Saturday, December 27, 2008

Is 1939 the Greatest Year for Movies Ever? You Be the Decider

A lot of people cite 1939 as the greatest year in the history of cinema- "the year the movies grew up" I read somewhere once- and it's rather easy to see why. Just take a gander at the highly exalted Oscar Best Picture line up: Love Affair and Dark Victory, two of the finest "women's pictures" of their time; Gone With the Wind, the romantic blockbuster that redefined the word "epic"; The Wizard of Oz, the fantasy classic that has gone on to be adored by both adults and children; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra's scathing attack on Washington politics that made James Stewart a star; Stagecoach, the first proof that the Western could be used to make serious works of art; Ninotchka, the proof that after 15 years of wowing us with her dramatic skills, Garbo still had more tricks up her sleeve. Only Goodbye, Mr. Chips- inspirational teacher drama taken to the least interesting degree- and Wuthering Heights- a "romance" that never once feels romantic or passionate- really flounder among the nominees (I still haven't seen Of Mice and Men). Add to these seven Francois Truffaut's favorite film, French master Jean Renoir's society spoof The Rules of the Game, Cukor's hilarious bitchfest, The Women and one of Howard Hawks' best adventure films, Only Angels Have Wings and it turns out to be quite the year.

I would love to hear what you think about my picks, especially when it comes to my acting nominees. Four nominations for
The Wizard of Oz, but none for Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West? Greer Garson moved from Lead to Supporting for Goodbye, Mr. Chips? Henry Fonda sneaking a Best Actor nom for a film I completely hated and really don't understand the appeal of? How do we feel about Jean Arthur as a whole? Is her nom for Mr. Smith deserved or is it just another retread of her Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town? Are Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard the right women from The Women to honor with Best Supporting Actress nominations? Who would you pick? Discuss, discuss, discuss. Plus, while you're at it, answer this poll so I can see where everyone's loyalties are.


Vera said...

I don't understand your disdain for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a movie I love. Garson's role was a supporting one, she's only in the movie for about 20 minutes and she wasn't yet "a star". She was rightly nominated as best supporting actress. I think that there is a case to be made for 1939 as the best year for Hollywood movies ever. I don't think that the movies really grew up that year, but they did reach a technical prowess that was not to be exceeded for some time to come. I don't really know if it even makes sense to try to label one year as "the best" but there sure were a lot of really good movies that year.

Dame James Henry said...

I don't understand it either, given the fact that normally I'm a complete sucker for inspirational teacher dramas. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a bit of a bore, in my opinion. It's corny, trite and shameless in it's pursuit to MOVE you. I also wasn't too keen on Robert Donat's performance, in which all of the above adjectives can be easily applied to. Greer Garson, in fact, was the only reason to watch this movie. She injects life into the proceedings and exits far too quickly for my liking. I'm surprised to that she was nominated in the Leading category at the Oscars since, like you said, her screentime was limited and she wasn't "a star" (yet anyways).

Vera said...

Well, whatever you do, stay away from the remake with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark. It is dire.

goatdog said...

This is fun! I'm working on my own "alternate Oscars" for every year since 1927, but I haven't actually finished any of the years. I don't agree with you 100%, but you have some good lineups for each category.

I disagree on two things: Young Mr. Lincoln is one of the greatest biopics of all time, and is also the third best film of 1939, but at least you recognized how great Fonda is in it. It's his best performance, and that's saying a lot. Also, William S. Hart made some really mature and intelligent silent Westerns that made it clear that the Western could be used for serious works of art, so Stagecoach wasn't the first. However, it was the first since the end of the silent era, so it's certainly true that it was a breakthrough of sorts.

But I strongly agree on one thing: I hate Goodbye Mr. Chips.

Dame James Henry said...

Goatdog: I'm curious to know why you like Young Mr. Lincoln so much. I just couldn't get into it and thought the whole excursion was silly (wasn't the court case completely made up for this film?). Thanks for the clarification about Stagecoach. I've never seen a William Hart western (I'm assuming you're talking about Tumbleweeds or are there more?) so it didn't even cross my mind.

