best film: The Rules of the Game is Renoir’s lyrical masterpiece. His camera glides in and out of the lives of an enchanting ensemble giving us the best film of the entire decade.
most underrated: Gunga Din from George Stevens influences everything in the adventure/action genre from Indiana Jones to Butch Cassidy, 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. The sublime chemistry between the three leads here (Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is easily worthy of a top 1000 of all-time slot and the TSPDT consensus can barely fit it into the top 2000 (currently at #1877)
most overrated: Only Angels Have Wings from Howard Hawks. I love this film so it pains me to put it here. Cary Grant, Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur have rarely been better. Yet, the TSPDT consensus has it at #233 and I can’t find a spot for it in the top 500.
gem I want to spotlight: The Roaring Twenties is Raoul Walsh’s second best film (White Heat) and nobody ever talks about it. It has Walsh’s trademark brisk editing and features more than stellar performances from Cagney and Bogart.
trends and notables:
- 1939 is a behemoth of a year. It is often cited as Hollywood golden year and it is warranted- the year is easily the best of the era. For example, Stagecoach is the 3rd best film of 1939 but it’s 5th of the entire decade. Only Angels Have Wings is 10th of the year here and 40th for the entire decade on my top 100 of the 1930’s list and so on.
- Young Mr. Lincoln (one of three 1939 films for Ford) isn’t on my current top 10 of 1939. That’s unreal. It would be in or near the top 5 of any other year from the 1930’s with maybe one other exception.
- The depth is there, too 1936 also gave us 30+ archiveable films for the first time ever but we’re well into the 30’s here (36 right now) with our overall archive count and there are top 5 of the year quality films at the bottom of a top 10 and top 10 quality films that can’t find a spot at all in the top 10
- The 1940’s would not fully continue the momentum of 1939 but we also had a war breaking out and happening in much of the world.
- Victor Fleming and the auteur theory (or counter-theory) are front and center as he directs both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Credit for them isn’t the same as say Renoir directing his two masterpieces—Selznick and Cukor had a big hand in Gone With the Wind
- there are shots and sequences still relevant and referenced today from 1939. The door opening going from a black and white world to one of color in The Wizard of Oz (used in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, First Man), the crane shot here in Gone With the Wind is tied to both say Intolerance and The Lord of the Rings— Ford’s flying tracking shot in on John Wayne introducing him as the Ringo Kid has been used by Scorsese in so many films (including rushing in on Ray Liotta face in Goodfellas)
- It is a great year of archiveable debuts. Maureen O’Hara leaps off the screen in both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jamaica Inn. 1939 gives us the first archiveable film for William Holden in Golden Boy. Rita Hayworth will absolutely make you say “who is that?!?” in Only Angels Have Wings and Joan Fontaine starts her impressive career with The Women and Gunga Din. Last, but certainly not least, the great Laurence Olivier starts his storied career in Wuthering Heights. There is no apprenticeship here for Olivier- he comes out looking like one of the best actors in the world right away.
best performance male: A magnificent year of films yields a multitude of strong performances here. There is nobody better than Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind. He was dubbed “the king of Hollywood”- and it is fitting he’d lead the way in Hollywood’s great year. The Rules of the Game is more of an ensemble piece on the male actor side, and The Wizard of Oz doesn’t really have a male candidate either so after Gable you have to go with Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a very worthy #2 this year. Other good options that can’t be ignored include John Wayne in his star-making performance in Stagecoach and Cary Grant – strong in two of the best ten films of the year. I’m also going to give a mention for the great Thomas Mitchell. His 1939 is uncanny. He’s in five archiveable films in 1939—that’s amazing in itself. But, get this, he’s in four of the top ten films of the year. Now he’s not in much of Gone With the Wind and if you take him out of it, not much changes, but the other three (led by Stagecoach)—he’s invaluable to.
best performance female: It’s even harder to pick the best female performance of the year. I’ve changed my mind a few times already prior to writing but I’m going to go with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Her performance here is deserving of its iconic status. Clearly though the biggest debate in 1939 in this category with Garland is Vivien Leigh who gives one of the best performances of the decade in Gone With the Wind. If you asked me tomorrow I may very well go with Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara over Garland—haha. In almost any other year Nora Gregor gives the best female performance of the year for her work in The Rules of the Game or even Jean Arthur– both in Mr. Smith and Only Angels Have Wings.
- The Rules of the Game
- Gone With the Wind
- The Wizard of Oz
- The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
- Smith Goes to Washington
- Gunga Din
- The Roaring Twenties
- Le Jour Se Leve
- Only Angels Have Wings
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|Babes in Arms- Berkeley||R|
|Dark Victory- Goulding||R|
|Destry Rides Again- G. Marshall||HR|
|Dodge City- Curtiz|
|Drums Along the Mohawk- Ford||R|
|Golden Boy– Mamoulian||R|
|Gone With the Wind- Fleming||MP|
|Goodbye Mr. Chips- S. Wood||HR|
|Gunga Din- Stevens||MS|
|It’s a Wonderful World- Van Dyke||R|
|Jamaica Inn– Hitchcock||R|
|Jesse James- H. King||R|
|Le Jour Se Leve- Carne||MS|
|Love Affair– McCarey||R/HR|
|Made For Each Other – Cromwell||R|
|Mr. Smith Goes To Washington- Capra||MS|
|Of Mice of Men- Milestone||R|
|Only Angels Have Wings- Hawks||HR/MS|
|Son of Frankenstein- V. Lee||R|
|The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Thorpe||R|
|The Four Feathers– Korda||HR|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame- Dieterle||R|
|The Oklahoma Kid- Bacon||R|
|The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex- Curtiz||R|
|The Roaring Twenties- Walsh||MS|
|The Rules of the Game- Renoir||MP|
|The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum- Mizoguchi||MS|
|The Wizard of Oz- Fleming||MP|
|The Women- Cukor||R|
|They Made Me a Criminal- Berkeley||R|
|Wuthering Heights- Wyler||HR|
|Young Mr. Lincoln- Ford||HR|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives