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    Christmas Presents of 1952 – Part Three

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Running 65 years ago today in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther’s affirmative-with-mild-reservations review of the newly opened screen adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s romantic period thriller My Cousin Rachel (1952) reported: “In this agreeable creation, Olivia de Havilland does a dandy job of playing the soft and gracious Rachel with just a fain suggestion of the viper’s tongue. But it is really Richard Burton, an English actor new to Hollywood, who gives the most fetching performance as the young gentleman of the doubts and storms. Mr. Burton, lean and handsome, is the perfect hero of Miss du Maurier’s tale. His outbursts of ecstasy and torment are in the grand romantic style.” Another appraisal soon afterward in Films in Review asserted: “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.” Those assessments of the work of Welshman Burton – as well as an Academy Award® nomination (his first of an eventual career seven) for his performance – seemed to validate the judgment of the film’s originally intended director George Cukor. In his biography A Double Life: George Cukor, Patrick McGilligan reported: “The director was exuberant about the prospects – he said he loved the book – and on his own time and money, while on trips abroad, he scouted locations. He boned up enthusiastically on Cornish history. As was his custom, he met with the author for her advice and suggestions, and while in England interviewed and tested Richard Burton for the male lead.” But Cukor had a falling-out with studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck and screenwriter-producer Nunnally Johnson about potential title-role impersonators – v Vivien Leigh and Greta Garbo, previous collaborators with Cukor, each thought about it but eventually said no, before Zanuck signed de Havilland, whom Cukor thought not a good match for the part – and reservations about Johnson’s adaptation, so he bowed out and was replaced by Henry Koster. Johnson was at least pleased by Cukor’s recruitment of Burton, as he would later enthuse: “He was wonderful in the picture, and he’s the kind of man you look at and you know this is quality, this is a real fellow with passion. It was inescapable. If he opened a door, if he turned a knob, it wasn’t like Conrad Nagel turning a knob. He turned the knob with his whole being.” 

    According to The Private World of Daphne du Maurier author Martyn Shallcross, “Richard Burton was excited at the idea of making his first American film and he enjoyed the fun of going to Los Angeles. Everything was one big adventure for him as he and his first wife, the Welsh actress Sybil Williams, were exposed to Hollywood. What chiefly pleased him was the enormous amount of money he was paid to act in My Cousin Rachel. Sally Burton, his widow, remembered that he used to say he ‘went out with empty suitcases, and returned home with them full of food and presents.’” It would even involve a break from soundstage work at Fox’s Hollywood studios for some location footage back home in England. Shallcross recounts: “Brook Williams (Emlyn Williams’s son and Richard Burton’s godson) told me: ‘In order to film exterior scenes of horse-riding in the Cornish countryside, and the rolling, crushing waves on the Cornish coastline, Richard went to Cornwall with Bluey Hill, the first assistant director, who had to make sure they did not shoot any telegraph poles or whatever. Richard was riding across a field in full period costume and everything was going fine, when suddenly a farmer appeared out of nowhere shouting, ‘Git off my bloody land!’ Richard told him that he was sorry, and that they were shooting a film. The farmer, getting more angry, replied, ‘I don’t care what you’re shooting,’ and fired his double-barreled shotgun into the air. Richard’s horse bolted, and off they went toward the horizon, with Bluey and the camera following behind. Though Richard was a reasonable rider, he could not control the horse. I wonder how many of the startled people who saw an unknown actor on a horse, completely out of control, charging through villages and across fields, ever realized later that it was the famous Richard Burton?’” My Cousin Rachel, representing Burton’s first breaking out of the pack of rising young screen actors, brings him back into the Twilight Time fold following the previous sold-out releases of the hi-def Blu-rays of Equus (1977), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) and the label’s inaugural DVD release of an older transfer of My Cousin Rachel. Nominated for four Academy Awards®, the picture returns in Fox’s brand-new 4K restoration transfer arriving on 1080p Blu-ray January 23. Extras include an Isolated Track of the shimmering Franz Waxman score and a vintage 1953 Lux Radio Theater adaptation with de Havilland. Preorders open January 10. (Starring in another marvelous looking TT disc, 1956’s Alexander the Great, Burton retains firmly in charge of Bucephalus.)