J.D. said...

Jean Arthur is like freaky amazing Mr. Smith, which I've pretty much decided is my favorite film of '39. Sooooooooooo.

Allison said...

I'm sorry I can't vote for any of those picks for 1939, because they're all pretty terrible. I think 1939 is one of those years that can be OVERLOOKED completely.

Dame James Henry said...

Allison: Really? Not even The Wizard of Oz, which is usually a safe bet with people who aren't classic film buffs? Is there a film I'm missing that you like more?

Forgive my astonishment, but I've never heard of someone completely dissing 1939. I know there are a few in the 1950's that I would like to eliminate completely, but 1939? I'm curious to know what you find so off about the year?

Dean Treadway said...

I like your site a lot.

1939 is rightfully regarded as one of the great movie years. I would submit that 1979 bests it, though. Consider these titles:

A Little Romance, Manhattan, Breaking Away, Best Boy, Alien, Oblomov, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Apocalypse Now, Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Tin Drum, All That Jazz, Being There, Over The Edge, Mad Max, The Silent Partner, Norma Rae, Going in Style, The Black Stallion, The Onion Field, The Warriors, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Hair, Escape from Alcatraz, Saint Jack, The China Syndrome, My Brilliant Career, Vengence is Mine, Rich Kids, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Stalker, That Sinking Feeling, Starting Over, 1941, Rock and Roll High School, Yanks, North Dallas Forty, The Muppet Movie, Quadrophenia, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Phantasm, Hardcore, The In-Laws, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Time After Time, Real Life, Rocky II, The Kids Are Alright, 10, The Rose, Nosferatu The Vampire, The Europeans, La Cage Aux Folles, Murder by Decree, Scum, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, And Justice for All, Last Embrace, Woyzeck, The Changeling, The Brood, The Jerk, Meatballs, Love on the Run, The Legacy, Rust Never Sleeps, The Great Train Robbery, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, The Lady in Red, Star Trek The Motion Picture, David, Zombie, Caligula, The Cat and the Canary, The Champ, Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, The Odd Angry Shot, To Forget Venice, Love at First Bite and The Black Hole.

And then there's 1999 with:
Magnolia, Election, Toy Story 2, Eyes Wide Shut, The Insider, Three Kings, The Straight Story, Fight Club, Topsy-Turvy, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Titus, American Beauty, Sweet and Lowdown, The Iron Giant, Office Space, American Movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Sixth Sense, Buena Vista Social Club, Hands on a Hard Body, The Cider House Rules, Analyze This, The Blair Witch Project, eXistenZ, The End of the Affair, Grass, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Boys Don’t Cry, Go, Bringing Out The Dead, The Limey, Run Lola Run, Judy Berlin, Cookie’s Fortune, October Sky, Galaxy Quest, Girl on the Bridge, All About My Mother, Head On, An Ideal Husband, Felicia’s Journey, The Red Violin, One Day in September, A Map of the World, Twin Falls Idaho, Sugar Town, Notting Hill, Ratcatcher, SLC Punk, East-West, South Park Bigger Longer and Uncut, Sleepy Hollow, The Hurricane, Stir of Echoes, Cruel Intentions, Any Given Sunday, Julian Donkey-Boy, Two Hands, Dogma, and the first season of The Sopranos.

That said, it's all a neck and neck race with '39 for the best movie year of all time. I dunno...there's something about those 9 years in each decade that brings out the best in the movie industry.

Good call on Stewart and Lahr as your winning actors of that year. Also, in nominating Jean Arthur, who's Stewart's almost-equal in SMITH.

I'd submit the animated GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, the sci-fi film THINGS TO COME, and the classic HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME as among only three of the non-mentioned 1939 movies that need to be seen. Still, I think that GONE WITH THE WIND as Best Pic of that year is a supremely wise choice. Still endlessly watchable, and the fastest 4 hours you'll ever spend in a movie theater (where it really should be seen at least once in one's lifetime).

Again, a fine blog!

Dean Treadway