Pondering the past
by Douglas Messerli
Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan (adaptation),
Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (writers), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Rebecca / 1940
“Rebecky,” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, September 27, 1972
Whenever I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s great film Rebecca (and I now watch it several times each year) I am reminded of Carol Burnett’s spoof of it, “Rebecky,” presented on her television show on September 27, 1972. In that skit Carol, dressed in oxford shoes, an outrageously thick wool skirt and coat, and heavy-rimmed glasses accentuates the clumsy awkwardness of the original Joan Fontaine character lost in the vaulting corridors of De Winter’s Manderley as she attempts to make her way to the morning room. There is something deliciously loony about the scene, in part because we realize its satire is so close to the source.
Indeed, for many years as a young man I felt that Rebecca was one of the weakest of Hitchcock’s films, an almost embarrassing work rooted as it was in the melodramatically-pitched writing of Daphne Du Maurier. How could any movie beginning with the illusionary romantic statement (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate.”) be taken seriously?
I’ve seen his face—his eyes. They’re the same as those first weeks after she
died. I used to listen to him, walking up and down, up and down, all night
long, night after night, thinking of her, suffering torture because he lost
Behind all these false illusions, of course, are the work’s deluders, particularly Rebecca, who, after revealing her sexual peccadilloes to her new husband, strikes a deal with him:
You’d look rather foolish trying to divorce me now after four days
of marriage. So I’ll play the part of a devoted wife, mistress of your
precious Manderley. I’ll make it the most famous showplace in England
if you like. The people will visit us and envy us, and say we’re the
luckiest, happiest couple in the country. What a grand show it will be!
What a triumph!”
Mrs. Danvers may still have illusions but it is her delusions that dominate her relationship with the second Mrs. De Winter. Believing that Rebecca has returned to haunt the place, she keeps her mistress’s room as a perverse shrine, maintaining everything “just as it was” and attempts to destroy the usurper she sees in Max’s second wife.
Los Angeles, January 6, 2008