Wait For The Moment When: Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers…

Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940)

Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (1940)

…shows Joan Fontaine the eponymous Rebecca’s knickers and transparent nightie, “made specially for her by the nuns in the convent of St Clare”. St Clare is the patroness of light (and television¤) and light is everywhere in this scene. The set is saturated in it: although Mrs Danvers is a murderous monstrous bully with a quasi-supernatural aura (a witch in a modern Grimm tale) Hitchcock reverses our expectations, shooting not with dark shadows but exploring a dream bedroom scintillating with a diffused glow, a luminosity coming from no particular source. We are in a fairy grotto hung with veils, the shrine of a dead saint, a legendary enchantress. “The loveliest room you’ve ever seen!” (Anderson’s lines have her repeat the word “room” over and again as though Hitchcock is revelling in her native Australian intonation. “Ree-yoom”, she says).

In another sense light is also beginning to dawn on both the viewer and the terrified second Mrs de Winter: things are even more rotten at Manderley than we first imagined. We don’t yet know (though by now even the uninitiated must begin to suspect) that Rebecca herself was another monster*; but the scene prepares us for the lurid revelations to come of her nymphomaniacal private life by sensually dwelling on the intimacies of her bedroom and apparel. Mrs Danvers references the sado-masochistic sexual complexities of “Venus in Furs” by pressing Rebecca’s chinchillas against her own cheek and wonders aloud if her late mistress (in every sense?) comes back from the dead to “watch you and Mr Winter together”. Cinema goers of a certain age will know what THAT means.

It’s a strange scene all right, packed with allusions and oddities. Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers can be seen to be wearing unsuitably high heels beneath her anachronistic floor length black gown. We think of Catherine Lacey’s nun in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (made only two years before REBECCA in 1938) and the fashionable shoes glimpsed beneath her habit that betray her true identity. Mrs Danvers seems to be as much a nanny, a creepy-controlling mother figure, as a housekeeper. Like every other character in the movie she infantilises the second Mrs de Winter and here she talks of Rebecca too as though of a small child:

“…and then she would say, ‘good night Danny,’ and step into her bed”.

Later in the film Mrs Danvers offers a more disconcerting image:

“She used to sit on her bed and rock with laughter at the lot of you.”

Then there’s the hair motif that runs throughout the movie¤¤: Joan Fontaine is repeatedly subjected to adverse comments on her hair. When she tries for a new more sophisticated look her screen husband Maxim (Laurence Olivier) hates it. Hair (confined, unbound, luxuriant, neglected) is a many-threaded symbol of sexuality¤¤: we may wonder in this bedroom scene whether the second Mrs de Winter’s marriage has yet been consummated, especially when she and Mrs Danvers start fiddling with hairbrushes** on the dressing table and we hear about Rebecca’s nightly grooming sessions.

“‘Come on Danny, hair drill’, she’d say.”

‘Danny’, indeed! As has been much remarked upon, the sapphic theme is done almost to death here. But it may also be suggested that Danny is introducing Mrs de Winter to the whole idea of sex, to the wider and wilder shores of love: nerving her even for the eventual step of becoming a wife “in the fullest sense”. Were the censors, as usual, asleep? Or just baffled? The director throws out so many signals and references here that the viewer is sent chasing all over the place. As ever Hitchcock is primarily concerned with creating an effect, not a watertight coherent narrative. It is said that he encouraged the cast of REBECCA to shun Fontaine, even to the extent of whispering in her ear “everyone here hates you”, with the aim of making her performance even more nervous and jittery. The menace of Mrs Danvers in the bedroom scene is allowed to ooze out in every possible nasty manifestation: a predatory lesbian, vampire, voyeuse and obsessive nutcase sexually intimidating (and even partially enthralling?) her schoolgirlish employer.

“All this in one day! It’s too much!” as Twiggy says in THE BOYFRIEND.

What do you think all those clothes smell of as they lie there waiting for their dead owner? What heavy musky fragrance fills the room and clings to the furs and lingerie? Think back to the dialogue in the first reel when Joan Fontaine talks of storing up her memories like perfume. Olivier grimly reminds her that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget”. No wonder he prefers his second bride in a state of nature and, one suspects, smelling of nothing more than Pears’ soap and Jasper the dog. Scent is as suspect and degenerate as all Rebecca’s luxuries : a trap, a snare and a betrayal. In the end Rebecca is nothing more than the sum of the smell of stored camphorated minks, bundles of old letters and address books, a dusty damp beach house, and her own rotting bones brought back from the sea. The grand illusion – Vanity Fair.

¤ like Mrs Danvers, Clare of Assisi was said to have the power of being in two places simultaneously. Hitchcock was one of Hollywood’s most devout Roman Catholics.

* “You thought I loved Rebecca? You thought that? I HATED her!”

¤¤ As is, of course, food. Mrs de Winter has trouble with coping with meals and eating. Food is heaped up throughout REBECCA – see how sexy George Sanders tears into cold chicken; Mrs Van Hopper wolfs down chocolates; and “Oh! What a plateful!” exclaims Gladys Cooper. But even scrambled eggs – “that mess” – are beyond Fontaine. Notice too how the long, long lonely table separates her and Olivier at meal times….

**We also remember Snow White and the wicked Queen with the poisoned comb.

JOAN FONTAINE 1917 – 2013
JUDITH ANDERSON 1897 – 1992

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