Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Manderley in Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940): A House of Dreams, albeitMiniature ones

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. No, not the impressive, foreboding de Winter estate. Instead, I dreamed of the equally impressive miniatures that Hitch used to film the great house. So begins my musings on Rebecca.

This is the second time I’ve returned to art in a Hitchcock film that I've already covered in prior post and it’s not without reason. It is certainly not due to a lack of ideas, if that's what you're thinking! Hitch’s use of art in his films is prolific. Indeed, I’d wager to say that Hitchcock is perhaps the most well-known user of art in films because of the importance he placed on the pieces he showed. One little post on a certain film by me cannot begin to even do justice to Hitchcock’s artistry in that film.
"I" (Joan Fontaine) being mentally tortured by the sinister Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson)
"I" on the steps of the Great Hall
Of note, I just finished the source novel of Rebecca and I must say that the film adaptation certainly holds up well, even with Hitch’s slight alteration of the material (he was notorious for it). And certainly, one of the main aspects of the film that Hitchcock perfectly captured was the home itself, the great estate Manderley.
A finished view of Manderley
It’s well documented that David O. Selznick, the producer, and Hitchcock both understood the importance of Manderley almost as a “third character” in the film. And this is right and just. I’m going to concentrate on the novel for a brief moment because I can write with authority on the subject now and because it would have been the primary influencer of Selznick and Hitchcock. In the novel, “I” (the unnamed narrator, referred to also as the “Second Mrs. de Winter”) has varied views of the estate. In some respects, she views the home as warm and grand and in these moods; she is inclined to learn to love it. But, more often than not, the house is a grim and large reminder of her naiveté in the aristocratic world, of her lack of life-experience, of her inabilities as a mistress of a large home and more importantly as a self-perceived dull comparison to the mighty, dead Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter (more about the titular Rebecca in my first post).  In this film, the house had to appear as “I” perceived it. So, in one scene it might need to be eerie, in another, friendly, and so on. The perception of the house was an indicator of the mood of the narrator.
The introduction to the staff in the Gothic-revival hall of Manderley
The setting is also important because in Gothic stories like Rebecca, the home is also a source of mystery and even the supernatural. In a rambling house like Manderley, one can experience the confused state that “I” faces as she attempts to act as mistress of the home. Because of its Gothic qualities, Hitchcock and Selznick believed that not only should the house large, imposing and grand, it should be Victorian.  Victorian homes actually suit Hollywood quite nicely. Often Victorian architecture mirrored the medieval, which fits quite nicely into the ancien regime feeling that the de Winter home should have. More importantly, Victorian architecture was noted for its rambling nature, its addition prone, add-on feeling. This non-linear floor plan which historically occupies Victorian country homes could also perfectly facilitate cameras, even if it wasn’t in a real Victorian estate.
Milton Hall: Du Maurier's Inspiration for Manderley
The Victorian angle, which fits nicely in the Gothic mood of the piece, eliminated Milton Hall, Du Maurier’s inspiration for Manderley as a choice. Milton is certainly a beautiful estate, surpassing in grace and elegance. But then again, it certainly lacks some eerier elements, some sense of the ghostly that was required for Rebecca.
(L to R): Selznick, Fontaine and Hitchcock
At the time of production, Selznick was also making another bestseller into a large film, Gone with the Wind and wanted the same attention for detail in Rebecca. Hitchcock, brought out over to Hollywood for his first American film was equally anxious for everything to go well. The two would clash on many things, but they agreed that Milton would not work. That was very early on in the process. Hitchcock than surveyed some English country homes. Selznick wasn’t satisfied. Besides, recall, in 1939-40, war was breaking out in Europe and Hollywood studios neither liked the expense nor the new danger of filming on location for European-set films. A cursory inspection of American estates led both director and producer to believe that no home in the US suited Manderley. So, one would have to be made.
A combination matte-painting and set

As I said, Manderley is supposed rambling and large, so it could not easily be made into a normal sized model, even an unfinished one as was used in say, Gone with the Wind for Tara. Nor would a simple matte painting suffice. Hitchcock then proposed the idea of using miniature sets for Manderley. Selznick wasn’t quite sure at first, but Hitch convinced Selznick to go along with it. (Nevertheless, scores of sets would be produced for the film, during and after the filming of GWTW). The end result, as anyone who has seen the film is fantastic.
The house as it appears in the opening scene: "I dreamt of Manderley again"
Miniature, it seems, is a relative word. While certain sections of the house were built to scale (with help of matte paintings, and other tricks of the trade), the entire estate as a whole was a miniature, but a large one at that. In fact, it filled one whole large soundstage and could be used for panning views of the house. Another smaller version of the house and surrounding views was also used by  Jack Cosgrove, who also created mattes) for the opening scene of the “Manderley dream”.” In addition, GWTW veteran Clarence Slifer also was employed to create the illusion of the burning Manderley at the end of the film. In addition, Lyle Wheeler, Albert Simpson and Raymond Klune also participated in the construction, design and filming of these miniatures, which I believe, are pretty realistic looking.
Slifer set Manderley "aflame" as he did for Atlanta in GWTW
It’s interesting to note that while Hitchcock was later unsatisfied with Rebecca (because he thought it lacked his characteristic humor or more likely, he didn’t like dwelling on the creative differences he and Selznick had throughout filming), he was satisfied with the models. After all, it was his idea. The models, he believed, not only brought Manderley to life on screen in a realistic fashion, they also conveyed a sense of isolation for the estate itself. And on-location English estate would have featured quaint country roads, cottages and villages: additions which would not have mirrored “I”’s feelings of loneliness and desperation.
Hitch "studying" the source material

Manderley was essential to the Rebecca plot, something that was appreciated in due fashion by Hitchcock. The care and concern that went into filming the estate shows this and can surely be appreciated by the modern audience. “We can never go back to Manderley again,” sighs “I” at the end of her introduction, but “never” it seems, is also a relative term. Because, she admits, she returns in her dreams, and we can return whenever we watch this classic. 


  1. Check out Steven Jacobs' book "The Wrong House" for some fascinating insight into Hitchcock's use of architecture in his films. I found it a very neat read and I've included the link here: http://books.google.com/books?id=rIDVqjD6SZIC&lpg=PA178&ots=Ek51YpBQtQ&dq=Manderley%20rebecca%20wrong%20house&pg=PA174#v=onepage&q&f=false

  2. To do what is proper, I'll cite his source here:

    Jacobs, Steven. The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock. Rotterdam: 010, 2007. Google Books. Web. 9 July 2013.

    Again- while many of my opinions are original, many more are based in the work and research of others, to whom I owe much credit.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...