Movie Project #26: Rebecca [1940]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Rebecca [1940]

Rebecca [1940]
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Robert E. Sherwood (screen play), Joan Harrison (screen play), Philip MacDonald (adaptation), Michael Hogan (adaptation)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Mystery/Thriller
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders
Running Time: 130 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of the most highly-regarded Hitchcock films that I still needed to see.

Accolades: Won two Oscars (Best Picture, Best B&W Cinematography) + 7 other nominations, #80 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills, #31 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains, #126 on IMDB Top 250

It still baffles me that out of Alfred Hitchcock’s distinguished reputation and extensive filmography, he never once won an Oscar for Best Director. In fact, Rebecca, his very first American film, is his only Best Picture winner. Despite its accolades, Rebecca always seems to somehow get lost in the shuffle. This certainly happened to me, as it is somewhere around the tenth Hitchcock film I have seen. Make no mistake — this is a fantastic film that deserves to be mentioned among his best.

Rebecca tells the story of a young woman (Joan Fontaine), never identified by name, who works as a paid companion of a wealthy businesswoman (Florence Bates). While accompanying her boss on vacation in Monte Carlo, the young woman meets a lonely aristocratic widow named Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Despite obvious differences in class and social stigma, the two hit it off, and Maxim invites her to go back to his glorious mansion, Manderley. Within just a couple of weeks, the two are married.

Rebecca [1940]

The new Mrs. de Winter has seemed to reinvigorate Maxim with a new outlook on life, but she is constantly under pressure in Manderley. The presence of Maxim’s past wife, Rebecca, is everywhere. Her former bedroom is still sealed shut, left exactly as it was when she passed on in a mysterious boating accident. Pictures and memorabilia from the deceased are everywhere in the estate, and the servants frequently remark on how wonderful Rebecca was.

The worst offender is the lead housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). She is seemingly still obsessed with Rebecca, and her unwelcoming demeanor consistently puts the new bride on edge. There’s something off-putting about this long-time resident, though exactly what it is doesn’t become apparent until the final act.

Now, as someone who has seen nearly a dozen Hitchcock films, I should have expected a twist. Yet ol’ Hitch managed to pull a fast one on me here. After what appears to be a fairly straightforward gothic melodrama about a blossoming (but struggling) relationship in the first act, the film goes in a completely different direction. Secrets are revealed, motivations are announced, and back stories told. This eventually culminates in a fiery conclusion that again feels strikingly different from the rest of the film.

Rebecca [1940]

Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson all received Oscar nominations for their performances. While Olivier is certainly memorable in this, it is the two ladies that truly impress. Fontaine is the typical Hitchcock leading blonde, but she perfectly displays the naivete of someone completely out of her element, yet one who also wants to make the best of her new situation. Anderson’s performance is ice cold, and her character’s evil nature earned inclusion in AFI’s 100 Villains list.

Rebecca is not the type of thriller that Hitchcock would later become known for, but it is a haunting mystery that effortlessly managed to keep me guessing throughout. While the director would perfect his craft in later years, this is still an excellent film that is more than deserving of its accolades.

9/10

Movie Project #22: His Girl Friday [1940]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

His Girl Friday [1940]

His Girl Friday [1940]
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Charles Lederer (screen play), Ben Hecht (play “The Front Page”) and Charles MacArthur (play “The Front Page”)
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Starring: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Running Time: 92 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This has appeared on countless “best of” lists, and I am always looking to see more of Cary Grant’s work.

Accolades: National Film Registry, #19 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs

A lot of classic films have rapid-fire dialogue, but His Girl Friday may just take the cake. I would love to see the size of this script, which seems to pack three hours of dialogue into just 90 minutes.

Rosalind Russell stars as Hildy Johnson, a former news reporter who is eager to leave that fast-paced lifestyle, going so far as to get engaged to a rather plain insurance salesman, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). On the eve of her trip to Albany to make the marriage official, Hildy drops by the newspaper to tell her ex-husband (and editor of The Morning Post), Walter Burns (Cary Grant), about her plans. One problem: Walter is still in love with her and will do anything possible to win her back.

