Richard J. Leskosky: Get ready to binge on Hitchcock
Just imagine this movie scene: In broad daylight in an airy, flower-filled bedroom with an impossibly tall ceiling, maybe 20 feet high, two women chat about a third and look at some clothing and a bit of embroidery.
That's it: Nothing happens, nothing menacing pops out at them, the music isn't even particularly ominous.
But it's one of the creepiest scenes in Hollywood history and one that caused real problems with the censors.
The film is Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 "Rebecca," based on the Daphne du Maurier best-seller. It's the Halloween offering in The News-Gazette Film Series, showing at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.
Though set in modern times, "Rebecca" tells a familiar Gothic tale. A relatively plain, reserved lower-class young woman is swept off her feet by a brooding wealthy man who clearly has dark, tragic secrets in his past. She becomes his wife and the mistress of his huge family estate, but the past wells up to compromise their happiness and even threaten their lives. Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" is the classic example of this sort of story.
Rebecca, however, is not the mousy young heroine. Rather, she's the late wife, supposedly perfect in every way and tragically drowned in a boating accident. She's never seen but always present.
The heroine (Joan Fontaine) does not have a name — at least no one calls her by name until she marries, and then she's Mrs. De Winter. Mr. de Winter, Maxim, is played by Laurence Olivier, who had played that other classic brooder, Heathcliff, the year before in the MGM adaptation of "Wuthering Heights." (Olivier's on-screen angst earned him Oscar nominations for both roles.)
Rebecca's influence pervades Manderley, Maxim's palatial mansion, through the presence of her devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and her caddish cousin, Jack Favell (George Sanders).
"Rebecca" was Alfred Hitchcock's first film in America. Producer David O. Selznick had brought him in to direct a film about the Titanic (and had even bought a retired naval vessel for the project), but when that did not work out, they moved on to "Rebecca." Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights himself in England (his adaption of her "Jamaica Inn" was his last British production), but they were too expensive.
Selznick bought the rights to "Rebecca" for $50,000 — a huge sum then and the same as he paid for "Gone with the Wind." Apparently hoping to re-create the success he had with "GWTW," Selznick tried the same ploy of testing every actress he could for the role of the narrator here (including Olivier's fiancee and Selznick's Scarlett O'Hara, Vivian Leigh). Hitchcock, however, had early on settled on Fontaine.
Selznick was obsessed with making a faithful, high quality adaptation of the novel. Hitchcock was England's most successful director at the time. Olivier, one of England's foremost actors, had just impressed film audiences — and become a Hollywood heartthrob — with his Heathcliff. Anderson, one of England's foremost stage actresses, had just starred in "Macbeth" opposite Olivier.
To adapt the novel, Selznick had hired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert E. Sherwood. Joan Harrison, the other screenwriter of record, had begun with Hitchcock as his secretary and worked her way up to writing scripts for him ("Jamaica Inn," "Suspicion," "Saboteur") and eventually becoming one of Hollywood's very few female producers in the 1940s.
To assure viewers they were getting genuine du Maurier, Selznick even went so far as to have the opening titles cards proclaim it as a "picturization" of the novel, not an adaptation. In fact, though, there are a couple of significant changes the Breen Office, the enforcer of Hollywood's censorious Production Code, demanded. The censors insisted that Rebecca's death appear as more of an accident and that Mrs. Danvers' attachment to her late mistress not have any suggestion of lesbianism. Hitchcock maneuvered his way around at least one of those.
His scene between Mrs. Danvers and the narrator in Rebecca's bedroom is so subtly perverse in so many ways, one has to wonder how the censors — or Selznick, for that matter — let it through. Hitchcock must have especially relished the drawer full of underwear handmade especially for Rebecca by nuns.
"Rebecca" presents an interesting blend of tones. Its first section, the romance between Maxim and the narrator, comes off almost as a romantic comedy. Once they reach Manderley, however, things get notably darker, and elements of murder mystery emerge as well. There are even touches of the ghost story.
Sanders, Hollywood's finest cad, plays one of his best bounders here — at once charming and repellent. He both lightens the tone and muddies the waters when the mystery elements surface.
The film was a critical and box office success. It won best picture and black and white cinematography Oscars and was nominated for nine more: director, actor, actress (Fontaine), supporting actress (Anderson), art direction, special effects, film editing, musical score and screenplay. Hitchcock lost to John Ford ("The Grapes of Wrath") and Anderson to Jane Darwell who played Ma Joad in the Ford film, sentiment apparently winning out over obsession.
"Rebecca" shows up at No. 80 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Most Heart-pounding American Movies — not bad and maybe a little surprising for a melodrama that would have been called at the time a "woman's film."
And on the AFI list of the 50 top villains, Mrs. Danvers ranks 31st. That puts her ahead not only such one-hit wonders as Tony Camonte ("Scarface"), Frank Booth ("Blue Velvet"), and Hans Gruber ("Die Hard") but even such icons of evil as The Joker, Freddy Krueger and Dracula!
Note for Hitchcock fans: His traditional walk-on cameo comes very late in the film and is hard to spot. After Favel's scene in a phone booth, Hitchcock walks behind two arguing characters with his back to the camera. I mention this only so viewers won't be distracted looking for him early on.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.