Friday, 22 June 2018

1939: the greatest year in the history of Hollywood - from Son of Frankenstein to Gone With the Wind

...and that wasn't the half of it! I've been hearing about the importance of 1939 in cinema history all my life, but it wasn't untilI I read Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 by Mark A. Vieira that I realised just how bizarrely brilliant a year it was. Take just one month, December, when cinemagoers were offered...

...Lon Chaney Jr and Burgess Meredith in Lewis Milestone's adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, Charles Laughton's heartbreaking performance as Quasmodo in William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind.  

Sticking to absolute, undeniable screen classics - and films I've actually seen - November releases had included Ernst Lubitsch's sublimely funny anti-communist romantic comedy, Ninotchka, in which humourless Russian official Greta Garbo finds her iron knickers being melted by Paris and debonair Melvyn Douglas; Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in a triumphant remake of the 1927 horror comedy The Cat and the Canary; and Bette Davies and Errol Flynn magnificently portraying the title characters in Michael Curtiz's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

In October, discerning moviegoers had been treated to James Stewart, Jean Arthur  and Claude Rains in Frank Capra's splendidly rousing political comedy, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in Raul Walsh's homage to Warner Bros's early '30s gangster movies in The Roaring Twenties. 

September saw Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce paired as Holmes and Watson for the very first time in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which introduced the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson", while George Cukor directed Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in the girl-power classic, The Women, in which not a single male character is seen - even in photographs! Meanwhile, society girl Myrna Loy and her alcoholic, womanising portrait painter ex-boyfriend George Brent (a splendidly louche performance by the Irishman) end up helping noble Indian doctor Tyrone Power (!) battle plague in an earthquake and flood-ravaged Ranchipur in the Darryl F. Zanuck production, The Rains Came, which boasted the best disaster movie special effects ever put on screen. And Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland starred in the hugely popular "let's put on a show right here" movie, Babes in Arms - the first MGM musical to be directed in its entirety by Busby Berkley, who'd previously only handled musical sequences.

August? The Wizard of Oz and Stanley and Livingstone (another Zanuck production), in which Spencer Tracy, much against his will,  gets to utter that line after finally managing to track down Cedric Hardwicke. July gave audiences William Wellman's remake of Beau Geste, in which, following the theft of a precious jewel, the three adopted Geste brothers (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston) join the foreign legion, where they run up against the sadistic rotter Brian Donlevy. June had given them Henry Fonda being all noble and backwoodsy and crackerbarrel in John Ford's Young Lincoln (Zanuck again); and one of my all-time favourites, the corny but deeply touching Goodbye Mr Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. 

May saw Joel McCrea - plus Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston and Brian Donlevy - in  Cecil B. DeMille's thoroughly enjoyable top-grade western Union Pacific, and the first anti-Nazi film from a major studio - Anataole Litvak's Confessions of a Nazi Spy, with Edward G. Robinson. April had produced the Irene Dunne/Charles Boyer road safety picture and women's weepie, Love Affair, in which, following a shipboard romance, a French playboy painter and an American chanteuse - who are both engaged to be married to other people - agree to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months time, only for Ms Dunne to come a terrible cropper as she hurries to their much-anticipated rendezvous as a result of failing to follow the Green Cross Code (yes, it was remade as An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr). Cinemas must have been awash with women's tears that month, as Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as Cathy and Heathcliff starred in Confessions of a Window Cleaner - sorry, my bad... it was Wuthering Heights - and Bette Davis expired from a brain tumour  in Dark Victory (George Brent was her doctor - this was one of eleven Bette Davis films he appeared in).

March had featured an unheralded B-movie actor, John Wayne, in John Ford's exhilarating Stagecoach - the movie that changed the status of westerns forever, and the one Orson Welles claimed to have watched 35 times before filming Citizen Kane - and the truly sparkling Brackett and Wilder-scripted screwball comedy romance, Midnight, starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore (hic!).  February saw Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen (who I was astonished to learn was English, not Irish) and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as three roister-doistering British soldier chums giving the nefarious Thuggees what-for on the Northwest Frontier, aided by  a native regimental water-carrier played by Sam Jaffe in Gunga Din, which may be the most insanely enjoyable adventure ever filmed. 

The year kicked off in fine style with Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill hamming it up deliriously in the third Universal Frankenstein movie, Son of Frankenstein - the virtual template for Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein spoof.

And those are just the films that - for one reason or another - are now regarded as classics, that I've actually seen (although The Women and Confessions of a Nazi Spy were a long time ago, and I can barely remember anything about them, except that they were enjoyable), and that are among the 50 titles featured in Mark A Vieira's book.  Notable 1939 films that appear in the book, but which I either haven't yet seen, or which I might have watched on television when I was little, but which I don't remember at all now, or which I've seen and don't rate include Drums Along the Mohawk,  Jesse James, Juarez, They Made Me a Criminal, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, At the Circus (a latish Marx Brothers effort), Only Angels Have WingsIntermezzo: A Love Story, Golden Boy (a William Holden boxing movie), The Tower of London (Basil Rathbone as the dastardly future Richard III and Boris Karloff as a club-footed executioner) etc.

There are at least three very good films released that year that don't make it onto Vieira's list, including the James Cagney/George Raft prison escape movie, Each Dawn I Die; The Light that Failed, a Rudyard Kipling tale featuring Ronald Colman as an artist cruelly losing his sight and Ida Lupino as a heartless bitch of an artist's model; and Raffles, with David Niven in the lead role.

Why was 1939 such an awesome year for great American movies? A number of factors, I guess. Sound films had been around for 12 years, allowing enough time for technology, production craft skills and acting styles to develop to such an extent that the new medium could be fully exploited. Many late-era silent films are beautifully-constructed works of art, whereas most of the early talkies seem so clunky, stagey, static and slow, they're now almost painful to watch: by the late '30s, sound cameras were smaller, lighter, more agile, and directors and cinematographers had learned how to light, frame and edit scenes to maximum effect, while screenwriters had left stage-play and silent-movie "titles" habits behind. Silent acting styles - and most silent movie actors - had been ditched, while the studios had built up a considerable roster of professionally-trained stage actors sufficiently versatile to adapt to the new medium, and whose voices were as important as their faces: it's only recently I've started to realise how much the uniqueness of Cagney's strange, fluting, high-pitched voice,  Bogart's lisp, Jean Arthur's croakiness, Lauren Bacall's deep, velvety tones, Gable's bark, and the caressing, purring, wistful nature of Ronald Colman's voice contributed to their success. (I'll return to this subject at a later date, because it fascinates me).

By 1939, most studios had managed to stave off the threat of bankruptcy caused by the Great Depression and (in some cases) by wrong decisions taken at the start of the talkie era, and were therefore able to concentrate on making standout films and to take a few manageable risks rather than playing safe or gambling wildly in order to stave off their creditors - each studio had its machine in place, and some grasp of the kind of films it was best at. Finally, while Hitler was threatening to cut off a huge chunk of Hollywood's lucrative European market, his rise to power had forced a large number of extremely gifted and highly experienced film-makers abroad, the very best of whom inevitably ended up working in Hollywood.

I  realise many people frankly don't give a damn, but a complete list of American films released in 1939 can be found here.


  1. " [On movie moguls] - They were monsters and pirates and bastards right down to the bottom of their feet but they loved the movies. Some of the jerks running the business to-day don't even have faces."

    Richard Brooks [1970]
    [The Guinness Dictionary of Poisonous Quotes]

    1. It probably helped that, as most of them came from humble backgrounds and hadn't been to university, they didn't have to guess what would appeal to ordinary moviegoers - they were essentially ordinary moviegoers themselves.

      From everything one has read, the sexual morality of Hollywood studio bosses has always been abysmal. The difference now is that many of them seem determined to use their films to convince everyone else that licentiousness and perversion is not only acceptable, but somehow cool and even admirable.

      One thing I've noticed during my current movie binge is that, despite the moguls' sexual exploitation of actresses, the women characters in '30s and '40s movies are often as tough and resourceful as their male counterparts - and often smarter and feistier.