The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Hitch and Grace Act III: To Catch a Thief (1955): A Romp Through the Riviera

Cary Grant starred four times with Katharine Hepburn, including heavyweight classics The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.  He made three absolutely delightful films with Irene Dunne (recognized classic The Awful Truth, its unofficial sequel My Favorite Wife, and the underappreciated and surprisingly tender Penny Serenade.)  He also made three each with Deborah Kerr and Myrna Loy, two each with Sophia Loren and Jean Arthur.  

Let’s not forget Charade with Audrey Hepburn.

He absolutely adored Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, Indiscreet.)

But you’ve been listening, so I don’t have to tell you who he repeatedly named as his favorite leading lady.

Grace Patricia Kelly, of course.

They made only To Catch a Thief together, but remained lifelong friends, so much so that when Grant died (four years after Kelly), he willed some items to Kelly’s daughter Princess Caroline.

Having found his muse, Hitch wanted to begin filming on Thief immediately after Rear Window, but Kelly wanted to do The Country Girl and she had MGM contractual obligations to fulfill.  

All in all, Kelly released five films in 1954 and was named actress of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Everyone wanted to see what she’d do next.

She decided to team up once again with Hitch.

To Catch a Thief is sometimes called Hitch-lite, as it involves jewel theft instead of murder and avoids exploring the mud on the bottom of the rock of human nature as his best films do.  Instead, the audience watches Grant and Kelly romp through the French Riviera in gorgeous clothes, charming one another and everyone else as they search for a jewel thief whose crimes involve stealing only from those who can afford to lose.

It’s a good film, but it isn’t the best work done by Hitch, Kelly, or Grant.  Hitch leans on one double entendre after another for humor, Kelly serves mostly as a fashion model, and Grant—well, he looks old as he is fifty romancing (or more accurately being romanced by) the twenty-five year old Kelly’s character.

It is, however, perhaps Edith Head’s finest hour.

Head was the legendary costume designer, winner of eight Academy Awards (and thirty-five nominations) for Best Costume Design.  To Catch a Thief was among her nominations, and All About Eve and Roman Holiday among her wins.

And truly, the outfits are what one remembers from To Catch a Thief.  Sure, there’s a cat burglar on the loose, but the real suspense is waiting to see what Kelly will be wearing in the next scene.  She plays a rich socialite, so Head could run wild with the glamour.  

In her biography, Edith Head’s Hollywood, the woman who had dressed all of Hollywood’s royalty said that Grace Kelly was her favorite actress.  Head had dressed her in Rear Window and The Country Girl in addition to Thief.

Grace Kelly and Edith Head

“We don’t have that many great women stars anymore,” Head writes.  “But in the 1950s Grace was tops.  She was an ex-model and she knew how to wear clothes.”

Nor did Head neglect Grant, who wears a memorable striped sweater with loafers in addition to a tuxedo and an all black cat burglar suit.

Grant stars as John Robie, a reformed jewel thief who sets out to catch a copycat burglar before the police throw him back in prison.  In anticipating the true thief’s next mark, he cozies up to Jessie Stevens, a rich woman who drapes herself in expensive jewels, and her daughter Frances, played by Kelly.

Frances is immediately onto Robie (she is suspicious when he lavishes all his attention on her mother and virtually ignores her) but she initially believes he intends to rob them.  Seeing it as an adventure, she initially is excited by the prospect.  Eventually convinced of his innocence, she and her mother help him set a trap to catch the real thief.

To Catch a Thief has its charms and is worth watching, especially for fans of Hitch, Kelly, or Grant.  Sometimes you want to sit in the dark, forget your problems, and watch the beautiful people romp around a gorgeous location and fall in love.

To Catch a Thief scratches this itch quite nicely.

Neither Hitch nor Grace knew at the time this would be their last film together.  Certainly, if she had not retired at 26 to marry the Prince of Monaco, she and Hitch would’ve made Vertigo together and probably more.  (Perhaps even The Birds, but that would’ve been an entirely different film with Kelly in the lead.)

