Best Picture Revisited: Rebecca (1940)

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By the forties, Alfred Hitchcock was the leading creative force on his films, mostly lightweight spy capers like The Lady Vanishes. He had signed a contract with David O. Selznick for a series of American movies, with larger budgets than his British work. But from the outset, he wrestled with Selznick over control: Hitchcock pushed to start a project immediately, while Selznick was tied up in Gone with the Wind. Hitch wanted a movie about the Titanic before filming Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, but Selznick insisted on the du Maurier first.

What emerged on the screen was a beautifully sinister dream, darker than most melodramas of the day. All the ingredients were English, from the director to the actors and the setting. If Selznick interfered, and lobbied for more power throughout filming, the end product feels thoroughly Hitchcockian. The film mixes genres: we open on a romantic comedy, are pulled into a Gothic melodrama, then find ourselves in a courtroom thriller. Hitch’s direction and camerawork are often the star of his movies, but Laurence Olivier and especially Joan Fontaine carry the film. Olivier is cold and overbearing, but somehow charming; Fontaine is timid but resourceful, and she grows into her own.

Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is a force to be reckoned with. Critics now read a sexual edge in Mrs. Danvers’ intense devotion to Rebecca, especially how carefully she handles the dead woman’s undergarments. Is her manipulation of the second Mrs. de Winter laced with a hint of seduction? There’s something kinky about Hitch’s film, from Mrs. Danvers to the virginal Fontaine’s Oedipal fascination with Olivier. If not as beloved as five or ten other Hitchcocks, Rebecca still has the power to seduce us.

Why It Won

The Grapes of Wrath could easily have followed Gone with the Wind to the podium; both were sprawling American epics of guts and gumption. But I imagine audiences wanted to praise British import Alfred Hitchcock, whose first two American films were up for Best Picture, for moving westward. David O. Selznick surely waged a strong campaign, just as he did for Wind, despite his disagreements with Hitchcock on set. Perhaps Rebecca was a vote that Hitch belonged on American soil. It was a close race, with John Ford taking Best Director for Grapes. Ford’s movie is full of determined optimism, but it departs from the hopelessness John Steinbeck wrote. Rebecca better echoed the suffocating world Daphne du Maurier created.

Foreign Correspondent, the other Hitch nominated, is popcorn fare geared toward fans of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. The snappy writing makes a continent-crossing caper out of patriotism, and it features the best B actors of 1940 (Joel McCrea, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders). Charlie Chaplin took up the war effort, too, denouncing Hitler with his first on-screen monologue in The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s social commentary was more biting than Hitchcock’s; his comedy is inseparable from his political views.

Our Town, sadly forgotten now, stuffed with character actors like Fay Bainter and Thomas Mitchell, was faithful to Thornton Wilder’s play until its imposed happy ending. All That, and Heaven Too mirrors Rebecca’s costume drama with a naïve heroine in an unfamiliar environment; Bette Davis is stronger than the overwrought writing here. Her better 1940 film was The Letter, a tense and atmospheric film noir hinged on the racial and gender politics of Davis murdering her lover on a Malaysian rubber plantation.

Then there were two I haven’t seen: Kitty Foyle, a maternity drama with Best Actress Ginger Rogers, and The Long Voyage Home, another John Ford war film.

With ten nominees, the Oscars thankfully recognized thrillers and comedies alongside the more serious Oscar fare, all credits to Hollywood’s robust studio system and the productivity of A-list stars and directors. If Rebecca had not won, the effervescent The Philadelphia Story should have taken it. Hepburn and Grant, both effortless. James Stewart, proving his chops on a comedy of manners. Not a laugh lost, not a breath of romance wasted.

Not Nominated

No comedy has equaled Howard Hawks’s fast pace and Rosalind Russell’s gusto in His Girl Friday. James Stewart made another romance this year, The Shop around the Corner, a sweet predecessor to You’ve Got Mail. Then there’s Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and Fantasia, which premiered soft but gained an audience in the psychedelic seventies.

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One comment

  1. […] attacks. And his early American output is versatile: Daphne du Maurier’s ghostly romance Rebecca (my thoughts here), then the wrong-man propaganda piece Foreign Correspondent, then goofy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Where […]

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