By Alan Hurst
Every decade or so – and sometimes more than once in a decade – you get a year where the film output from Hollywood and Europe aligns and we’re treated to an abundance of memorable films. A great year is also something much easier to recognize when you have the advantage of hindsight. At the time, a year like 1968 or 1974 might not have seemed to be a standout but as the years pass, you look back and you can easily pull a list together of outstanding films that had an impact – films that still resonate today. Some of these lists can be quite formidable.
For me (and a lot of other cinephiles) 1939 was one such year. The studio system was at its peak, major directors were solidifying their reputations, and the golden age of the “movie star” was in full bloom. When you look at list of 1939’s top films you can easily make the case that many of them established a benchmark for almost every film genre: comedy (Midnight), musicals (The Wizard of Oz), westerns (Stagecoach), weepies (Dark Victory), biographies (Young Mr. Lincoln), political satire (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), gangster films (The Roaring Twenties), adventure (Gunga Din) and brooding love stories (Wuthering Heights).
My own list has one musical, three comedies, an epic, two westerns, two dramas, and an adventure. I could sit down at any time and watch these films – along with some of the others that just missed the list. These are my favourites from 1939:
Gone with the Wind
This was the year’s big one – a massive hit based on a major best-seller by Margaret Mitchell about the Old South both before and after the Civil War. Public interest in the film was something never seen before or since and everyone had an opinion as to who should be playing the major roles. When it opened in Atlanta in late 1939 it was a major event. Victor Fleming (who also directed The Wizard of Oz that year) directed the mammoth production under the supervision of David O. Selznick and his achievement is remarkable. Despite it’s nearly four-hour running time, it remains an entertaining, engrossing and beautifully designed film featuring one of the most striking female character studies in film history. Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara is fascinating. She’s not likeable, but she’s impossible not to admire. The character is always driven, but she alternates between selfish and selfless, cunning and coy, manipulative and hopelessly romantic. Leigh’s achievement resulted in one of the major performances of all time. Clark Gable is also terrifically masculine as Rhett Butler and Olivia de Havilland is optimism personified as Melanie. And scene after scene has become classic: the burning of Atlanta, the war-torn ride back to Tara, the wounded soldiers at the train station, Rhett’s exit, and Bonnie’s death. The one challenge here is that Gone with the Wind is also a film whose reputation has taken a hit over time because of its depiction of some of the black characters. I think the criticism is justified if you’re looking through a 2019 lens, particularly with its portrayal of some of the male black characters. But this film is now 80 years old and, with that lens on, Hattie McDaniel’s work as Mammy was a major step forward in allowing a black actress to create a complex, opinionated and vital character who is the equal to any of the other leads. McDaniel deservedly won that year’s Oscar for best supporting actress.
The Wizard of Oz
For adults of a certain age, this film is ingrained in our memory thanks to annual viewings on television and the occasional theatrical re-release. It’s a big, beautiful and transporting fantasy that remains one of the best examples of what MGM was capable of with its insanely abundant pool of performers, technicians, and behind the camera talent. In telling the story of Dorothy Gale’s journey along the yellow brick road and her desire to get home to her family, it touched people in a very deep away. Director Victor Fleming achieved a wonderful balance between the spectacular visuals and Dorothy’s story. So many of the scenes remain iconic – the tornado that whisks Dorothy to Oz, the transition from sepia to technicolor once Dorothy lands in Oz, the witch summing her flying monkeys, meeting the Wizard of Oz, and of course Judy Garland’s yearning rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. The cast could not have better, with Garland’s Dorothy, Margaret Hamilton’s witch, Bert Lahr’s Lion and Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow the standouts. The film made Garland a star and her performance is sweet without being cloying, feisty without being precious and ultimately very moving.
Probably the screen’s first great bona fide western, and one that would still easily find a place on anyone’s list of the great westerns of all time. It also gave us John Wayne in his first major role in a major film and his star power and screen presence are magnetic. Director John Ford essentially established the archetypal western with this straightforward story about a group of stagecoach passengers travelling to New Mexico in the 1880’s. Among the group are a lady with a past (Claire Trevor), a gambler (John Carradine), an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning performance), a liquor salesman (Donald Meek), and the stagecoach driver (Andy Devine). John Wayne plays an escaped outlaw who’s being taken into custody. Under constant threat of an Apache attack, Ford builds the tension slowly and continually throughout the stagecoach’s journey. You become enmeshed in the lives of these people and you want them to get to where they’re going safely, but you know it’s not going to happen for everyone. The stark black and white photography helps make everything feel hotter, drier and as uncomfortable as it probably would have been to travel that terrain by stagecoach. The screenplay is both spare and focused in telling the story, mixing the right amount of humor along the way. And the cast is excellent. There isn’t a weak link, with Trevor and Mitchell standouts, along with Wayne. Wayne achieves a great deal without saying too much. It’s a solid, sexy and intriguing performance. Ford also gave Wayne one of the great close ups in film history as he zeroes in on Ringo near the beginning of the film. With that shot, you see a star being born.
