Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960

Rebecca (1940)

Story’s Location:

The story takes place primarily at Manderley, the ancestral estate of the de Winter family. Manderley is located on the rocky shores of the southwest coast of England, in the county of Cornwall. The movie begins at the Princesse Hotel in Monte Carlo.

Story’s Time Period:

Spring, the late 1930s, shortly before WWII.


In Monte Carlo a wealthy English widower, Maxim de Winter, meets Mrs. Van Hopper’s paid companion, who is only identified as “I”. Maxim and Mrs. Van Hopper’s companion marry and return to his English estate, Manderley, which is haunted by the memory of his former wife, Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, who has an abnormal devotion to the memory of her former mistress, immediately hates the new Mrs. de Winter and tries to drive her away from both Maxim and Manderley. When the truth about Rebecca comes out, Mrs. Danvers goes berserk and burns Manderley to the ground.

Original Story:

Based on the novel “Rebecca”, (1938), by Daphne du Maurier.


Selznick International Pictures.


George Fortescue Maximilian “Maxim” de WinterLaurence Olivier
“I” (the second Mrs. de Winter)Joan Fontaine
Mrs. Danvers (the housekeeper)Judith Anderson
Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin)George Sanders
Frank Crawley (Estate Manager)Reginald Denny
Beatrice Lacy (Maxim’s sister)Gladys Cooper
Major Giles Lacy (Beatrice’s husband)Nigel Bruce
Colonel Julyan (Chief Constable)C. Aubrey Smith
(the Coroner)Melville Cooper
Edythe Van HopperFlorence Bates
Ben (workman who does odd jobs)Leonard Carey
Dr. BakerLeo G. Carroll
Frith (the butler)Edward Fielding
Robert (servant)Philip Winter


Director of PhotographyGeorge Barnes, A.S.C.
EditorHal Kern
Art DirectorLyle Wheeler
Set DesignJoseph B. Platt
Set DecorationHoward Bristol
MakeupMonty Westmore, Ben Nye, Frank Westmore
Special EffectsJack Cosgrove, A.S.C.
Optical EffectsClarence W.D. Slifer, A.S.C.
Matte ArtistAlbert Maxwell Simpson
MusicFranz Waxman
ScreenplayRobert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison
   (adaptation by: Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan)
ProducerDavid O. Selznick
DirectorAlfred Hitchcock


“Rebecca” was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film. Despite the fact that the story is set in England (and Monte Carlo), and that Laurence Olivier and many of the other actors were British, the film was shot entirely in California. Hitchcock later said that had they filmed “Rebecca” in England “We would have had a sense of location, but we would have lost the sense of isolation.”


Daphne du Maurier’s inspiration for Manderley, the de Winter estate in “Rebecca”, was based on her childhood impressions of Milton, a home that belonged to a friend of the family, and on a 16th century mansion called Menabilly, which would eventually become her home. She described Milton as being, “Long, grey-walled, stone, stretching endlessly, great windows set one upon the other with crisscross window panes, then more stone, and columns, while to the left the building turned to form a sort of square, crowned by a clock-tower. Once inside, what absorbed me was the magnificence of the great hall, the high ceiling, the paneled walls, and those portraits hanging upon them, men with lace collars, knee-breeches, colored stockings, four centuries of Fitzwilliams.”

Before “Rebecca” was cast, both Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick wanted Ronald Colman for the part of Maxim de Winter. Colman turned the part down because he thought his public wouldn’t like him as a murderer, and because he feared “Rebecca” would emerge as a “woman’s picture”.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.

After Laurence Olivier signed to play Maxim de Winter, he campaigned to have Vivien Leigh, with whom he was in love and would marry the following year, cast as the second Mrs. de Winter. When Leigh agreed to audition for the part, Olivier broke precedent by personally playing Maxim for her screen test. (That screen test is included on the Criterion Collection’s DVD of “Rebecca”.) Later, when Vivien Leigh did not get the part, Olivier made no secret of the fact that he was disappointed to be playing opposite Joan Fontaine.

Joan Fontaine, the sister of Olivia de Havilland, was 21 and relatively unknown when she was cast as the second Mrs. de Winter. She later recalled, “Hitch kept me off balance, much to his own delight… he would constantly tell me that no one thought I was very good except himself.” Using these and other tactics to impose on Fontaine the insecurity he wanted for her portrayal of the second Mrs. de Winter, Hitchcock guided her to an Oscar nomination and stardom.

