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BFI Film Classics: Rebecca by Patricia White

Patricia White’s book, BFI Film Classics: Rebecca, written to take its place in the British Film Industry Film Classics series of books, is a fantastic addition to the collection.  Published in May 2021, it has only just come to my attention.  I have read it in one sitting and am now buzzing with all the information it has given me.

The book examines the production, text and reception of the first film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, in 1940.  It was the first film Alfred Hitchcock directed in the US.  Curiously he directed two of Daphne du Maurier’s novels back to back, Jamaica Inn being the last film he directed in the UK, before embarking on his career in Hollywood.  In 1963, he would direct his third adaptation of a du Maurier story, The Birds.  David O Selznick, flushed with the success of his last film, Gone With the Wind, was the producer.  One cannot help but feel that the immediate and massive success of Daphne du Maurier’s novel on both sides of the Atlantic and the combination of director and producer always had tremendous potential. 

Interestingly, several influential women supported the idea of Rebecca being Selznick’s next film, his wife, Irene Mayer, Hitchcock’s wife, Alma, and Selznick’s go-getting aide Kay Brown, always working tirelessly behind the scenes.  There was also Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s assistant in the UK, who he had insisted come with him as part of the package when he made his move to the US.  Joan had started out as Hitchcock’s secretary and had worked her way up, being one of the lead screenwriters by the time Rebecca was made.  She became the first female screenwriter to be nominated for an Oscar, receiving two Oscar nominations, one of which was for Rebecca.  Of course, there were many other people whose work was influential in the success of Rebecca, but it is interesting to note the impact these women had.

Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, was published in 1938 and has never been out of print.  In 2018, when it celebrated its 80th anniversary, it was still selling 4,000 copies a month.  Despite a multitude of theatre productions, radio plays, film and television adaptations and even an opera, it is the 1940 Hitchcock film that endures alongside the novel.  Perhaps, in the beginning, there was a need for films such as Rebecca as an antidote to the fears of wartime.  Perhaps it is because when Daphne du Maurier signed the contract for the film rights, she insisted on a promise of fidelity to the novel.  Indeed, the film does stay close to the contents of the book, apart from when Hollywood’s self-censorship body, the Production Code Administration stepped in.  They could not allow a murderer to go unpunished, so SPOILER ALERT, in the film, Maxim does not shoot Rebecca, she falls and cracks her head, and Maxim, to cover up the accident, disposes of her body.  It takes a giant leap from a film enduring for eighty years to attaining the status of a classic.  There has to be something exceptional about it. 

Patricia White’s book takes you through the casting and making of the film, the sets, the music, the strokes of genius that held, and continues to hold, the audience in its thrall, and so much more. 

I recommend this book to everyone with an interest in the magic that is the novel and the film of Rebecca.

 

Ann Willmore 2022.

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