Foreign Correspondent (1940)
I was fortunate to talk to Joel McCrea’s son Peter who gave me access to unpublished interviews that he conducted with his dad. I’ve updated this review with those behind-the-scenes stories and memories. Thank you, Peter!
After Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca (1940), he turned to a war movie as his next project. Foreign Correspondent was “based” on Vincent Sheean’s 1935 memoir Personal History, but this movie has very little in common with the book.
Fourteen different writers worked to transform the book into a movie, and obviously the book doesn’t have Joel McCrea (The Most Dangerous Game, The More the Merrier, The Palm Beach Story, Barbary Coast, Primrose Path, Sullivan’s Travels) in it. Therefore, I prefer the movie.
This is one of many Hitchcock films I’ve written about (Dial M for Murder, Rebecca, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, Spellbound), and it might be the weakest. The tone is at times disjointed, and a major plot device is confusing and eventually irrelevant, but it’s still fun.
This movie was filmed in early 1940 and takes place on the brink of WWII. Hitchcock wanted to support the British war effort, so it’s a ra-ra British, no-no Fascism film, but all in a very vague way. It’s fascinating to watch since it’s a WWII movie filmed at the very beginning of the war. They don’t know what’s coming…
Then we see this handsome devil making paper snowflakes.He has to stop his important business when the editor (Harry Davenport, Meet Me in St. Louis) of his newspaper calls him in. Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) thinks he is going to be fired, but actually his editor wants to send him to Europe. The editor wants a hard-nosed, normal reporter who can get the scoop on the coming war. Johnny’s up for anything:
Johnny has no idea what is happening in Europe, but that’s why the editor wants him. Johnny even asks if he should ask Hitler some questions, since “Surely he’s got something on his mind.” His editor smiles, changes Johnny’s name to Huntley Haverstock, and sends him across the ocean.
Hitchcock felt that Rebecca didn’t have enough humor, so he made sure that this movie has some jokes, despite the subject matter. A running gag concerns McCrea’s British bowler hat. His nephew steals his first bowler before the ocean liner sails, then another one blows off in the wind, and another is left in a cab. He finally gives up on the bowler hat and returns to his old snap brim fedora. But not before he plays at being a Londoner with an umbrella and bowler in his jammies.
According to Joel McCrea’s interviews, he felt very fortunate to be cast in this part: “It was a big, plum picture, big budget, big everything, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.” The cast was great, too: “I was with all of these people, the only cowboy star, and they were a little surprised that they happened to cast it that way. That’s why it was perfect casting. They all thought Cary Grant…well he wouldn’t have been right. As great as he is, as good looking and everything, he wasn’t Johnny Jones. They needed an unsophisticated American.”
I must agree. Cary Grant playing around with a bowler hat and umbrella, and pretending to be a worldly foreign correspondent would not have had the same humorous, fish-out-of-water charm that “cowboy star” Joel McCrea lends to the part.
“Haverstock” meets with another foreign correspondent, played by Robert Benchley. Haverstock learns that his first assignment is to get the scoop on the Dutch diplomat Van Meer, who knows about a super-secret clause in a peace treaty.
Fun fact: Van Meer (Albert Basserman, a well-known German actor who left Germany after Hitler came to power) spoke limited English so he learned his lines phonetically. (Fifteen years later, Hitchcock would employ another non-English speaker as Bertani in To Catch a Thief, but his lines were dubbed.)
Another fun fact: In Joel McCrea’s interviews, he remembers being completely fascinated by Basserman and his acting prowess. During this scene in the cab, McCrea actually missed his cue because he was totally drawn in to what Basserman was saying: “It came to my line and I was just sitting there. Hitchcock said, ‘Isn’t that your line?’ I said, ‘I guess so. I’ve been watching this man. I’m going to take acting lessons.’ Basserman looked at me and said, ‘Thank you.’ We became friends.”
