Essays: The best American films of 1939 |
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The best American films of 1939

by Peter Bogdanovich

Everyone’s always doing ten-best lists at the end of each year when really the only way to do them right is twenty or thirty years later. Some perspective might be possible then, though it would help to see all the movies again, since outlooks change as much as the films themselves date or don’t. Two months ago, I tried to deal with a list of the ten-best films ever made and found that an impossible task even to justify. On a yearly basis, it seems to me, the odds are even tougher. For example, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby was soundly blasted in 1938 by the critic for The New York Times as well as by some other reviewers as a silly, insipid waste of time; Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were panned for their frivolous performances, and the picture was not even a financial success. Until 1961 when the New Yorker Theatre revived the movie (in a series called "The Forgotten Film") and, the following year, when The Museum of Modern Art included it in a three-month Howard Hawks retrospective, Bringing Up Baby had never received even the slightest degree of respectability, except in France, where Truffaut, Godard, Bazin and other revolutionary critics had "discovered" Hawks in the mid-Fifties.

This year, however, reviewing a movie I directed called What’s Up, Doc?, a few critics compared it unfavourably to Bringing Up Baby, which they now referred to as an old comedy classic. (Of course, it serves me right since I had programmed both the New Yorker and Museum showings and then made the mistake of saying in interviews that Hawks’ picture was the inspiration for mine; never offer critics ammunition. I should have said my movie was inspired by Trader Horn or just kept my mouth shut). Anyway, bearing in mind the history of Bringing Up Baby, I’m looking forward to 2006 for the definitive critical word on What’s Up, Doc? As the man said, times change.

Take 1939, the year I was born. Like most of the great golden years of Hollywood – to my taste they turn slowly to some lesser metal toward the end of the Fifties – it is simply too rich to easily categorize or safely pigeonhole. The big movie news was a little something David Selznick put together called Gone With the Wind. It won eight Oscars, including one for director Victor Fleming, even though George Cukor, Sam Wood and Selznick himself had directed various lengthy sequences; but then Fleming had also guided Judy Garland through another of that year’s favourites, The Wizard of Oz. Selznick also brought Ingrid Bergman to America that year in Intermezzo (Gregory Ratoff directing), and Wood directed Robert Donat’s Oscar-winning performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. William Wyler, with the help of writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, producer Samuel Goldwyn, photographer Gregg Toland, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, turned Miss Brontë’s Wuthering Heights into a successful movie which the New York Film Critics voted the best of the year. Hecht and MacArthur also had a hand in reshaping Mr. Kipling for George Stevens’ Gunga Din. Garbo laughed for Melvyn Douglas in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and Dietrich got shot for Jimmy Stewart in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again. Stewart also gave what most people – including the New York Film Critics but not the majority of those in the Academy –considered the best performance of the year in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (As often happens, Academy members made up to Jimmy the following year by giving him an Oscar for a much less impressive job in The Philadelphia Story.)

For cultists of various sorts, the year may be memorable for other reasons: the first Henry Aldrich movie perhaps. (Remember the radio version? "Heeenry! Heenry Aldrich!" "Co-oming, Mother!") A quite nice little comedy it was too, called What A Life, directed by a gentleman named Jay Theodore Reed, and written by two now somewhat more famous names, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who also worked on the divine Ninotchka that year, not to mention Midnight, a delightful semi-screwball comedy Mitchell Leisen directed. W.C. Fields’ fans will remember 1939 as the year of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (George Marshall directed), and Busby Berkeley buffs will think of Babes in Arms with Miss Garland and Mickey Rooney. For Bette Davis admirers it was, of course, a vintage four-handkerchief year, as Bette went gallantly blind in Dark Victory, sacrificed herself nobly for her daughter in The Old Maid (both under Edmund Goulding’s tender hand) and had a fling with Errol Flynn in a bit of Warner Bros. historicalresearch, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (directed by Michael Curtiz). About on the same level, and also for Warner’s, Mr. Paul Muni (that was his billing) distinguished himself even more dubiously than ever in William Dieterle’s Juarez, while the big “political” movie came from Burbank too with Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy. John Cromwell directed Carole Lombard in two uncharacteristically teary vehicles she managed to transcend, with Jimmy Stewart’s help in Made for Each Other and Cary Grant’s in In Name Only. Charles Laughton didn’t live up to Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle again), nor did Zoltan Korda’s remake of Four Feathers to memories of the original.

