Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock’s Cornish Movie Trilogy

*contains spoilers

Writer Daphne du Maurier (1907-89 heart failure) wrote a kind of loose trilogy of novels set in Cornwall in South West England which were turned into movies and they were Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940) and Frenchman’s Creek (1944). Alfred Hitchcock directed two of these titles – Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – while he also made The Birds (1963) which was based on a short story by du Maurier. Frenchman’s Creek was directed by Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972 heart disease) whose other main classic title is screwball comedy Midnight (1939) featuring Claudette Colbert (1903-96) and John Barrymore (1882-1942 heart attack) and it is certainly better than the du Maurier adaptation. Leisen specialised in screwball and glossy type Hollywood product.

Daphne du Maurier
Jamaica Inn (1939) DVD cover
Rebecca (1940) poster
Frenchman’s Creek (1944) poster

Alfred Hitchcock was on fire in terms of his reputation around the time of the making of Jamaica Inn as he had completed The Lady Vanishes (1938) and the Americans were interested in him, particularly David O. Selznick (1902-65 heart attack) who was producing Gone with the Wind (1939) in America. He wanted Hitchcock for an American film version of Rebecca which would still be set in Cornwall.

However, Hitchcock had to complete Jamaica Inn first and by the look of the movie, especially the opening sequence the budget was rather good. There are conflicting reports that Hitch despised making the movie, and as a craftsman there are probably no pioneering techniques or shots of great note… but still I like this movie. It is not the BOMB or one of the fifty worst movies ever made that I had always been led to believe. Truly the first time I saw it the sound was so bad I had to dismiss it as just awful anyway. But now having seen a print with proper sound, this story of a band of cut throats who live in the titular tavern and lure unsuspecting masted ships onto the rocks so they can pillage the cargo, may turn out to be a bit of a pot boiler but it’s well worth its weight in silver if not gold when it was set back in the 1850s.

Jamaica Inn novel
Hitchcock on the set of Jamaica Inn
Charles Laughton (left) and Hitch on the set of Jamaica Inn

The author of the novel stayed at the actual Jamaica Inn and I have driven past it a couple of times but anyway it inspired her to write the novel which got published in 1936, a couple of years later in 1938 she wrote her multi-million best seller Rebecca. I guess it runs in the family and it being a case of who you know as well as well what you know.

Du Maurier was the daughter of actor/manager and Freemason Sir Gerald du Maurier (1873-1934 colon cancer) who also wrote. His three daughters were all successful.

What is most impressive about Jamaica Inn is perhaps the cast which include Charles Laughton (1899-1962 cancer), Maureen O’Hara (1920-2015 in sleep), Leslie Banks (1890-1952 stroke), Robert Newton (1905-56 heart attack), Mary Ney (1895-1981) and Emlyn Williams (1905-87 bowel cancer) …

Night Must Fall (1935) trailer
Emlyn Williams in Jamiaca Inn
Williams (left) and Richard Burton (right)

I often find Williams the most striking of the bunch with his pierced ear and black cocked hat feigning an air of something or other quite malignly and cheerfully evil. It is interesting that the actor was well known for the plays Night Must Fall (made into films in 1935 and 1964) and The Corn is Green (made into films in 1945 and 1979) … Williams who was bisexual helped introduce fellow Welshman Richard Burton (1925-84 intracerebral haemorrhage) to the screen in Williams’ only turn as a director himself which was a movie entitled The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949). In this movie we listen to Burton sing Hen Wlad fy Nhadau which is the Welsh National anthem. The movie is considered inconsequential.

Charles Laughton was already a star and Oscar winner when he took on the lead role of the bad guy in Jamaica Inn. He too was an actor who directed one single movie and that was Night of the Hunter (1955) which is considered to be a masterpiece.

Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939)
Charles Laughton directs Robert MItchum in The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Leslie Banks makes a slightly nefarious uncle to O’Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939)

My grandmother told me on a trip to Cornwall once upon a time that she was a fan of the book of Jamaica Inn but when she saw the movie, she was disappointed by the script as it changed certain aspects of the book. The main thing being was that it was no longer a mystery and that the character of Laughton’s was known from the start to be the bad guy leading the ship-wreckers. There was talk that the film was also altered because the American censors would not allow a man of the cloth to be the head of such a group of villains and so Laughton’s character’s background was also changed.

Leslie Banks, who had been the star of Hitchcock’s The Man who Knew Too Much (1934)  plays Maureen O’Hara’s beefy uncle who can throw O’Hara’s chest of belongings right across a room and up a flight of stairs almost single-handedly upon her arrival one dark night at Jamaica Inn..

The opening storm scene with the wreck is well staged and, even if it was obviously filmed in a studio, you can’t help but be impressed with it along with the way the poor seamen are dispatched. Even the spume looks real! The rest of the film inside Jamaica Inn is stage-bound but atmospheric and Laughton’s lavish home shows once again little was spared on this production.

Jamaica Inn (1939) trailer
The real Jamaica Inn
Robert Newton plays the good guy in Jamaica Inn with Maureen O’Hara

I don’t know, but the film is not a total success. The film’s ensemble keeps the movie afloat, and a young Robert Newton plays the good guy before excess took its toll and would kill him at the relatively young age of fifty. Newton makes a good hero although it was obvious that he wouldn’t be a leading man. He would make Major Barbara (1940) the following year as a villain and you could see the rot had already begun to set in. It should be noted that Newton’s ashes were scattered in Cornwall after his demise.

Jamaica Inn was reported to be a success at the box office and to say that Laughton’s portrayal of Sir Humphrey Pengallan was eccentric is perhaps an understatement but there were certainly no award nominations forthcoming for such ham.

There were two cinematographers of note in the Hitchcock family of filmmakers who worked on Jamaica Inn and they were Bernard Knowles (1900-75) and Harry Stradling Jr. (1901-70). Knowles worked on five Hitchcock movies all up including The 39 Steps (1935) in Britain, and is rumoured to have directed The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour (1967) at the end of his career. Meanwhile Stradling made the transition to Hollywood with Hitchcock and worked on Hitchcock’s only comedy Mr & Mrs Smith (1941) and Suspicion (1941). Stradling then became a legend or photographing the faces of some of the great Hollywood actresses.

The only Hitchcock ‘comedy’ Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Cinematographer Bernard Knowles
Cinematography from Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936)
Cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr.

But back to the script of Jamaica Inn and we have such names as Sidney Gilliat (1908-94) who worked on The Lady Vanishes before going onto being a producer. Then there’s the legendary J.B. Priestley (1894-1984) credited with additional dialogue. Priestley is credited for introducing the ‘time slip’ to literature or so his biography claims. This was a new theory in time, with different dimensions which link past, present and future. This time travel literature perhaps became well-known at first in Mark Twain’s (1935-1910) A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1931, 1949 and 1979 among other movie versions) … But Jamaica Inn is definitely a period piece without any time slip…. And a final interesting fact from the screenplay is that it used the line which would again be used by a panicked Anthony Perkins (1932-92 AIDS) in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960): “Where’s the girl you came here with? Where is she?!” Others use it as they search for O’Hara in the dark countryside of Bodmin Moor. The film’s claustrophobic opening has O’Hara enveloped by the gang of ‘lost souls’, who according to their own philosopher, are “damned to hell” for their murderous crimes…. But sadly it doesn’t hold the attention fully to the ending… But hell, its darn Cornish pirates of legend and with Newton on board it’s irresistible for a spell. Hitchcock would leave Britain and not make another movie there until Frenzy (1972).

Frenzy (1972) lobby card
Writer J.B. Priestley
Writer Joan Harrison
Hitchcock with Joan Harrison

Then came along Rebecca (1940) which was the prestige follow-up to Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939) and it was the closest that Hitchcock got to winning an Oscar for himself. Rebecca won for Best Picture and Cinematography and so the Oscar didn’t have his name on it. But its script by Jamaica Inn’s Joan Harrison (1907-94) as well as Robert E. Sherwood (1896-1955 heart attack) who created the plays The Petrified Forest and Waterloo Bridge failed to convert into an Oscar. Du Maurier must have been set for life for selling the rights to Selznick as it tells the tale which is haunted by the “cruel and selfish” title character of Rebecca who “manipulates everyone around her into believing she’s the perfect wife and a paragon of virtue” … Well, sorry, but no as despite being dead she still holds a grip over those who once loved her.