Played to manipulative perfection by Grant, Walter quickly gets to work at devising plans to keep Hildy from going to Albany. His methods are cruel but effective — he manages to get Bruce arrested no less than three times (including once by planting counterfeit money on him). This gives Walter more time to make his move.

His Girl Friday [1940]

It also helps that the “story of the century” is happening right now — the alleged wrongfully accused murderer, Earl Williams (John Qualen), is set to be hanged the very next day. The story is so juicy that Hildy cannot resist getting involved, even interviewing the man in hopes of getting him acquitted. The news story gets even bigger when Williams escapes from prison, making this a full-blown front page story. This series of events prompts Walter to amusingly exclaim “Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page!”

As a screwball comedy, the series of events grows wilder and wilder, and Hildy finds it increasingly difficult to get away and leave for Albany on time. It becomes apparent that Walter and Hildy are cut from the same cloth — both are “newspapermen” that get such a rush from breaking a big story, yet struggle to separate their personal and work lives.

His Girl Friday [1940]

In most cases, it would be hard to sympathize with either of these characters, but c’mon, it’s Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell! These two play off each other beautifully, and their chemistry is undeniable. Even though both play such dastardly characters, they are so much fun to watch.

The aforementioned rapid-fire dialogue is a real highlight of the film as well, even though it’s sometimes hard to keep up with the constant overlapping chatter. This is a film that benefits considerably from subtitles, and I was almost afraid to laugh just so I didn’t miss another great line. Regardless, the script (and its cynical look at the newspaper business) is relentlessly engaging, still providing fruitful exchanges so many years later.

9/10

Movie Project #41: The Philadelphia Story [1940]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Philadelphia Story [1940]

The Philadelphia Story [1940]
Director: George Cukor
Genre: Comedy/Romance
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard
Runtime: 112 minutes

While researching The Philadelphia Story, I came to the startling realization that I had never seen any of Katharine Hepburn’s work. Despite 51 films to her name, the incredibly well-regarded actress had somehow eluded me over the years. It was perhaps fitting that The Philadelphia Story became my first Hepburn film, as not only was this her first big hit, but the screenplay was written specifically for her.

Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord, a wealthy, strong woman who is getting ready to marry a lower class — but on his way up — gentleman named George Kittredge (John Howard). Just days before the wedding, a publisher at Spy magazine gets the idea to cover the wedding, and he assigns reporter Macauley Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to write the story. Their introduction to the wedding comes via C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who just so happens to be Tracy’s ex-husband. With the introduction of these unexpected patrons, not to mention appearances from members of Tracy’s eccentric family, the pre-wedding weekend suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

The Philadelphia Story [1940]

It doesn’t help that there is an underlying unsettled romance between Dexter and Tracy. Their marriage was rocky at best, but there is still a clear connection between the two. Further difficulties arise when Tracy begins to discover some of Connor’s more appealing traits (apparently she is a sucker for good poetry). Now, the day before her wedding, she finds herself in a bit of a love triangle.

While Katharine Hepburn is very much the center of the film — and she delivers a phenomenal performance — she was fortunate enough to be paired with the unbelievable 1-2 combination of James Stewart and Cary Grant. Stewart is as charming as ever, and he has a lengthy section in the film where he is flat out drunk — played with sterling effectiveness. Grant seems keen to stay in the background (surprisingly), but he is crucial to many important moments in the film. Special mention must also be made of Ruth Hussey, who delivers a strong performance that is unfortunately often overlooked when compared with the three leads.

The Philadelphia Story [1940]

For all its star power, The Philadelphia Story is backed by a sharp, witty screenplay that ultimately won an Oscar (the film itself received six nominations, winning two). The dialogue moves at a brisk pace with plenty of snappy one-liners, though there were a handful of lines with dated 30s/40s slang that had me scratching my head. Even if I didn’t know exactly what something meant, I was able to understand it somewhat thanks to the conviction these lines were delivered by the strong cast.

Ultimately, this is a clever little film with plenty to like. It would have been hard to mess up a film with the trio of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant starring, and thankfully this lives up to its classic billing. Consider me a new fan.

8/10