"Foreign Correspondent" — A "Masterpiece of Propaganda"

Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) evades the Germans, er, the Borovians, by escaping through a window in the windmill where he's trapped.

During World War I, Walter Wanger handled publicity for the American embassy in Rome. It was there that he got his first taste of the propagandistic power of film. Later, he said,
"Believing in motion pictures as an international force, I really wanted to see our work become a respected calling. I thought it was almost as important as the State Department."
When the war ended, he returned to Hollywood as a producer and never lost his patriotic zeal. Though he usually dealt in more lighthearted fare, such as the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (1929), that sensibility remained. Then again, it's hard to think of another film of that period half as subversive as that film, with Harpo's surrealist antics subverting pretty much everything he came near. 

Soon enough, the Nazified Germans were rattling their Spears of Destiny in Europe—and in 1936, seeking a way to counter their influence, Wanger purchased real-life foreign correspondent Vincent Sheean's Personal History. For the couple of years, he burned through a busload of writers and over $140,000 trying, and failing, to adapt that memoir for the screen. Then he met Alfred Hitchcock. As mentioned in yesterday's post, Wanger greatly desired that the script be kept as topical as possible to reflect the current developments of the conflict heating up in Europe. At that same time Hitchcock was donating money and creative efforts to counter the German threat, all on the sly. Maybe, for his quiet activities he felt a bit like Foreign Correspondent's heavy, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall): "I have fought for my country, in my heart, in a very difficult way. Because sometimes it is harder to fight dishonourably than nobly in the open." In any case, he saw Wanger's project as an opportunity to do even more—and in grand Hollywood fashion. 

Hitch jumped at the chance to work with the producer and set about with Charles Bennett on an adaptation aimed at raising alarm for the gathering storm. As was their style, they tossed out most of the contents of the book and eventually named the finished product Foreign Correspondent. There was, however, one snag. In a move intended to keep America from getting involved in foreign wars, the United States Congress had signed the American Neutrality Act, preventing studios from making films that reflected a non-neutral position. Still, Hitch and Wanger had something to say, and they weren't about to let a few politicians stop them from saying it. Like any self-respecting director/producer team, they gleefully set about looking for ways to get around the act's enforcers—the stooges over at the Hays Office' Motion Picture Code.

As Patrick McGilligan wrote in his 2003 biography, Alfred Hitchcock—A Life in Darkness and Light, "From the outset of the project, the director and his new producer got along like co-conspirators." Prohibited from referring directly to the real-life threat, the team developed a strategy of thinly veiled references. Sometimes the veil was practically see-through. The villains were identified as the fictitious Borovians, intent on forcing England into war—just as the Germans were, as anyone who read a newspaper would know. 

Brainstorming with his editor about news sources he should develop in Europe, the reporter, Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) naively suggests Hitler—not as a threat but as an interview subject. "Don't you think it would be a good idea to pump him? He must have something on his mind." Audiences guffawed. The mere mention of Adolf Hitler linked the movie to real-life events. And that brings us to the picture above. Hitchcock planted an image of der fuehrer's profile into this shot of Jones climbing out of the window of a windmill outside Amsterdam. Look close and you'll see the famous slicked-down hair, eyebrows and mustache. Now let's return to the movie's end. Jones and his bride, Carol (Laraine Day), were in a radio sound booth, reporting on the bombs falling on London. Though the lights suddenly went out, miraculously, power remained to operate the radio equipment. Jones says:
"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."
On paper, those lines seem innocuous enough, but on screen, as strains of The Star-Spangled Banner welled to a crescendo, the message was clear: America is the light to the world and must now step up to defend England and battle the darkness overtaking Europe! The emotional effect is powerful.It gets my heart pounding, and, frankly, I'm pretty uninformed, politically speaking. As Mark Glancy wrote in his 1999 book, When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945,
"The emotional impact is overwhelming and it is not at all neutral. Indeed, it can be taken as a subtle, filmic representation of Winston Churchill's widely quoted words that 'in God's good time,' the New World, 'with all its power and might,' would step forth to rescue the Old"—
—words spoken only weeks before the scene was filmed. Despite the censors breathing down their necks, Hitchcock and Wanger managed to pull off a military-evangelism coup. Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, the film was successful both commercially and as a propaganda piece. That is powerful combination, because how effective would propaganda be, without an audience to receive it? More to the point, audiences got the coded message. In fact, the connection was so obvious that audiences were unaware that the film was not about the Germans. None other than Nazi Germany's minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels declared it "a masterpiece of propaganda." As such, Foreign Correspondent can be a bit confounding for Hitchcock fans who see his films as morally relative, implicitly neutral, playing both sides of the fence. Wasn't this type of movie rather uncharacteristic of Hitchcock? 

Hmmm. Let me give some thought to this and get back to you in my next post.


Meredith said…
holy wow I never noticed that Hitler image! Uncharacteristic or not I love this film, great insight thank you.
Jennythenipper said…
I think an argument for moral relativism could be made here. In the name of suspense he made Herbert Marshall's character a bit more grey than your your usual black and white villain and Ffollet is definitely a good guy, but a complicated one.

My own humble addition to the pile of commentary on the film:
Michael said…
The "Hitler" image looks more like Grouch Marx than Hitler. The moustache goes around the corner of the mouth, which Hitler's did not. If Hitchcock was really trying to plant a Hitler image here, he didn't do it all that well.
Dr P Barlow said…
I was so glad to find confirmation that the image I saw is definitely meant to be Adolf Hitler. BTW, in reference to the comment about Hitchcock’s embedded Hitler image looking more like Groucho M than Hitler—how absolutely ridiculous! I am 75 y/o and a long time fan of the Marx brothers and my take, both first and many times since, is that is an image of Hitler and no one else! Bravo Hitch for taking such a non-relative stand and being so sneaky as to confound a law that was so obviously a vote against the very fabric of American political culture: the freedom of speech! What a beautiful weaving of two centers of American work that support freedom of speech: the press and the arts.
Joel Gunz said…
Hi Dr. Barlow - agreed! Also, your comments prompted me to update my post read:

"Though he was usually forced for economic reasons to produce more lighthearted fare (for instance, he produced the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts), that sensibility remained. (I'm challenged to think of another 1929 film half as subversive as Harpo's surrealist antics in Cocoanuts—gonzo moments that Wanger surely signed off on.)"

Thanks for stopping by.