My Cousin Rachel
In his U.S. film debut, Burton plays Philip Ashley, whose wealthy cousin Ambrose leaves his estate to him rather than Ambrose's own wife Rachel. Ashley finds himself falling for Rachel, even as he suspects her of murdering her husband and using Ashley to get the fortune she was denied. It's the familiar Du Maurier mix of mystery and romance that had worked so well for Alfred Hitchcock in Rebecca (1940) and director Mitchell Leisen in Frenchman's Creek (1944), both of which starred de Havilland's sister Joan Fontaine.
Burton received mostly rave reviews as "an actor of great potential," as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (despite being the male lead and the story's narrator) and a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer. The picture also received Oscar nods for Best Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Costume Design (all then still separated out into the black-and-white category) and a Golden Globe nomination for De Havilland for Best Actress-Drama.
Such was Du Maurier's standing as an author of best-selling fiction that the property almost didn't make it to the screen, thanks to her agent's demands. According to an August 1951 report in Daily Variety, the purchase price for a seven-year lease on the screen rights to the story was set at $100,000 and 5% of the gross - and this before the story was even published in serial form in Ladies Home Journal later that year. Most studios passed on what they considered the "out-of-this-world" asking price. Despite strong competition from producer David O. Selznick, who wanted it as a property for his wife, Jennifer Jones, Twentieth Century-Fox finally secured it for $80,000 with the promise of an additional $20,000 if the studio optioned perpetual rights.
British director Carol Reed was once considered to guide the production before George Cukor came on board, planning to cast Vivien Leigh in the lead. (Producer-screenwriter Nunnally Johnson wanted to lure Greta Garbo out of retirement to play Rachel.) Cukor and Johnson clashed over Johnson's adaptation. Du Maurier herself was unhappy with it and offered her own screen treatment of the story, but Johnson prevailed and Cukor left the production, replaced by German-born director Henry Koster. Koster had directed a string of Deanna Durbin musicals in the late 30s and early 40s and had most recently helped James Stewart to an Oscar-nominated performance in Harvey (1950). Together, Koster and Burton would follow My Cousin Rachel with the big-budget biblical tale The Robe (1953).
Perhaps Cukor's biggest contribution to the picture was Burton. According to some reports, Cukor had seen him perform in the play Montserrat in London and snagged him for this film. Years later, Burton penned a note to Cukor saying if the director hadn't seen him on stage and brought him to Hollywood, he likely would never have met and married Elizabeth Taylor. Known for sleeping with almost all of his leading ladies (except his Broadway Camelot co-star Julie Andrews), Burton mused that thanks to Cukor he might have ended up marrying De Havilland. Other sources say it was Du Maurier who approached Burton for the role.
Director: Henry Koster
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Editing: Louis Loeffler
Art Direction: John De Cuir, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Rachel Sangaletti Ashley), Richard Burton (Philip Ashley), Audrey Dalton (Louise Kendall), Ronald Squire (Nick Kendall), George Dolenz (Guido Rainaldi)
By Rob Nixon