By Tony Williams.
Criterion initially offered Rebecca (1940) on a 2-disc DVD edition in 2001 but following loss of copyright a few years later it became an expensive collector’s item, according to my colleague Chris Weedman. Now they have reissued this version in a new format retaining some of the earlier features but adding some new items to replace others. David Thomson’s essay “Welcome to the Haunted House” and selected memos from Selznick in a 56-page booklet replace Robin Wood’s 22-page liner notes from the 2001 version while behind the scenes location shots, the Academy Award presentation of Best Picture and Best Cinematography footage, an illustrated essay on Daphne du Maurier, extracts from the Hitchcock-Truffaut conversation on the film, Hitchcock’s casting notes, 1939 test screening questionnaire are now absent. While this 2017 version retains Leonard J. Leff’s 1986 phone conversations with Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson, the rare screen, hair, and costume tests of Fontaine and her rivals Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young and Vivien Leigh; isolated music and effects track of the film; as well as all three radio versions of Rebecca remain, it also contains new material. They are an audio-commentary track by Leonard J. Leff, obviously based on his 1999 renowned book Hitchcock and Selznick that does not appear to be listed on the Amazon 2001 DVD description, an excellent new interview with Craig Barron on Rebecca’s visual effects, a “Making of” 2007 documentary, and a 2016 French television documentary on Daphne du Maurier, “In the Footsteps of `Rebecca’”, a conversation between Molly Haskell and Patricia White, Hitchcock’s interview with Tom Snyder from a 1975 Tomorrow interview and a 1980 interview with Joan Fontaine from the same program.
While the visual reproduction of Rebecca reinforces Criterion’s acknowledged professional reputation for excellence in the area of restoration, I have certain reservations concerning the inclusion of some new material offering over-abundant and sometimes irrelevant information and regret certain missing items from the earlier version. The new technological DVD advantages of allowing extra material to accompany each film cannot be denied but the necessity of editing and judicious selection of additional material accompanying each new DVD version should be crucial in any form of decision making.
Since I’ve not encountered the earlier 2001 DVD version, I must express regret at the absence of Robin Wood’s liner notes and what they may have added to the manifold resonances of this film. In the first edition of Hitchcock’s Films Wood dismissed du Maurier’s novel probably due to the dominating influence of a literary “Great Tradition” that then resulted in ignoring other types of female authorship beyond George Eliot. As Robin developed as a critic in future decades, his keen and rigorous mode of evaluation remained but he also began to understand issues explored by other female writers outside any rigid literary definitions of common pursuits and great traditions which his only published novel so far, Trammel up the Consequences (2001), significantly reveals (see http://friendsofrobinwood.blogspot.com/). Later editions of his indispensable Hitchcock text revealed appreciation of not just Rebecca but also Daphne du Maurer. He was always constantly developing and his sad departure removed further insights that he could have contributed within this area. It is all the more tragic that Criterion chose to deprive us of past insights in the original liner notes to replace them with a fairly basic and short six-page article by Thomson.
The Leonard J. Leff 1990 audio-commentary is welcome for those approaching Rebecca for the first time. It cannot be criticized in terms of scholarly deficiencies. I don’t know if it first appeared on an early laser disk version but readers already familiar with the author’s book on Hitchcock and Selznick would already know the material. One wonders whether other candidates, such as Australian expert Ken Mogg (1); Bill Krohn, author of Hitchcock at Work (2003) familiar with and near archives; and one of the surviving members of the Movie group, such as Michael Walker, could have been alternative candidates for doing a new commentary track. Also, since Rebecca belongs to the Hollywood female Gothic romance, could not distinguished female scholars such as Tania Modleski, Gaylyn Studlar, or Diane Waldman been considered? Rebecca is a worthy example of not just the female Gothic but also lends itself to post-Laura Mulvey feminist scholarship concerning the significant role of the pre-Oedipal Freudian mother “Loving with a Vengeance” as a significant 2007 text is appropriately titled.
This could have countered the newly included 24-minute conversation between Molly Haskell and Patricia White that resembles more of a meandering “Coffee Morning with the Girls” rather than the focused discussion it could have been. Not considering White to do the audio-commentary was another mistake on the part of Criterion executives.
The 2008 documentary “The Making of Rebecca” features Hitchcock’s grand-daughter with a galaxy of critical stars such as David Thomson, Richard Schickel, Rudy Behlmer, Paula Marantz Cohen, Bill Krohn, Jonathan Friedman, Drew Caspar, Jack Sullivan, Leonard Leff, Stephen Rebello, Charlotte Chandler, Bruce Dern, Lesley Brill, Peter Bogdanovich (complete with obligatory Hitchcock impersonation), Thomas Schatz and “Uncle Tom Cobley and All” contributing sound bites resembles the type of cluttered star Hollywood picture such as It’s A Great Feeling (1949), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Pepe (1960). Inundated by so many commentators one wishes these specialist ravens will quoth “nevermore”. As the old saying goes, “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. This documentary frequently repeats what Leff’s commentary has already adequately stated and the rapid speed of the sound bites delivered by Criterion’s “cast of thousands” resembles one of contemporary Hollywood’s bad action movies where speed rather than coherence rules. While it is always pleasant to see Bruce Dern, what relevance does he have here since he did not appear in Rebecca but worked on two later ones by Hitchcock? A newly filmed documentary, using just a handful of scholars such as Bill Krohn, Michael Walker, Deborah Thomas, or Ken Mogg containing in-depth measured responses would have been much better. If someone objects about the cost of interviewing people abroad, one can answer by mentioning that the BBC had no trouble interviewing Ray Barrett (1927-2009) when he was still with us in Australia in a DVD supplement to a 1965 Dr. Who episode featuring William Hartnell.
