Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Whatever happened in 'Rebecca'?

Rosemary Laughlin/Voices | Whatever happened in 'Rebecca'?

By ROSEMARY LAUGHLIN

Baby-sitting was a way of life for teenage girls in the 1950s. I had a regular job every Saturday night when I was 14.

One thing made my job absolutely perfect. The Burdens stayed out very late — until 2 or 3 a.m.

My mother and Mrs. Burden urged me to nap. Not me! Under the noble guise of being responsibly watchful, I stayed awake and watched "The Late Show."

In the 1950s, "late show" meant old movies, not talk shows with clever hosts.

My parents were strict about TV. They limited time and judged program quality. We were allowed to watch "I Love Lucy," "Life is Worth Living" with Bishop Sheen, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, "Victory at Sea," "Disneyland" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

My dad watched Sunday morning political discussions and Saturday afternoon major league baseball. The rest of the time, our TV was cold and dark.

I could watch whatever I wanted when I baby-sat. The kids were long in bed when I settled in to catch up on movies from the '30s and '40s. These films had been made in Hollywood and seen by millions of Americans. Now it was my turn.

The likes of Judy Garland, Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman became real on the small screen, more than names in the news and on marquees.

When they concluded their triumphs or losses, a chaplain came on in the local studio with a reflection before the station signed off the air. Only then did I fight off sleep until the Burdens came home.

One Saturday, the movie was "Rebecca" with Laurence Olivier as Max De Winter, the handsome, rich British owner of the estate Manderly in Cornwall above the sea.

His wife, Rebecca, was dead, and he married a young secretary-lady's companion played by Joan Fontaine.

After the newlyweds went to Manderly, the wife was frightened by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who seemed obsessively attached to the dead Rebecca.

I felt chills as I watched Mrs. Danvers trick the new wife into giving a costume party for neighbors and wearing a dazzling gown she did not know Rebecca had once worn. Max became angry, then cold and distant. The young wife felt haunted by Rebecca and cowed by Mrs. Danvers.

Max left, and — the Burdens returned.

They had never been this early. Why this time? I desperately wanted to know what would happen in "Rebecca."

Mr. Burden drove me home. I slipped in and went straight to our TV. I knew my parents wouldn't approve, but I flicked it on and put the volume at its lowest. I figured out what had progressed. A sunken boat in Manderly's cove was raised. Max had reappeared and was questioned. He was accused of murdering Rebecca!

It looked bad for Max. I heard my dad get up to use the bathroom. He would catch me at the TV, would demand I explain this irregularity. He'd drown out the dialogue. I wouldn't find out what happened. I planted myself to block the TV light to the hall where my dad was moving.

There was a scene with Max and another man looking over a note, and then Max was in London talking to a doctor.

I barely heard it, but the doctor told Max that Rebecca had been dying of cancer. I could hear Dad and now Mother, too, whispering in the hall. The movie was almost at the end. Or so it seemed. I crossed my fingers and strained to understand.

The young wife was desolate. She decided to flee. Max would return from London, and she would be gone. Mrs. Danvers started a fire. Max came upon a flaming Manderly, whitely glowing on the screen.

A gasp. As Mrs. Danvers fell through the flames and the young wife escaped, I turned to see my parents together in back of me, glued to the screen, illuminated into ghosts. I followed their eyes back to the scene.

An embroidered "R" on Rebecca's pillow was consumed by curling flames.

"The wicked witch is dead!" hissed my mother.

"Hmph. That Hitchcock!" muttered my dad.

I relaxed. I did not expect it, but I felt a wonderful relief in realizing that my strict, value-demanding parents could be hooked by a terrific Hollywood movie.

Actually, Mother's reaction was exactly right. "Rebecca" was an up-to-date version of the eternally fascinating — and moral — fairy tale.

Rosemary Laughlin is a writer and retired English teacher from University High School.

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