On March 28, 1940, United Artists unveiled David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s drama Rebecca at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review of the Joan Fontaine film is below.
In its essence, Rebecca is another entry in the Wuthering Heights school of dour, somber, psychological drama, steeped in ultra-British atmosphere. Though overlong as it was presented before the preview audience last night, it is beautifully done.
To his screen translation of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel, David O. Selznick has again given the touch of his production mastery, investing its every phase with the finest of cast, direction, scripting, setting and photography. As such, it is an artistic masterpiece, but the gloom with which it is pervaded, its slow pace and its deeply foreign note make its box office prospects a definite question.
Following in the steps of Gone With the Wind and Intermezzo, each of which raised a new feminine personality to the heights, Rebecca marks another similar credit to Selznick, this time raising the standard of Joan Fontaine who, given a great opportunity, responds with a brilliant performance and steps into the forerank of Hollywood’s capable dramatic actresses.
As a psychological study, the picture is a brilliant effort in its delineation of the tremendous power which the personality of a woman dead continues to exert over the living. Faithfully preserving the theme and atmosphere of the du Maurier story, it portrays the apparently insuperable barriers which are encountered by the girl who attempts to follow in the footsteps of the deceased Rebecca as the new wife of the man who had permitted Rebecca completely to dominate his home, fighting a seemingly hopeless battle until the dramatic denouement which forever removes the ghostly influence.
Joan Fontaine gives a superb portrayal of the untaught girl who pins her faith on love, and struggles through to victory over the shadows which beset her. Laurence Olivier, too, offers a masterly interpretation of the beleaguered husband. Judith Anderson is almost chilling in the sinister menace she injects into the role of the housekeeper, a brilliant performance.
Definite hits are scored, too, by Florence Bates, Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny and George Sanders, with Philip Winters, C. Aubrey Smith, Edmund Fielding, Lumsden Hare, Melville Cooper, Forrester Harvey, Leonard Carey and Leo G. Carroll registering notably in minor parts.
Alfred Hitchcock’s direction caught and maintained the story most effectively and gave a splendid camera reading of the extremely well written screenplay by Robert Sherwood and Joan Harrison and adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan. The musical score by Franz Waxman and Lou Forbes is a beautiful work and a distinctive feature of the film. The superlative photography of George Barnes contributed much to the creation of the picture’s somber mood. The settings are all artistically and effectively done. — Staff review, originally published on March 21, 1940