Written By: Bill Syken
Rebecca is a modern classic. Since Daphne du Maurier’s gothic romance novel came out in 1938, it has been made into a movie five times—with the most recent version debuting this fall on Netflix, starring Lily James, Armie Hammer, and Kristin Scott Thomas. The story also been adapted for television and turned into a stage play, musical and opera.
The most enduring of all the adaptations may be the first film version in 1940, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and whose production was chronicled in LIFE. Joan Fontaine played the story’s nameless narrator, who marries a widower and moves into his grand home, called Manderley. Judith Anderson took on the memorable role of Manderley’s menacing housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, while Laurence Olivier played the widower, Maxim de Winter. The movie was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and, given that Rebecca is set on the coast of Cornwall in southwest England, it is a small irony that the movie was the film that first brought Hitchcock to California.
The story on the making of Rebecca in the Nov. 20, 1939 issue of LIFE bore the headline “England’s best and biggest director goes Hollywood,“ and talked about how Hitchcock, who had made his name with The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, was perfectly suited to adapt the popular novel: “The sadistic cruelty which Mrs. Danvers…manifests toward the second Mrs. de Winter is the sort of thing which brings roses to Mr. Hitchcock’s rather extensive cheeks and induces his most malevolently cherubic expression.”
Rebecca is a kind of haunted house story, and the house itself is central to the book and the movie— “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” is the novel’s opening line. In creating Manderley, author du Maurier was inspired by a Cornwall home called Menabilly, where as a child she used to wander its expansive grounds.
As an adult the successful author did more than wander about Menabilly—she occupied it. In its Sept. 11, 1944 issue LIFE wrote about how du Maurier, after the success of Rebecca, had moved into the house that inspired her writing.
Menabilly had 70 rooms, and when she came to rent it in 1943, the house had been unoccupied for 20 years and had no furniture or electricity. Du Maurier moved in with her husband—then a Lieutenant General in the allied armed forces—and their three children, ages 3 to 11, and they only occupied one wing of the home, using just 11 rooms.
The author moving into a big house that is both laden with meaning and devoid of life sounds like it could the premise for a whole new suspense novel, and even before learning that Menabilly was supposedly haunted by two ghosts—a cavalier and a lady in blue. But, LIFE reported, “the children were happily undisturbed by the threat of spooks and Miss du Maurier is thoroughly contented in her real counterpart of unhappy Manderley.”
Enjoy these photos of Daphne du Maurier, the making of the movie Rebecca, and her moving into the home that inspired Manderley.