TBT: My Cousin Rachel (1952)


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).

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

You sir, are an ass.

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.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

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.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Men, feh.

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).

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Cinnamon buns!

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!

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Nice to meet you, here, let me hike my skirt over my shoulder.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Catalog image of that costume (un-hiked).

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Gorgeous black evening gown with sheer, spangled sleeves.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

But she apparently needs to bunch up handfuls of her skirt for dramatic emphasis in this scene.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Let me give you back the family jewels.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

But first, I need to wad up my skirts into a ball.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

I will note that if you’re going to do a head necklace, this is how it’s done — tiny, delicate, and with evening wear in the 1830s.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Yep, more skirt hiking, coming and going.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Catalog image of that gown. Not sure how it’s supposed to be 1830s tho.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Let’s note the scene — nice, flat garden path. Louise walks down towards Philip. No skirt hiking.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Rachel follows — we can see you, Ms. de Havilland! — with your skirt hiked up to your waist.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Check out Olivia de Havilland’s pointy 1950s’ shoes too.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

La de da, so much skirts, I just don’t know what to do with them!

My Cousin Rachel (1952)




Have you seen 1952’s My Cousin Rachel? Are you interested in the 2017 remake or not?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

4 Responses

  1. Lyn

    Burton was star of the month recently on TCM so I had the oppty to see My Cousin Rachel among many other of his films. I enjoyed it but yeah, Phillip annoyed me just like Heathcliffe always does. I shamefully admit to missing (or failing to be annoyed by) the skirt hiking…maybe because it’s so ubiquitous in films (along with too-long skirts dragging in the dirt and mud).
    Thanks for the review. What are your predictions for the new version?

  2. Katie

    Thanks for doing this review! I love the novel and the film. Nice atmosphere. Great cast. Shame about the skirt hiking…

    I’m REALLY looking forward to the new version of this. I hope to see it tomorrow, actually. I almost never see films in the theater, but am making the rare exception since I love this novel so much.

  3. Adina

    You can also see the really pointy 1950s bra shape in the last picture. 1830s corsets did start to give more definition to the bust, but it wasn’t enough to poke your eye out.

  4. Karen K.

    Question about the Princess Leia hair — was that period correct for the 1830s? I thought they mostly wore dangly curls on either side of the face, covering the ears. Did not know that they did the cinnamon-bun look back then. Also it must have been annoying as hell having your hair over your ears like that, it would make me nuts.