Hitchcock never got over Kelly leaving Hollywood, and he was always trying to entice her to come back and make another picture with him.

What would Hitch and Grace Act IV have looked like?

We’ll always wonder.

Sources:

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Hitch and Grace Act II: Rear Window (1954): The Apex

You may say Psycho or Vertigo.

But for me, Rear Window is Hitchcock’s magnum opus.

Made on the heels of Dial M For Murder, it is the second of the three films Hitchock made with Grace Kelly.  (If he’d had his way, he would’ve kept making films with Kelly until he died or ran out of ideas, but a Prince from Monaco was a plot twist even the Master of Suspense couldn’t see coming.)

James Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies (Jeff), a daredevil photographer who’s been holed up in his sweltering New York apartment with his leg in a cast for the past seven weeks.  His street smart nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and sophisticated girlfriend “reading from top to bottom” Lisa Carol Fremont (Kelly) check in on him daily, but his real company are the neighbors he spies upon.

Like a man hooked on the cliff hangers of a soap opera, Jeff has become engrossed in the private lives of his neighbors.

As Jeff’s friend Lieutenant Doyle says, “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

There’s Miss Torso, the ballerina who uses her constant parade of suitors to mark time until her true love returns.  Miss Lonelyhearts, who wears her heart on her sleeve as she enacts a romantic dinner every night with the dream man who lives only in her imagination.  And the newlyweds, whose ardor for the bedroom keeps the shades perpetually drawn.  (“No comment,” Jeff smirks when Lisa asks him what’s going on behind the shades.)  There’s the songwriter who bangs out compositions to pay the rent, and the couple who sleep on the fire escape to survive New York’s stifling summer heat.

But of primary importance is Thorwald, the traveling salesman who grows increasingly frustrated by his invalid wife’s incessant nagging.

As always, Hitch uses the camera rather than excessive dialogue to tell us what we need to know.  A nightgown spills out of Lisa’s purse when she wants to spend the night.  Jeff wedges a back scratcher into his cast to find relief from a sweaty itch.  Thorwald going in and out in the middle of the night, carrying knives and ropes and saws just before his wife disappears.

Jeff is convinced Thorwald killed his wife, and though Lisa initially thinks he’s just cooped up and imagining things, she eventually comes around to his way of thinking.

Interlaced with this tale of murder is the frustrated love story of Jeff and Lisa.  Jeff resists commitment because they come from two different worlds.  He’s an adventurous photographer who goes to dangerous lengths to get the perfect shot, living out of one suitcase in sometimes squalid conditions.  Lisa is the perfect New York socialite.  Her adventures end at finding the perfect restaurant and staying on top of fashion.

Lisa is dressed for Park Avenue in a different, perfect dress in every scene.

Jeff doesn’t think she has what it takes to be his wife.

It is her role as Lisa that I think most clearly etches Grace Kelly’s image into our memories.  Her Lisa is dressed to the nines, and she radiates class.  Even when she’s scandalously telling Jeff that she’s going to spend the night, she comes across as every inch the lady.  

Just like Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart named Grace Kelly as his favorite leading lady.

After the success of Dial M For Murder, Grace Kelly had her choice of working with director Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront (1954) or Hitchock’s Rear Window.

Though she wanted to stay in New York (where Waterfront would be filmed), she stuck with Hollywood and Hitch.  Newcomer Eva Marie Saint took on the role of Brando’s girlfriend and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts.  (Though Kelly herself would win the Best Actress Oscar that same year for her work in The Country Girl, made just after Rear Window.)

It’s hard to second guess her decision.

But enough about James and Grace.

Let’s get back to Jeff and Lisa.

Inquisitive photojournalist Jeff wants nothing more than to poke around in Thorwald’s apartment, yet his cast precludes any sleuthing.  Enter Lisa, who becomes Jeff’s legs in her bid to prove both that Thorwald is guilty of murdering his wife and she, Lisa, is enough of a daredevil to keep up with Jeff.