Playwright Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (1934)
Robert E. Sherwood
Mrs. Danvers (right) spooks Joan Fontaine’s character in Rebecca (1940)
Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca (1940)

I must mention that this script also contains a line which was also thought of once again to be worthy of use in a later Hitchcock movie and that is the haunting one where Mrs. Danvers who is the housekeeper of Manderley where the heroine played by Joan Fontaine is taken upon marrying the widowed Laurence Olivier character … It is a haunting line where Danvers, played by Dame Judith Anderson says: “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” … It’s a line that is used in Scotty’s studio in Vertigo (1959) some little alteration.

Rebecca cost $1.285 million and was reportedly half a million over budget but it was still the top grosser of 1940. It was mentioned that Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh were meant for the Fontaine role but both were busy with Gone with the Wind.

Flora Robson turned down the role of Mrs. Danvers but this was a miracle as Anderson is a marvel at being malevolent in this movie. Her almost haunted ‘Danny’ as she is nicknamed has a total obsession with the late madam of the house or mansion Rebecca. Such obsession shows when she holds up some of Rebecca’s left-over lingerie in a sexually latent scene and says: “Look, you can see my hand” through the crotch. Evil Danny tries hard with the power of suggestion or hypnotism to make Fontaine jump from a second storey window and her evil spell upon the household is not revealed until much later.

Dame Judith Anderson
A younger Judith Anderson
One of Anderson’s sexualised roles which did not find favour in Australia

To look briefly at Anderson (1897-1992) and her career and I was interested in her from the outset since she was one of the earliest Australians to be active in Hollywood. She was born on the East Side of Adelaide in Kent town and went to school in nearby Norwood after her father left her mother in debt when she was only five… She moved to Sydney aged fifteen and became a stage actress which by the age of eighteen led her to New York and Los Angeles… She then turned herself into one of the great American stage actresses of the period as she appeared in sexually charged plays such as Cobra which was a feat achieved despite the actress not having classically beautiful looks… She returned to Australia with these plays but suffered rejection due to their being too sexual and were seen as perverse in the prudish nation.

The great cast in Edge of Darkness (1943) includes Judith Anderson and fellow Aussie Errol Flynn.
Judith Anderson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Anderson as she appears in a Star Trek movie in the 1980s
The Adelaide Festival Theatre is where Dame Judith Anderson’s ashes remain

Judith Anderson was often seen as an American but she always regarded herself as an Australian subject and was made a Dame of the Commonwealth in 1960.

She would give another notable performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) as Big Mama but there were plenty of roles in between such as anti-war movie Edge of Darkness (1943) and top billing in The Specter of the Rose (1946). Specter of the Rose is kind of a ballet with a psychotic edge. It’s not particularly good and Anderson probably got top billing since the cast is not a strong one. It’s okay although it is a Republic PIcture which hints at its quality. Modern day audiences perhaps best remember her as the Vulcan High Princess in one of the Star Trek movies on the 1980s. She won a couple of Emmys and a Tony award along the way.

Anderson was lesbian. I remember seeing an interview in Los Angeles where she lived in a modest flat with her elderly partner… The journalist asked her THE question and Anderson said: “It’s none of your business” and shut the door in his face.

After she died in 1992, Anderson had her ashes placed in the outside wall of the Adelaide Festival Theatre while a portrait by Don Rachardy painted in 1962 hangs or is kept in storage at the Australian Portrait Gallery.

