In 1940, five men were nominated for the best director Oscar. This happens every year and every year, and the reasons for it provokes speculation. In 1940, the nominees were George Cukor for The Philadelphia Story, John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath, Alfred Hitchcock for Rebecca, Sam Wood for Kitty Foyle, and William Wyler for The Letter. Rebecca won the Oscar for best picture but Alfred Hitchcock was not matched up with a win of his own. John Ford won. How could this have happened. By looking at the nominees, there are some clues.
The Philadelphia Story is a stylish comedy with the upper crust (Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant) dueling with working tabloid reporters (James Stewart and Ruth Hussey). How can you go wrong. John Ford brought grit and determination to his woeful tale and won the Oscar. Sam Wood's direction of Kitty Foyle represents a popular choice and is the weakest nomination. William Wyler directed Bette Davis and a fine roster of actors and only conceded a few points to the production code.
Alfred Hitchcock made his first American movie with Rebecca. Coming off the success of The Lady Vanishes released in 1938, he brokered his contract with David O. Selznick. It must be remembered that Selznick brought Gone with the Wind to the screen the previous year. He was in his memo writing prime, invasive into the daily workings of making a movie, unrelenting in directing the director with numerous memos and details. Selznick was a man who liked to be in control.
Selznick was surprised to see how independently Hitchcock was permitted to work in England and Hitchcock had no understanding of the function of a producer in American movies. And Hitchcock's creative methods were quite different from Selznick's. The front office control of the American producer was clearly at odds with Hitchcock who planned carefully. Even though Selznick was busy with the finishing touches of Gone with the Wind, he still needled stars, staff, and Hitchcock to get the results he wanted for Rebecca.
Hitchcock was attracted to Rebecca as his first American picture and came with his own ideas from actors to visual effects and tone. To portray the lead, Selznick hired Laurence Olivier who was entering major stardom. Olivier wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play opposite him in Rebecca. Dozens of actresses were considered and the choices came down to Margaret Sullivan, Anne Baxter and Joan Fontaine. Choices made by Selznick, not Hitchcock. Alma Rveille (Mrs. Hitchcock) supported the Anne Baxter choice, but Hitchcock had to wait for Selznick's decision. Joan Fontaine was felt to be too coy and simpering.
Selznick had been much in love with Joan Fontaine from the summer of 1938. Although she married Brian Aherne in 1939, Selznick still signed her for the role. Hitchcock with a leading lady. He believed his leading lady might become too relaxed and her performance as a frightened spinster at heart would suffer. He worked with her carefully, resorting to crude innuendo to keep her focused and on edge. Hitchcock didn't hesitate to tell the dirtiest of jokes. This worked to some degree with Fontaine, but in the end, Selznick found that they had to rerecord Fontaine's lines many time or use master shots to cover a weak performance. Joan Fontaine does look appealing and genuinely effecting as the second wife in the Gothic tale of Rebecca and it took all Hitchcock had to pull it out of her.
In the end though, all Hitchcock's efforts resulted, with all the interference from his producer, in being a David O. Selznick picture just as Gone with the Wind was a David O. Selznick picture. The director became secondary. For this reason alone, John Ford probably snatched the Oscar away from Alfred Hitchcock. He would be nominated again in 1944 for Lifeboat, in 1945 for Spellbound, in 1954 for Rear Window, and in 1960 for Psycho. In all probability, he wasn't even close to winning in 1940.