Describing a romantic comedy set in Paris as “sparkling” seems a trite adjective, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind with yet another viewing of this witty, sophisticated comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. From Colbert’s first scene – arriving in Paris by train during a rainy night in a glittering gown, but without any other clothes, money or means – director Mitchell Leisen gives the film a romantic glow with some beautiful black and white cinematography that ensures everything sparkles, including the rain. Colbert plays an out-of-work showgirl, trying to figure out what to do next and hooks up with a cab driver (Ameche) who drives her around from club to club. She senses some interest from Ameche but, not wanting things to go too far, she ends up deserting him by heading to a charity concert where she pretends to be a Hungarian baroness, arousing the suspicions of fellow concert patron John Barrymore. The story moves along at a fast clip, thanks to the wonderful script by Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket. This is a prime example of the art of screwball comedy that was so popular at the end of the decade – a mix of snappy dialogue, contrived situations, flighty protagonists, and glamourous settings that really combine in some cases to create magic. This is one of those cases. Rounding out the quartet of actors was Mary Astor, in a jaded and funny performance.
George Cukor’s reputation as a great director of women was probably forever cemented with this film, where not one male actor makes an appearance. Oh, men are definitely talked about but this one is all about the women. Based on a hit Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, it focuses on a group of well-heeled society women with a little too much time on their hands. Norma Shearer stars as Mary Haines who is the perfect wife and mother and is devoted to her perfect husband. But it turns out the perfect husband is having an affair with Crystal, a predatory salesgirl played by Joan Crawford. Ensuring that things do not resolve themselves quickly or smoothly are a gossipy pair of “friends” played Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah. Also along for the ride are a much-married Countess (Mary Boland), an opportunistic showgirl (Paulette Goddard), a rich newlywed (Joan Fontaine), and the very funny Marjorie Main as a housekeeper at a ranch in Reno where the women go to wait for their divorces to be finalized. The characters and plot are definitely of their time – the film presents a very two-dimensional view of most of these women – but it’s also very, very funny with an all-star cast clearly loving the juicy dialogue. Russell and Crawford are the most fun with roles that were a change of pace for both of them. No one had ever seen Russell this wild before, or Crawford this bitchy. They’re both perfect. Cukor keeps everything moving along and manages to ensure that each of his actresses have their moment to shine. Tales of the off-screen shenanigans on this one are legendary.
Goodbye Mr. Chips
An incredibly idealized and picture-perfect look at the life of an English school teacher at a boarding school, it follows lead character Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) from his first year as a teacher in 1870 to his death in 1933. Based on a novella by James Hilton, this is another example of MGM’s artistic and technical resources combining for a luxuriously detailed and engrossing recreation of a bygone era. We know that boarding schools weren’t this democratic and nurturing – they could be cold, hard, intimidating places for many. But director Sam Wood and Donat’s Mr. Chips give us a well layered look at life in the school from a teacher’s point of view. Released as Britain was facing inevitable war with Germany, it’s also an uplifting homage to a particular way of life that roused audiences. Donat won that year’s best actor Oscar against some very stiff competition for his touching and subtly complex work. The film also features Greer Garson’s break-out film performance as Mr. Chip’s bride. Garson shows up part way through the film and is on-screen for about 20 minutes, but she injects the Goodbye Mr. Chips with such energy, wit and warmth that her impact is galvanizing. You can see why Mr. Chips immediately succumbs to her charms and the character’s premature death is devastating – for him and the audience.
Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda made for an impossibly handsome pair as the outlaw James brothers in this technicolor, glamourized version of an often-told story. But under Henry King’s assured and energetic direction, it was one of the most engrossing and entertaining films of the year, perfectly capturing the atmosphere and setting up a persuasive backdrop for the radicalization of Jesse (Power) and Frank (Fonda) at the hands of a greedy railroad representative (a slimy Brian Donlevy), who is essentially fleecing property owners out of their farms. When they learn that Donlevy is responsible for their mother’s death, a pair of outlaws are born. What I love about this film is the mood – it feels very old fashioned and rustic, but there’s also an intimacy in getting to see the James brothers evolve – particularly Jesse. Historians have pointed out that the screenplay plays with the truth and events and characters are whitewashed, but that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the inevitable conclusion. This is also one instance where early technicolor makes things seem real rather than idealized – particularly since a lot of the action is outdoors. There’s strong supporting work from Jane Darwell as the mother, Nancy Kelly as Jesse’s girlfriend and Randolph Scott as Marshall Will Wright.
The Cat and the Canary
This one may not crop up on many lists as a great film, but it has a firm place as one of my 10 favourites. It’s one of the funniest and spookiest screwball comedies of the period and one of the first films where Bob Hope’s nervous and cowardly screen personae was on fresh display (before it became stale). Director Elliot Nugent sets things up perfectly: the reading of a will ten years after the death of an eccentric millionaire, set in an isolated Louisiana mansion with assorted relatives gathered around, as well as a mysterious housekeeper and an escaped murderer from a nearby asylum. Accusations and suspicions start flying immediately, as the body count starts to rise. But this is a comedy, so the zaniness reaches a fever pitch multiple times throughout the film’s 72-minute running time. This one did a lot for Hope – he’s very fun as Wally Campbell, a radio star who yammers on a mile-a-minute. Paulette Goddard is sexy and fun as the successful heir to the fortune and some great character actors give the film additional spark – particularly Elizabeth Patterson as an opinionated cousin and Gale Sondergaard as the mysterious housekeeper (and also mistress of the deceased). This is one you can watch over and over again – it’s black and white comfort food.
Five Came Back
This efficiently directed B film from RKO was a precursor to the disaster films of the 1970’s. In my mind, it stands as one of the best low budget films of the thirties and forties. It’s the story of a group of nine disparate people on a small plane headed from Los Angeles to Panama City. They end up crash landing in the Amazon jungle, driven off course by a storm. From there it’s a ticking time bomb of stress, survival and intrigue. They work to get the plane ready to try and leave the jungle, but it can only accommodate the weight of five people to ensure it can take off. The tension continually builds – some of the passengers find inner strength (including Lucille Ball as a reformed prostitute), others become burdens, and there is a growing threat of violent natives just beyond where they’ve landed. When the plane is ready to take-off, one of the passengers who is a political prisoner seizes the sole gun and selects who gets to leave. It’s a tense, calculated few minutes as he logically makes his selections. I saw this film on the late show as a teenager and that final scene stayed with me. When you watch it today you see that Five Came Back still delivers and the final scene remains incredibly tense, thanks to the efficient story telling, expert cast, and no-fuss direction of John Farrow.
The Old Maid
Bette Davis had a terrific year in 1939 – her Oscar nominated work in Dark Victory, her fiery Queen Elizabeth I in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, her showy few scenes as Empress Carlota in Juarez and The Old Maid, my favorite of the bunch. Here we get Bette at her self-sacrificing peak before the dominating side of screen personae truly took hold. The Old Maid is a wonderfully old-fashioned story set during the Civil War about two cousins (Davis and Miriam Hopkins). After disappearing for two years, Clem Spender (George Brent) returns on the day his former fiancée Delia (Miriam Hopkins) is marrying another man. Her cousin Charlotte (Bette Davis) sneaks away with Clem to comfort him and the next day he enlists in the Union Army and dies soon after. Charlotte and Clem’s child, Clementina, grows up not knowing the now very critical Charlotte is her mother. Jealous of Charlotte’s affair with her ex, Delia pretends to be Clementina’s mother, further damaging the relationship between Charlotte and her child. Pure unadulterated soap opera, it’s a juicy masochistic over dose and wildly entertaining thanks to the central performances of Davis and Hopkins. Nobody played spoiled and selfish like Hopkins, and here she meets her match with Davis’ calm, grounded yet intense work. Davis is so good as the damaged Charlotte that you easily feel her pain and frustration at a situation dictated by the mores of the time. Edmund Goulding directed from a 1935 play and if this wasn’t a great cinematic achievement, it’s certainly a riveting adaption of a drama that feels both dated and timeless.
Just missing out the top 10: Babes in Arms, Destry Rides Again, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, Love Affair, Ninotchka, The Rains Came, Rose of Washington Square, Dark Victory, Dodge City, The Roaring Twenties, Only Angels Have Wings, and Wuthering Heights.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.