Foreign Correspondent

By Bob Stepno

Expanded from a previous blog post, Foreign Correspondent tilts windmills in classic spy drama

Joel McCrea in Foreign Correspondent

No actual “tilting” involved, but an observant reporter knows which way a windmill should turn — especially with the winds of war building.

The 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film “Foreign Correspondent” was nominated for a half-dozen Academy Awards, which more than qualified it for a radio adaptation on Squibb’s Academy Award Theater radio series six years later. Actually winning an Oscar wasn’t required to be part of the radio series, and for some reason the announcer mentions only four of the film’s six Oscar nominations. “Foreign Correspondent” lost the “best production” Oscar that year was another Hitchcock film, “Rebecca.”

Boiling down a full-length espionage thriller into a 30-minute radio script meant writer Frank Wilson had to leave out a lot. Academy Award’s Foreign Correspondent (click to play or download MP3) couldn’t show you the classic trenchcoats, Dutch windmills or Hitchcock’s visual tricks, including a dramatic rooftop escape, a clever use of umbrellas, and a famous plane crash at sea that the movie trailer called “The most thrilling scene ever filmed!”

Instead, we get an older and wiser newspaper owner and editor dictating a memoir of his days when he was known as “Johnny Jones, foreign correspondent.” His introduction certainly eliminates the suspense of scenes where his life is threatened; he even reveals that he wound up marrying the woman in the story!
What’s left? Did the title character have much of a chance to demonstrate characteristics we associate with good journalists? I’d love to see comments from anyone who listens to this broadcast before seeing the film, as well as folks who already know the film well. (There’s an excellent Criterion Edition DVD of the film with supplementary materials, as well as online versions and an Internet Movie DataBase entry. If you want to try the radio-first experiment, you should resist the temptation to preview the YouTube clips below. In fact, it would be a good idea to stop reading and click the “play” button right now.

Original cast members from “Foreign Correspondent” are also absent from the radio production. Joseph Cotten took Joel McCrea’s place at the last minute, playing Johnny Jones, the reporter who became a foreign correspondent under the equally unlikely name “Huntley Haverstock” to give his correspondence gravitas, on his editor’s orders. It’s easy enough to picture Cotten in a reportorial trench coat — classic film fans will remember him as publisher Charles Foster Kane’s right-hand man Jedediah Leland in “Citizen Kane,” and as the pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins in “The Third Man.”

The radio production sadly skips a scene full of fodder for a journalism class discussion at the start of the movie: An editor decides to send an experienced crime reporter to Europe, rather than someone more schooled in foreign diplomacy. The Internet Movie DataBase has an collection of memorable quotes that didn’t make the radio script, for one reason or another. Among them, the reporter’s “Give me an expense account and I’ll cover anything,” and the editor’s “I don’t want ‘correspondence,’ I want news!”

And in place of the movie’s thrilling conclusion — Jones at the microphone in a radio studio with bombs falling around it — we get a final radio scene with him attempting to disguise the role his future bride’s father played in the spy story. But she knows the truth, sums up the plot twists about her father, then tries to be inspiring about the roles she and Johnny should play in the coming war effort. That is, the years between her 1940 speech and his 1946 introductory flashback.

If the whole thing sounds confusing, the most memorable quote from the radio play may be his response to her: “I see. I guess I see.”

In both the radio and film versions, Johnny Jones lands in England on the eve of World War II, right in the middle of a murder-and-spies plot full of the twists, tension, romance, and moments of humor that director Hitchcock was already famous for. He made this film in Hollywood after doing two spy films for British companies, “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes,” neither of which, alas, centers around a journalist dodging spies in his bathrobe, boxers and garters like this one — another image that doesn’t translate well to radio.

Reporter Jones/Haverstock (film version), on his job and the spies pursuing him:

“They’ll stop at nothing. I seem to know too much, and they’re right. I don’t know the ins and outs of your crackpot peace movement. And I don’t know what’s wrong with Europe. But I do know a story when I see one and I’ll keep after it until I get it or it gets me.”

The film was inspired by Chicago Tribune reporter Vincent Sheean’s Personal History, a 1935 memoir about covering the early days of Fascism. It was republished in 1940, the year the movie opened, while a still-neutral United States followed news of the all-too-real Battle of Britain. Hitchcock and screen writer Ben Hecht, a former newspaperman, closed the film with a passionate radio speech, with Jones/Haverstock calling for American support as bombs fell on London. (See clip at YouTube.)

The emotional impact of the film and radio versions on their original audiences must have been quite different, the film being released while real bombs were falling, but the radio adaptation not coming until a year after the war ended. The real suspense in Europe was over. So was, apparently, the need for journalists to make heroic curtain speeches. This is the one in the film:

“Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them and, hello, America, hang on to your lights, they’re the only lights in the world.”

Who knows, if Academy Award had been an hour-long radio program, perhaps the writers could have had Johnny Jones, former crime reporter, come back and cover the Nuremberg Trials.

(If 20th Century history isn’t your strong suit, see the WWII Timeline at the Holocaust Museum.)

I wish some imaginative radio writer had been given the assignment of creating a true 1946 sequel to the 1940 movie: What happened to the characters during the war? How did Johnny Jones get to be the newspaper owner narrating that radio play? Did he return to America during the war, then go back to Europe before the war ended? How did he and his wife finally get together? What did she do after that bombs-falling final scene in the film? I guess we’ll never know.

Notes for film historians:
According to the official Academy Awards Database, the six Oscar nominations for “Foreign Correspondent” in the 1940 (13th) Academy Awards (and the winners), were: Supporting actor (Walter Brennan in The Westerner), art direction (Pride and Prejudice), cinematography (Rebecca), outstanding production (Rebecca), special effects (The Thief of Bagdad), and original screenplay (The Great McGinty).
Coincidentally, the “best actor” award that year did go to a portrayal of a journalist: Jimmy Stewart as the magazine writer in “The Philadelphia Story,” which was adapted for radio at least a half-dozen times, with and without the original cast. (It later became the 1956 musical, “High Society,” shifted from Philadelphia to Newport, with Frank Sinatra as the reporter. But that was after the heyday of radio adaptations of film scripts.)

Last updated: Jan. 16, 2023

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