“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done. But as I advanced, I was aware that a change had come upon it. Nature had come into her own again, and little by little had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.
And finally, there was Manderley – Manderley – secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream. I looked upon a desolate shell, with no whisper of a past about its staring walls. We can never go back to Manderley again.”
And so begins Rebecca (1940), a gripping Gothic tale based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel. I’m going to be careful about spoilers, so you’ll have to watch it to find out why they can never go back to Manderley again…
The filmmakers wisely decided to include du Maurier’s fabulous opening lines in their film, changing them only slightly from the novel.
As Joan Fontaine‘s voice wisps and curls around the words, images of an iron gate, then a long, overgrown drive winding through a forest, and finally the shell of a large manor house wreathed in fog appear in smoky black and white.
You can watch it here–it’s spooky and wonderful. Plus, the entire crew that filmed the creeping approach to Manderley (supposed to be in England, but actually filmed in Del Monte, CA), caught poison ivy and had to be hospitalized. You owe it to them to watch it, I think.
This “picturization” (what a fantastic term) of the “celebrated novel” was produced by David O. Selznick, fresh off of Gone with the Wind (1939). It was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and has the distinction of being his first American film. It was also Hitchcock’s only movie to win Best Picture.
The film stars Mr. Shakespeare Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, and Joan Fontaine as his second wife, with a creepy turn by Judith Anderson as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. It’s quite similar to Jane Eyre: plain, poor young woman (who likes to sketch) captivated and courted by an older, powerful, tormented man, in a house full of dark secrets. There’s even a very mysterious first wife, and lots of fire…but I digress.
Our first glimpse of Maxim de Winter (Olivier) is almost our last, because he seems about to jump off the cliff into the swirling waves below. Fortunately for everyone, he hears a shout and steps back:
Why, it’s cardigan-clad Joan Fontaine! He’s rather angry at being interrupted, and she’s easily cowed. They go their separate ways…
…until they meet again in the lobby of a swanky Monte Carlo hotel. Cardigan Girl is a trodden-upon paid companion to beastly Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). The man sits down with them, but you can tell it’s mainly because he recognizes Miss Cardigan, not because he likes Mrs. Van Hopper.
And so begins the love story. Heads up–we NEVER get Cardigan Girl’s name. Not ever in the whole movie, nor in the novel.
The novel is written in the first person, so she’s just “I” or, spoiler alert, Mrs. de Winter. In Hitchcock’s first efforts at the script, he named Fontaine’s character “Daphne” after the novel’s author, but Selznick nixed it.
Selznick wanted to stay close to the novel, so he shot down most of Hitchcock’s suggestions if they toyed with the original story. There is one huge difference, but it’s also a huge spoiler so I’ll talk about it later.
Maxim and the girl’s courtship is very cute, especially because she doesn’t think he’s courting her. She can’t even fathom the idea that he’s interested in her. Shades of Jane Eyre and Rochester…
Fortunately for them, Mrs. Van Hopper gets a cold, which leaves the girl plenty of free time to hang out with Maxim. They go driving quite a lot, so there are plenty of stolen glances and rear projection. I talked about Hitchcock’s preference for a controlled environment (sets vs. location shooting) in my Notorious review, and it’s definitely in evidence in his first Hollywood movie.
Mrs. Van Hopper provides some important backstory: she lets slip to the girl that Maxim’s wife, Rebecca, drowned about a year ago in a sailing accident. She says that he was utterly devoted to Rebecca and hardly survived her death…
Cardigan Girl doesn’t tell Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s out with Maxim, so deluded Mrs. Van Hopper sends message after message to Maxim apologizing for being ill and assuming he is terribly bored without her. Comedy! She has no idea that Maxim isn’t bored at all, and is actually romancing her employee!
Maxim chuckles and tries to tell her that he likes her the way she is, that he’s not just taking her out for charity. Then he kisses his finger and bops it on her forehead. It’s sweeter than it sounds. You can watch this scene here.
Everything is going great until Mrs. Van Hopper suddenly decides to leave Monte Carlo. This pushes Maxim to a decision. He can watch his beloved leave him forever, or he can propose. He goes the marriage route. Mrs. Van Hopper is shocked! Shocked, I say!
It’s a Gothic story, so of course it’s rainy, cold, and dark as they approach the house. And what a house! Mrs. de Winter had told Maxim during their courtship that she’d seen a postcard of Manderley as a girl, so we know it’s a pretty big deal.
And the second Mrs. de Winter wonders what in the world she’s doing there. She’s just an orphaned paid companion, and now she’s mistress of this monster-house. Plus, she’s wet and cold, so it’s not the ideal first impression.