But what were really the best American films of 1939, now that we’ve had thirty-three years to live with them? Well, the New York Film Critics gave their Best Direction Award to John Ford for his first sound western, Stagecoach and, happily,they weren’t far wrong. In fact, it is debatable whether he should have got it for that film or for another one of his released that year, Young Mr. Lincoln. Iprefer the second myself, but I wouldn’t want to live on the difference, since Stagecoach not only revitalized westerns, but actually revolutionized the genre. Inspired by de Maupassant’s Boule-de-suif, Stagecoach was the first “adult” western, made John Wayne a star in respectable pictures (as opposed to Republic programmers), gave us our first look at Monument Valley (Ford has since been back there for eight other movies, more memorably each time), and brought an almost expressionistic artistry to a form that had until then been likable but hardly profound.

Young Mr. Lincoln, seen now in the perspective of Ford’s work since 1939, is a considerably more personal work, which is one of the main reasons I like it so much. Not only does Henry Fonda give a classic performance in the title role, distilling the very essence of the Lincoln myth, but it is as beautiful a piece of American folklore as has ever been made – a poetic vision of Lincoln’s youth and destiny that is as simple in its telling as it is complex and poignant in its reverberations.

As if Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln were not enough to make Mr. Ford the film maker of the year, he also directed Drums Along the Mohawk, his first color movie, and a much more potent piece of Americana than Gone With the Wind, though both are based on best sellers of small literary distinction. (Actually I also prefer to the Selznick landmark two other films of quasi-American history that came out that year: King Vidor’s Northwest Passage and Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific.)

Another of my favorite movies, Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, was released in 1939; his first since Bringing Up Baby, it also starred Cary Grant. An evocative and richly dramatic picture about the flying of primitive planes through dangerous weather at a fogbound South American airport, it brings to fruition most of the Hawksian themes of friendship among men which he’d been developing since A Girl in Every Port in 1928, and which he continued to explore in later films like Air Force, To Have and Have Not and Rio Bravo.

As we get to this ten-best list of 1939, bear in mind that the game is always a little suspect (even after thirty years), since the pictures are often too dissimilar to compare or rate beside one another, and that the films – particularly those at the top of the list – are all of such quality that the distinctions must be purely personal.

1. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford’s first masterpiece).
2. Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks’ adventure story with Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth).
3. Ninotchka (Lubitsch’s hilarious and humane satire on cold-war machinations, advertised with the key phrase: "Garbo Laughs").
4. Stagecoach (Ford again, with Claire Trevor, John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell – he got a Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance of the drunken doctor).
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra’s irresistible political fantasy with Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell again, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold).
6. Love Affair (Among Leo McCarey’s most successful and characteristic mixtures of comedy and pathos – a touching affirmation of the picture’s theme song, Wishing Will Make It So, with impeccable acting from Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer).
7. Drums Along the Mohawk (Ford yet again, with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert).
8. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh’s terrific gangster picture about the rise and fall of a “big shot,” featuring one of James Cagney’s most memorable performances, and one of Bogart’s least).
9. The Women (George Cukor’s immaculately mounted version of Claire Luce’s brittle, bitchy stage play, with a dazzling all-girl cast including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard).
10. A toss-up between Gunga Din, Destry Rides Again, Midnight, Union Pacific, Northwest Passage and, I guess there’s no way around it, Gone With the Wind.
Besides the pictures I’ve already mentioned, there were several others that year worth remembering and seeing sometime, among them: Josef von Sternberg’s Sergeant Madden, not much of a plot but damn good to look at; Walsh’s St. Louis Blues, a likable programmer of some distinction; Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, a period failure but consistently interesting; John Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes, a tear-jerker with conviction; Fifth Avenue Girl, a minor Gregory La Cava comedy, but still La Cava; Allan Dwan’s blunt, unadorned look at the Wyatt Earp story, Frontier Marshal; two little Garson Kanin comedies, Bachelor Mother and The Great Man Votes, the second starring John Barrymore toward the end of his decline, but still John Barrymore.
By any measure, it was an extraordinarily vigorous year for American movies, and not a little disheartening to contemplate in comparison to the meager pickings of the Seventies. Of course, there were four hundred seventy-six U.S. pictures released in 1939 – as opposed to one hundred forty-three in 1971; nevertheless, imagine a director of Ford’s calibre today – even if there was one – having three major films released the same year. And no one thought all that much of it in those mercifully unselfconscious days; as Ford would say, it was just "a job of work."

August 1972