Things go wrong, of course, and Jeff can do nothing but watch as Thorwald returns early to menace Lisa in his apartment.  Things go from bad to worse when Thorwald discovers the immobile Jeff watching him.

Rear Window is an onion, revealing its layers upon repeated viewings.  It’s a murder mystery, of course.  But it’s the love story of Lisa and Jeff.  It’s also a deeper story, about the intense fascination of watching others when they believe they’re unobserved.  That’s the whole magic of movies, right?  As the audience, we get to be voyeurs of the most joyful and most heartbreaking moments of the fictional characters we come to love and hate.  And the final layer of the onion is that the film is about directing itself— Jeff directs Lisa, just as Hitch directs his actors.  They play out the stories he dreams up for them.

In the references section of this blog, I list five films that everyone should watch:  we’ve covered The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, All ABout Eve, and now, Rear Window.

Even if you don’t think you like classic films, I cannot recommend Rear Window enough.

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Spellbound by Beauty:  Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart, A Biography.
  • Spoto, Donald.  High Society:  The Life of Grace Kelly.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

Much ink has been spilled over Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated relationships with his leading ladies.  But it’s a topic of endless fascination, so let’s spill a little more, shall we?

There is speculation about the exact nature of the sex in Hitch’s long marriage to his wife Alma, but we can only say with certainty that theirs was not a passionate love.  Hitch was a lonely man, isolated by his intense desire for requited love and his inability to find someone to provide it.  (It’s doubtful he could have accepted it if anyone had ever offered it; alas, it seems no one ever did.)  

He loved Ingrid Bergman first, and through deft skill and an uncommon tenderness, she managed to reject his amorous overtures and shaped his schoolboy crush into a lifelong friendship.  In the case of Tippi Hedren, he developed a dangerous obsession that crossed a red line and marred his legacy.

Sandwiched between Ingrid and Tippi was Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that allowed Hitchcock to mold her into his image of the perfect woman.

Twenty-four year old Grace Kelly had made only three films when fifty-four year old Hitchcock saw her in Mogambo, John Ford’s film set in Africa that featured a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Kelly.  She hadn’t yet made much of an impression on audiences or critics (though after she caught Hitch’s eye she was a surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Mogambo), but Hitch was convinced she could be the star he’d been searching for ever since Ingrid Bergman left him in 1949 to make films in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.

Hitch felt Grace Kelly had a mix of elegance and sexuality that he could exploit with his camera.  While Marilyn Monroe embodied the blonde bombshell who put her sexuality right out there for anyone to see, Hitch called Grace Kelly a “snow-covered volcano,” a woman who kept such tight reign on herself that men went mad imagining what was beneath the white gloves, prim hats, and perfect dresses.

Hitch nurtured this image of Kelly through the three films they made together.  Though she occupied a singular place in his heart, there were never any romantic interludes between them.  Hitch satisfied his desires by taking extreme interest in the clothing she wore in his films, dressing her like a doll, and being infinitely patient with her on set, which was not his usual way with his actors.

After seeing her in Mogamo, he convinced MGM to loan her to Warner Brothers to star in his picture Dial M For Murder, based on the stage play of the same name.

The plot for the film starts off rather simply and then becomes increasingly complicated in the second half.  Grace Kelly plays Margo Wendice, a woman having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Unbeknownst to her, her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has discovered the affair.  Worried that she will leave him (and take the money that he lives the high life on), Tony blackmails an old schoolmate to murder her.

I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago in college, and I remembered nearly every moment of the grisly attempted murder scence, still shocking despite the lack of gory effects that would be employed today.  The rest of the film I had utterly forgotten.

After watching it again, I am convinced that in twenty more years I will still remember the attempted murder scene, while having again forgotten the rest.

Swann (the killer) has entered the apartment while Margo (Kelly) is sleeping in her bedroom.  He hides behind the thick curtains just behind the desk.  When the telephone rings (her husband calling to lure his wife to her death), Margo staggers into the room half asleep in nothing but her nightgown.  As her husband listens on the other end of the line, Swann wraps a scarf around Margo’s neck and attempts to strangle her.

