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A Daily Variety news item dated September 2, 1938 stated that the novel was bought by David O. Selznick for $50,000 as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and that Selznick would attempt to get Ronald Colman for the male lead. According to Selznick memos reproduced in a modern source, when Colman put off accepting the part because he was afraid that the picture would be a "woman starring vehicle" and because of the murder angle, Selznick turned to his second choices for the role, Laurence Olivier and William Powell. Olivier was willing to work for $100,000 less than Powell and so he was chosen. Leslie Howard was also considered for the part.
According to other memos, Selznick wanted Olivia de Havilland to play the female lead, but was faced with insurmountable problems: De Havilland was already committed to Goldwyn for Raffles, Warner Bros. was being uncooperative about lending her out, she was reluctant to accept the part because her sister, Joan Fontaine, was also under consideration for the part and her agent was Leland Hayward who was promoting his wife, Margaret Sullavan, for the role. Selznick also considered Loretta Young, Vivien Leigh, Anita Louise and Anne Baxter for the role, but felt that Young and Leigh were the wrong "type." He finally narrowed the field down to Joan Fontaine, Anne Baxter and Margaret Sullavan and according to the memos, the studio staff at first disagreed with his decision to cast Fontaine becuase she was not yet an established star.
According to other memos, director Alfred Hitchock initially wanted an English writer to work on the screenplay, but suggested Lillian Hellman and Sidney Gilliat. Selznick suggested Ben Hecht, Clemence Dane, John Baldeston, Sidney Howard and Richard Blaker as writers. Selznick rejected the first treatment of the film, written by Philip MacDonald and Joan Harrison as "distorted and vulgarized" and insisted that the treatment remain faithful to the book.
The PCA insisted that Selznick change the ending of the novel. The book synopsis in which Rebecca goads Maxim into shooting her was "a clear violation of the Production Code since it justifies and condones murder," according to materials contained in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library. Joseph I. Breen, the head of the PCA, wrote Selznick that "the story of unpunished murder cannot be approved" and directed that Rebecca die an accidental death or that Maxim be punished for her murder. To forestall Breen's objections, Hitchcock suggested that the wife die as a result on an accident but that the circumstances are such that the husband, panic-stricken, will do all the things he does in the story, even though he has not murdered his wife. According to the memos, Selznick was so angered at Breen's insistence upon changing the ending that he considered releasing the picture without code approval. The ending was changed, however, so that Maxim strikes rather than shoots Rebecca, thus making her death accidental.
The memos also note that Selznick wanted Harry Stradling and Gregg Toland to photograph the picture. A Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Selznick split the production into two units. Director Ross Lederman and camerman Archie Stout headed the second unit which shot backgrounds in Northern California. Assistant director Ed Bernoudy replaced Eric Stacey when Stacey left the production to rejoin Victor Fleming on Gone With the Wind. Other news items in Hollywood Reporter add that actor George Sanders and photographer George Barnes were borrowed from Fox for this picture. According to a news item in Variety, the film went back into production in December 1939 to shoot extensive retakes. Hitchcock makes his customary cameo in Rebecca by appearing outside a phone booth.
Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock's second film based on a du Maurier novel (the first was Jamaica Inn, ) and his first Hollywood production. The film won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and Best Picture, and was the only Hitchcock film to win that distinction. It was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Black and White Art Direction, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score and Best Special Effects. The film also appeared on Film Daily's and the National Board of Review's "ten best list" for 1940.
Modern sources add that Hitchcock refused to allow Selznick on the set. As a result, Selznick would watch the rushes and then communicate to Hitchcock through extensive memos. One of Selznick's concerns was Laurence Olivier's slow delivery and use of long pauses in his performance. Selznick wanted Olivier to quicken the pace.
Hollywood Reporter reported in 1944 that Edwina Levin MacDonald sued Selznick, Daphne du Maurier, United Artists and Doubleday for plaigiarism. MacDonald claimed that the film Rebecca was stolen from her novel Blind Windows, and sought an undisclosed amount of accounting and damages. The outcome of the suit has not been determined.
In 1941, Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino starred in a Lux Radio Theatre version of this story. Loretta Young and John Lund starred in a Screen Guild Players radio dramatization on November 18, 1948, and in 1950, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier starred in another Lux presentation of the story. There have been several television adaptations of the du Maurier story, including a 1962 production starring James Mason, a 1978 British production starring Jeremy Brett and Joanna David and a 1997 British production starring Charles Dance and Emilia Fox. The 1941 film was re-issued on March 7, 1956.