1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

1939 - Hollywood's Greatest Year!It’s the end of the year and we’re beginning to see the usual “best-of” lists.  Seeing as this is 2009, some of these may even be “best of the decade.”  Now, let’s be honest, some of these will be spot on, some will be terrible, but ultimately, they’re all subjective.  That’s the beauty of cinema; there will never be two people who fully agree on everything a film has to offer.  But I implore you to read on and let me try to express why I feel that, in no “best of” list, 70 years ago, 1939; Hollywood witnessed its finest year of film production ever.

It’s amazing how similar the times of ‘39 mirror those of the present.  Much like today, times were bleak during the end of the decade.  The economy was slowly working its way back from disaster; we were in the beginning stages of a new President who promised us a “New Deal” of change; and across the ocean, a war was occurring that would forever change society as a whole.  But through all of this, Americans turned towards the cinema to help to remove themselves from the dire disposition of the world.  And whether they knew it at the time or not, they were in the midst of an astounding array of films that would forever stand the test of time.

The Wizard of Oz Blu-rayGone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  With just the two of these films, (BOTH AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY) you would be able to argue that ’39 was an amazing year in film.  Not only were these films revolutionary for their use of Technicolor, but beyond there was more to it than that.  There’s a reason why Oz can be constantly seen on television today.  At its core, Oz is a story of middle-American struggle during an economic depression and how to persevere through these obstacles without losing one’s resolve and remaining true to our core beliefs.  Everyone can relate to a strenuous time in his or her life that they had to overcome, and this film, albeit a majestic tale, relates to that.

Gone With The Wind Blu-rayGone With the Wind, well, what can’t be said about this film that hasn’t been said already?  It was the Titanic of its day, with audiences returning to theaters over and over again to make it the biggest box-office success of the era.  Much can be said about love, far too much for this article, but in the end, it is what we all desire, and after everything the main protagonists fight through, when Rhett Butler looks Scarlett O’Hara in the eyes and tells her that he couldn’t “give a damn,” well, what’s a better way to summarize love than that? 

I wish I had the time to fully go into depth about every single film that came out in this year, but there are only a few yet that I would be remiss not to mention.  John Ford had two fine films to be released in 1939, one being Young Mr. Lincoln, and his other more famous film being Stagecoach.  With the ladder bringing America the debut work of “The Duke,” John Wayne.  What would the American western be if Ford had not cast this then unknown as Ringo Kid?  And with Stagecoach came about the epic, wide open chase sequences that we see in many of films today. 


For instance, when Indiana Jones is chasing down the Nazi trucks for the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the way the whole sequence is shot is very reminiscent of the Native American’s chasing our main protagonists down in Stagecoach.  Or when we see Paul Thomas Anderson’s wide range shots of the Great Plains in There Will Be Blood, one can’t help but to think of Ford’s influence.  Great filmmakers of the present have taken the formula laid before them, and when done properly, expanded on it, and given us new and exciting film moments never to be forgotten.

The Roaring TwentiesWhat would the late 30’s be without a gangster film?  This was when the genre was born, and when the early stages of Film Noir were created, giving the likes of Orson Welles and Humphrey Bogart their shot at immortal fame.  In regards to the ladder, the film The Roaring Twenties, is a rare moment where we get to see Bogart as a pure villain and what a delight it is to see.  Of course we have Casablanca where Bogart is the anti-hero, but there is a certain look in Bogart’s eyes that could strike fear into God.  An excellent film, which begins in World War I, takes us through 1920’s New York prohibition and speakeasies, up until 1929 and “Black Tuesday,” and ending with the immortal line, “He used to be a big shot.”

All of these films above have many common themes we see in the current world today.  Struggling to survive, the dreams of a better and more glorious life, death and war.  And ultimately it was another war that led to studios and Hollywood to drastically change their focus, which is why there would never be another year as magical as this one.  As another decade passes us by, we can look back at this past year, this past decade and remember some truly remarkable films that have been released, but let us never forget what has come before which has allowed for us to see the growth in the film industry we now see today.


Other films from 1939 that one should not miss:

-Ninotchka – A tale of love breaking through the barrier of Communism and commoner.

-Gunga Din – A fantastic War Epic comedy which was a clear allegory for the budding War in Europe, nominated for best Cinematography, starring Cary Grant

-The Women – An all female cast, an industry rarity, even today, imagine what it must have been like then.

Young Mr. Lincoln – Directed by John Ford, nominated for an Oscar in Best Writing, starring Henry Fonda as a young man with a destiny larger then he could possibly realize.




5 Responses to “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year”

  1. Chris

    Another excellent article. Your passion for film is profound and most certainly refreshing.

  2. Brian White

    It certainly is Chris! Adam is a brilliant and gifted writer and we are lucky to have him here on the Why So Blu staff! Now when I get some time I need to open my Wizard of Oz Blu-ray. Adam has motivated me to give it a watch!

  3. Cara

    You managed to perfectly explain what it is that I love about these movies so much, and how every film made today is attempting to recreate the magic Hollywood had back then.

  4. Thor

    Great read! You certainly know your stuff Adam, The Roaring Twenties is one of my favorite Cagney flicks but as you noted, Bogart stole the show whenever he was on. Look forward to your next one.

  5. The Inept Navigator

    After reading this article a few nights ago and as I was doing laundry I saw ‘The Roaring Twenties’ was on Turner Classics. I long for story-telling of that calibur. O the day that will return!

    Sir I enjoy your writing style.
    How about classic comedic movies? I’d love to see that piece!