First published in August 1938, Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca was an immediate success. Before publication Alfred Hitchcock had read galley proofs of the book and thought about buying the property but felt the asking price was too high. In the end, it was David Selznick who purchased the film rights for $50,000 and then hired Hitchcock to direct.
When casting Rebecca (1940), for the male lead Selznick fairly quickly settled on Laurence Olivier to play the role of brooding Maxim de Winter. The producer had initially wanted to cast Ronald Colman but Colman declined. Other actors considered for the part were William Powell, Melvyn Douglas, Walter Pidgeon and Leslie Howard.
The casting of the female lead — to play the second Mrs de Winter, in the book described as a nail-biting girl, "insecure", "awkward" and "tortured by shyness" — was a different and longer story. In 1938, Selznick started testing 21-year-old Joan Fontaine who until then had appeared mainly in B-movies. While Selznick immediately considered Fontaine a serious candidate, no one understood what he saw in her. Fontaine's studio RKO had decided to let her go (feeling she had thus far shown little promise) and also at Selznick's studio nobody was impressed with her. In Hollywood Fontaine was even dubbed "the wooden woman" by a number of people who felt she lacked talent. With nobody else seeing Fontaine's potential, Selznick decided to forgot about her and began testing other actresses, both established and unknown ("At one point, I weakened and decided I couldn't be the only sensible person in the world, and allowed Miss Fontaine's option to drop").