Movie Homage: Rebecca 1940

At the heart of Daphne du Maurier's deftly rendered novel, Rebecca, the seaside estate Manderley is the essence of British grandeur.  It is also arguably a character in the story, much like the people who walk its halls. Under the confident hand of its former chatelaine and story namesake, until her death before the story opens, the manor house was host to celebrated soirees of 1930's high society.
As the tale unfolds, the audience follows a shy and inexperienced second wife as she strives to navigate the trappings of a new life with wealthy, handsome widower Maxim de Winter, all the while reminded in countless ways of how short she seems to fall of his first bride's successes.
The set had to meet the expectations set by the novel and the standards of its director, Alfred Hitchcock, who knew the kind of real homes Manderley was based upon and who insisted decoration be opulent but believable, not a stylized Hollywood fantasy.  Details must be rich, but not ostentatious.  Most importantly, the spaces and furnishings would need to figuratively and literally dwarf the female protagonist.
The results are breathtaking.  Plaster moldings are hefty, though not Italian or French in character, and the woodwork looks hundreds of years old.  The smooth and slow roving camera of photographer George Barnes garnered the film an Oscar and shows lovingly the fine work that set decorator Howard Bristol brought to the production.
The morning room the new Mrs. de Winter is expected to use for daily estate work boasts a deep window seat below diamond mullioned windows.  It is tucked away from the fray.  The luxury is unmistakable, but due to the intimate scale, one understands that while she may not use the room as her predecessor did, she feels more at home here than in the grander rooms beyond. 
Across the house in a wing overlooking the sea, the suite where Rebecca slept underscores the stature of the dead woman and heightens the contrast between the two wives.  Here the ceilings are high and the architecture more contemporary.  The textiles are as supple and transparent as a fine peignoir; that the fabrics suggest a seductive garment is no accident, for as the story unfolds, we discover that Rebecca was as bold in her sexuality as she was in conquering the haut ton.  The modern treatment separates Rebecca from the moorings of the past, suggesting a woman free of conventions.  Furthermore, the design shows Rebecca felt enough ownership of Manderley to transpose her tastes unapologetically over the antique preferences of her husband's ancestors.
Watching this 1940 film is a pleasure on many levels, as the story adaptation, production values and performances are all stellar. Yet in making a character of the set while furthering the story through detail, Howard Bristol certainly deserved his own portion of the praise.


  1. I have the DVD out on the table in front of the player, to remind me to watch the film again. it has been so many years since I saw it. I remember the Hitchcock discomfort factor with Mrs Danvers.

    You have given me something more to think about, the interior design features to make the film set work for the sumptuous and the dramatic elements that were wanted.

  2. Thanks, ZACL. What was the Hitchcock discomfort about Mrs. Danvers? The lesbian undertones of her character?

  3. I can appreciate this blog overall and this post in particular. I like all things vintage. I'm working on a concept that blends vintage film with my contemporary photography. Thanks for your work.

  4. I imagine the use of CGI to make new films with old stars. How awesome to work with CGI experts, the estates of dead stars like Bette Davis or Clark Gable, and talented voice over mimics, to produce more contemporary stories as they MIGHT have been performed by actors from the past. Your site is beautiful, by the way.

  5. how i love that movie... i worship the book, have the audio book as well and two movie versions... am i obsessed? ah, no way...