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In 1938, producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock were kings of their respective worlds. Selznick had his own studio, and was in pre-production on his masterpiece, Gone With the Wind (1939). Hitchcock was England's leading film director, but little-known elsewhere. Hitchcock wanted to be the big fish in a bigger pond, and put out the word that he'd entertain offers from Hollywood. None came, except from Selznick. Hitchcock was intrigued with the notion of working for an independent, assuming that Selznick would allow Hitchcock his own independence. He would soon discover how wrong this assumption was.
Selznick had originally intended Hitchcock's first film for him to be about the Titanic. By the time Hitchcock arrived in America in early 1939, Selznick had a better project: the film version of Daphne Du Maurier's best-selling romantic-Gothic novel, Rebecca (1940). The title character is already dead when the story begins. She was the glamorous, universally-adored wife of Maxim de Winter, and she died tragically young. Her brooding widower meets a shy young woman in Monte Carlo, and after a whirlwind courtship, marries her and takes her to Manderley, his palatial estate in the English countryside. There, the second Mrs. de Winter must compete with the memory of Rebecca's perfection, and cope with the menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.
Selznick offered the part of Maxim to Ronald Colman, who refused. William Powell and David Niven were considered, but Powell was deemed too American, Niven "too shallow." Laurence Olivier was chosen. Fresh off the publicity bonanza of the search for Scarlett O'Hara, Selznick wanted a similar hoopla in the search for Mrs. de Winter. Among the candidates were Loretta Young, Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Joan Fontaine, and Fontaine's sister, Olivia de Havilland. After Olivier was cast, he pushed hard for his lover, Vivien Leigh. She made a test, which only proved that she was much too strong to play the shy, young bride. Selznick also found another actress far too vivid for the part. "Imagine Margaret Sullavan pushed around by Mrs. Danvers!" he remarked. In the end, he cast Fontaine, although no one else believed she was capable of playing the role - a bit of information that Hitchcock would later use to fuel Fontaine's performance.
Hitchcock was also writing the screenplay for Rebecca, and that's where the conflicts began. When Selznick bought a book, it was because he intended to make the book scene for scene. For Hitchcock, the source material was merely a jumping-off point for making a Hitchcock film. He wanted to make a suspense picture, and downplay the romantic angle, and his treatment reflected that. After reading it, Selznick sent Hitchcock a ten-page memo which began, "I am shocked and disappointed beyond words..." Hitchcock did as he was told, and reverted to the book. One of Hitchcock's departures from the novel did remain, though. His alteration to the circumstances of Rebecca's death was an acceptable solution to objections by the censors.
Although they maintained a civil front, the conflicts between producer and director escalated during production. Selznick was frustrated with Hitchcock's style of shooting. The director would have the entire sequence worked out beforehand, and would shoot only what he needed. Selznick asked him to shoot more angles, so he'd have some choices. But for Hitchcock, there were no other choices. What he shot fit together only in the way he intended, as intricately as a jigsaw puzzle. Selznick appeared often on the set, making suggestions which were more like demands, and Hitchcock usually found them absurd or vulgar. One story he never tired of telling was that at the end, as Manderley burned, Selznick wanted the smoke to form the letter "R."
There were also tensions between the stars. Because he was disappointed that Vivien Leigh wasn't playing Mrs. de Winter, Olivier was scornful and rude to Fontaine. When he heard she'd married Brian Aherne, he wondered aloud if she couldn't have done better. Hitchcock, in order to get the sophisticated Fontaine to act insecure, told her she was an outcast among the cliquey British actors, that nobody believed she could play the role. It worked. Fontaine received an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
While Hitchcock and Selznick might have been frustrated by working together, their conflicts produced a superior film. Film historians have noted that Rebecca has qualities that none of their other films contain: a moody visual stylishness that Selznick's films lacked; and an emotional depth and nuance to the characters that few of Hitchcock's later films could equal. For the rest of his life, Hitchcock dismissed Rebecca. It was not a "Hitchcock picture." Ironically, it was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Selznick, as producer, accepted the award. Hitchcock, nominated as Best Director, went home empty-handed.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Alfred Hitchcock (uncredited); adapted by Michael Hogan, Philip MacDonald, & Alfred Hitchcock (uncredited) from the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Editor: Hal C. Kern
Cinematography: George Barnes
Costume Design: Irene (uncredited)
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Joan Fontaine (Mrs. De Winter), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers), Nigel Bruce (Major Giles Lacy), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), Florence Bates (Mrs. Van Hopper)
BW-131m. Closed captioning.
By Margarita Landazuri