One imagines that the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) would hate the new Mrs. de Winter even if she’d been perfectly coiffed and elegantly attired, though.
Yikes, she’s creepy.
Unsurprisingly, the second Mrs. de Winter struggles to settle into her new house and her new role. Wherever she turns it seems that the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, is there to haunt and taunt her. Mrs. Danvers particularly delights in telling Mrs. de Winter how beautiful, accomplished, popular, intelligent and all-around awesome Rebecca was, and how much Maxim loved her.
Cardigan Girl can’t compete with that! Mrs. Danvers never misses an opportunity to belittle and bully her, and Maxim is off tending to the estate, leaving his overwhelmed wife to wander through the house alone.
That fireplace looks like it will swallow her up, and breakfast at that huge table is just silly.
Manderley is practically a character in the movie, and they did a great job with the set design. As I mentioned before, most of the exteriors of Manderley are shots of a model, and they cheated with the interiors occasionally, too. A lot of the house isn’t a set at all, but is composed of matte drawings by Al Simpson, including the ceilings and chandeliers. Mattes are basically paintings that cover part of the film strip so that you see the painting, not the filmed image. It’s sort of like adding a painted backdrop to the film (special effects pre-computer). You can see the mattes in many of the interior shots of Manderley: the ceilings look a little unreal. That unreality works for this movie, though, because it’s almost a ghost story.
When Laurence Olivier was cast as Maxim, he started to lobby for his then-fiancée Vivien Leigh to play the second Mrs. de Winter. She had just finished her iconic turn as Scarlett O’Hara, and she really wanted to act opposite Olivier.
David O. Selznick tested Olivier and Leigh twice, but he didn’t think gorgeous, vivacious Leigh was right for the mousy role of Cardigan Girl. There is an intensity to Vivien Leigh that would have undermined Cardigan Girl’s passivity.
The whole “I wish I was a woman of 36 in black satin” would be less pathetic and much more realistic coming from Leigh. One imagines Maxim telling her to wait a few years and change her dress, instead of laughing as he does at Fontaine. Leigh would have been good as Rebecca, though…
But Hitchcock and Selznick wisely decided never to show Rebecca, even in flashback. They knew that she would upstage the second Mrs. de Winter, and that the unseen Rebecca would be more intimidating and larger-than-life than any actress.
Anyway, Selznick showed his screen tests to director George Cukor, who laughed out loud at Leigh’s effort to be shy, innocent, and plain. Cukor personally liked Ann Baxter’s test the most, though he also suggested that Selznick test Joan Fontaine, who’d recently appeared as a young innocent in The Women (1939).
And Fontaine won the part. She’s very good and scared-looking in most of the movie. She slouches and looks anxious and permanently startled. Although she often has good reason to be.
Like this: the desk in the morning room (where Rebecca always went to write her correspondence after breakfast, Mrs. Danvers says reverently,) still has all of Rebecca’s things perfectly arranged as though the dead woman will walk back in at any moment.
Fun fact: Rebecca’s handwriting was penned by Selznick’s wife, Irene.
To add to Rebecca’s unseen but very real presence, Mrs. Danvers shows the second Mrs. de Winter Rebecca’s wing of the house, which Mrs. Danvers has kept perfectly preserved. It’s super creepy.
I can’t see Vivien Leigh being bullied and tormented the way that Fontaine is in this film. The poor dear hunches and looks terrified, and sometimes you just want to shake her and say “Fire Mrs. Danvers, and tell Maxim about all the crazy stuff that’s going on, you silly girl!”
But instead she just looks haunted and very awkward in her new role. She’s awkward with Maxim’s sister (Gladys Cooper) and her husband, and can barely function with anyone else. Exhibit A: Someone calls and asks for Mrs. de Winter, and she doesn’t realize they’re asking for her until after she’s hung up! You can watch it here.
Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress (she won the following year for her role in Hitchcock’s Suspicion, playing yet another terrified wife). Part of Fontaine’s performance in this film was “real,” thanks to Hitchcock’s manipulation.
This was Fontaine’s first starring role, and she was very nervous. Olivier’s undisguised preference for Vivien Leigh as Mrs. de Winter didn’t help, and then dear Alfred capitalized on Fontaine’s insecurity. He told the 23-year-old that she was out of her league in the cast of veteran British actors, and reminded her of how much less she was being paid than some of her cast mates. He also said that no one on the movie liked her. Cruel, but I guess it worked? I wonder if it was truly necessary.
