by CATHY WHITLOCK
The following is an excerpt from Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction, Cathy Whitlock ©2010 HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” —MRS. DE WINTER from the film, Rebecca, 1940
Rebecca (Selznick International/United Artists, 1940) is the classic Hitchcock thriller centered on a young woman’s (Joan Fontaine) marriage to a rich widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Upon arriving at a mansion called Manderly, the sweeping family estate where the couple will make their home, the young wife finds herself living with the omnipresent ghost of Rebecca, her husband’s late first wife. Foreboding and gloomy, the mansion plays an important role in the film – becoming a third major character in the bizarre, ghostly love triangle. Everywhere the new Mrs. de Winter turns, there are constant reminders of Rebecca in the mansion’s vast Gothic rooms. Endless staircases, a dismal fog that pervades the property, and the sinister maid Mrs. Danvers (who is always dressed in black and tends to glide across the sets, Dracula-style) all contribute to the film’s shadowed world.The sets for Manderley were designed by Lyle R. Wheeler, who stayed very truthful to the descriptions in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel. Once again, noir elements considered in the filming and art direction contribute to creating all sorts of emotions on screen—Maxim de Winters brooding personality, the young wife’s torment and fear, and Mrs. Danvers’s sinister domination and loyalty to her original mistress, Rebecca. Film lore had it that Selznick searched all over North America for a manor house to represent Manderley and was finally convinced that a miniature version would work. Wheeler and his crew used the combination of matte shots and live action and thus saved Selznick thousands of dollars in the process. Cathy Whitlock will give a talk about her book at the Harry Ransom Center Prothro Theater on Thursday, June 8 at 6pm. RSVP here.