We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca: The Unlikely Triumph of the Second Mrs. DeWinter

#31 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

By 1939 Alfred Hitchcock was a famous British director, and he wanted to come to America.  Knowing his talent, producer David O. Selznick took time out of his day making Gone With the Wind to lure Hitch into signing a contract with Selznick International Pictures.

It’s hard to imagine two more different people working together than Selznic and Hitch.  Selznic was obsessed with every detail, and saw every film he made as an epic, a one-of-a-kind crown jewel.  He meddled in every piece—micromanaging the scriptwriting, the directing, the costuming.  He wrote epic memos berating his staff for creative decisions he disagreed with and thought nothing of throwing out a raft of complete work only to start again.  He did want to make movies on an assembly line like the other studios.  He wanted one-of-kind handcrafted films.  Though he felt he thrived in chaos, it is no exaggeration to say that he nearly killed himself making Gone With the Wind.  When caught in a creative fever, he would work day and night for months or years on end.  Though he made the greatest movie of all time, he burned himself out early and was more or less out of the picture making business by age fifty.

Hitch, by contrast, was a deliberate plodder.  He thought out every scene in advance, and thus his shoot on set was clean and efficient.  He hated chaos.  He demanded absolute authority in matters of directing, but stayed out of script and production decisions that were not in his job description.

It was a collaboration that couldn’t last.  But for the few years they held it together, Selznick and Hitch made some excellent films, the first and finest of which is Rebecca.

Rebecca is a masterpiece.  A timeless tale of mystery and romance, it is one of the worthiest Best Picture Winners in Oscar history.  And because watching the mystery unfold is the chief pleasure of this film, I won’t spoil a bit of the ending or key plot points.

The film opens in the French Riviera, where a young, orphaned woman played by Joan Fontaine is swept off her feet by widower Maxim DeWinter, an older but dashing man.  After a courtship of only a few days, Maxim proposes marriage.  Deeply naive and in love, the woman accepts.  After a happy, carefree honeymoon, Maxim takes his young bride home to Manderly, a famous and ancient old family mansion by the sea.

In Manderly, our heroine is isolated, left alone for long stretches in the big empty house, and Maxim falls into extended stony silences.  Though Maxim never mentions his first wife, everyone else is quick to tell our heroine how he adored his first wife, Rebecca.

That’s right.  Joan Fonatine is not Rebecca.  She is the unnamed heroine of the story, referred to only as the second—and apparently inferior—Mrs. DeWinter.  (That bit of brilliance is a credit to Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, where the second Mrs. DeWinter is the narrator of a tale that does not bear her name.)

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, adored Rebecca.  According to her new sister-in-law, Rebecca threw the best parties, knew the best people, and wore the best clothes.  She knew how to dance, flirt, charm, host a party and run an estate like Manderly.

Our narrator doesn’t have a clue where to start.

Thanks to Hitch’s deft camera work and a haunting score, the audience begins to suspect that everything with Rebecca’s memory is not as it seems.  We begin to somehow understand the dread and terror our heroine feels at the sight of Rebecca’s stationery in her writing desk.  When Mrs. Danvers lovingly paws Rebecca’s lingerie and monogrammed pillows, her coldness toward the second Mrs. DeWinter takes on a decidedly sinister air.

The audience asks the question the second Mrs. DeWinter is afraid to ask herself.

Is Maxim haunted by his wife’s accidental death…or something more ominous?

It’s triumph owes its greatness first to Daphne DuMaurier and her sublime gothic novel of the same name.  Then to David O. Selznic, who insisted Hitch hew as close to the source material as the production code would allow.  And to Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a story about a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife from becoming melodramatic schlock and instead has the audience tensing as she turns every corner in the big empty house she can’t make a home.  And finally credit goes to Joan Fontaine, who was believable and sympathetic as a woman who feels so achingly inferior she is afraid to admit to her housekeeper when she breaks a decorative china cupid.

You pull out any four of these pieces and the whole puzzle falls apart.

Together, you have that Hollywood magic.

Rebecca was released in 1940, not 1939.  So why have I interrupted the Greatest Year in Movies to discuss Hitch’s first American hit?

Today Netflix is releasing their Rebecca remake starring Lily James in the Joan Fontaine role, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.  I’ve gushed all over Selznick and Hitch’s film, but with this casting, I’m excited to see the remake.  For all their brilliance, Hitch and Selznick had their hands tied by the production code—they had to water down the novel’s ending, and I think Maxim and the heroine did their best communicating in the bedroom.  With the freedom of modern filmmaking, I’m excited to see what they will do with DuMaurier’s unforgettable tale.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in the Netflix remake. I was sold as soon as I saw the headband.

Can Netflix recreate the magic and bring something new to this classic romance?

Here’s hoping.

*You can watch Hitch’s original Rebecca for free on YouTube here.

One thought on “We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca: The Unlikely Triumph of the Second Mrs. DeWinter

  1. Pingback: Golden Age of Hollywood Reference List | Melanie Novak

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