The greatest year in movie history: Looking back at 1939 Movie History
CHARLOTTE, NC. Movie buffs, critics and film historians can look back at the decade of the 1960s as a time when cinema flourished with classic pictures. A partial list includes Psycho, The Graduate, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Bond. You can name dozens more. But for all the movie richness available mid-20th century, nothing even comes close to 1939.
Many regard 1939 as the single greatest year in motion picture history.
But what caused the collective greatness of so many accomplished years 80 years ago? That my friends, is the question Myth Trivia pursues today.
Looking back in time — What came before Tinseltown’s greatest year?
Think about the multitude of technological advances in the film industry during the past eight decades. You have to wonder — what created the “perfect storm” that created Hollywood’s 1939 evergreen hit parade? A string of great films that still shine brightly for nearly a century later.
After all, at that time “talkies,” or motion pictures with synchronized sound, had only been around for little more than ten years. And theater owners spend about half of that time was up-fitting their ornate pleasure palaces to accommodate the new audio phenomenon.
In addition, cameras of that era were noisy and bulky.
Combined with unsophisticated sound equipment that provided a scratchy sound quality to movies that were less than satisfactory and things couldn’t have looked that promising, even in 1939.
None of this particularly surprised anyone at the time it unfolded. Historically, the United States was in a prolonged period of massive transition. America was crawling out of the Great Depression while finding the country unwillingly drafted into World War II at almost precisely the same time.
In such chaotic times, movies were a pure escape for the masses. Better yet, they were affordable for most Americans. That’s why movie patrons flocked to the theaters in droves.
Technical advances make movie palaces even more enticing. So did the technical quality of films
Many of the movie houses featured something called air conditioning. It was cool inside or warm and dry. Motion pictures represented a chance for Americans to believe that they, too, could somehow live the glamorous, romantic lives of their favorite movie stars.
With the exciting advent of Technicolor, a bold, new, more realistic dimension contributed greatly to the film-going experience.
Add Hollywood’s “Star System”
In 1939, all of the major movie studios had their “stars” under contact. Furthermore, studios owned many of the theaters, thereby allowing them to not only control marketing and publicity for their actors but to also provide guaranteed distribution and running dates for their pictures.
All of which combines to explain the popularity of movies in 1939, but still doesn’t solve the mystery of why there were such a plethora of quality films.
Delving more deeply into Hollywood’s greatest year in movie history
Hollywood distributed 365 movies in 1939. That averages out to one per day. Certainly every motion picture that year didn’t win laurels as a “classic.” but there had to be a reason or reasons why so many great movies managed to hit the silver screen in a single, glorious year.
For starters, the country was “growing up.” Post-depression, pre-WWII America stretched out with new ideas and renewed creativity. Movies created and displayed larger than life images and personalities to mass audiences. This, in turn, inspired a hunger among creative young writers, producers, and directors to make their mark in this new and growing entertainment genre.
Myth Trivia resurrects the Top Ten films of 1939
The Hollywood Academy nominated the following films for Best Picture in 1939. Looking at these films in 2019, many might agree that this list reads like a rundown of the Top Ten films of all time
• Dark Victory
• Goodbye, Mr. Chips
• Love Affair
• Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
• Of Mice and Men
• Wuthering Heights
• The Wizard of Oz
• Gone with the Wind (Best Picture winner)
Even today, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind remain two of the most recognizable pictures of all time. That begins to explain the quality and strength of motion picture production in 1939.
Add in the fact that Victor Fleming gained immortality as the director of record on both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and you begin to see the evolutionary trend. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is still the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Each of the five nominees for Best Director of 1939 went on to become a legendary film director with multiple acclaimed films to his credit: Frank Capra, Victor Fleming, John Ford, Sam Wood, and William Wyler.
Two other factors played a significant role in the embarrassment of riches Hollywood enjoyed in 1939, accidental though they may have been.
First, the rise of Nazism drove numerous refugee filmmakers to the United States, creating an abundance of fresh talent.
Secondly, American moviegoers were buying an average of 80 million tickets each week without the competition of television, which ironically did not make its debut until 1939 at the New York World’s Fair.
With so much additional clout, producers had more freedom, which, in turn, allowed them to utilize their most creative directors whom they could count on to turn out responsible films.
Five Academy Award Nominations
In a single week, five of the ten movies available that week —The Wizard of Oz, Love Affair, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Wuthering Heights–went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Other influences that had no direct link to the box office magic of 1939’s production excellence, but were major factors in the feeding frenzy of movie popularity were the movie deals made. Like David O. Selznick “discovering” Vivien Leigh, casting the British actress in Gone With the Wind:
Or casting the Swedish Ingrid Bergman in 1939 American remake of Intermezzo.
When Judy Garland wasn’t dancing with the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, she was dancing with Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms at a time when Rooney had just eclipsed Shirley Temple as Hollywood’s leading box-office attraction.
Though Stagecoach was not John Wayne’s first film, it was a breakthrough for him on the big screen. Not only was Stagecoach popular at the box office, filmmakers often view it as one of the most influential films of all time – even outside of the Western genre.
Bottom line, next time you’re bored and looking for a good movie to watch, check the date. If it says 1939, chances are good it’s a winner.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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