The Greatest Year in Film?

The-Wizard-of-Oz-1939-Movie-PosterAs we move through the last months of 2019, I have been thinking about the cinematic year exactly eighty years ago. The story has long been that 1939 was the greatest year in Hollywood history. The late William Goldman, screenwriter for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and All the President’s Men, has a great riff in Adventures in the Screen Trade about how Beau Geste and Stagecoach and Dark Victory and Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Gunga Din and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and several other worthies didn’t win the best picture Oscar because that was the year of The Wizard of Oz. Which didn’t win because that was the year of Gone with the Wind. Lately, a trope has sprung up among film writers questioning that common wisdom, and there is plenty of room for challengers. The debate, if that what it is, bores me, if only because the issue is ultimately undecidable. Perhaps we might instead celebrate every year that produces great movies, which would be quite a lot. That way, everybody can win the argument.

But just in case you weren’t around and watching movies in 1939 (which would be nearly all of us), here are a few more remarkable films from what is undoubtedly a great year:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton

Wuthering Heights, with a young Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon

The Women, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and a young Rosalind Russell

Jesse James, the second biggest grossing pic, after GWTW

Young Mr. Lincoln, with a youngster named Henry Fonda

Ninotchka, whose tagline was, “Garbo Laughs”–and she does

Drums along the Mohawk, directed by John Ford, again with Fonda (who also has second billing in Jesse James

The Hound of the Baskervilles, yes, Basil Rathbone

The Three Musketeers, starring that suave devil, Don Ameche

The Man in the Iron Mask, Louis Hayward and Joan Bennett

Jamaica Inn, an early Hitchcock classic with Charles Laughton as the heavy

Destry Rides Again, with Marlene Dietrich singing

and Ice Follies of 1939 (James Stewart and Joan Crawford in a film “Sparkling with Stars, Gayety, and Music. Even in a banner year, some silliness obtains.)