Best Picture Winners #13 – Rebecca (1940)

I can’t remember when I first heard of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous book Rebecca. However I heard of it, I ended up reading the novel for a book report in my senior year of high school. And I blew right through that story. It was right up my alley: dark, gothic and the story was set in a mysterious house (at that time, my favorite books were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, novels that are set in large houses that were full of mysterious secrets).

Back then, I had a tradition of reading a book and then watching the movie adaptation. I liked comparing the book and movie to see what was changed and what was retained. After reading a biography of Joseph Merrick for a sophomore year book report, I watched The Elephant Man. After reading Wuthering Heights, I taped (yes, literally taped) the Juliette Binoche/Falph Fiennes version of Wuthering Heights off one of the movie channels on DirecTV.

No exception was made for Rebecca. After reading Rebecca and getting a good grade on my report (yay!), Mom and I went to our local Blockbuster (ah the days before Netflix…..) so I could see the 1940 movie version and compare it to the book.

After the all-color Gone With The Wind, we return to black and white for this movie, and while it would’ve been interesting to have it all in color, I think the black and white works well for a movie like this. Right from the beginning, we are taken to the remains of a burned mansion, with a voiceover that begins “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It’s the voice of the unnamed narrator, who is remembering what this house used to look like, and from there, we go into her story.



We never know that woman’s name. What we do find out is how she came to live in that large mansion. After lingering on the remains of that large house, we return back in time several years. While employed as the traveling companion for an older, rich woman in the early part of the 20th century, our heroine meets the rich, older (he appears to be in his late thirties/early forties; she’s in her twenties) and brooding Max de Winter in Monaco. They spend time together, they fall in love, and they marry in a hurry, at which point, he takes her home to his Cornish mansion called Manderley.

She knows that this isn’t Max de Winter’s first marriage. She’s heard of his first wife, the titular character. (And to make it easier for you guys reading, I’m going to call our narrator Mrs. DW #2) And almost right away, Mrs. DW #2 feels jealous. Everyone talks at Manderley about how Rebecca used to do things, so that’s how she should do them too. This is where Rebecca did her correspondence, these are the people she wrote to, etc. The handkerchiefs are all embroidered with her monogram. So is the stationery and all the bed linens. And everyone talks about how great Rebecca was. That she was gorgeous, kind, etc etc blah blah blah. The woman could do no wrong, it seems. And oh wasn’t her death such a tragedy? She went out one night on the sea and drowned. Sad sad sad.

And hounding Mrs. DW #2 about anything to do with Rebecca is the main housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Oh boy, where to start with her.

Creepy housekeeper time.....
Creepy housekeeper time…..

Mrs. Danvers loved Rebecca. (And whether that love is something of the “love that dare not speak its name” kind, or just pure devotion is up to interpretation.) Mrs. Danvers takes it upon herself to remind Mrs. DW #2 of Rebecca ALL the time. Mrs. Danvers has even preserved Rebecca’s former bedroom as a shrine. She shows Mrs. DW #2 around said bedroom when Mrs. DW #2 goes there one day out of curiosity. Mrs. Danvers shows her Rebecca’s bed, her dressing table, and her linens, reminding her of the untouched underwear that Rebecca never wore.

Ummmmmm…… did I mention that she’s creepy?

So it’s bad enough that Mrs. DW #2 feels out of her depth in having to take care of this large house and filling the shoes of this seemingly perfect woman. But with Mrs. Danvers around practically every corner and Max not doing much to make her feel welcome, and making her doubt her relationship with Max, Mrs. DW #2 is having a rough time of it. Who hasn’t felt out of their depth in a new situation? Perhaps that’s what touched me most about Mrs. DW #2. You could feel her pain in trying to measure up and be good enough for everyone. And the way that Max seems to ignore how his new wife is feeling, like ignoring a new dress she bought to impress him, just makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Of course, we find out later that Rebecca isn’t as perfect as she seemed to be and that Max isn’t still in love with her in any way, when her sunken boat is found after another boat hits the rocks and it all comes to light. I suppose I could give away more of what happens after that, but I would rather leave it for you to find out. 😀

I enjoyed this movie when I saw it as a teenager. Watching it again years later, I still do. I’ve watched some longer movies for this project (this one runs a little over two hours) that felt like they lasted way longer. Gone With The Wind was one of them. And You Can’t Take It With You ran for less but felt longer. But the pace of this one felt just right. I was engaged the entire time, and certainly Andrew was. He’s even said he’d like to read the book! Definitely one of the better movies we’ve watched so far in this movie project, and to hear there’s going to be a remake…… Well, I’m not so sure about that! This movie was perfect in terms of the atmosphere, pacing, and the acting. You could really feel for these characters, especially Mrs. DW #2, though I did wish Max could’ve been a little more sympathetic to his new wife, but that’s probably my more modern sensibilities coming through. 🙂

And Mrs. Danvers is still as creepy as ever.

Four stars out of five

Next time: An aside movie, a Charlie Chaplin movie called The Great Dictator.