Friday, December 14, 2018

1962 Theatre '62 TV Episode Review - Rebecca

Based on the movie based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Joan Hackett, James Mason, Murray Matheson, Joan Croydon, Spencer Davis, Franklyn Fox, Byron Russell, Lloyd Bochner, and Nina Foch
Release Date: 1962
Rating: ★★★
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The second Mrs. de Winter is speeding back to England with her new husband after a whirlwind romance. They are returning to his home in Cornwall, Manderley, which he abandoned a year ago on the death of his first wife, Rebecca. As they get closer to England Maxim is moody and volatile, but his young bride hopes that she will make him happy, no matter the shoes she has to fill. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, has gathered the staff to welcome their master home, despite having orders to do no such thing. But Mrs. Danvers goes her own way, so much so that she keeps Rebecca's room in the west wing as a shrine to her late mistress, which the second Mrs. de Winter finds more than a little unnerving. After all, she is the mistress of the manor now, no matter what everyone else might think of her. Yet everywhere she goes, from the morning room to the beach she is reminded of Rebecca, and Maxim's rage on the subject can only mean he still dearly loves his first wife. Perhaps it would be best if she just left. It would please Mrs. Danvers to no end, and perhaps Maxim would be happier. But then there is a discovering after a shipwreck, Rebecca has returned and she might destroy everyone and everything.

This adaptation of Rebecca might be the most interesting I've watched to date due to it's restrictions. Aired in 1962 it was broadcast live and had only an hour, with commercials, to tell the doomed story of Rebecca's life. Therefore what you get is the book told in shorthand with just the high points of the story being hit. Here's the broken cupid statue, here's Rebecca's sleazy cousin, here's Mrs. Danvers's shrine to her mistress, here's the party, and here's Rebecca, dead at the bottom of the ocean from her husband's hands, but seeing as she was dying of Cancer a verdict of suicide is easily confirmed. What with the more copious use of narration, which makes sense due to the first person structure of the book, I actually couldn't find much fault with this production. Sure, the transfer hasn't aged well and there's lens distortion, but somehow they were able to work around their limitations and give what I think is a very solid adaptation. Because they stripped the story to it's barest elements and then added back in some of Du Maurier's own lyricism what they ended up with might actually be my favorite adaptation I've seen so far.

The true reason this adaptation succeeds is because of Joan Hackett's acting. As the second Mrs. de Winter she oozed naivete. While I'm a huge fan of Joan Fontaine, in Hitchcock's version of Rebecca she has a tendency to overact with her eyes that sometimes borders on the absurd. Here Joan Hackett brought a more natural feel to the roll, something I'm sure Du Maurier herself would approve of as she time and time again claims that her father, the late "great" Gerald Du Maurier, created natural acting. With each and every movement and gesture Joan Hackett WAS the second Mrs. de Winter to me. The way she plays with her fingers and nibbles on her cuticles just felt so right, whereas when Joan Fonatine would just be scolded by Laurence Olivier to leave her hands alone after broadly signalling she was about to bring her fingers toward her mouth. But to me it all came down to a scene in the beginning. The first morning she's at Manderley the second Mrs. de Winter comes down to breakfast with her very large purse in tow. I don't know if Fontaine did this, but to do this in your own home? It felt so gauche and so right!

When I first heard of this adaptation the number one thing that intrigued me was that Maxim de Winter is played by James Mason. I never think of James Mason as the leading man, more the leading villain. Yes, I know this isn't the case, but his voice lends itself so well to villainy! Yet it turns out that James Mason is underused in this adaptation. Yes, this helps in the fact that he doesn't overshadow his new bride, whose story this really is, but having James Mason and then not really using him seems kind of a waste. As it is James Mason and therefore Maxim de Winter instead of being a well-rounded character is rather one-dimensional. All he is here for is heavy-handed foreshadowing. They are on the boat home from France, his young bride mentions swimming and drowning, he blows up. His young bride mentions the beach, "WE NEVER TALK ABOUT THE BEACH!" He finds her at the beach, "NEVER COME HERE AGAIN!" It would almost be funny if it wasn't such a waste of a good actor. And even if you'd never read Rebecca or watched Hitchcock's adaptation I'm sure you could have quickly put the pieces together that Rebecca drowned off the beach... so yeah, real subtle foreshadowing...

The one thing that really bothered me though was that unlike the book this adaptation HAD to have Mrs. Danvers burn with Manderley, just like Hitchcock. Just because Hitchcock deviated in such a drastic way from the book to absurd heights of melodrama doesn't mean every adaptation after his has to do the same. But in this case it did, if you bothered to watch the credits. Because this isn't actually an adaptation of the book by Du Maurier, it's an adaptation of the Hitchcock film. WTF!?! I mean, that's weird right? To abridge a movie and redo it for TV? In fact looking at the Theatre '62 season, of the seven episodes at least five of them were Hitchcock movies first! Really, was this normal? Instead of just showing the movie show their shortened version of it with different famous actors? In fact several of the other episodes star actors Hitchcock has worked with like Joseph Cotton! Yet while they claim it's an adaptation of an adaptation the screenplay writer obviously went back to the source, Du Maurier's own words. Because I think Ellen M. Violett's choice to include more narration, thus being more inside our heroine's head, led to a more lyrical adaptation in tune with the book. Whereas Hitchock was notorious for changing things to fit his needs, here it feels more like Du Maurier is speaking to us not cursing Hitchcock from the stalls.

Now, I admit I'm going to diverge from topic here, but I can not NOT mention the ads that are on this adaptation. Who was the genius who decided not to edit them out? I want to shake their hand! The ads are all sponsored by the gas board, better living through gas! I adored the wonderful vintage of these ads. But I also have a lot of questions. Who thought that naming the gas cooktop on the range the "surface of flame" a good idea. All I can think of is conflagrations. And how is gas flame "cool?" Isn't calling a flame cool an oxymoron? Where is Don Draper when you need some better copy? From stoves to dryers, gas lighting which didn't go out of fashion in the gilded age like any logical person might have thought, to whole house heating and cooling, I now know more then I ever could about gas options for your home in the early sixties! And I think that is wonderful. This was a real slice of life and by keeping it in the show it shows where the ad cuts had to be for costume changes and set changes, this was ALL LIVE you must remember. This literally took my viewing experience to the next level but also makes me question the wisdom of the ad executives. You are advertising gas, aka fire, on an adaptation of Rebecca? You do know it ends with the house in flames right? Not the best message to send. As for the ad from the American Cancer Society? Rebecca, the villain of the piece, was diagnosed with terminal Cancer... um... awkward much?


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