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The Big Idea - Rebecca
Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind REBECCA

Daphne Du Maurier grew up in an artistic household as the daughter of actor Gerald Du Maurier and granddaughter of cartoonist George Du Maurier. She started writing in her early twenties and had her greatest success in 1938, at the age of 31, with Rebecca. The novel, inspired by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, had been written in Alexandria, Egypt, where her husband, Sir Frederick Browning, was stationed. The book was an instant best seller in both England and the U.S.

Director Alfred Hitchcock read Rebecca in galleys while directing The Lady Vanishes (1938) and considered buying the film rights, but finally decided they were too expensive.

David O. Selznick's East Coast story editor, Kay Brown, who had also pushed him to make Gone with the Wind (1939), sent him the book with her highest recommendation. He picked up the rights for $50,000. Originally he planned it as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and Ronald Colman, whom he had signed to a two-picture deal before making The Prisoner of Zenda (1937).

Impressed with the director's almost unbroken string of hits starting with the silent thriller, The Lodger (1927), Selznick signed Hitchcock to a personal contract in 1938 and announced that his first U.S. project would be a film version of the sinking of the Titanic. When that project proved too costly after the expense of Gone with the Wind, he announced that the director had been assigned to bring Rebecca to the screen.

In an unusual move for the time, Selznick gave Orson Welles permission to do a radio adaptation of Rebecca for his Mercury Theatre of the Air. Selznick reasoned that, coming on the heels of Welles' infamous production of The War of the Worlds, the adaptation would garner more publicity for the book and the upcoming film version. He also wanted to see if the novel's use of narration would work dramatically. After listening to the radio broadcast and studying Welles' script, Selznick advised Hitchcock to keep the narration by the novel's unnamed leading lady.

One other influence of Welles' radio version was the casting of Margaret Sullavan in the lead. She would be a major contender to star in the film version.

Selznick asked Du Maurier to write the screenplay, but she turned him down because she hated what Hitchcock had done to the screen version of her Jamaica Inn (1939).

In discussions about the screenplay, Selznick and Hitchcock decided to follow the novel in not showing the title character, Rebecca de Winter. Du Maurier had warned them that showing the first Mrs. de Winter would likely upstage the second, who was the novel and film's leading lady. Selznick reasoned that they could never find an actress who could match the audience's expectations of the character.

Hitchcock worked on the story treatment with his secretary, Joan Harrison, and Scottish novelist Philip MacDonald. He made so many changes from the original Selznick rejected it, writing in one of his famous memos, "We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca" (from Memo from David O. Selznick by Rudy Behlmer). In an attempt to lighten the novel's Gothic tone, Hitchcock had added two scenes in which Maxim's cigar induces seasickness in others, which Selznick considered cheap and old-fashioned. He also had created friends to accompany Maxim on his trip to the Riviera, which destroyed his sense of isolation when he first meets his future wife.

After Hitchcock prepared a more faithful adaptation, this time working with his wife, Alma Reville, and Michael Hogan, Selznick brought in playwright Robert E. Sherwood, who had won Pulitzer Prizes for Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1936) and There Shall Be No Night (1939). His chief job was punching up the dialogue and solving censorship issues.

To appease the Production Code Administration Sherwood altered the original story to make Rebecca's death accidental. Had they kept Maxim a murderer, it would have violated the Production Code prohibition that criminals never go unpunished in movies. In addition, they had to omit any suggestion that Rebecca, who knew she was dying of cancer, had committed suicide by goading her husband to kill her.

Despite Hitchcock's urging, Colman declined the offer to star in Rebecca because he didn't think the public would accept him playing a murderer and he was convinced the finished film would focus more on its leading lady. He and Selznick never made a second film together.

