Tonight: Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine with George Sanders and Judith Anderson in Alfred Hitchcock’s four-star suspense classic Rebecca.
In 1923, Myron Selznick produced a film in England called The Passionate Adventure starring Clive Brook. The assistant director, art director and co-writer was a 23-year-old Alfred Hitchcock.
Fifteen years later, Hitchcock was the most famous filmmaker in England. Having directed a string of stylish suspense thrillers that included such classics as The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.
So in 1938, Selznick arranged to bring Hitchcock to America to direct films under contract to his younger brother David, who was, at the time, busy with a pet project titled Gone With the Wind.
Hitchcock’s first Hollywood assignment at Selznick International was titled Titanic, but it sunk before it could be launched. His last film in England had been Jamaica Inn, with Charles Laughton, based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier.
At Hitchcock’s suggestion, Selznick acquired the rights to du Maurier’s latest best-seller from Doubleday, a gothic romance called Rebecca. Selznick paid $50,000 for the screen rights—the same sum he had paid to acquire the rights to Gone With the Wind.
Story editor Val Lewton sent an enthusiastic memo to Selznick saying, “We have got ourselves a tiger. I think women will be wild about Rebecca.”
Selznick announced that Ronald Colman and Carol Lombard would star. But Colman declined and Lombard was unavailable. Selznick’s second choice was William Powell, then Leslie Howard and finally Olivier, who was both available and less expensive. He had just finished his first American film Wuthering Heights.
Selznick publicized the search for a female lead just as he had for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Competition for the part of the repressed heroine was fierce. Loretta Young was considered and so were Olivia De Havilland, Margaret Sullivan, Anne Baxter, Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, who was under contract to Selznick and had just starred in her first American film for him Intermezzo.
Olivier wanted his new wife, Vivien Leigh, for the role, but Selznick felt she was wrong for the part.
In a rare gesture of kindness between the two siblings, Olivia De Havilland recommended her sister, the rather wooden Joan Fontaine, for the role. When Selznick gave the part to Fontaine instead of his wife, Olivier was miserable and treated Fontaine accordingly.
She was then rather insecure and inexperienced, so Olivier’s scorn actually worked in her favor in playing the part.
As the second Mrs. de Winter, she is so dominated by the all-pervasive presence of the first wife—Rebecca—that the name of Fontaine’s character is never even mentioned in the film.
The film was scheduled to begin production on September 8, 1939, with a 36-day shooting schedule and a budget of $689,000.
Hitchcock was paid $77,000.
The two stars together received $51,000.
The production wrapped on November 20. Retakes were shot in December.
Rebecca ran 24 days over schedule—with a final negative cost of $1,280,000.
With an ad line that read: “You loved the novel, you’ll live the picture,” Rebecca premiered on March 28, 1940, and won immediate public and critical acclaim.
Even without distribution in Germany, Italy and their occupied territories, the worldwide gross in the first year of release was $2,830,000—generating a net profit of $990,000.
In a year in which it had to compete with The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator and Philadelphia Story, Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture.
It was Hitchcock’s first American film and the only time any of his films ever earned that award.
Another Oscar was bestowed for cinematography.
Rebecca was nominated in nine other categories—Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Special Effects and Best Musical Score.
And now, from 1940, Hitchcock’s Rebecca!