Johnny arrives and loses track of Van Meer. He is, understandably, confused to hear Mr. Fisher (Herbert Marshall) announce that Van Meer had to journey unexpectedly to Amsterdam and won’t be at their conference…You can watch the scene here (it starts with Hitchcock’s cameo.)
Speaking of Hitchcock, McCrea enjoyed working with the director, and recalled that “Hitchcock was great to me, always…I never had any trouble with him. He was never hard and always just charming to me.”
According to McCrea’s interviews, Hitchcock invited McCrea, his wife Frances Dee, and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard to dinner. “He had rented a house in Bel Air, an estate that Carole had rented before him and Howard Hawks before that, a big high rent place. They had pheasants and all kinds of wild birds. I brought him a dozen eggs from the ranch, and they were so great he got rid of all the exotic birds and put chickens in there.”
I love that combination of movie-star power couples, massive estates, pheasants, and fresh eggs from the McCrea ranch!
Johnny is certainly intrigued by the announcement that Basserman isn’t present, but he’s more interested in lovely Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), the daughter of the peace organizer. He likes her even though she’s wearing a doily hat (the high end department store I. Magnin and Company supplied Miss Day’s clothes for this film.)
He also has the waiter send her little notes that get mixed up with her speech notes.Well, he certainly goes after what he wants…Johnny travels to Amsterdam in a “foreign correspondent trench coat” to get his interview with Van Meer. He waits on the steps of a rainy Amsterdam building amongst lovely, glossy black umbrellas.
For instance, Basserman was concerned about filming this scene with all the stairs.
He asked McCrea, “‘Is it safe for me? I am seventy-six years of age and I don’t know about these dolly things when they are going up the steps and they are doing things.’ I said, ‘Well, you just watch and see what they are going to do. And if you don’t feel right in it, just tell them you won’t do it. You won’t walk up there. You don’t have to do it.'”
McCrea seems to have been very cognizant of the mechanics of movie-making and stunts. In his interviews, he often talks about performing his stunts and working with stuntmen. This comes out most often when he’s discussing his western films; he knew the importance of having a good horse, of taking care of the animals, minimizing risks, and not asking for the impossible. Basserman walking up the steps is not quite as dramatic as riding a horse down a cliff, but it doesn’t surprise me that McCrea was willing to help Basserman negotiate the situation.
Anyway, all seems fine, if a little strange. Then a photographer steps out of the crowd, but what is that next to his camera? Oh, dear.
The poor old man tumbles down the stairs. The assassin disappears into the crowd, but Johnny is on his tail! You can watch it here.
Fun fact: this Amsterdam square was a $200,000 set built on ten-acres. Since it’s raining in this scene, the set was built with a huge drainage system that would allow it to “rain.”
The assassin jumps into a getaway car, but fortuitously (there are some hard-to-believe coincidences), Carol Fisher and Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, Rebecca) appear out of nowhere in a car and Johnny hops in.
They follow the assassin to a field of windmills, while Scott ffolliot explains that his name begins with two lowercase ffs because one of his ancestors was beheaded by Henry VIII, and his wife dropped the capital letter in his memory. Which makes no sense.
They arrive by the windmills but the assassin’s car has disappeared. So they stand around joking.
They’re awfully lighthearted for having just witnessed an assassination and embarking on an intense car chase. They act as though they are having a picnic. It’s odd. You can watch the scene here.
Johnny sees something suspicious in one of the windmills, so he sends Scott and Carol to get the police while he investigates. Foolish.
Johnny sneaks into the windmill and finds a bunch of suspicious men, including the assassin. The windmill set, designed by Alexander Golitzen and legendary set designer William Cameron Menzies, provides some great shots for hiding and near-capture, and the whole thing is beautifully shot by cinematographer Rudolph Maté.
