by Kathleen Kaska
Film directing in the 1930s was a series of peaks and valleys for British-born Alfred Hitchcock. By 1939, the Master of Suspense had directed twenty-three films in his homeland; but with success came frustration. He was under contract with British International Pictures, and forced to accept film projects that were not to his liking. Many were simply adaptations of novels and plays, and his creativity was stifled by restrictions placed upon him by studio executives.
When he was assigned Waltzes from Vienna, the only musical in his six-decade career, Hitchcock described his work as being at its “lowest ebb.” Producer C. M. Woolf had told Hitch that “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was “utter nonsense.” Many respected and established British film artists refused to take Hitch seriously as a director and felt his films lacked artistic quality. But Hitch thought that if his films were not as imaginative and inventive as the industry claimed, the fault should fall on the producers, not himself. He felt the British film industry had not utilized the latest film techniques and inventions. And he knew this was not the case in America.
With the British economy suffering the effects of the depression, and feeling he had not received the recognition and respect he deserved, Hitchcock decided to go west to Hollywood. His films and talents were already held in high regard there. After he wrapped up production of his last British film, Jamaican Inn, Alfred and Alma Hitchcock sold their home, packed up their belongings, and moved to California. He was forty-one years old. “Outside of England, there is a much more universal concept of life, which one gets by talking with people and even by the manner in which they tell a story.” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936.)
But the transition to Hollywood was not as smooth as Hitchcock had hoped. He signed with Selznick Studios, a film company owned by former MGM executive producer David O. Selznick. As Hitch was delving into his first American film, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, Selznick was focused on only one project: the release and production of what turned out to be Selznick’s masterpiece, Gone With the Wind.
By the time Selznick, stressed and overworked, had finally turned his attention to his new director, Hitchcock was well into the first draft of the script for Rebecca. Selznick and Hitchcock then clashed on almost every aspect of Rebecca’s final draft. Hitchcock had laid out more than a hundred scenes, each with detailed dialogue and action, and accompanied by specific camera directions. The normal Hollywood script at that time did not exceed more than fifty scenes. When Hitchcock turned in the final screenplay, expecting an immediate production schedule, Selznick sent the script back with a note that he was “shocked and disappointed beyond words.” He rejected the entire piece of work and hired playwright Robert E. Sherwood to assist in a rewrite. Hitchcock agreed to work with Sherwood as long as Hitch’s scriptwriter and associate, Joan Harrison, was allowed to collaborate in the effort.In the final version of Rebecca, Hitchcock accepted most of the changes, but put his foot down when the studio wanted to cast David Niven as the lead. Hitchcock felt that Niven’s cavalier attitude was not strong enough to portray the dark and brooding character of Max de Winter. When Laurence Olivier, who’d so successfully portrayed Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, was mentioned as a possible lead, Hitchcock agreed instantly.
Rebecca was released in 1940. The film received eleven Academy Award nominations and won Oscars for best picture and best cinematography.
During the next forty years, Alfred Hitchcock directed and produced thirty films for Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM. He received numerous awards for his achievement in filmmaking, including the Screen Producers Guild’s Milestone Award, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In 1979, the British-American Chamber of Commerce named him Man of the Year.
And the following year, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed on Alfred Hitchcock the honor of Knight Commander of the British Empire. At age eighty, Sir Alfred, only a few months before his death, had finally earned the respect of his fellow Brits he felt he always deserved.
“There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1980)