d. Alfred Hitchcock / 1940 / USA / 130 mins
Viewed on: DVD (Region 2)
d. Robert Stevenson / 1944 / USA / 97 mins
Viewed at: Arts 3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
This is a tale of two films, and a tale of two tales: In the blue corner: Rebecca – Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier classic. In the red corner: Jane Eyre – Fox Studios’ take on the equally classic Charlotte Brontë perennial (of which there had previously been six film adaptations). In literary circles, it has often been said that “du Maurier was the 20th century’s Charlotte Brontë and Rebecca the 20th century’s Jane Eyre,” and these two film adaptations only seem to fuel the flames (if you will pardon the pun).
Both films star Jane Fontaine, whose characters face the corruption of innocence and the cruelty of cynical, melancholic men – Laurence Olivier’s tempramental Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, and Orson Welles’ nefarious Rochester in Jane Eyre. Both films also feature a mysterious ‘other’ woman, strange familial relations, weird house keepers and burning mansion houses. And although they may both be based on well-worn novels by classic British female authors, these aint your run-of-the-mill, epic costume dramas. Both are fairly well regarded as classics of the 1940s Hollywood cycle of Gothic Romance films – as well as the sub-genre of Paranoid Woman films – and each managed to fit loosely into a broader ‘horror’ genre at the time.
In Rebecca, Jane Fontaine’s character – known only by her later title of the Second Mrs de Winter – begins as an innocent pauper, making her way through life as a companion to a rich, vain and cantankerous old dame, Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates). An encounter with the mysterious Maxim de Winter, leads to a whirlwind romance and a series of cruel lessons in the corruption of innocence, whether via the cynicism and melancholy of de Winter, or the cynicism and jealousy of Van Hopper and Mrs Danvers (de Winter’s housekeeper, played with blunt menace by Judith Anderson).
Having replaced the beloved Rebecca, who died at sea in mysterious circumstances, the Second Mrs de Winter faces an indifferent house staff and a bemused aristocracy, who – largely in light of her lower class background – view her intrusion on the rarefied world of the original Mrs de Winter with deep suspicion. Hitchcock’s first US project – and his first under David O. Selznick – threatens to end with a strange kind of immorally moral victory for Maxim de Winter (saying any more would ruin the twist), but Mrs Danvers has the last laugh by torching the de Winter mansion, Manderlay.
The titular character of Jane Eyre also starts out as a pauper, this time a child under the care of her ‘Aunt’, a similarly well-off and cantankerous lady named Mrs Reed (and played by Endora herself, Agnes Moorehead). Unable to care for her rebellious niece – who is, in fact, of no direct blood relation – Mrs Reed entrusts Jane into the care of the menacing Brocklehurst (Henry Daniell), whose evangelical, self-righteous and hypocritical brand of strict religious education she endures over a number of years. Once Jane has come of age, Brocklehurst offers her a teaching position at the school, which she duly turns down, advertising as a governess and finding a role at Thornfield, the home of the mysterious – and frequently absent – Edward Rochester (Orson Welles).
Just as Fontaine’s character in Rebecca is immediately faced with the mystery and intrigue that inhabits the gothic environs of Manderlay, Jane is faced with a remarkably similar set of circumstances. From the outset, she is treated with condescending contempt by Rochester, and her shunning by female revellers at Rochester’s party is as much due to her class status as it is to her occupation as governess. By this point, of course, the tour de force that is Orson Welles has completely taken over the screen and the film develops into a fairly conventional ‘rich man falls for the hired help’-style archetype.
But then there is the twist: Rochester quite literally has a monster in the closet – the unseen Bertha Mason – his long insane first wife, who is kept firmly under lock and key in the Thornfield attic. Although something of an under-developed subplot, the character of Bertha provides audiences with yet another point of similarity between Jane Eyre and Rebecca: the existence of the mysterious relative.
In Rebecca, we are introduced to the first Mrs de Winter’s slimy ‘cousin’, Jack (George Sanders), who seems to have had (at best) a lascivious relationship with Rebecca, and whose jealousy of Maxim de Winter sets in motion the chain events which conclude the film. In Jane Eyre, Thornfield is visited by Bertha Mason’s brother who also seems to have had a questionable relationship with his ‘sister’ and is subsequently attacked when he tries to visit her.
And indeed it is Bertha Mason – that madwoman in the attic – who precipitates the eventual climax of Jane Eyre and finally brings Jane and Rochester together. And so, whilst in Jane Eyre it is Rochester’s mad wife who destroys Thornfield – burning down the family home that she could never adequately inhabit – in Rebecca the role is taken up by Mrs Danvers, whose obsession with the deceased first Mrs de Winter (as well as her role as the housekeeper at Manderlay) places her in a similar position of diminished responsibility and failed familial duty, and eventually leads to her own bout of pyromania.
But remember this is Hollywood, and no amount of fire or fury can stand in the way of the love between a (rich) man and a (poor) woman.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again…”
“I’m sorry I frightened your horse!”