But Margo (who is often quite passive in the rest of the film) puts up unexpected resistance and fights Swann.  In the struggle, Swann throws her over the desk and bends over her as she moans and he pulls the scarf tighter.

The scene is quite clearly choreographed to mimic a rape, and we see shots of Kelly’s bare legs as she struggles.

In a moment of inspiration, Margo reaches behind her head, remembering the scissors from her mending basket she’d left on the desk.  She finds them and plunges them into the killer’s back.  He falls, taking her with him as the scarf is still wrapped around her neck, and as he hits the floor the scissor blades imbed themselves fatally into his back.

I challenge you to watch the scene without flinching.

After realizing she has killed her attacker, the gasping Margo staggers onto the back patio, drawing in large breaths of air and pulling the scarf from her neck.

The scene took over a week to shoot, and years later Grace Kelly spoke of the difficulties and awkwardness of doing take after take that left her exhausted and bruised at the end of each day.  But she wanted to please Hitchcock (and that desire alone pleased him immensely) and eventually the scene was shot to Hitchock’s satisfaction.

Watching the film today, it is noticeable how Kelly reaches behind her head for the scissors.  She lets her hand flail around for a long time, which strikes a bit of a wrong note as she should be rummaging on the surface of the desk for the scissors.  Before she takes the killing blow, she holds the scissors up for a moment so the audience can get a good look at them.

But Hitch, of course, had his reasons.  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, a new special effect the movie industry was testing out to compete with television.  To audiences in 3-D glasses, it would appear that Kelly was reaching out of the screen to them, and that the deadly scissors were inches from their face.

Hitch hated the idea of 3-D, which he correctly predicted would be a short-lived gimmick, but Warner Brothers insisted he use the technology.  The 3-D cameras were large, slowed down filming, and prevented Hitch from doing certain shots.

In fact, the release of Dial M for Murder was delayed for nearly a year until the run of the play completed, and by the time audiences saw it the 3-D craze had already passed.  Most people saw it the way we do today, in two dimensions.

After the attempted murder, the film gets a little bogged down in plot.  Since his wife has survived, the husband shifts his plan to convincing the police that she deliberately killed the man because he was blackmailing her over her affair.  It nearly works, until her lover and a clever detective save her from death row with sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes—and Columbo—proud.

For Hitch, who was never all that interested in the storyline of Dial M and who hated the 3-D filming process, the main joy of the film was working with Kelly.  Throughout the process he had his mind on his next film, one that would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece by film scholars and audiences alike.

It was the story of the ultimate voyeur who has a beautiful woman do his bidding.

It was the story of movie making itself, spiced up with murder.

Kelly would star in it, of course, no matter what he had to do to once again pry her away from MGM.

Now all he needed was the right leading man.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Notorious (1946): Hollywood’s Longest, Sexiest Kiss

Cary Grant.  Ingrid Bergman.  Alfred Hitchcock.

Combine any two and you’ll find a good film.  Indiscreet (Grant and Bergman).  Spellbound (Bergman and Hitch).  North by Northwest (Hitch and Grant).

But only in 1946’s Notorious do you get all three.   

The title refers to Bergman’s character Alicia Huberman, the cynical daughter of a convicted German traitor with a reputation for hard drinking and easy virtue.  

T.R. Devlin (Grant) is a government agent who offers her a job as an American spy who will infiltrate a group of Nazis that once associated with her father.

Neither Devlin nor Alicia know the exact nature of their assignment when they head down to Brazil.  While awaiting their instructions, they begin a passionate love affair.  Alicia is head over heels, but Devlin is more reserved as he considers her checkered past.

