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As David O. Selznick put Gone with the Wind into production in the late 1930s, he realized that he needed help with other pictures on the studio schedule. He had soon hired a rotund Englishman as director and producer, but Rebecca—the first of four collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock—was very much a David O. Selznick production and a Selznick International release.
In Rebecca, the wealthy Maxim de Winter marries a plain, innocent young woman, and takes her home to Manderley. There the devoted housekeeper Mrs. Danvers keeps alive the memory of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, who lent glamour and beauty to her husband’s ancestral home. Driven by anxiety over her own inadequacy and Danvers’ psychological terror, the heroine contemplates suicide—until she learns the truthabout her predecessor.
“We bought [the novel] Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca,” Selznick told Hitchcock early on, but the director had other ideas. “I believe that I owe much of the success I have been lucky enough to achieve to my ‘ruthlessness’ in adapting stories for the screen,” Hitchcock said. Though the initial screen treatment of the novel bore Hitchcock’s signature, Selnick argued for structure, characterization, and dialogue much as author Daphne du Maurier had conceived them. Producer and director battled for almost a year as the writers produced a well-crafted screenplay, an amalgam of Selznick fidelity and Hitchcock touches.
On casting, Selznick and Hitchcock were in closer agreement. Though they settled with relative speed on Judith Anderson for Danvers and Laurence Olivier for de Winter, they tested well over twenty-five actresses for the second Mrs. de Winter, including Olivier’s lover, Vivien Leigh. She has “a sincere and naive hopefulness,” Hitchcock observed about Lucille Fairbanks, Douglas’s niece, but also “a husky voice reminiscent of Mae West in her youth (if any) and I don’t really think we can take her seriously.” The director called Marjorie Reynolds “too much gangster’s moll,” Jean Muir “too big and sugary,” and Audrey Reynolds “excellent for Rebecca who doesn’t appear.” Finalists Anne Baxter and Margaret Sullavan lost their role to Joan Fontaine.
Hitchcock saw happiness as “a clear horizon,” but the Rebecca set in fall 1939 was far from happy. The members of the British colony who dominated the cast shunned Fontaine, whose performance as the vulnerable heroine may actually have been quickened by her fellow players’ distance. Selznick’s appearance on the set always unnerved Hitchcock, and in fact the producer supervised the shooting of several key scenes, including the housekeeper’s reverential tour through Rebecca’s bedroom and the fire that turned Manderley to ruins. Even when Selznick was not present, his “spies —those white-collar studio clerks and craftsmen who worked under Hitchcock but for Selznick—kept the director in check. Hitchcock nonetheless lit and photographed the picture with enormous care; likewise, he was the master of both suspense and psychological torment, nowhere better portrayed than in the ambiguous relationship of Mrs. Danvers to Rebecca and even the heroine, Maxim de Winter’s second wife.
By Thanksgiving 1939, Hitchcock had shot nearly a quarter million feet of exposed film. Selznick loved the freedom that miles and miles of footage offered him, and in the small clapboard editing room at his Culver City studio, he reshaped the picture that Hitchcock had shot. The producer avoided the “cutty” style of British Hitchcock, the collision of images that generated thrills or suspense. Following conventional Hollywood protocol, he tended toward long shots that fused character and setting or medium shots that accommodated or privileged two or more actors engaged in dialogue. While Hitchcock prized the visual, Selznick—an inveterate memo writer—prized the literary or verbal.
Audience and critics found more than enough words to praise Rebecca. Theatre Arts called the picture “a piece of suspenseful Hitchcock magic,” and Time devoted two of six paragraphs to an analysis of the director’s beautifully orchestrated “confession scene” where the heroine learns the truth about Rebecca. The New York Times observed that while the American Hitchcock had become “less individualized,” he had also developed his “widely publicized ‘touch’ “ into “a firm, enveloping grasp.”
Rebecca was a true collaboration, though. Hitchcock knew much about screen language, about the power of the composition and the cut; under his direction, cinematographer George Barnes avoided the excesses of German chiaroscuro yet still evoked an artificial and oppressively stable world, utterly interior, utterly appropriate to the fragile ego of the young bride. But Selznick helped bring luster, seamless continuity, and narrative logic to Hitchcock’s work. Likewise, Selznick’s editing smoothed the actors’ performances but retained to great effect Hitchcock’s “cutty” shots of billowing curtains, monogrammed linens, sad dogs, and giant doorknobs.
Throughout the picture—molded by Hitchcock’s direction and Selznick’s editing—Olivier, Judith Anderson and especially Fontaine skirted the edge of Gothic melodrama without ever losing their characters’ humanity. The quintessence of the Hollywood studio system, Rebecca advanced the careers of both its principal creators.