Pick a day in 1939, almost any day, and let the tornado whirl you into a never-never land of Hollywood excellence. Pick a day in the year that was Hollywood’s best and try to imagine the luck of a movie buff with enough dimes to see every great movie released. Pick a day and skip past the portentous international news and go directly to the movie listings.
Pick Aug. 15, for instance, the day that “The Wizard of Oz” premiered at Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
In the news (you had to look, didn’t you?), Adolf Hitler was pushing Poland toward war and Benito Mussolini was urging the Poles not to fight back. The mayor of Waterbury, Conn., and 19 others were being convicted of pocketing $1 million in city funds. And in Philadelphia, a 27-year-old golfer was apologizing for throwing a club the day before and killing his caddy.
If 1939 was a very bad year for peace (and caddies), it was the greatest of them all for movies. If you had been around on Aug. 15 that year and weren’t on MGM’s “Oz” premiere invitation list, you were not to despair.
Among the films then playing in theaters near you: “Gunga Din,” with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; “Wuthering Heights,” with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon; “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” with Robert Donat; “Dark Victory,” with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the dashing newcomer Ronald Reagan; “Only Angels Have Wings,” with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur; “Love Affair,” a smash box office hit starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer; “The Little Princess,” with Shirley Temple in one of only eight Technicolor films on the year’s release schedule; “Juarez,” a biographical drama starring Paul Muni and written by young John Huston; “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” the last in a series of romantic dance movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and “Stanley and Livingstone,” with Spencer Tracy.
Don Ameche fans had to choose between the sophisticated comedy “Midnight” (co-written by the promising Billy Wilder), the critically acclaimed biopic “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” and “Hollywood Cavalcade,” which traced the history of Hollywood right up to 1939.
Five of the movies available that week--"The Wizard of Oz,” “Love Affair,” “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Wuthering Heights"--would go on to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. In those days, the categories weren’t limited to five, and a good thing. The final best picture ballot also included “Stagecoach,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Ninotchka,” and the movie with which the year will always be identified, “Gone With the Wind.”
“Gone With the Wind” was released at Christmas and, incredibly, lived up to its hype.
“We cannot get over the shock of not being disappointed, we had almost been looking forward to that,” wrote New York Times critic Frank Nugent, alluding to the torturous three-year publicity campaign that preceded the opening.
“Gone With the Wind” dominated the box office the following year and, gauged by the numbers of people who have seen it in the five succeeding decades, it is by far the most successful motion picture ever made. But it was just one of dozens from that year that have become library classics, movies that have been perennial favorites at revival houses and retrospectives. Check the “Classics” shelves at your hipper video stores and you’ll find more selections from 1939 than from any other year.
John Ford had a career in ’39 with the release of “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “Drums Along the Mohawk” and “Stagecoach.” Victor Fleming, previously a seasoned but unremarkable veteran of adventure films, gained immortality as the director of record on both “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
Bette Davis, attempting to overcome her rejection for the role of Scarlett O’Hara through sheer volume, adorned marquees everywhere as the star of “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” “Dark Victory,” “The Old Maid” and “Juarez.”
It was the year that Garbo laughed, in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka,” and Marlene Dietrich came back in “Destry Rides Again.” The year that James Stewart, Frank Capra’s wise choice as the star of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and his pal Henry Fonda, Ford’s choice for “Young Mr. Lincoln,” became major stars.
David O. Selznick, one of the most powerful producers in the era of the producer, managed to discover Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman in 1939, casting the British Leigh in “Gone With the Wind,” and the Swedish Bergman in an American remake of “Intermezzo.”
When Judy Garland wasn’t dancing with the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” she was dancing with Mickey Rooney in “Babes in Arms,” the Busby Berkeley musical that earned Rooney an Oscar nomination as best actor. Rooney, who had just eclipsed Shirley Temple as Hollywood’s leading box-office attraction, also appeared in three Andy Hardy movies and--in the role he seemed born to play--"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The movie that did the most business that year, however, was Henry King’s “Jesse James,” starring reigning matinee idol Tyrone Power as Jesse and Fonda as his brother, Frank. The only other films to bring in more than $1.5 million at the box office were “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
By the way, the Marx Brothers appeared in “At the Circus,” Laurel and Hardy were in “The Flying Deuces,” William Powell returned from a long illness to star in “Another Thin Man” with Myrna Loy, Boris Karloff played his last monster in “The Son of Frankenstein,” and W. C. Fields did some of his funniest work in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”
Did we mention “Dodge City,” with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland? Or Garson Kanin’s “Bachelor Mother,” with David Niven and Ginger Rogers? Or Cecil B. De Mille’s “Union Pacific,” with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck?
“There was an embarrassment of riches in 1939, that’s for sure,” said Ron Haver, director of the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “When you look at the number of great films released, there just isn’t another year that comes close to it.”
There were 365 films released in the United States in 1939, an average of one a day and about twice the number that was released in 1988. But the most cursory scan of those films by a knowledgeable film buff will produce 50 or more recognizable titles. We’ve named 37 movies so far in this story, and we haven’t even mentioned “Idiot’s Delight” (Clark Gable dances!), “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Or “Gulliver’s Travels”!