Hitchcock showcases the depth of their passion in one of his most famous scenes, an extended kiss that outsmarted the censors and was all the sexier for its restraint.  In 1946, the censors still insisted on putting their fingerprints all over Hollywood’s films.  “Scenes of passion” were severely restricted and kisses could not be too long.  To get around this, Hitchcock shot Bergman and Grant interrupting their short kisses with conversation.  They talk over dinner plans, they touch faces and ears, then stay glued to one another as they cross the room to answer the telephone.  They never kiss for more than a few seconds, but Hitch manages a three minute scene that was absolutely sensational for its time and still holds up today.

It is after this scene that Devlin gets his devastating orders—Alicia is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), a friend of her father’s and an older man who once lusted after her.

It is here that the cat and mouse game between Alicia and Devlin begins.  She wants him to intervene with his superiors, to insist that she is not the kind of woman who would sleep with a man she does not love.  Except that before him, she was exactly that kind of woman.  Devlin wants her to refuse the assignment to prove her love for him.

There is passion but not yet trust between them, and neither expresses their wish to the other.

Alicia accepts the assignment with resigned stoicism, and the deeper she delves into Sebastian’s inner circle, the more she and Devlin mistrust their love.

Devlin must force the woman he cannot admit he loves into the arms of another man, and Alicia goes because she sees helping America as redemption for her past.

Hitchcock ratchets up the tension when Alicia must steal a key to the wine cellar and pass it off to Devlin during a party so he can search for evidence of a Nazi weapons stockpile.

The plot thickens further still when Sebastian’s mother catches onto Alicia’s deception and begins slowly poisoning her.  

Will Devlin rescue her before it’s too late?

It’s a sin to spoil the ending of a Hitchcock film but this one satisfies as much as any he ever made.  

Notorious is the most romantic of Hitchcock’s films.  Unlike Rebecca, the hero and heroine are on equal terms with one another, and are perfectly matched—or will be, if they can only learn to trust one another in love as well as work.  

It’s been a long time since I first watched Notorious in a film studies class in college, and I’d forgotten just how damn good it is.  Not an inch of fat to cut, or a single false note.  It draws you in from the opening scene and doesn’t let you go until the final credits.

No matter how addicted you are to your smartphone, you won’t even glance at it until Hitchcock releases you from his tale of suspense and romance.

When I wrote about Rebecca, I posited that I was looking forward to the Netflix remake, as I’d long thought that as good as it was, it was ripe for a modern take unshackled from the strictures of the production code.

The Netflix remake was not the movie I wanted, and it made me think that Hitchcock’s films are so good they can’t be bettered.

That’s certainly the case with Notorious, which would entail filling Hitcock’s, Ingrid Bergman’s (who really runs away with the film) and Cary Grant’s shoes.

Who would dare even try?


Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca (1940): 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.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

The King of Hollywood Meets the Screwball Queen

#22 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Clark Gable married five times and slept with every woman who would have him, regardless of his—or her—marital status.

But the only woman he ever loved was Carole Lombard.

Clark Gable made eight movies with Joan Crawford.  He made seven with Myrna Loy, six with Jean Harlow, four with Lana Turner, and two each with Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Heddy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner.

But he made just a single film with the leading lady of his heart.

They met on the set of No Man of Her Own, a rather charming Paramount picture.  Clark Gable plays Babe, a gambler and card sharp.  To avoid trouble with the police, he leaves New York City and hides out in a small town until things cool down.  He meets Lombard’s Connie Randall, a bored and beautiful librarian who is ripe for adventure.

Babe turns on the charm, and Connie is not immune.  Though inexperienced, Connie is not naive, and when Babe proposes they spend the night together, she presents a counteroffer—they flip a coin, and if she wins, they get married.

She wins the toss.

They proceed from lust to marriage to love.  Babe hides his criminal enterprise from Connie, but eventually gives it up and goes straight to be worthy of her.  Yet in the end Connie proves an able match for Babe, for she has known of his gambling and stealing all along and loves him anyway.  

No Man of Her Own is a good but not great movie, forgettable but for the fact that Gable and Lombard eventually became Hollywood’s real-life power couple.

There’s chemistry between them on the screen.

On the set, however, there was nothing doing.

