Welcome to this months installment of the rewind. Instead of choosing a single actor or film to highlight this month, I thought I would do something a bit different. I am going to place a spotlight on what many people, including myself, believe to be Hollywood's greatest year, 1939. The sheer number of excellent films to come out in this year has eclipsed all others before of since. Called Hollywood's Golden Year, it is truly the peak of cinema's golden age, which started in the early 1930's with the influx of "talkies" and began its slow fade with the introduction of television in the early 1950's.
The studio system was in full effect, with each major studio developing and nurturing it's cavalcade of stars. Studio bosses grooming and accentuating stars talents with fairly complete control, far removed from today’s state of actor free agency.
My intent is to break down each film with a small measure of its significance.
1939 gave us so many great films-
At the Circus- arguably the Marx Bros. last truly great comedy, though they would continue to make films into the 1940's, this represents the last "Must See" Marx. Bros film. It also gave us Groucho's novelty hit, Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.
Dark Victory- Many people consider this Betty Davis' finest performance as a woman facing death and fighting depression to make the most out of life. Also starring Ronald Reagan.
Ingrid Berman made her American film debut with Intermezzo: A Love Story about a violinist who falls for his daughter’s young piano teacher.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was also released this year with Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara. Many critics consider it to be one of the better adaptations of Victor Hugo's novel, despite changing the ending. Laughton and O'Hara also appreared in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn in '39. Hitch's last picture from England before moving to America, though this isn't one of his better films.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was also adapted this year, and it is the movie that launched Laurence Olivier's career. Directed by the great William Wyler, it is considered the best version of the book to be adapted to film, despite omitting almost the entire second half of the book. It was nominated for eight Oscars.
Jimmy Stewart had two important films in '39, Destry Rides Again, in which he takes his "everyman" role into the West for the first time as a tough lawman who enforces a lawless town, but doesn't use guns. Also starring Marlene Dietrich.
His other release is one of his more famous roles, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a Boy Scout leader who is elected to Senate and fights corruption and dishonesty by believing that one man can make a difference. Directed by the great Frank Capra.
Next up is John Ford who released three great films, the American Revolution epic Drums Along the Mohawk and the under appreciated Young Mr. Lincoln, about the early days of the famous President. Both films would star Henry Ford. This was also the year that John Wayne broke into stardom after years of toiling in "B" Westerns in John Ford's Stagecoach. This film would begin a career long collaboration with the actor and director, and Stagecoach still holds as my second favorite Wayne film.
The Oscar nominated Goodbye, Mr. Chips from England, the life story of a school teacher and all the live he affected through his classes.
This was also the first year that the legendary Greta Garbo appeared in a comedy with Ninotchka. It is also the first film to deliberately criticize the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin.
1939 was an important year for one of my favorite actors, Cary Grant with the release of three films. First, the romantic weepie In Name Only, with Carol Lombard, was familiar territory for Grant having been known mostly in romantic and comedic films previously. It was his other two films, the rough and tumble Gunga Din, co-starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the Howard Hawks directed Only Angels Have Wings that broke the mold. Gunga Din was about three British sergeants fighting natives in colonial India and was based of the Rudyard Kipling poem. Only Angels Have Wings was about a small group of pilots who deliver mail through the treacherous Alps. These films were the first to cast Grant as a man of action, as an actor of diverse range and were instrumental in honing the image of Cary Grant we have today.
The most important man in 1939 is director Victor Fleming. Though he had experienced mild success before 1939, he would never reach the peaks that this year brought him after it. Fleming is the only director to have 2 films in the American Film Institute's Top 10 All time, giving us the perennial classic, The Wizard of Oz, and the film that won 10 Oscars, the Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. Ironically, Fleming replaced the same director on both films, George Cukor.
I think The Wizard of Oz is pretty self-explanatory, but the true scope of Gone With the Wind is astounding. The film launched star Vivian Leigh and cemented Clark Gable as the primary leading man in Hollywood. In fact Gable wasn't even under contract to the studio that produced Gone with the Wind, but was loaned out to the producer because no one else was even considered for the role. Accounting for inflation, it is the highest grossing film of all time, surpassing even Star Wars. For me, Gone with the Wind is one of the best movies ever made. Not in terms of rewatchability or acting or anything that you normally enjoy movies for, but for sheer scope and magnitude. There has been nothing like it before or since.
The unsung hero of 1939 may be veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell, who played roles in five films on this list, Gone With the Wind, Only Angels Have Wings, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach.
There you have a picture into Hollywood's greatest year. Though I can't claim to have seen all the films listed here, missing Dark Victory, Intermezzo, and Ninotchka I can whole heartedly recommend the rest, particularly Gone With the Wind (if you haven't seen it), Stagecoach and Only Angels Have Wings. Thanks for reading the Rewind.
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