Legendary films of 1939 — perhaps Hollywood's finest year — turn 75
The movie version of “Gone With the Wind” turns 75 this year.
So does “The Wizard of Oz.” And “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” “Stagecoach.” “Of Mice and Men.”
Seventy-five years ago, Laurence Olivier starred in “Wuthering Heights,” Robert Donat in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (who won the best-actor Oscar), Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka.”
“The Roaring Twenties” starred James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart — and contained one of the great death scenes in film. “The Women,” based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce, boasted a cast with screen legends Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard; it has been remade twice.
Think of the images that have been burned into our brains from that year. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, James Stewart standing defiant in the Senate, John Wayne in one of his most iconic poses. Dorothy, the Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow. Toto, too.
That's a lot to celebrate, and some film buffs have proclaimed 1939 the greatest year in film.
Here's more evidence: According to various surveys by the American Film Institute, 1939 contains two of the 10 best American movies of all time (“Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”), the only year with more than one top-10 movie.
It had AFI's winner for the best quote (“Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn”), best song (“Over the Rainbow”) and best fantasy film (“Oz” again). “Mr. Smith” is a top-five inspirational film for the AFI, and “Stagecoach” a top-10 Western.
The 10 nominees for best picture of 1939 have “GWTW” (the winner), “Mr. Chips,” “Mr. Smith,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “Oz,” “Wuthering Heights” — and “Dark Victory” with Bette Davis and “Love Affair,” which inspired “An Affair to Remember” (twice) and, by extension, “Sleepless in Seattle.”
But 1939 is not free of flaws. It was the studio era, when a lot of forgettable films were pushed assembly-line-style into theaters. Even though Hattie McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar for “GWTW,” Hollywood — like society generally — was less than enlightened racially. And other years have made their own cases for being the best ever.
After all, “Citizen Kane” tops many lists as the best film of all time, and it's from 1941. That year also had “How Green Was My Valley” (the best-picture Oscar winner), “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sergeant York,” “Suspicion” and Barbara Stanwyck in “Ball of Fire.”
University of Akron associate professor Eric Wasserman, who teaches film studies, has argued vigorously for 1974 as American cinema's greatest year, pointing to “The Godfather: Part II,” “Chinatown,” “The Conversation,” “Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore,” comedic landmarks “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” Dustin Hoffman's performance in “Lenny,” and, most importantly, John Cassavetes' “A Woman Under the Influence,” which he considers a game-changer on a par with “Citizen Kane.”
Overall, Wasserman looks at 1974 and says, “The ability of the pictures of 1974 to continue to influence and, more importantly, inform American film and movie culture makes it more significant than 1939 or 1941. I've heard it said that baby boomers are wrongfully attached to 1970s cinema and hold it up out of their generational narcissism. I do not agree. There are a lot of things to criticize baby boomers for ... but their contributions to American cinema are certainly not among them.”
So let's say we are marking either the 75th anniversary of the movies' greatest year, or the 40th. In either case, we are looking at films that have endured. Each year has titles in the National Film Registry — including “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach,” “The Women,” “Young Mr. Lincoln” and more from 1939, and “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Conversation,” “The Godfather: Part II” and others from 1974.
But, maybe, we should be jumping ahead in time and mark a 30th anniversary, or a 15th. An Entertainment Weekly critic in 2009 argued for 1984 as the best “when it comes to films you actually want to watch on a rainy day playing hooky from work.” He heard from so many readers that a follow-up piece presented arguments for 1977, 1994 and 1999.
Rich Heldenfels is a staff writer for the Akron Beacon Journal.