Lombard was still happily married to her first husband William Powell, and Clark Gable thought Lombard swore far too much for a lady.

Four years later, they met up again at a party and this time Gable fell in love with her, even if she did swear like a drunken soldier.

But in her profanity, as in so many other things, Carole Lombard was crazy like a fox.  It started as self-defense.  As a young, beautiful blonde in Hollywood, the men she worked with both on and off camera were constantly pawing at her.  Lombard delivered her profanity in a breezy, devil-may-care attitude that usually turned their minds from seeing her as a romantic object, to one-of-the-guys, a pal.  Thus she got the men to keep their hands to themselves without alienating those who could help advance her career.

She played pranks, threw parties, went hunting and fishing with Clark and his friends.

And fell for him just as hard as he fell for her.

They married in 1939 during a break in filming Gone With the Wind.  It was a private ceremony with only a few attendants, as neither wanted the media to turn it into a circus.

Because she was as savvy with her business dealings as she was with her swearing, she made more money than Clark, despite him starring in the most commercially successful movie of all time.

She could convince anyone to do anything.  She talked Alfred Hitchcock into directing her in  a screwball comedy.  He did it because he loved her.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a good film, starring Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a couple who find out four years after their wedding that due to a technicality their marriage license isn’t valid, and that they’re not legally married.  It was Hitchcock’s only comedy in his long career.

When World War II broke out, Carole Lombard wanted to help.  She wrapped filming on her film To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny and signed on to sell war bonds.  She took her mother on a cross-country trip and due to her tireless efforts, sold a record-breaking two million dollars of war bonds in a single day.

While on that trip, she pondered the next phase of her life and her career.  

Trying to win an Oscar, she’d dipped her toes into some films with more serious subjects.  Maybe she could do another one of those.  Or maybe she’d keep making comedies—she was already signed on to star in They All Kissed the Bride with Melvyn Douglas.

Maybe she’d take an extended leave from Hollywood—throw herself into the war effort.  Convince Clark to enlist in the war, then start a family when it was over.  She knew a lot about the movie business—maybe when she returned to work she’d direct a film herself.

But for now, all she wanted was to finish the war bond tour and return home to Clark.

If they made a movie of the story of Carole Lombard’s life, I’d tell you to turn it off right now. 

You don’t want to know how this story ends.

She didn’t make They All Kissed the Bride, or start a family.  She didn’t direct.  

On January 16, 1942, the plane she was taking back to Hollywood and Clark and her future crashed in the mountains outside Las Vegas.

There were no survivors.

Carole Lombard was dead at thirty-three.

Because she was flying back from her war bond tour, President Franklin Roosevelt declared her the first woman killed in the war.  In June the United States christened a war ship the S.S. Lombard, and it served in the Pacific theater throughout the war.

Clark Gable fulfilled her dying wish and enlisted in the United States Army Air Force.

Joan Crawford filled her role in They All Kissed The Bride, and donated her salary to the Red Cross that had helped search for the bodies in the Nevada mountains.

Though she’s left us with a stack of wonderful films, Carole Lombard’s death at thirty-three cut her down in her prime.  Hollywood is haunted by the films she never made.

If she’d lived, she’d almost certainly have eventually won an Oscar.  She had the looks of a quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and the director loved her.  She likely would’ve starred in one of his thrillers and perhaps opened up a whole new chapter in her career.

Thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Katharine Hepburn had never even met Spencer Tracy, much less made a picture with him.  She scored ten of her twelve Oscar nominations and three of her four Oscar wins after age thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Bette Davis had not yet made All About Eve, Barbara Stanwyck had not made Double Indemnity, and Joan Crawford had not made Mildred Pierce.

Undoubtedly, the best was yet to come for Carole Lombard. 

Her death ripped the guts out of Hollywood, and out of Clark Gable.

Hollywood recovered, of course.  Hollywood is bigger than any one star, even one as bright as Lombard.

Gable never did.  Despite living eighteen more years and marrying two more times, upon his death Clark Gable was buried next to Carole Lombard Gable.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.