With Colman's defection, Selznick considered casting William Powell, Leslie Howard, David Niven and Melvyn Douglas before agreeing to cast Laurence Olivier, who had just scored a personal triumph as the star of Wuthering Heights (1939). One factor in his favor was his asking price, which was significantly less than MGM wanted to charge for lending Powell to Selznick. In addition, Olivier was fast developing a strong female following that Selznick hoped would contribute to the film's box office success.

With Olivier's casting, his fiancée, Vivien Leigh, launched a campaign to win the female lead. Selznick had her tested with Olivier twice, once in Hollywood and once in England, but felt her too glamorous to be believable as the reticent second Mrs. de Winter.

Even before testing Leigh, Selznick tried to build interest in the film by announcing a national talent hunt on a par with the search for Scarlett O'Hara.

Other actresses tested for the lead in Rebecca opposite actor Alan Marshall. Among them were Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, Heather Angel, Anita Louise and Anne Baxter. The latter was still a New York stage actress and had never made a film. Selznick briefly considered Nova Pilbeam, who had starred in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent (1937), even though the director strongly objected to casting her.

Wanting to be fair to Leigh, Selznick asked their friend director George Cukor to screen the top screen tests. He watched most of them silently, then laughed loudly at Leigh's attempts to play a young, unglamorous innocent. His recommendation was Baxter.

Cukor also suggested Selznick test Joan Fontaine, who had impressed him with her work on The Women (1939). As a result, Fontaine's sister, Olivia de Havilland, refused to test for the role, even though at that point she was Selznick's first choice.

Biographer David Thomson has suggested that Selznick actually fell in love with Fontaine, writing her poetry and trying to interest her in an affair. She, however, found him physically unattractive and was already romantically involved with British actor Brian Aherne.

Eventually the choice narrowed down to Margaret Sullavan, whom Hitchcock wanted; Selznick's choice, Fontaine, and Baxter, who was highly favored by other employees at Selznick International. Selznick had major concerns about all three. He was afraid that Sullavan would come across as too strong as the mousy heroine, that Baxter would be too hard to photograph favorably and that Fontaine, who had been nicknamed "the wooden woman" at the studio, didn't have the range to pull off a demanding leading role. When he asked Fontaine to test in additional scenes to demonstrate her range, she refused, claiming her upcoming marriage to Aherne would not leave her time for the tests. Selznick finally asked Cukor to re-screen the tests and consulted with John Cromwell, who had directed Fontaine's test. Both advised him to cast Fontaine. Her agent had to track her down on her honeymoon in Oregon to offer her the role, and she immediately agreed to cut the wedding trip short.

Most of the film's supporting cast -- including C. Aubrey Smith, Leo G. Carroll, Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny and Melville Cooper -- came from the group of British actors who had relocated to Hollywood.

For the role of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Selznick considered Russian stage star Alla Nazimova and British actress Flora Robson before agreeing with Brown's suggestion that he cast Australian-born actress Judith Anderson.

Among the actresses considered for the role of Mrs. Van Hopper, the New York social dragon who brings the future Mrs. de Winter to Europe as her traveling companion, were Alice Brady, Lucile Watson, Laura Hope Crews, Mary Boland and Cora Witherspoon. Then Hitchcock and his wife saw Florence Bates, a former Texas lawyer who had turned to acting on a whim, in a production at the Pasadena Playhouse. He recommended her for what would be her first credited film role.

For cinematographer, Selznick first assigned Harry Stradling, Sr., whom he had just fired from Intermezzo (1939). Still smarting from his replacement on that film, Stradling asked out of his contract. Selznick then tried for his replacement on Intermezzo, Gregg Toland, who wasn't available. He, in turn, suggested George Barnes, who had helped Toland learn the ropes years before.

Although Hitchcock had researchers show Selznick photographs of several British country houses the director thought might look like Manderley, the producer insisted on a palatial design more suited to the royal family than the de Winter family. Throughout production, Selznick would unintentionally amuse the director by insisting the characters live in a much grander style than would have been appropriate to their class.

by Frank Miller