Anyone with even a casual interest in the history of the movies has almost certainly encountered the widely accepted “fact” that 1939 was the best year for movies ever. (TCM’s Robert Osborne never tires of reminding us of this.) The claim seems to be based on 1939 producing Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz with everything else of even moderate value packed in afterwards to support what is to me an insupportable point. Or like the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Of course, that statement means I have to attempt to support my assertion that 1939 is not the best year for movies. It’s a fool’s errand, but I’ll have a bash.
The truth is that any such claim for a best year is ultimately subjective and is therefore not actually provable one way or another. Also, we’re at a point now where movies as a viable art form are about 100 years old, and it seems absurd to think that a single year represents the best. It might be more reasonable to try to come up with the best year of a decade. Well, even if we approach this thing on that less grandiose basis, 1939 still strikes me as being a pretty shaky bet.
It would be interesting to learn exactly when the 1939 idea kicked in. I haven’t been able to come up with a definite answer, but I have a sneaky suspicion that it started in 1939 and was generated by the studios themselves to counteract the perceived disaster that 1938 had been. Financially, it had been something more than a perceived disaster— a situation made worse by the notorious exhibitors’ poll that labelled such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich “box office poison.” In that climate, the promotion of 1939 as some kind of watershed moment was essential.
There’s no denying that there was a push toward quality with the studios—something that had the side-effect of a certain timidity, a sense of playing it safe, though not where Gone with the Wind was concerned. Whatever you think of the film—great American classic or four hour soap opera about two people with lousy timing—it was a ballsy undertaking for producer David O. Selznick, and much of the interest it generated was negative. A lot of people thought it was an insane undertaking and a lot of those people were hoping to see it fail, which, of course, it didn’t.
Legend and PR have a way of steamrolling facts, and, boy, do the misperceptions about 1939’s two most famous films—GWTW and The Wizard of Oz—pile up. Yes, Selznick had to get a special dispensation from the production code folks to allow Clark Gable to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” No, it was not the first time “damn” ever appeared in a movie. (It’s not even the first time it appears in GWTW.) It may, however, be the first time it appeared in an American film (the British never thought much about using it) since the introduction of the production code in 1934.
The Wizard of Oz has spawned even more peculiar legends, especially concerning the film being in color. I doubt anyone thought it in 1939, but a great many people seem to believe it’s the first color film, which is ridiculous. Some even believe that the black and white or, more correctly, sepia tone opening was shot that way because color wasn’t available. (Since this betrays a basic lack of knowledge about how movies are generally not shot in sequence, one wonders how these folks reconcile the ending not being in color.) Technicolor had been around for 20 years or more in 1939, and three strip Technicolor—the process used in 1939—had been in existence since 1934. The first entire feature in the process was Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp in 1935. That 1939 audiences didn’t remember that 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood had been in Technicolor—along with several other 1938 films and three earlier 1939 releases—is pretty far-fetched.
When looked at in more objective terms, 1939 was less the best year for movies than it was the slickest year for corporate-minded, committee-produced movies. They’re good movies, but by and large they’re more what might be called “product” than anything else. The fact that the two biggest titles are signed by Victor Fleming, but have significant parts that had nothing to do with Fleming, attests to that. In fact, Fleming was nowhere around when perhaps the most famous thing in The Wizard of Oz was shot—Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow.” The sequence was directed by King Vidor. What you have isn’t Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, it’s MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.
Of the most important films from 1939, very few can be called personal in the sense of being the vision of the director. Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, John Ford’s Stagecoach, and Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings are clearly the work of those filmmakers. Ninotchka is largely identifiable as an Ernst Lubitsch film, but is a far cry from his best work and feels a little hampered by its obvious attempt to re-brand Garbo as something other than art house fare. And for better or worse—or a bit of both actually—Rowland V. Lee can lay claim to Son of Frankenstein. The thing is, however, that none of these represent the best of any of the directors responsible for them. Every one of them had made better movies before and would make—Rowland V. Lee to one side—better movies again.
My pick for best year—or at least best year of the 1930s, though it is perhaps my favorite year—would be 1932. It’s the year where all the kinks had been ironed out of the talkies and when some of the finest and most important filmmakers of the time were at the height of their powers—and of their artistic freedom. It wasn’t bad for stars, studios, or genres either. Just for the hell of it, let’s contrast some of those things with their 1939 counterparts. I’ll start with filmmakers.
Since I’ve cited Ernst Lubitsch with Ninothcka, let’s look at Lubitsch in 1932. Instead of one film, Lubitsch turned out three films in 1932—Broken Lullaby, One Hour with You, Trouble in Paradise—not to mention doing one episode in the multi-director If I Had a Million. The three features and the section of the other film are pure Lubitsch, even though George Cukor started One Hour with You, only to have Lubitsch—who also produced the film—take over because he was unhappy with the results, despite the fact that he’d been directing Cukor’s direction all the time. I’d also say they’re all better than Ninotchka. I doubt many Lubitsch admirers would take serious issue with that—especially since 1929-1933 is the director’s richest period. Certainly, no one is likely to deny that Trouble in Paradise is better.
