's production of Rebecca. With Alfred Hitchcock directing, of course, foul play could be expected.
Rebecca began in 1938 as a novel by Daphne du Maurier. The book captured the attention of Hitchcock, the British director who had built his reputation as the "master of suspense" with melodramas such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). After glancing through galley proofs at Elstree Studio while directing The Lady Vanishes (1938), he considered buying the property, but decided that the price was too high.
Kay Brown, East Coast story editor for Selznick, sent a synopsis to her boss with the highest recommendation. After consulting with his resident story editor, Val Lewton, the producer acquired the film rights to du Maurier's book for a hefty $50,000.
The novel is told in the first person by an unnamed young woman, a shy paid companion to the gross Mrs. Van Hopper, who is on holiday in Monte Carlo. There, "I" meets moody Maxim de Winter, a wealthy English widower. They marry and return to his estate, Manderley, which seems haunted by memories of the beautiful Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, who supposedly drowned the previous year while boating alone. The new bride grows increasingly terrified of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, whose abnormal devotion to Rebecca makes her hate her new mistress; she even tries to coax her to commit suicide. The discovery of Rebecca's corpse in her scuttled boat casts suspicion on Max, who had identified another body as Rebecca's. Max admits to his wife that he killed Rebecca when she boasted that she was pregnant by one of her lovers. A doctor reveals that Rebecca had learned that her supposed pregnancy was actually terminal cancer. The coroner rules death by suicide. Rebecca's lover, Favell, telephones the news to Danvers, who goes berserk and burns Manderley to the ground, dying with it. The de Winters find happiness elsewhere.
Although Selznick wanted to be faithful to the novel, the censors demanded that Max could not kill his wife without paying the penalty. Suicide was also frowned upon. After a hard-fought but futile battle, Selznick had to settle for Rebecca being accidentally killed when she falls while attacking Max.
Selznick, son of pioneer producer Lewis J. Selznick, had presided over many distinguished films at Paramount, RKO Radio and MGM. In 1936, he leased the RKO-Pathé Studio in Culver City, renamed it Selznick International Pictures, and bannered his credo: "In a Tradition of Quality." Built in 1919 by Thomas Ince, the studio had both modern and antiquated stages and shops, a colonial-style administration building and a 40-acre backlot. There Selznick produced such admirable films as The Garden of Allah, A Star is Born, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and others. In 1938-39 he made the most popular movie in history, Gone with the Wind, a Herculean effort that left him exhausted and subject to wide mood swings. Selznick labored ever after in the shadow of GWTW, agonizingly aware that he would never surpass it. Of the 11 films that followed during his career, only Rebecca approached itin prestige or popularity.
Hitchcock had long fantasized about making pictures in the United States with famous stars. Through Selznick's agent brother, Myron, he negotiated a contract with Selznick effective July 14, 1938. Hitchcock's first assignment was to be The Titanic, but in September he was named to direct Rebecca. The teaming of the most autocratic of producers with the most independent of directors made head-butting a way of life for both. Somehow, from this monumental mismatch, a great movie emerged which exhibited the distinctive artistry of two very different men. It also showcased the work of an outstanding production crew and the finest work of a brilliant cast.
Du Maurier ranted that she hated Hitchcock's version of Jamaica Inn (1939) which reflected his cavalier attitude towards source material. Selznick asked her to write the screenplay, but she refused.
To Hitchcock, even an international best seller was nothing more than a springboard for his own ideas. "This is really a new departure for me," he said in the November 5, 1938 edition of Film Weekly. "I shall treat this more or less as a horror film, building up my violent situations from incidents such as one in which the young wife innocently appears at the annual fancy-dress ball given by her husband in a frock identical with the one worn by his first wife a year previously."
Du Maurier needn't have worried: Selznick demanded that the novel be followed faithfully. When he saw the first treatment, which was prepared under Hitchcock's supervision by distinguished Scottish author Philip MacDonald and Hitchcock's former secretary, Joan Harrison, Selznick flew into a rage. In a 10-page letter dated June 12, 1939 (which can be found in Memo from David O. Selznick by Rudy Behlmer) he told Hitchcock he was "shocked and disappointed beyond words" at the "desecrations" of their "distorted and vulgarized version...We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca."
Hitchcock, Harrison and Michael Hogan quickly prepared a version that passed muster. Later, Selznick hired playwright Robert E. Sherwood to prepare the final script.
Selznick was again outraged when Henry Ginsberg, vice president and general manager, submitted a budget of $947,000, based upon the total estimates of all department heads. Calling it "a disgrace," Selznick declared that the head of any department that did not stay within a sensible budget "is going to be fired If there is going to be any extravagance in our picture-making it is going to be indulged in by me personally to improve the quality of pictures, and I am not going to have it thrown away through sloppy management.
The casting of the lead roles proved difficult. Selznick had bought the property for Ronald Colman, whose contract for The Prisoner of Zenda called for a second picture. Colman, who likely would have been the perfect de Winter, balked because he thought his public wouldn't like him as a murderer, and because he feared that Rebecca would emerge as a "woman's picture." Hitchcock also tried vainly to convince Colman to take the part.
After considering such top stars as William Powell, Leslie Howard and Melvyn Douglas, Hitchcock and Selznick agreed upon Laurence Olivier. The British Shakespearean actor had just scored a hit as the brooding Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights, and his asking price was $100,000 less than what MGM wanted for Powell, their first choice. Olivier was signed in June of 1939.
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