Cinema 1939: Best Year in Film History?

First in a Series of Articles


Many historians and film critics consider 1939 to be the best year in Hollywood’s history.  Though WWII had broken in Europe, the U.S. was still uninvolved directly—until Pearl Harbor in December 1941.


More importantly, movies were the country’s primary medium of entertainment.  The technology for TV was available but not widespread and it would take at least another decade for the revolutionary medium to take hold.


What kinds of films were made? what kinds of movies were popular with the American public? 


In 1939, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were asked to vote for 10 films as Best Picture nominees, a practice that the Academy reinstated last week for the upcoming Oscars.


The 10 Best Picture nominees were (in alphabetical order): “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Wuthering Heights.”


It may come as a surprise that half of the Best Picture nominees were romantic melodramas, such as “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” and “Wuthering Heights.”


There was only one comedy among the nominees, the superlative “Ninotchka,” directed with great subtlety and panache by Ernest Lubitsch, and only one Western, “Stagecoach,” considered by many the first mature or adult Westerns, elevating horse operas, as they were then called, to an unprecedented artistic level.


Most of the 1939 nominees were star vehicles, driven by the era’s female stars, such as Bette Davis at her prime in “Dark Victory,” Garbo in her first comedy, “Ninotchka,” marketed as Garbo Laughs!, Irene Dunne co-starring with the Gallic lover Charles Boyer in “Love Affair.”


Two of these pictures made their male protagonists international stars: John Ford’s “Stagecoach” catapulted John Wayne to major stardom, a position he will occupy until his death, four decades later.

And so did “Wuthering Heights” for Laurence Olivier, a respected British stage actor, at his third attempt to make a career in Hollywood.  Previously, he was rejected by Garbo to play her lover in “Queen Christina,’ and the role went to the former lover of the Divine, John Gilbert, whose career was in decline.


The most popular and significant movie of the year was “Gone With the Wind,” based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel.  Produced by David O. Selznick, the troubled movie to
ok three years to make, with a number of directors (including George Cukor, who did the casting and shot some crucial sequences) working on the film at one time or another. 


MGM’s vet director, Victor Fleming, scored twice in 1939 with two of the most beloved pictures of all time: Gone With the Wind, for which he won the Best Director Oscar, and “Wizard of Oz,” the fantasy-fable starring Judy Garland, which became a cult movie.


Speaking of directors, Frank Capra, arguably the most significant director during the Depression era, made another gem, the political satire, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” an honorable follow-up to his former box-office hits, “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), and “You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1938.




Oscar: Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips

N.Y. Film Critics Circle; James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Venice Film Fest: No acting awards