Not included in that 1939 list is Josef von Sternberg. The reason is simple. By 1939 this—one of the most important of all filmmakers—director was reduced to making a Wallace Beery B picture Segeant Madden. It is about as far from a significant 1939 film as possible—and even further removed from any of Sternberg’s best work. In 1932, on the other hand, he made both his masterpiece, Shanghai Express (also the highest grossing film of 1932), and perhaps his most iconic film, Blonde Venus. Similarly absent is Rouben Mamoulian, whose lot wasn’t as bad as Sternberg’s, but making a competent if not very exciting version of Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy (both the author and the play are who and what are being satirized in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink) is a significant comedown from the cinematic fireworks of his 1932 releases, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Love Me Tonight.
Universal’s “Ace” director James Whale’s fortunes had suffered since the Laemmle family lost the studio in 1936, and in 1939 he found himself marking time by helming a workmanlike version of The Man in the Iron Mask for independent producer Edward Small, while the studio he once dominated was preparing the biggest turkey of his career, Green Hell (1940). He may have been largely marking time in 1932 when he made Impatient Maiden, but it was better than these. Plus, 1932 also saw one of his best and most personal films, The Old Dark House
It was in 1932 that Tod Browning made his iconic Freaks. In 1939, he knocked out an enjoyable, rather silly, and appallingly transparent B mystery called Miracles for Sale—and for MGM, the same studio that had allowed him unprecedented (especially for them) freedom for years. In 1932, Cecil B. DeMille made the deliriously insane The Sign of the Cross. In 1939, he made the turgid western Union Pacific.
Look at 1932 vs. 1939 in terms of genres. Since we touched on Mamoulian, Whale and Browning, we’ve already hit three horror films from 1932—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Old Dark House, and Freaks. It also gave us Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Karl Freund’s The Mummy, Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Machu, and Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. In 1939, we get the previously mentioned Son of Frankenstein, Nick Grinde’s The Man They Could Not Hang, Elliott Nugent’s The Cat and the Canary, and Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Dr. X. If you insist on pressing the point, you can sort of add Rowland V. Lee’s Tower of London, and if you want pure embarassment, there’s Allan Dwan’s The Gorilla. It’s a very poor trade-off.
As for musicals, once you knock off The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 musicals are somewhere between tepid and bad. In fact, there almost aren’t any—apart from the Deanna Durbin movies, which are les musicals than films with a few songs. The less said about Edward Buzzell’s At the Circus—apart from “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which is appallingly staged—the better, though we’ll come back to that later. A case can be made, I suppose, for Babes in Arms, but my Mickey Rooney tolerance is limited.
While 1932 isn’t conventionally thought of as a great year for musicals—that generally starts in 1933 with the advent of full-blown Busby Berkeley wiith 42nd Street and Fred and Ginger in Flying Down to Rio—it does have One Hour with You, Norman McLeod’s Horse Feathers, Leo McCarey’s The Kid from Spain (arguably the best of all Eddie Cantor movies), Frank Tuttle’s The Big Broadcast (a very odd movie that made Bing Crosby a star), and, of course, Love Me Tonight, which is very probably the best musical film of its kind ever made. (And I’m tempted to take off that “of its kind” qualifier, since I’m not convinced any musical has ever bested it.)
Comedians were not well-served by 1939. Already mentioned was the Marx Brothers picture At the Circus—a film that was outdistanced in 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937, as well as by 1932’s Horse Feathers. In 1932, W.C. Fields was just coming into his own with Million Dollar Legs and in one episode of If I Had a Million, not to mention the short film The Dentist. These may not be the best of his films—though a case could be made for Million Dollar Legs—but compared to his 1939 effort, You Can’t Cheat on Honest Man, which traded on his famous radio feud with Edgar Bergen’s dummy, Charlie McCarthy, they represent a comedian on the rise, as opposed to one sharing the screen with a smart-mouthed and frequently tiresome dummy. Mae West entered movies with a spectacular debut in 1932 with Night After Night. In 1939, she made nothing. Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 feature, Pack Up Your Troubles mayn’t have been their best, but it’s better than The Flying Deuces in 1939. Plus, 1932 saw five classic shorts and three so-so ones. What else does 1939 offer? One good Bob Hope picture (The Cat and the Canary), one pretty good one (Never Say Die), and some dreck with the Ritz Brothers.
For socially or politically relevant movies, what 1939 has pretty much comes down to Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—and it’s tepid stuff that wimps out, even for Capra. His 1932 film, American Madness, is fresher, more vibrant, and a lot bolder. But what of Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang? It still packs a wallop today—maybe too much of one. For political satire Alfred E. Green’s The Dark Horse makes any hint of satire on political corruption that might cling to the edges of Mr. Smith look silly.
And so it goes. I could go on at length about other 1932 releases like Tarzan the Ape Man, Grand Hotel, One Way Passage, Red Dust, The Man Who Played God, Jewel Robbery, The Half-Naked Truth, Sherlock Holmes, Once in a Lifetime, and Guilty As Hell. But if I haven’t made my point by now, I’m not going to.