1939 — a memorable year at the movies

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 10, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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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 (and he 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 Woodman, 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 some 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 Gone With the Wind (the winner); Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; Oz; Wuthering Heights; AND Dark Victory, with Bette Davis, and Love Affair, which inspired two remakes, including An Affair to Remember, 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 Gone With the Wind and the notorious Stepin Fetchit’s career was on the wane, Hollywood — like society generally — was less than enlightened racially. And other movie years have made their own cases for being the best ever.

The detractors

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 and Suspicion, as well as Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire.

University of Akron associate professor Eric Wasserman, who teaches film studies in the English department, 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 Wasserman considers a cinematic 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 a mix of drama and comedy, of color and black and white. 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 year “when it comes to films you actually want to watch on a rainy day playing hooky from work” — from Oscar greats to pure cheese. He heard from so many irked readers that a follow-up piece presented fans’ arguments made for 1977, 1994 and 1999.

Another film buff used 32 great years to create an NCAA-like tournament, based on 12 films from each year; 1939 made it to the final four, where it lost to 1967, which then lost in the finals to 1999. (1974 didn’t make it out of the first round, losing to 1969.)

So, of course, a movie watcher’s view of greatness is subjective. Is Citizen Kane suddenly less great because the esteemed Sight & Sound critics’ poll ended its 50-year hold on the top spot in favor of Vertigo?

The movies we admire are often rooted in what we saw when becoming film fans. As a result, some viewers have discovered movies’ glory through a generation of filmmakers who seemed fresh to their newest admirers because they did not know that the new generation had been inspired by a previous one.

When I was seeing a lot of the great movies of the ’70s, I was also someone who had seen dozens of older, black-and-white movies, usually on television during the pre-cable heyday of stations’ late-late shows. Such discoveries — The Roaring Twenties was a big one — are still in my head more than 40 years later.

In that context, 1939 was indeed a pretty great year, and it has movies that serious film students should study for decades to come. But the list for 1974 is quite incredible, too. The best thing may be to forget about anniversaries and get back to watching great movies, regardless of their years.

Or we could argue about why anyone would pick 1999 …

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