Hitchcock even slapped Fontaine one time. She’d asked Judith Anderson to slap her before a crying scene, and when the actress refused, Hitchcock happily slapped her instead.
The second Mrs. de Winter is constantly made to feel less than Rebecca, but she tries to live up to her glamorous predecessor. She re-styles her hair and orders a black satin dress that she sees in a fashion magazine, forgetting that Maxim had said he didn’t want that in a wife. She even puts on pearls!
The extraordinary lighting that makes Maxim look so terrifying comes from the projector Maxim was using to show home movies from their honeymoon. The juxtaposition of carefree footage and their tense relationship at Manderley is very powerful.
Things go downhill. Mrs. de Winter decides to host a costume party, a tradition at Manderley that she wants to revive in order to show everyone that she can be like Rebecca. She sketches some costume ideas:
But then helpful Mrs. Danvers suggests she take a look at the de Winter portraits to get some ideas. And Mrs. de Winter apparently forgets that Mrs. Danvers is an evil woman, and thanks her for the great idea of copying Caroline de Winter’s dress.
Turns out that Rebecca had worn the exact same costume at the last costume ball at Manderley, just before she drowned. Point, Mrs. Danvers!
Then Mrs. Danvers goes even further and almost persuades Mrs. de Winter to jump out of Rebecca’s window to her death. The second Mrs. de Winter is completely convinced that Maxim doesn’t love her, and can never love her as much as he loved Rebecca.
Creepy creepy. And here the spoilers end because big things are about to happen and I don’t want to ruin it for you…
The movie was a great succcess and made Fontaine a star. She would go on to play Jane Eyre opposite Orson Welles in 1944, so she really capitalized on her skills at playing downtrodden, vulnerable young women.
As I mentioned before, Rebecca won Best Picture and was nominated for eleven other Oscars, including awards for Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson. They would go home empty handed; only George Barnes won for Cinematography-Black and White.
Hitchcock later said that this film lacks humor, and it has much less quirky comedy than his later movies. Besides Mrs. Van Hopper in the beginning, there’s very little humor to break the Gothic tension. Hitchcock wanted to add some funny stuff, like having Maxim’s cigar make people nauseous, or giving Maxim friends who travel with him to Monte Carlo. But Selznick said no. He wanted Daphne du Maurier’s novel brought unadulterated to the screen. (Except for one major change (major spoiler!) brought to you after the next image).
Although Rebecca works as a Gothic creepfest, at times Fontaine’s trembly-weepiness and Mrs. Danvers’ utter evil gets to be too much. (Hitchcock usually arranged shots so that we rarely see Mrs. Danvers walk; instead she just appears out of nowhere and glides. Many critics have suggested that Mrs. Danvers was in love with Rebecca, and she certainly does seem obsessed with her dead mistress. That love fuels her diabolical intentions towards Cardigan Girl.)
Although this movie is mostly a faithful adaptation of the novel, they did have to make a big change to satisfy the Production Code Administration. Last warning for spoilers!
Turns out Rebecca was the worst. She was manipulative, immoral, and extremely promiscuous, and liked to entertain lovers in a cottage on the beach. Maxim only found out who Rebecca really was after they were married. She had him just where she wanted him–he couldn’t divorce her without huge scandal, so instead they made an agreement. Maxim would allow Rebecca to do her own thing, but in return she would pretend to be the greatest wife and hostess in all of English society.
They went along like that for a while, but then Rebecca went too far. She told Maxim that she was pregnant with another man’s child, and that he would have to raise it as his heir. She laughed at him and taunted him, and he shot her. He put her body in her sailboat, drove holes through the bottom, and set it loose in the ocean. So everyone thinks she drowned.
Then he goes on with his life and marries Cardigan Girl, who remains in ignorance about Rebecca’s true nature, and her husband’s deep loathing for her, until the night of the ball. Other things happen, but it’s a happy ending for Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter.
The Production Code Administration had a rule that criminals had to be punished for their crimes. Movies can’t show murderers getting away with or enjoying a happy ending! To get around this rule, the movie made the murder into more of an accident. Instead of Maxim shooting Rebecca, he only wants to kill her in the moment before she trips, falls, and hits her head, dying instantly. Then Maxim puts her on the damaged boat, but he’s not technically guilty of killing her. It’s a handy solution to the Production Code’s rule. You can watch Maxim’s tortured confession to the second Mrs. de Winter here.
There’s much more to this movie–I didn’t even mention George Sanders as one of Rebecca’s lovers! There are even more twists after the second Mrs. de Winter finds out about Rebecca. It’s a wonderful story and it’s brought to the screen in spectacular Gothic fashion.