Undoubtedly, the best addition to this DVD is the 2016 French documentary about du Maurier. Interviewing British and French scholars with archive footage of the author and photos from her life, this is a very insightful contribution to a complex talent who not only transcended gender stereotypes but also wrote perceptive female-orientated fiction still relevant today. As well as supplying source material used by Hitchcock in his versions of Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca, and The Birds (1963) she also wrote other significant books such as the time travelling The House on the Strand (1969) and Rule Britannia (1972) anticipating Red Dawn (1984/2012) in which the USA represented the invading “Evil Enemy”.
While the 1986 Joan Fontaine interview from NBC’s Tomorrow reveals her spirited personality, the 1980 Hitchcock interview adds little to others conducted with the director throughout his life. Footage of actresses tested for the role of Rebecca’s heroine reveal conclusively why Joan Fontaine had the necessary vulnerability for the role due to her relative screen star inexperience as well as coping with hostile attitudes from British actors on the set with Larry yearning for his Viv to appear with him after her triumph of Gone with the Wind (1939). In British cricket parlance, Joan had a “sticky wicked to bat on” and it is to her credit that she overcame unfair attitudes on the set. The cockney son of an East End grocer undoubtedly proved to be a better umpire than figures such as Sir C. Aubrey Smith (1863-1948), Captain of the Hollywood Cricket Club that included Rebecca cast members Laurence Olivier and Nigel Bruce among its members.
As with the Criterion DVD Here Comes Mr. Jordan and His Girl Friday, this reissue contains radio broadcasts allowing listeners to contrast different versions with the cinematic text. Apart from necessary brevity, such versions show significant contrasts between “what might have been” and “what became”. Orson Welles did a radio version on December 9, 1938 playing Maxim with Margaret Sullavan, one of the candidates for the heroine in the film and Mildred Natwick as a chilling Mrs. Danvers. Also featuring Agnes Moorhead as Mrs. Van Hopper and appropriate score by Bernard Herrmann, the program ended with a phone link to London with du Maurier playfully refusing to reveal the name of the heroine commonly known as “I”. The 1941 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation featured Ronald Coleman as Maxim, a role he had turned down since he correctly recognized the focus would be on the heroine, with Ida Lupino surprisingly good as “I”, and Judith Anderson repeating her film performance. Like the later 1950 Lux Radio version, the text followed Hitchcock’s film rather than the novel having Maxim not kill Rebecca as Welles’ Maxim did in the 1938 version. Hosted by director William Keighley since union-hating 1941 host Cecil B. De Mille refused to pay Screen Acting Guild dues and dropped out of his role as presenter, the 1950 version finally saw Larry teamed with Viv. This is the least interesting of the three adaptions with Leigh performing in icy RADA thespian tones with an over-melodramatic music score as opposed to Hermann’s more finely tuned 1938 orchestration. Keighley assures the happy couple that “they’ll take plenty of Lux Toilet Soap back to England” on the “tramp steamer they chose as their means of transport”. For Larry and Viv, this performance represents a successful innings now “that American” (as the English 1940 cast referred to Joan Fontaine oblivious to her British background) is no longer there.
Other versions exist, such as a disappointing 1962 TV play with James Mason as Maxim, Joan Hackett as “I”, Nina Foch as Mrs. Danvers, and Lloyd Bochner as Jack Favel. One of the most interesting TV productions was a 1979 four-part BBC TV mini-series with Joanna David as “I”, Jeremy Brett as Maxim, and Anna Massey pulling out all the dyke stops as Mrs. Danvers in heat. In the less successful, two-part 1997 version, Diana Rigg portrayed a more subtly threatening Mrs. Danvers with Faye Dunaway in the supporting role of Mrs. Van Hopper.
Finally, I must express my pleasure at Criterion choosing to illustrate this important film by stills rather than awful graphic designs they have used in the past. The new DVD cover contains a shadowy image of Mrs. Danvers at the window prematurely evoking those later brief depictions of Mrs. Bates, the dark shadow enclosed nun of Vertigo, and Mrs. Edgar all hinting at the powerful figure of the dark pre-Oedipal mother haunting Hitchcock’s significant works. However, the cumbersome nature of this new DVD version suggests that the Criterion team may consider a new “home match” with less clutter sometime in the future since this version is “not really cricket” in terms of what it could have actually better achieved in terms of a more precise selection of features.
- In his 9 September 2017 email Ken Mogg has recommended this book for its many essays on Rebecca: The Daphne du Maurier Companion. Ed. Helen Taylor. London: Virago, 2007.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Contributing Editor to Film International.