With another remake coming based on this Daphne du Maurier novel, I thought I’d look at the first screen adaption, 1952’s My Cousin Rachel. The film stars a young Richard Burton as Philip Ashley, the spoiled, whiney, petulant little shit of a nephew and ward of one wealthy Cornish gentleman, Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton).
Due to the crappy weather in Cornwall, Ambrose goes, alone, to Italy for his health — he has some undisclosed illness. He meets a fabulous woman, a distant relation, the eponymous Rachel (Olivia de Havilland). They have a whirlwind romance and marry, which makes Philip insanely jealous as he learns of this through Ambrose’s letters. Then the letters get weird and paranoid, and as Ambrose’s health declines rapidly, he seems to accuse Rachel of something or maybe they’ve argued. Philip assumes foul play and heads to Florence. He arrives to find that Ambrose has died and been buried (the tombstone helpfully gives the death date as 1838, so we have an idea of when the story takes place). Rachel has left town, so Philip harasses her lawyer, Guido Rainaldi (George Dolenz), who provides a boatload of medical files and legal documents that look pretty legit, but Philip doesn’t care. He’s convinced that Rachel killed Ambrose and is out for his money, even though Ambrose’s will didn’t leave her a penny, it all goes to Philip when he turns 25 in a year.
Soon after Philip goes home to Cornwall, Rachel visits to return some of Ambrose’s things. I have to say, Olivia de Havilland is not only gorgeous here, but she plays this part so smooth, so sly, she rides the line perfectly between innocence and a hint of manipulation that the story is suspenseful and also believable. It’s all on Philip who is shown to be a terrible person from the start. He only cares about himself — when Ambrose leaves, Philip whines about how he’ll be lonely, boo-hoo, not how Ambrose’s health may improve. He doesn’t give one shit about the Kendalls, his lawyer/estate manager and the daughter, Louise (who he romantically toys with), he just uses them. So when Rachel comes along, it’s easy to have sympathy for her situation and see how obviously Philip is making up crap in his head about her to fulfill his own needs. First, he wants to hate her and blame her for Ambrose’s death, then he impetuously falls in love with her, even though Rachel treats him like a step-son, and then Philip decides she’s conning him out of his fortune even though it was 100% his idea to give Rachel money (she never asked, hinted, or suggested).
I don’t want to give away even more of the movie than I already have, but IMO, the moral of the story is: Men who don’t trust women are fucked. And I can only hope the latest remake does as decent a job.
Costumes in My Cousin Rachel
Dorothy Jeakins was nominated for a Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, Oscar for this film, and I’d say it’s well deserved. The 1830s gowns worn by Olivia de Havilland are lush and elaborate, even if they veer wildly from the historical silhouette and details sometimes (I expect this for the 1950s-does-1830s).
Shout-out to Esperanza Corona as hairdresser for this film because those Princess Leia style sidebuns are faaaaaabulous (yes, I know, before Princess Leia was a thing, but that’s what we’re all thinking).
It wouldn’t be Frock Flicks if I didn’t mention one thing though — Ms. de Havilland, OMG, your skirt-hiking was epic! WTF was going on with that? Is it because you were obviously wearing 1950s stiletto shoes with those period gowns and you were paranoid about falling over your skirts? You had been in plenty of historical dramas before, had no-one told you how ugly it looks to grab big bunches of your skirts like that? Didn’t some wardrobe person complain about the wrinkles? Ugh, if I were the director, I’d be yelling from behind the camera for a do-over every damn time!
Have you seen 1952’s My Cousin Rachel? Are you interested in the 2017 remake or not?