The title character of Rebecca is a major presence throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic romance but is never seen on-screen. At least not alive. She haunts everything, though, particularly the life of the woman (Joan Fontaine) who has married her former husband Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The two met by chance but married quickly, her moving into the huge seaside house Maxim shared with Rebecca before her untimely death. The new wife (her first name is never given) is unwelcome by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was close with Rebecca. What follows is a story of psychological manipulation, a mystery dealing with the true circumstances of Rebecca’s death and an exploration of how far you can go to earn someone’s love.
With the 1940 film, one of the best in a long list of great films from the director, being added to the Criterion Collection this week it’s a good time to jump back and revisit its marketing campaign.
You have to love the artwork used on the movie’s theatrical poster, a richly-painted piece of art that conveys a classic feeling and hits some key selling points for the audience. At the top are the faces of Fontaine and Olivier, positioned as a couple and both looking very stoic and proper. At the bottom is the lavish estate she will move into as his new wife, an anonymous and unidentifiable woman standing over it like a statue. The movie’s title treatment is splashed across the cover of a book, a reference to the fact that it was based on a popular novel, something that’s stated outright in the credits. That appears below the names of Hitchcock as well as David O. Selznick, referenced here as the producer not only as the producer of this film but also the previous year’s Gone With the Wind.
The poster doesn’t go into the nature of the story, but you get the message that it’s a high-society drama pretty clearly from the tone of the art and the looks of the actors. That was a common genre in this era of Hollywood so there was likely some instant connection with audiences created through what’s conveyed here.
The best trailer I could find that isn’t fan-made or of questionable provenance is this one, which seems to be for the 1949 rerelease of the movie. It starts out by hailing the picture as one of the most beloved in American cinema, “one of the most glamorous” ever made and returning to theaters as the result of a national poll. The movie is identified as based on a popular novel and the two main characters, Maxim and his new wife, are introduced. Narration makes it clear that Rebecca’s spirit is still present in the house. Scenes from the romance are shown as we’re told the movie is still hailed as a classic of suspense. The names of both Hitchcock and Selznick are used generously throughout the trailer, showing the power and influence they wielded in Hollywood at the time as well as their continued name recognition and subsequent assumed appeal with the audience.
I’d love to be able to scour the archives of Variety and other trade publications from the era to see how much of the behind-the-scenes machinations made it into the press at a time when the studios wielded great influence over coverage. Hitchcock and Selznick reportedly clashed over various story points and visions, with the producer exercising his right over final cut to make the movie his own to a great extent and reshooting a number of scenes.
Whatever happened between production and post, the movie remains a classic of the era, a standout in Hitchcock’s filmography and a go-to example of the gothic romance genre.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.