When Judith Anderson was offered the part of the insidious Mrs. Danvers, she was appearing on Broadway as the Virgin Mary in a religious allegory called “Family Portrait”. She had appeared in only one previous film, 1933’s “Blood Money”.

In the novel, Maxim de Winter actually does shoot his wife, Rebecca. In the film, Rebecca’s murder was changed to an accident because the Motion Picture Production Code at the time dictated that the perpetrator of any crime had to be punished for that crime, and that a sympathetic lead character could not simultaneously be a murderer.

David O. Selznick paid $50,000 to acquire the film rights for “Rebecca”.

“Rebecca” was being filmed while Selznick was putting the final touches on his film “Gone With the Wind”. Because he was preoccupied, Selznick didn’t interfere with the filming of “Rebecca” as much as he usually did with one of his productions. However, Hitchcock and Selznick still clashed over everything from the script to from how many angles a scene should be filmed. (Hitchcock liked to “edit in the camera”, filming a scene only from the point of view of how he envisioned it would look in the final film. This upset Selznick because he liked to be able to choose from among a number of different angles when putting together a scene.) Selznick’s opinion, however, almost always carried the day.

During the filming of “Rebecca” Selznick began one of his memos to Hitchcock,

I am putting this in writing because there seems to be some difficulty on the part of Henry and the Production Department in making our complaints clear, and I want there to be no misunderstanding of any steps if they eventually become necessary because of your failure, or (and I dislike to think this) your refusal, to understand what it is that we are complaining about…

Selznick had very specific ideas as to what the handwriting of the dead Rebecca should look like, and several women from the production department tried their hand at creating Rebecca’s personality through penmanship. A number of props, including linen, china, and desk accessories, were monogrammed with the final choice.

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine.

Laurence Olivier, who had acted much more on stage than in films, drove both Hitchcock and Selznick to distraction with his habit of alternately slowing down action to make his role more showy, and then speaking very rapidly. After filming was completed, Selznick had Olivier re-dub some of his lines with little success.

Some of the flames in the final, climactic scene of “Rebecca” were composites of shots made during the “burning of Atlanta ” scene in “Gone With the Wind”.

After the premier of “Rebecca”, Franz Waxman gave the following insight into his musical score [edited for content]:

“Rebecca, the really dominant character of the story, is dead – in actuality she never appears in the scenes, yet the entire drama revolves around her… I set up a normal orchestra playing the accompanying music for the living characters on the screen, whereas for the dead Rebecca I set up an individual group of mechanical instruments – a ghost orchestra, so to speak. It consisted of an electronic organ and two novachords (a newly invented instrument which produces its sound by means of radio tubes) which has a peculiar sound of unreality.”

Waxman later claimed that of all of his movie scores, the one he wrote for “Rebecca” was his favorite.

It took 63 days for Hitchcock to initially film “Rebecca”, after which Selznick took over and scheduled many scenes for retakes. Before shooting began, Selznick was outraged when an estimated budget of $947,000 was submitted by his general manager, calling it “a disgrace” and declaring that the head of any department that did not stay within a sensible budget, “is going to be fired!” The final cost of the film was $1,288,000.

In 1962, Hitchcock told François Truffaut that “Rebecca“, “is not a Hitchcock picture. The story itself belongs to the end of the 19th Century.”


Some scholars insist that “Rebecca” is one of the few Hollywood films to actively explore Freud’s Electra Complex. (The heroine, who is appropriately unnamed, finds love with the very paternal Maxim. As she steadily moves toward independence she faces harsh censure and possible destruction by an array of mother figures.)

“Rebecca” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and won two including the Oscar for “Outstanding Production” (Best Picture). This would be the only movie for which Hitchcock would win an Academy Award for “Best Picture”.

The American Society of Cinematographers ranked “Rebecca” number 18 on their list of “Best Shot Films: 1894-1949”.

© 2004 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.

The following products will help you explore this subject further:


  • Rebecca, (reissue ed. 1948) by Daphne du Maurier
  • Hitchcock, (1985) by Helen Scott and Francois Truffaut
  • The Women Who Knew Too Much, (1988) by Tania Modleski
  • Alfred Hitchcock: A Filmography & Bibliography, (1995) by Jane Sloan, et al.
  • The New York Times Guide to the Best 1000 Movies Ever Made, (1999) by Vincent Canby, et al.
  • Memo From David O. Selznick, (2000) by David O. Selznick, et al.
  • Alfred Hitchcock: Filming Our Fears, (2002) by Gene Adair
  • Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness & Light, (2003) by Patrick McGilligan

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