“An awful lot of accidental things came into play that year,” said Haver, who is hosting a 45-picture 1939 retrospective at the museum starting Friday. “Nazism had driven a lot of refugee film makers over here, creating a great confluence of talent. There was a great spirit of nationalism in the country. Americans were reinvigorated after the Depression, and the movie industry was at its absolute peak in its ability to hold its audience.”
The magic does seem more a result of timing than anything else. From 1938-40, America was in a strange buffer zone between a devastating domestic crisis--the Great Depression--and the inevitable involvement in a devastating international crisis--World War II.
In the brief history of commercial film, Americans had developed a herd instinct about “the movies,” stampeding toward theaters in the worst of times. Movie houses offered sanctuaries away from stress where people could become vicariously rich and powerful, or be swept up in fantastic adventures, where they could fall in love with implausibly gorgeous people, or have their spirits raised and their moods altered by extravagant musicals and outrageous comedies.
Hollywood was prepared for the crush, as never before, or since. It had been a decade since talkies took hold, changing the medium from an operatic to a literary form, and the studio system was flush with veteran talent.
The Directors Guild of America had been organized in 1936 and the writers were just getting around to it at the end of the decade. Though Hollywood ended the ‘30s in the grips of studio moguls and powerful producers, the shift of creative power had begun to swing.
Good writers, and sometimes just quick writers, were coveted and paid handsomely for writing under the worst of circumstances (in studio hovels under the watchful eye of the high-strung moguls). Top directors, some of them making enough money to pay cash for the houses they were having built out in the boondocks of Beverly Hills, were turning out films at a pace that would make John Hughes blink. Though they were still told where to be when and how high to jump once they got there, they were getting frisky about standing up for their own ideas.
In 1938, Americans were buying a phenomenal 80 million movie tickets a week. The business was so prosperous that bankers backing up the studios became less concerned with cost consciousness and more concerned with increased production. The result was that producers had more freedom and were inclined to indulge their most creative directors, those they could count on to turn out responsible films.
Certainly, the most creative directors showed off some of their most creative work in that period. Ford, Capra, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, George Stevens, Garson Kanin, Henry King, Michael Curtiz, Edmund Goulding, Lewis Milestone and George Marshall all had big films in ’39, and Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”), Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath”) and Walt Disney (“Fantasia”) were in production on films that would shake things up the next year.
The output of great films at the turn of the decade was doomed to be an aberration, a ragged peak on the quality-control chart, rather than any sign of permanent maturation. Hollywood was on fast-forward because that was the pace of world events. If the studio bosses had had time to reflect on what they were doing right, they might have hired more marketing people and assured themselves a quick turnaround.
But the storm gathering over Europe was changing the weather here, too, and when war formally broke out in Europe in the fall of 1939, it had a direct effect on Hollywood. Within months, the lucrative Western European market had been been cut off from Hollywood exports.
At the same time, the industry suffered a domestic blow from which it would never fully recover. In 1939, Congress passed a law prohibiting block booking, the system by which the major studios filled theaters with double bills scheduled at their own convenience.
When America did enter the war, the Golden Age was over. Many of Hollywood’s best film makers and top stars joined the war effort, depleting the talent pool at home. During the war, much of the industry’s energy went into propaganda films and jingoistic war pictures. In 1939, Anatole Litvak gave filmgoers a preview of the shrill things to come with “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” but even that film was so well made that it has emerged as a classic of the genre.
Today’s film buffs can only dream what it must have been like. Pick a few days in 1939, when Americans were trying to ignore the news and enjoy the movies.
Jan. 27. “Gunga Din” opens.
In the news: A poll of 50,000 schoolchildren gives Hitler the nod as the world’s most hated man, with Benito Mussolini, the devil, Joe Stalin and General Franco as the other nominees. The most loved were Franklin Roosevelt, God, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Pope Pius XI.
In entertainment: “Melodrama on a magnificent scale,” says the Los Angeles Times of “Gunga Din.”.
April 20. “Wuthering Heights” opens.
In the news: Hitler turned 50, and in Las Vegas, a poker game continued despite the fact that Fred (“Fritz the Rooster”) Martens, while attempting to draw to an inside straight, died of a heart attack.
In entertainment: "('Wuthering Heights’) is Goldwyn at his best, and better still, Emily Bronte at hers."--New York Times.
June 3. “Young Mr. Lincoln” opens.
In the news: Japan Day is celebrated at World’s Fair in N.Y. “Japanese officials joined in expressing confidence in perpetual peace. . . .”
In entertainment: “Henry Fonda’s characterization (of Lincoln) is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon things: a crossroads meeting of nature, art and a smart casting director"--New York Times.
Nov. 10. “Ninotchka” opens.”
In the news: Hitler misses by 10 minutes being killed in a beer hall bombing. “A man must have luck,” he says.
In entertainment: “Garbo’s ‘Ninotchka’ is one of the sprightliest comedies of the year.”
Dec. 20. “Gone With the Wind” opens.
In the news: Soviets and Germans have rapprochement ball. . . . Japanese optimistic about renewing trade agreement with the United States. . . . Retailers expect a record Christmas season.
In entertainment: “A major event in the history of the industry, but only a minor achievement in motion picture art."--says The Nation critic Franz Hoellering of “Gone With the Wind.”
Steven Smith assisted with the research for this article.