Celebrating the 80th anniversary of 1939, the greatest year ever for film: ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and more

I was recently challenged to list my top 10 favorite movies of all time, which proved an impossible task; however, I can easily name my favorite DECADE for filmmaking: the 1930s. Movies truly evolved during this decade, with the final one of 1939 becoming the greatest year ever for films: “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Stagecoach,” “Ninotchka,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Wuthering Heights” and so many more! Since that special year is celebrating its 80th anniversary, let’s take a look back.

The film industry was still in its youth as the decade rolled in with “talking pictures” becoming the new standard. Besides mastering the technical aspects of that, they were still learning how to develop a story, how to act for the camera as opposed to stage acting, and how to engineer special effects. At the same time, our country was in the throes of the Great Depression and Hitler was slowly taking over Europe, with many Americans firmly against engaging in “their” problems. The infamous “Production Code,” which regulated the moral standards of films, had long existed, but became strictly enforced in 1934 after a series of Hollywood scandals.

All of these factors lead to a banner year for 1939. The 10 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars that year were “Dark Victory,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Wuthering Heights.” The legendary “GWTW” produced by David O. Selznick was declared with the top prize. Acting winners that year were its leading star Vivien Leigh and supporting actress Hattie McDaniel, lead Robert Donat (“Chips”) and supporting actor Thomas Mitchell (“Stagecoach”).

Most film historians and critics agree that more classic movies were made in this year. They cover a wide variety of genres, historical events, and book adaptations.

Two of the most famous movies ever made came from this year: “The Wizard of Oz” and Best Picture winner “Gone with the Wind”. Both movies rank in the top ten of both of the American Film Institute’s greatest 100 movies (1998 and 2007) and both are two of the most recognizable and most-quoted movies of all time. Both are so ingrained in our popular culture it’s difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. It’s also difficult to imagine “Oz” being a box office failure, but it in fact was MGM’s most expensive production at the time and didn’t turn a profit for 10 years. On the contrary, “GWTW” was the most financially successful movie up to that time, and when adjusted for inflation, remains one of the top grossing movies of all time. “Oz” gave us the magnificent Judy Garland singing the Oscar-winning “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. They both also rank on AFI’s 100 most inspirational movies, with Scarlett’s determination to “never go hungry again” and that “tomorrow is another day”, and Dorothy’s determination to help her friends and to get back home, continuing to inspire generations of movie-watchers. I can continue on about these two, but what else can I say that hasn’t been said before?

There cannot be a discussion about westerns without “Stagecoach.” Although criticized now, as many westerns of the time are, for its racist portrayal of Indians, “Stagecoach” redefined the western, and made a star out of John Wayne. After a decade in pictures, Wayne was at best a B picture star. This was his first major collaboration with director John Ford, and one of many with stuntman Yakima Canutt, who doubled for Wayne and supervised the heart-racing action sequences such as the river-crossing scene and the stagecoach drop. Other great 1939 westerns: “Jesse James” (Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda), “Dodge City” (Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland), “Destry Rides Again” (James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich) and “Drums Along the Mohawk” (Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert).

In 1939, “Ninotchka” starring Greta Garbo beautifully represented the comedy romance genre in the Best Picture category. With the famous tagline “Garbo laughs!”, around which the movie was written (a throwback to “Garbo talks!” from her first talking picture), it is indeed the great actress’s first comedic role, and one of the first American films to depict the Soviet Union as dreary and strict. It was banned in that country, as well as other pro-Communist countries. It is no surprise that this wonderful satire from Billy Wilder was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Although it now ranks high on many “films you must see lists” and was one of the first films selected for the National Film Registry, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was objected by many in Washington as being anti-American and pro-Communist. However, Frank Capra’s tale of idealistic Jefferson Smith’s encounters with corruption in the United States Senate went on to become one of the industry’s first “whistleblower” films, and cemented James Stewart’s status as a leading man. It is still considered one of the top inspirational films, solidifying the belief that one small person can make a big difference.

Another inspirational movie is “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, in which Donat portrays the aging teacher Mr. Chipping, who is reflecting upon his years as a teacher at an all-boy school. He carries us through generations of boys, showing his progression as a person and his influence on his charges with subtlety and grace. It is sentimental without being overly sappy, and its influence is seen in such movies as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dead Poet’s Society.”

Many of these films have been remade or inspired other movies. One lovely example is Leo McCarey’s “Love Affair”, which he later did again as “An Affair to Remember” (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, which in turn was significant in the film “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In 1994, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening starred in yet another remake using the original title. As the original couple who met and were to be reunited at the Empire State Building, Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne are magnificent, and it’s a pity this original is largely overshadowed by the remakes.

Love stories, tragic and happy, were in abundance. One of my personal favorites is “Dark Victory”, which in my opinion is Bette Davis’ finest performance. She shines as a spoiled rich heiress stricken with a brain tumor, who eventually falls in love with her doctor (George Brent). When a surgery is unsuccessful, and she realizes the end is near, she attempts to break off her relationship with the good doctor, but he discovers her ploy and they eventually marry. Her progression from spoiled rich girl to humble doctor’s wife is truly touching.

What better example of a tragic love story than “Wuthering Heights”? Adapted from Emily Bronte’s novel, this film encompasses the clash of classes, misunderstandings leading to unhappy marriages, and unrequited love. Although some content had to be altered due to the Production Code, this version has been immortalized by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as star-crossed lovers Heathcliff and Cathy. The final scene on the moors is one that haunts the viewer and helps cements its place in film history.

“Of Mice and Men” is another piece based on a previous work. John Steinbeck’s classic tells the story of two migrant workers (Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Jr.) who take jobs on a ranch during the Great Depression. One of the men is mentally impaired, and his companion protects him as both men dream of one day owning their own land. Similar to “Wuthering Heights” addressing class differences, “Of Mice and Men” touches on prejudices against the mentally ill and race. Again, much of the original content had to be adjusted or taken out completely to be in compliance with the Hays Code, but this version of the story remains a classic.

Another work affected by the Hays Code when being brought to the big screen is “The Women”, another of my personal favorites. Although not recognized during awards season like the other movies mentioned, “The Women” is one of the best movies to come out of the decade. The feud between Joan Crawford and Davis is more well known, but Crawford also clashed with MGM “queen” Norma Shearer. Shearer was married to producer Irving Thalberg, and she usually got the parts she wanted even after his untimely death. Shearer’s preferential treatment often irked Crawford, and their mutual disdain is quite evident in this film, as Crawford’s character steals the husband of Shearer’s character. Also featuring many of the top actresses of the day including Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell and Joan Fontaine, the film consisted entirely of women, even the animals, and is a fun watch to this day.

These are only a few of the wonderful movies made in this critical year. Most of these films are on the National Film Registry, rank on the American Institute’s top 100 lists, and are included in many “must see lists”. They continue to influence filmmakers today, as well as continue to delight audiences of all ages.

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