The mighty ‘39ers

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Perhaps it was kismet. In 1939 the stars aligned in the heavens -- and Hollywood -- to create what many consider to be the greatest single year in cinema history.

Starting Monday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences turns back the clock to re-create what a night at the movies would have been like in 1939. Each week at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, the Academy will screen one of the 10 Oscar-nominated best films -- starting with “Gone With the Wind,” and ending with “Wizard of Oz” -- plus an episode of the “Buck Rogers” serial and animated shorts.

Programmer Randy Haberkamp believes there are many reasons why 1939 was such a stellar year. “It was the first decade or so after sound and just like any other technological development, it takes about 10 years for something new to work its way through the system,” he says.


Politically, with Adolf Hitler’s Germany on the verge of invading its neighbors and beginning World War II, several European artists immigrated to Hollywood.

“You had this influx of talent that had a lot of effect on the quality of films. Also, though the Depression wasn’t officially over, people were going to the movies and spending money on them. And the movies were spending money on making movies better.”

Here’s a look at the films of “Hollywood’s Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939”:

“Gone With the Wind” -- May 18: Victor Fleming was credited with directing this beloved epic based on Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War romance starring Vivien Leigh as the fiery Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as the dashing Rhett Butler. Besides film, it won Oscars for actress (Leigh), supporting actress (Hattie McDaniel), director, as well as screenplay, cinematography, editing and art direction.

“It’s probably the most misunderstood because I think it’s one of those films you really have to see it on the big screen and you need to have context from when it’s from and what it’s about,” Haberkamp says. “It is really a cornerstone of its time.”

“Stagecoach” -- June 1: John Ford directed this seminal western that made John Wayne a star. Nominated for seven Oscars, it won for score and supporting actor for Thomas Mitchell.


“It’s the one action movie of the group,” Haberkamp says. “Probably of all the movies, it’s the most imitated.”

“Wuthering Heights” -- June 8: William Wyler directed this romantic adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel about the tragic lovers Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won for Gregg Toland’s moody black-and-white cinematography.

“Dark Victory” -- June 15: Edmund Goulding directed this melodrama starring Bette Davis as a socialite with a terminal brain tumor. Nominated for three Oscars.

“It is a ‘women’s picture’ and women were the ones who were driving the box office back then,” Haberkamp says.

“Love Affair” -- June 22: Leo McCarey directed and co-wrote this romance starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Nominated for six Oscars.

“I think it’s going to be the biggest surprise for people because most are more familiar with the remake, ‘An Affair to Remember.’ I think Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are quite charming in it.”


“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” -- June 29: Sam Wood directed this adaptation of James Hilton’s novel about a beloved English school teacher (Robert Donat). Nominated for seven Oscars, it won for best actor.

“Ninotchka” -- July 13: Ernst Lubitsch directed this romantic comedy starring Greta Garbo in her first comedy as a cold-hearted Russian who falls for a charmer (Melvyn Douglas) in Paris. Nominated for four Oscars.

“Talk about a collision of talent -- Garbo, Lubitsch with Billy Wilder in the background with the script,” Haberkamp says. “I think Melvyn Douglas is the real discovery -- he’s quite funny in it.”

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” -- July 20: Frank Capra directed this political fable about a naive young senator (Jimmy Stewart) who takes on the nation’s capital. Nominated for 11 Oscars.

“The thing that is amazing about that movie is that you’ll find people who defend it as the most American of values and you’ll find other people who will say it’s socialistic.”

“Of Mice and Men” -- July 27: Lewis Milestone directed this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel. Nominated for three Academy Awards.


“The print we are showing is sepia-tone, which I think will be another revelation,” Haberkamp notes.

“The Wizard of Oz” -- Aug. 3: Fleming directed this legendary musical adaptation of the L. Frank Baum classic. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it won for best song and score.

“This is the film that everybody thinks they know . . . it is so much more magical on screen than it is on TV.”

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Multitalented actor Mickey Rooney, 88, had a great year in 1939 -- making five movies including “Babes in Arms,” for which he received an Oscar nomination. That film screens Friday as part of the American Cinematheque’s eight-movie tribute to Rooney, which begins tonight at the Aero Theatre and concludes Sunday.