Then poor Johnny’s trench coat gets caught in the gears, but he doesn’t lose his head, or his coat. Whew! The set had to built with working gears just for these moments!He finds something highly interesting in the windmill…but no spoilers! Suffice it to say that the assassination is much more complex than it originally appears, and it involves spies, essential treaties, secrets galore, and potentially world war.
…And he remains excessively interested in Miss Carol Fisher. But the bad guys are after him, so that complicates matters. He does cause a bit of a stir when he evades some bad guys by climbing into Carol’s bathroom in just his socks and robe.
He convinces her to go back to London, so they spend the night on the deck of a fully booked ship, wrapped up in blankets and chatting about how much they love each other. But Hitchcock adds some humor:
I’m not entirely sure when they fell in love, but just accept it.
Hitchcock’s first choice for the lovers was Gary Cooper and Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), but he got McCrea and Laraine Day. (Gary Cooper later said he wished he hadn’t turned down the film). Day was famous as Nurse Mary in the Dr. Kildare movies, and in 1941 she was voted “star of tomorrow,” though it didn’t really pan out.
McCrea recalled of his co-star: “She gave a good performance, but she was never very big. I liked her, but Sanders used to scare her.” Apparently Sanders turned his wit on Day and teased her, kindly, says McCrea, throughout the production. For instance, Sanders would make up dirty limericks to shock his prim co-star…
Even though Carol and Johnny are back in London, they aren’t safe. Danger lurks in the most unlikely places, and you can’t trust anyone. Spies and traitors are everywhere!
This guy (Edmund Gwenn, who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)) pushes Johnny off a church tower:
Or does he?
Although I find the plot less than gripping in this film, (a secret clause in a treaty that seems to really have no relevance or impact on anything but is still somehow vital? and characters who are alternately terrified and enjoying themselves immensely?) it has some very interesting shots.
The umbrellas in Amsterdam are beautiful, the assassination is unusual and chilling, the windmill scene is gorgeous and weird, and the “push” off the tower is very well done. There’s a terrifying torture scene that we hear but do not directly see; instead Hitchcock shows us the faces of people watching the torture, and it’s highly effective.
The greatest scene, though, is a plane crash in the ocean. A German destroyer mistakenly fires on a passenger plane containing all our major characters. It’s really frightening and anguished, not at all goofy the way some old special effects sequences can be. It’s disturbing to watch. Amazing what one can do with stock footage, a big tank, rice paper, and water chutes!
McCrea remembers how unpleasant it was to film this scene: “Every morning for about a week, they’d come at us and I’d say, “All right, wet us down.” They would shoot the hoses on us with our clothes on. It was in March and it was cold on the sound stage. It was an uncomfortable, miserable kind of a feeling.”
This was an elaborate, expensive scene to shoot but they did so ingeniously. Hitchcock later described how they filmed the moment of impact using rear projection and a tank: “There’s one shot so unusual that it’s rather surprising that the technicians never bothered to question how it was done. That’s when the plane is diving down toward the sea because its engines are crippled.”
“The camera is inside the cabin, above the shoulders of the two pilots who are trying to pull the plane out of the dive. Between them, through the glass cabin window, we can see the ocean coming closer. And then, without a cut, the plane hits the ocean and the water rushes in, drowning the two men. That whole thing was done in a single shot, without a cut! I had a transparency screen made of paper, and behind that screen, a water tank. The plane dived, and as soon as the water got close to it, I pressed the button and the water burst through, tearing the screen away. The volume was so great that you never saw the screen.”
Fun fact: a special tub had to be built within the larger tank to accommodate Herbert Marshall in this scene. He’d lost a leg in WWI, and couldn’t swim.
Another fun fact: It was typical practice for the studio to supply costumes for actresses, but actors had to bring their own clothes unless it was a historical film or specialty piece. McCrea wore his own suits for this film, and the tweed suit he wears in the plane crash caused a bit of tension between producer Walter Wanger and McCrea.
