On 'Rebecca' and 'Foreign Correspondent,' Hitchcock's 1940 double-shot at Oscar glory
Released in August 1940, four months after "Rebecca," "Foreign Correspondent" was a moderate box-office success, though it didn't quite recoup its substantial budget. So it was more likely its politics than its popularity that impressed the voters enough to net it six Oscar nominations; Hitchcock may have thought it a fantasy, but voters evidently took it rather more seriously. We still annually talk about contenders succeeding in the Oscar race by capturing the zeitgeist: this is as direct an example as you can find of that phenomenon. Together with Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," moreover, it also marks the starting point of the Academy's enduring fascination with WWII stories.
Still, "Foreign Correspondent" entered the 1940 Best Picture race as an also-ran. With war grimly brewing outside the cinemas, the escapist allure of Hitchcock's other film was strong for audiences and voters alike: adult fairy-tale that it was, "Rebecca" delivered another smash hit for Selznick, winding up as the fourth-highest grosser of 1940 (on a list unsurprisingly led by animated fantasies "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia") and nabbing a field-leading haul of 11 nominations.
So the stage was set for Selznick's production to sweep the Oscars again, just as "Gone With the Wind" had the year before. But whether it was down to the strength of the competition or outside-world events, voters found themselves torn between romance and reality -- the latter most strongly represented by "The Grapes of Wrath." Ford's superb adaptation of another recent bestseller, John Steinbeck's rich evocation of 1930s Dust Bowl desperation, had ruled with the New York Film Critics and National Board of Review -- back then, believe it or not, the only Oscar precursors to speak of. (The Globes and the Guilds would only get their act together later in the decade.)
Ford was already an Academy insider -- he'd won in 1935 for "The Informer" -- and his film was too plainly important to let slide: the American director took his second Oscar, while Jane Darwell's heartbreaking turn as Ma Joad bested Judith Anderson in what I hope was a close Supporting Actress race. "Rebecca," meanwhile, took only one award -- for George Barnes's lustrous black-and-white lensing -- on its way to taking Best Picture: it remains the last film to win the top honor without at least one accompanying above-the-line prize.
Joan Fontaine can be considered unlucky not to have won Best Actress; she lost out to a surge of insider support for musical star Ginger Rogers in an against-type dramatic role in "Kitty Foyle" -- also the only reward for Sam Wood's aforementioned Best Picture pair. Only a year later, the Academy evidently felt some remorse, handing Fontaine the award for less memorable work in another Hitchcock suspenser, "Suspicion." It would be, as Kris noted yesterday, the only Oscar-winning performance Hitch ever directed.
Finally, further splintering the Best Picture race was Cukor's "The Philadelphia Story": still one of the tartest and most buoyant of all Hollywood romantic comedies, it frothed up the competition enough to beat both "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Rebecca" to Best Screenplay and Best Actor for James Stewart, himself being compensated for his "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" loss the previous year. (Olivier would get his due for "Hamlet" eight years later.) 1939 is generally regarded as the unimprovable gold standard for the Best Picture category, but its immediate successor doesn't get enough credit. A group that includes "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Philadelphia Story," "The Great Dictator" and "The Letter" -- plus one great Hitchcock film and one good one -- has to count among the Academy's finer hours.
Hitch didn't attend attend the ceremony: it is said that he nervously stayed at home and listened to the radio broadcast, instructing his wife Alma to switch it on again and off again, until his defeat was confirmed. Exasperated, Alma allegedly cried, "For heaven's sake, these are the people who gave an award to Luise Rainer. Twice!" Her husband wasn't too hard done by on this first occasion, but perhaps she knew worse was to come.