She appears out of nowhere and steps ever closer, directly toward the camera, invading our space in a familiar Hitchcock point-of-view shot. This woman is queen of the household, a menacing, judgmental figure at first sight, disapproving of the rain-drenched young woman invading sacred space. She is Mrs. Danvers played by Judith Anderson (1897-1992) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca begins with the idyllic courtship of the aristocratic Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and an innocent young woman who will become the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine). The story that matters in the film, however, takes place in Manderley, the sprawling estate of the de Winter family. Maxim is it’s lord and master, the young, dashing, if brooding heir to the de Winter fortune, but it’s Mrs. Danvers, the first Mrs. de Winter’s personal maid and confidant, that rules the roost and guards the memories that lay within Manderley’s walls. She guards the memories, but not the secrets. The secrets are guarded by another and the story involves the unveiling of these until they end obsession and free the ghosts that haunt.
As a housekeeper Mrs. Danvers cannot be beat. She ensures every inch of Manderley is in order, that every maid and butler stay in step. Danvers is the boss of Manderley and its shadows and with singular determination makes her presence known until embers burn shadows. She is loyal beyond death, obsessed with her lady, Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers ensures every facet of Rebecca’s life is given its rightful place as she summons the ghost of her mistress at every turn. Danvers illustrates the depth of her love to the second Mrs. de Winter when the young woman dares step foot in Rebecca’s bedroom suite in Manderley’s west wing. The rooms sit as Rebecca left them, every personal item in place, every embroidered “R” perfectly set. Danvers lures the second Mrs. de Winter with the lust for what she can no longer have. There are strong sexual overtones in the scene as the housekeeper caresses Rebecca’s fur, strokes her underwear, and gently displays her hand through a negligee, her eyes glazing over as she recalls with intimacy the life and rituals of her beloved Rebecca.
The second Mrs. de Winter is horrified as Mrs. Danvers relives memories of Rebecca, and for a moment seems determined to make her mark as the lady of the house. “I am Mrs. de Winter now” she tells a mildly stunned Mrs. Danvers in a subsequent scene. Danvers, however, gets the upper hand immediately by suggesting the second Mrs. de Winter wear a gown that Rebecca had worn to a costume ball. Mrs. Danvers is manipulative and spiteful in her ever impeccable domesticity. She knows the young ingénue cannot compare to the worldly woman whose presence dominates Manderley beyond the grave.
After the upsetting costume ball scene the second Mrs. de Winter is humiliated by a presence she is unable to compete with. Mrs. Danvers moves in on her in the best scene in the film for this fan, a casual display of evil delivered so effortlessly that it is beautiful despite its horror. Devastated by her husband’s reaction to her costume, the second Mrs. de Winter falls helpless on a bed. Danvers is there to take advantage of the situation and suggests to the tormented young woman, “You need a little air, madame.” As the second Mrs. de Winter sobs Danvers opens the drapes, gets the woman to stand by the window while reminding her she has nothing to live for. It’s a brilliantly-acted, quiet, and terrifying scene with Danvers at her worst.
Rebecca is a fascinating film and much can be said about its complex story and characters. The film’s music, cinematography, and supporting cast are all well worth your time. It’s backstory too is compelling as it is an important film in the careers of its director and stars. I am leaving the commentary on the film for another day, however. Today is for Mrs. Danvers and the Butlers & Maids Blogathon though she is so much more than a mere domestic. Mrs. Danvers makes her entrance in Rebecca about 30 minutes into the film, and never leaves your mind thereafter.
Judith Anderson received her only Academy Award nomination for her work in Rebecca, one of the film’s 11 nominations. Recognized as a superb stage actress, Anderson began her feature film career with Rowland Brown’s Blood Money in 1933. She followed that with Rebecca, her most famous outing, which led to memorable supporting turns in Preminger’s Laura (1944), Walsh’s Pursued (1947), and Nimoy’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) in which she plays a Vulcan high priestess at the age of 87. Judith Anderson makes an impact in all her film appearances thanks to an impressive talent, her unconventional beauty, and a look that can render an opponent incapable of speaking. Her roles are of strong, determined women as she herself stated, “I may play demons, but I’ve never played a wimp!” With those qualities Anderson was able to conquer all medium of entertainment with over seven decades on stage and a wonderful 3-decades on television. In 1960 Judith Anderson was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to the performing arts.
By 1939 Anderson was well immersed in stage success. That year she received glowing reviews for her work in Family Portrait, a play by Lenore Coffee and William Joyce Cohen at the Morosco Theatre in New York. Although stellar reviews were nothing new for Anderson by that point, these would prove particularly important as they reached the desk of David O. Selznick. The famed producer was looking for an actress to play the housekeeper in Rebecca, the movie that was to follow his much-publicized Gone With the Wind.
Both Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock recognized the importance of Mrs. Danvers to Rebecca and several actresses were seriously considered for the role. Among these were Alla Nazimova, Eily Malyon, Constance Collier, and leading contender Flora Robson who played the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights (1939). Lucky for all of us, Robson refused to test for Mrs. Danvers, which left the part open for Anderson. Her hiring was announced in a press release from Selznick International Pictures, “Judith Anderson Wins Role of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.” David O. Selznick immediately sent Judith Anderson one of his infamous memos, “do not pluck your eyebrows.”
Released by United Artists in 1940, Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock’s first American-made film and the only one that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. He regarded it as “not a Hitchcock film” and I do too for a few reasons, but Mrs. Danvers is all his and Judith Anderson’s. One can almost hear his direction and see her rigid, impressive, perfectly-postured frame making it all happen. Rebecca remains highly regarded in all circles and Judith Anderson’s portrayal of Mrs. Danvers is legendary. Reviews hailed her performance as one for the ages and it is. She is able to make your hairs stand on end with the mere crossing of her arms. The chief of staff of majordomos, the queen of maids, a chilling viper of a woman, Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is an unforgettable menace.
Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage by Desley Deacon
- Mrs. Danvers will play prominently in an upcoming post on coded gay characters at The Last Drive In. Keep your eyes open for that.
- In February 1941 Judith Anderson reprised Mrs. Danvers for a Lux Radio Theatre presentations alongside Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino.
- Two of Cloris Leachman’s portrayals in Mel Brooks films are said to have been influenced by Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers: Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein (1974) and Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety (1977)
- Judith Anderson’s is the definitive Mrs. Danvers, but the character was portrayed by several other actors in subsequent TV adaptations including such notables as Nina Foch in 1962, Anna Massey in 1979, and Diana Rigg in 1997.
- Vicki Lawrence plays “Mrs. Dampers” in the 1972 production of Rebecky on “The Carol Burnett Show”