Joan Fontaine with husband Brian Aherne
Joan Fontaine isn’t as fresh as she was in Rebecca in Frenchman’s Creek
Fontaine would win the Oscar for Suspicion (1941)

The third movie based on a du Maurier novel was not a Hitchcock movie and is a kind of woman’s fantasy which has Fontaine as its star once again as the heroine. This time the movie was shot in colour and is called Frenchman’s Creek (1944). Fontaine looks older in this movie and is no longer the girl of Rebecca… slightly tarnished though she is in Frenchman’s Creek she still has a sexuality or the sexuality of an older married woman and so fits the part rather well. He incidentally had been married for about five years to the actor Brian Aherne (1902-86 heart failure) which would end the following year which may have something to do with Fontaine’s faded looks. I prefer her freshness in Rebecca but it was her in between role the following year in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) which won her the Oscar.

As I mentioned Mitchell Leisen directed and so Frenchman’s Creek looks good and there is a mansion with flowing front steps which was somewhere in the north of California standing in for Cornwall. What is wrong with the movie is the lack of star-power in terms of the male leads. The story which has married Fontaine running off with a French pirate in his galleon has Ralph Forbes (1904-51) as her husband and former Mexican matinee idol Arturo de Cordova (1908-73 stroke) as the pirate.

Suspicion (1941) trailer
Arturo de Cordova (left) and Joan Fontaine in Frenchman’s Creek (1944)
Fontaine and de Cordova have a cola together

Also in the cast is Basil Rathbone (1892-1967 heart attack) and Nigel Bruce (1895-1953 heart attack) who were most famous for their pairing as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for a dozen or so movies. This is the only film where they appear together but not in those iconic roles. You may be disappointed by Frenchman’s Creek but it is passable gloss.

Author Frank Baker or Francis Beker (1908-82 cancer) wrote the novel The Birds in 1936 and when the movie came out in 1963, said to have been based on a du Maurier’s 1952 short story, Baker threatened to sue since several elements on the book appeared to have been copied from his original story. This was not the first time that du Maurier had been threatened with plagiarism as Rebecca appeared to substantially resemble a novel by a Brazilian writer. That was a far more important and epic case but in the end the Rebecca case was dismissed in court due to the fact that the plot and characters and dialogue were seen as hackneyed and common enough not to warrant further litigation.

Director Mitchell Leisen
One of du Maurier’s notebooks in which she wrote her novels.
Daphne and her sisters were all successful

As for The Birds, it had the financial muscle of Universal studios behind it and the fact that Davies reportedly only sold 350 copies… He was also du Maurier’s cousin and may have mentioned the plot to her once upon a time. Du Maurier’s short story was a part of her short story collection named The Apple Tree and the story was also set in Cornwall.

Those who know the movie well are probably well aware the story in set in Bodega Bay somewhere in America and I won’t go into detail about this movie except to say that one of my favourite scenes concerns a book which is open beside the bed of one of the victims of ‘The Birds’ about mid-way through the movie… and the victim has his eyes pecked out and there are two black holes in the eye sockets where the eyes are supposed to be. It’s a classic and twisted moment of black humour from The Master of Suspense.

The Birds (1963) trailer
du Maurier was accused of stealing ideas for The Birds in her short story collection
Later came another Cornish based novel and film

Lest we forget du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1952) starring Richard Burton (1925-84) and Fontaine’s sister Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020). Again, like Rebecca, it garnered some Oscar attention for its quality production as its Cornwall set story sold to Twentieth Century-Fox for $80,000. It is said that Burton and de Havilland didn’t get along as the actress, who was making her first movie after a hiatus of three years, insisted everyone call her ‘Miss de Havilland’ on set rather that ‘Livvie’ as she used to be called. It was Burton’s first movie in America and so there is a kind of link with Jamaica Inn and the only movie directed by Emlyn Williams.

I should also mention how Hitchcock was such an influence on Orson Welles… Take for instance the letter ‘R’ on the pillows which burn at the end of Rebecca and compare this to the ‘R’ that burns on the sled at the end of Citizen Kane (1941) the following year.

So, there we have it. My favourite would have to be a choice between Jamaica Inn and Rebecca but most of all I admire the horror of The Birds.

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