Hollywood 1959: Which Year Was Better, 1939 or 1959?

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. Moreover, 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.
However, a case could be made that 1959 was just as good a movie year in diversity and quality as 1939, perhaps even better.
For one thing, 1959 was the annus mirabilis of the French New Wave, a movement that revolutionized the world film and language of cinema with some brilliant films. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” and Alain Resnais’ “Hirsohima, Mon Amour,” were all released in 1959, taking the Cannes Film Fest by storm. (More about the 50th anniversary of the New Wave it in a future essay).
It was a terrific year for Hollywood, as well, perhaps the last one before the demise of the old studio system. For starters, Hitchcock made one of his most accessible and entertaining films, “North by Northwest,” Otto Preminger excelled with his Oscar-nominated interracial court melodrama, “Anatomy of Murder,” and Douglas Sirk created his most stylish, enjoyable, and influential melodrama, “Imitation of Life.” 
1959 also saw the release of Howard Hawks’ Western, “Rio Bravo,” starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, and Billy Wilder’s hilarious comedy, “Some Like It Hot,” with top-notch performances by Jack Lemmon (Oscar nominated), Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe.
Oscar Nominations
In 1939, 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.”
In 1959, the five Best Picture nominees were the historical epic Ben-Hur,” which swept most of the Oscars, Preminger’s “Anatomy of Murder,” George Stevens’ Holocaust drama “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story,” starring Audrey Hepburn in one of her best dramatic roles, and Jack Clayton’s British drama “Room at the Top,” featuring the brilliant French actress Simone Signoret in one of the best performances ever awarded the Oscar.
 
1939: Star Vehicles
In 1939, 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 took 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 in 1939, 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.
1939: Oscars in Major Categories
 
Director: Victor Fleming, Gone With the Wind 
Nominees
Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
John Ford, Stagecoach
Sam Wood, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
William Wyler, Wuthering Heights
Actor: Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Nominees
Clark Gable, Gone With the Wind
Laurence Olivier, Wuthering heights
Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms
James Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Actress: Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind
Nominees
Bette Davis, Dark Victory
Irene Dunne, Love Affair
Greta Grabo, Ninotchka
Greer Garson, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Supporting Actor: Thomas Mitchell, Stagecoach
Nominees
Brian Aherne, Juarez
Harry Carey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Brian Donlevy, Beau Geste
Claude Rains, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Supporting Actress: Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind
Nominees
Olivia De Havilland, Gone With the Wind
Geraldine Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights
Edna May Oliver, Drums Along the Mohawk
Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Affair
 
1959: Major Oscars
 
Director: William Wyler, Ben-Hur
Nominees
Jack Clayton, Room at the Top
George Stevens, The Diary of Anne Frank
Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot
Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story
Actor: Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur
Nominees
Laurence Harvey, Room at the Top
Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot
Paul Muni, The Last Angry Man
James Stewart, Anatomy of Murder
Actress: Simone Signoret, Room at the Top
Nominees
Doris Day, Pillow Talk
Audrey Hepburn, The Nun’s Story
Katharine Hepburn, Suddenly, Last Summer
Elizabeth Taylor, Suddenly, Last Summer
Supporting Actor: High Griffith, Ben-Hur
Nominees
Arthur O’Connell, Anatomy of Murder
George C. Scott, Anatomy of Murder
Robert Vaughn, The Young Philadelphians
Ed Wynn, The Diary of Anne Frank
Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
 
Nominees
Hermione Baddeley, Room at the Top
Susan Kohner, Imitation of Life
Juanita Moore, Imitation of Life
Thelma Ritter, Pillow Talk