These notes on My Cousin Rachel were written by Matt St. John, Cinematheque Project Assistant and Programmer, and PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of My Cousin Rachel will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series honoring the centennial of Olivia de Havilland on Sunday, October 16.
By Matt St. John
In the early 1950s, the American film industry felt pressure from television’s increasing popularity and its potential impact on film going. A January 1953 feature in Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin indicates some reactions to this pressure. The article describes 20th Century-Fox’s film slate as “a shattering answer to the little living room screens,” and it quotes studio head Darryl Zanuck’s claim that his film season “certainly shapes up like the kind of entertainment that can’t be matched on the printed page, on the stage, or in any man’s living room.” While he dismissed the ability of other forms of entertainment to compete with cinema, Zanuck continued to adapt their stories. Along with its promotion of upcoming Biblical epics and Technicolor musicals, the article also notes that the studio kicked off its year with “plenty of aces,” including Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel, a widely promoted adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel.
20th Century-Fox purchased the screen rights to My Cousin Rachel for $80,000 in September 1951, after du Maurier’s literary agent failed to sell them for the original price of $100,000 (plus 5% of worldwide gross). After the book’s American publication in early 1952, however, the trades reported that two British production companies and one in the United States attempted to buy the screen rights from Fox—the property became more promising when the novel was another bestseller by du Maurier. Her earlier novel Rebecca was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock to critical acclaim and box office success in 1940, and the new book appeared to have similar potential, with its story of a man who struggles to determine if his deceased cousin’s charming wife is a mourning widow or a heartless murderer. Leading up to the premiere of My Cousin Rachel in December 1952, the studio emphasized its connection to du Maurier, as well as the celebrated lead actress, with ads stating, “Over 31,000,000 readers are waiting to see Olivia de Havilland in Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.”
Audience had waited three years since Olivia de Havilland’s last screen appearance in William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), a performance that won her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. During her break from film acting, she performed in stage productions of Romeo and Juliet and George Bernard Shaw’s Candida to limited success, and her return to film was eagerly anticipated. A highly publicized separation from her husband also added to the interest in de Havilland and her latest performance.
These two characteristics—the return of a major star and the adaptation of a popular novel—made My Cousin Rachel a prestige release for Fox, and critics praised many aspects of the film when it premiered. Variety noted the “compelling performances and a clean touch in its presentation” as highlights, and the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther applauded the “eerie and fateful mood that prevails through this excellent screen translation of Daphne du Maurier's literate romance.” De Havilland’s performance was routinely appreciated by critics, although Richard Burton’s American debut in the film gained even more recognition, as in the Film Bulletin review: “While Miss de Havilland’s performance is another Oscar contender, Richard Burton’s portrayal of her harried young lover is the top role in the film and overshadows even Miss de Havilland’s artistry.” Reviews also emphasize the score and cinematography as particular strengths of the film.
Despite the widespread acclaim for the performances and technical elements of My Cousin Rachel, critics repeatedly pointed to the central mystery’s lack of resolution as a problem, in either their own estimation or the presumed taste of audiences. Variety claimed that the film’s box office would depend in part on “how readily the general public will accept the responsibility for solving the main theme’s mystery implications,” and Crowther argued more forcefully that the “impulse of ambiguity, which runs all the way through the film and endows it with constant fascination and uninhibited suspense, considerably obliterates the effect when it crashes against the stone wall of the author's deliberate admission of inconclusiveness.”
Even as an anticipated adaptation, with the return of de Havilland and the emergence of Burton as a new star, the film was only a moderate success at the box office with a gross of $1.3 million. Perhaps critics correctly feared the audience reaction to My Cousin Rachel’s ambiguity, yet this quality remains one of the film’s greatest pleasures, alongside the excellent performances and pervasive suspenseful tone. When compared with the frequent use of widescreen formats, 3D, and Technicolor in the early 1950s, My Cousin Rachel may seem like a conventional, old-fashioned film for the period. But its stubborn adherence to an ambiguous story is anything but traditional for a Hollywood narrative, offering a bold approach to a prestige mystery.