After days of wearing the wet tweed, scrambling in and out of the plane, and pushing and pulling other actors, the suit shrunk and the lining got loose. Since it was a plane crash scene, the wardrobe people also “pulled [the suit] in different places and did different things with it.”
After they’d finished filming the plane crash, the wardrobe man asked McCrea, “‘What are you going to do about your suit? It’s worthless now.’ [McCrea] said, ‘Put it in the wardrobe department and use it if you have tramps or bums or something.’ [The wardrobe man] said, ‘But you ought to put in for a new suit. They’ve wrecked that suit. You’re only supposed to furnish modern wardrobe, but they’re not supposed to be able to wreck it.’
McCrea went to Wanger and asked that he replace the ruined suit. Wanger said, “Oh, come on. You’re making $10,000 a week. What do you care for a $150 suit?” McCrea answered, “Well, it’s just the idea of it. Everybody does it. The cheapest little Poverty Row studios do it.” McCrea wasn’t asking for anything crazy; as he remembers, “I had been in pictures long enough to know,” so he didn’t back down.
But Wanger didn’t back down, either. Wanger told McCrea’s wardrobe man that, “I’m not going to get him a suit. He can furnish that much towards the thing.” Naturally, McCrea didn’t like that: “I don’t think that’s right. It’s a custom. You’ve got it, it’s in the wardrobe, it isn’t any good to me.”
Meanwhile, they finished filming Foreign Correspondent. But soon Wanger called the company back to shoot some new scenes. He wanted McCrea to work for two more weeks. McCrea was contractually obligated to work ten weeks, which he had done. So they had some negotiating to do for this extra time.
Wanger asked McCrea to work the two weeks for free. McCrea didn’t like that offer, but he told Wanger that he would waive his typical $10,000 a week salary and do the two weeks work if Wanger would replace the $150 suit. McCrea thought that Wanger would happily buy him a new suit, which would save Wanger $19,850 in salary.
But Wanger was stubborn and refused. McCrea said, “You stick by what you want and I’ll stick by what I want,” and he refused to work for free. Eventually, Wanger caved, but not about the suit! He agreed to pay McCrea his usual salary for the two weeks.
McCrea remembers: “I got $120,000 for the picture instead of $100,000, because Wanger wouldn’t replace a $150 suit. I went to Mariani and Davis and bought a couple of expensive suits. I did it all laughing the way he laughed about the suit.”
He recalls that Wanger was angry for a while, but McCrea would throw him this line, “I can buy a nice tweed suit for that,” and Wanger eventually laughed.
Foreign Correspondent finished shooting at the end of May, 1940. In July, when word came from England that the Germans were expected to start bombing at any moment, they shot a new ending for the film. (Originally, the movie ended with ffolliot telling Johnny that the Germans will probably cover up everything that happened.)
In the second ending, Johnny speaks in a London radio station, warning the world of what is happening as bombs fall on London.
Fun fact: Peter McCrea remembers his dad asking John Ford, who was shooting on a neighboring set, for his input on the final scene. “Ford suggested he start lower and slower and build to a crescendo. The genius director was right–it worked perfectly.”
Here’s Johnny’s final warning, delivered during a bomb raid:
“I can’t read the rest of the speech I had, because the lights have gone out, so I’ll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear isn’t static – it’s death, coming to London. Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out, hang on a while – this is a big story, and you’re part of it. It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come… as if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!”
They shot the scene on July 5, and on July 10 the real bombing began…
This film was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Supporting Actor for Albert Basserman, Best Art Direction, Best Special Photographic Effects, Best Sound, and Best Original Screenplay. It’s a fascinating, memorable movie just because of when it was made, and Hitchcock’s flourishes and Joel McCrea’s excellence certainly don’t hurt, either. Plus, John Wayne dropped by during filming!
Thank you to Joel McCrea’s son Peter for allowing me to incorporate his dad’s interviews in this review!
P.S. If you’d like to know more about actual foreign correspondents in WWII, I highly recommend Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle.