4 April 2020

"Rebecca": The Search for the Second Mrs de Winter

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").

Vivien Leigh, fresh from Gone with the Wind (1939), was one of the other actresses tested. Leigh was quite eager to play the role after her lover Laurence Olivier had been cast as Maxim, but she was considered totally unsuitable. Joan Fontaine's sister Olivia de Havilland was also anxious to play the part but Warners was unwilling to lend her out and besides, she was already committed to Raffles (1939) on loan out to Samuel Goldwyn. Despite being interested in the role, De Havilland had refused to be tested since her sister was also up for it. (If De Havilland had been available, Selznick may very well have cast her instead of Fontaine; a memo from Selznick to his associate Daniel O'Shea on 1 August 1939 indicates that at that time De Havilland was the producer's first choice: "Before we finally decide on who is to play the lead in Rebecca, which I think we must do in the next couple of days, I want to make sure we have exhausted every possible means of getting Olivia de Havilland."In all, about 30 actresses were tested for the role of the second Mrs de Winter, with most tests taking place from May through August 1939. Among the other candidates were Nova Pilbeam, Loretta Young, Anita Louise, Audrey Reynolds and Jean Muir. 

Screen testing for Rebecca: Joan Fontaine and a very young Anne Baxter who were the last two candidates (above) and Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh (below). Leigh was tested twice, once with Laurence Olivier and once with Alan Marshal (in the photo). Leigh's screen test with Olivier can be seen here and Fontaine's test here

By mid-August 1939, with almost all of the candidates ruled out, there were three actresses left, i.e. Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter and Selznick's initial choice Joan Fontaine. In a memo to his business partner John Hay "Jock" Whitney (as seen below), Selznick talks about the ruled-out candidates, the final candidates and their pros and cons. With less than two weeks before filming was to start, Selznick was still undecided about who should play Du Maurier's heroine. While he felt that Fontaine was perfect in type, he still had doubts about her acting ability and wanted her to do more tests. At that point, the producer seemed more inclined to use sixteen-year-old Anne Baxter who he thought was more sincere and touching than Fontaine. Baxter had a lot of supporters, among them Hitchcock's wife Alma who thought Fontaine "too coy and simpering to a degree that [was] intolerable".

In the end, Selznick went with his first hunch, reminding himself that Fontaine would be directed by a great director. The film went into production in early September 1939 and Selznick's gamble eventually paid off. Fontaine proved to be the perfect second Mrs de Winter, earning herself an Oscar nomination for her performance (of course she should have won instead of getting the Oscar for Suspicion (1941))Rebecca was nominated for a further ten Oscars (including nominations for Hitchcock and Olivier), winning only two, i.e. George Barnes for Best Cinematography and David Selznick for Best Picture.

Jock Whitney (far left) and David Selznick (center) photographed at the premiere of Gone with the Wind with Selznick's wife Irene, Olivia de Havilland, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.

August 18, 1939 
To: Mr. John Hay Whitney 
The situation on the lead for Rebecca is as follows: 
We have definitely ruled out Anita Louise as giving a very good performance and one that we should bear in mind for the road company. 
I feel Loretta Young is a very good bet, and that with a few good pictures, she is the logical successor to Joan Crawford  but we don't think she is right for Rebecca. 
Olivia de Havilland, despite our conviction that she might be superb in the role, and her own anxiety to play it, we have had to rule out because it would mean dealing with Sam Goldwyn and the Warners. 
Our feelings about Vivien [Leigh] are very clearly expressed in the attached radiograms which I have sent today in answer to a series of them from Larry [Olivier] and Vivien respectively. [Robert] Sherwood and [George] Cukor respectively, and without any prompting whatsoever, made the same comments that Hitchcock and I made — that she doesn't seem at all right as to sincerity or age or innocence or any of the other factors which are essential to the story coming off at all. Sometimes you can miscast a picture and get away with it, but there are certain stories, such as Rebecca, where miscasting of the girl will mean not simply that the role is badly played but that the whole story doesn't come off — with, in some cases, the maddening result that the player who has been miscast is credited with a great performance and the picture is considered very bad. 
I am convinced that we would be better off making this picture with a girl who had no personality whatever and who was a bad actress but was right in type than we would be to cast it with Vivien. Bette Davis is also an enormously effective actress and she would, in our opinion, be just about as right for it as Vivien would — in fact, more right, since she doesn't have the wrong qualities that Vivien has, and apparently can't get away from. 
This brings us down to three candidates, apart from any that may show up from [Jenia] Reissar or from New York or Hollywood at the last minute, which is, of course, an extremely long-shot chance — which never comes true except in the case of Vivien Leigh and Gone With the Wind! 
The three candidates are Margaret Sullavan, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter. 
Most of the people in the studio who haven't studied the picture or its casting, as have Hitch and Sherwood and myself, were more enthusiastic about Margaret Sullavan than about anyone else (until they saw the Anne Baxter test, which changed the opinion of a large number of them). Apparently, her voice and her personality are so appealing that they don't stop to think that there is practically not one scene in the picture the qualities of which would not be affected by casting Sullavan. Imagine Margaret Sullavan being pushed around by Mrs. Danvers, right up to the point of suicide! Imagine Margaret Sullavan wishing she were a woman of thirty in a long, black dress!! 
This then reduces it to two candidates. The first is Joan Fontaine. I had pretty well decided to forget her for the role since I couldn't get anybody on the studio staff, excepting only Hal Kern, or anybody in the New York office to agree with me that she was physically an ideal choice for the role and that from a performance standpoint she obviously (or at least, so I thought) was the only one who seemed to know completely what the part was all about. However, several things happened in succession — Hitchcock started swinging around to her after listening to discussions of the part by Sherwood, myself, etc.; John Cromwell (who had made her first test) in the course of a conversation stated that he thought we were out of our minds not to put her in the part; and when I ran the tests for Bob Sherwood, he stated unequivocally and without the slightest prompting on our part of any kind that apart from his liking for Sullavan, there was no question but that Fontaine was far and away the best for the role. Encouraged by this, I decided to get George Cukor over here to run all the tests, bearing in mind that George is a great enthusiast of Vivien's and a great personal friend of hers, and also that he and Cromwell are the two men who, in my career of producing, have demonstrated the most accurate sense of casting. I was careful not to give George any prompting whatsoever, and he looked at them all very seriously and quietly and conscientiously and with no comment at all during the running, except for some loud guffaws at Vivien's attempts to play it. When they were all over, he said that in his opinion the most touching test was that of Anne Baxter, but that if it were up to him and he had to start the picture immediately, he would without any hesitation select Fontaine from this group of six. (Leigh, Fontaine, Sullavan, Louise, Young, and Anne Baxter.) 
I neglected to mention above that Sherwood saw this same group, including the Baxter tests. But Sherwood voted third for Baxter. 
Now, the situation on Fontaine is curiously complicated since her engagement to Brian Aherne, whom she is marrying tomorrow, Saturday. I have told her of my feelings that she could not sustain the part and that she might be monotonous through the entire picture; and that as a consequence we would be very hesitant about casting her in the role until and unless we saw other tests of her which she had, for a couple of days before I spoke with her, refused to make (saying that she would be delighted and honored to play the part but that she didn't want to make any more tests). I said to her yesterday that what we would like to see is three or four scenes from various parts of the picture to get the full range of her performance. Unfortunately, her face is swollen with an impacted wisdom tooth (and not so good for a honeymoon), and therefore she couldn't make the tests today or any time before her marriage tomorrow. She said that she would be delighted to cut her honeymoon short, coming back after a week if we decide to put her in the part; and further that she would cut her honeymoon short to make further tests. 
As to Anne Baxter versus Fontaine: I think she has more sincerity than Fontaine, and that she is much more touching, in the word of Cukor, in the scenes. I think she is a shade young, although it is entirely possible that this would turn into an advantage. She is ten times more difficult to photograph than Fontaine, and I think it is a little harder to understand Max de Winter marrying her than it would be Fontaine. Yet I have decided that the best thing to do would be to try to work out a deal today with Baxter, closing with her, and gambling the comparatively small amount of money that would be involved if we don't use her. 
So at the moment, it looks as though the setup is about two-thirds in favor of Baxter, one third in favor of Fontaine. (Incidentally, Irene's vote is for Fontaine, with Baxter second.) 
I do wish you would be very careful not to let on anything about this final choice since it might affect our negotiations with one or both girls, since it would completely spoil our publicity breaking, and since it might get us in wrong with the press if it leaked and we should subsequently change our minds. 
I am in agreement with your comment that it would be a mistake to show the Baxter test to Vivien or Larry. And further, I think that if Vivien and Larry ask, as they almost certainly will, who is up for the role, it would be better if you both said that we have several girls from whom we haven't made our final selection.  
If there are any last-minute choices that turn up, please wire or telephone. 
Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.


According to Selznick, at the time of dictating his memo, Hitch was just "swinging around to" Fontaine. Several sources claim that Hitch's first choice had been Margaret Sullavan. Hitch himself, however, remembered things differently in his 1962 interview with French director François Truffaut, saying he had wanted to cast Fontaine all along.
In the preparatory stages of Rebecca, Selznick insisted on testing every woman in town, known or unknown, for the lead in the picture. I think he really was trying to pull the same publicity stunt he pulled in the search for Scarlett O'Hara. He talked all the big stars in town into doing tests for Rebecca. I found it a little embarrassing my self, testing women who I knew in advance were unsuitable for the part. All the more so since the earlier tests of Joan Fontaine had convinced me that she was the nearest one to our heroine. 

This post is my contribution to THE 2020 CLASSIC LITERATURE ON FILM BLOGATHON hosted by SILVER SCREEN CLASSICS. For the other entries, go herehere and here!

Above: Joan Fontaine at the Oscar Ceremony, held in February 1941, with David Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock and Judith Anderson. The latter was the perfect Mrs Danvers. Below: Fontaine and Laurence Olivier on the set of Rebecca with Hitchcock. 


  1. My goodness! What a torturous route to get to "it had to be." Very interesting.

  2. A really interesting look at the casting process. I had NO IDEA Anne Baxter or Margaret Sullavan were considered for the role.

    1. I can't imagine either one of them in the role. Thanks for visiting!

  3. I'm so glad they chose the perfect cast for this movie. Selznick seemed to excel at it. Love the memo you provided and all the behind the scenes info!

    1. A perfect cast indeed, which makes all the difference.
      Thanks for reading!