by Bill Grinnell
Part of our limited series Banner Year
1939 is consistently considered to be Hollywood’s greatest year. More well received, popular, and well remembered films came out in 1939 than any other.
It’s called a Banner Year. Unfortunately, the term is currently so bandied about that it has lost almost all of its meaning. Banner Years are supposed to be rare. It takes some sort of magic to make so many films come together in just one calendar year which endure forever. Today the slightest accomplishment is proclaimed a banner year. “It was a banner year for super hero movies” or “it was a banner year for special effects.” It takes away everything that is special about an actual Banner Year, and for the record, there haven’t been that many of them. Only a small handful in fact. 1925, 1937, 1939, 1940, 1964, 1972, 1974, and 1984. That’s it.
A Banner Year was the confluence of three different events all at the same time, and all in large numbers:
- a large number of critically well received films
- a large number of large box office successes
- and a large combination of those two which continue on today in our memories.
and the greatest of all of these was the year 1939.
Gone With the Wind
The 10,000 pound gorilla in the room, Gone With the Wind personifies the Old Hollywood. While controversial today because of its inaccuracies in portraying the old South (slavery in particular,) it still has its almost magical ability to irresistibly lure audiences in to it. With inflation adjusted sales at over $3 billion, it’s still the highest grossing film of all time.
The Wizard of Oz
The best known, most enduring and most loved in our present day film of 1939 is undoubtedly The Wizard of Oz. Entire generations grew up with its yearly television airings and it continues to captivate children (and secretly their parents) right up to the present day.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Straight out of the values of Depression era America. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continues to show us the evils of political corruption, and extols that oh so American philosophy that the good people with their untainted hearts can still win the day.
The quintessential Old Hollywood Western directed by the genre’s greatest: John Ford. It features all the elements you think of: Indian attacks, the cavalry to the rescue, and the loner protagonist with deep convictions. It turned westerns into A Pictures rather than second billing B Pictures.
Still a powerful film today, Emily Brontë’s Gothic Romance Wuthering Heights tells the story up through the deaths of Heathcliff and Cathy. It marked the American debut of Laurence Olivier and is still considered the best film adaptation of this classic of English literature.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
A shy, unsure of himself teacher in an English boys school goes on to become its most venerated Master. It still has its ability to warm the heart and is totally driven by Robert Donat’s Oscar winning performance.
Young Mr. Lincoln
Directed by John Ford and starring one of his three favorite actors, Henry Fonda. Young Mr. Lincoln is set during the early life of Lincoln and his days as a country lawyer. It harkens back to a time when children were still taught to venerate Abraham Lincoln and is still thoroughly enjoyable today.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The most remembered telling of the Victor Hugo classic. Starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara in her screen debut playing Esmeralda. It had phenomenal sets for a film made in 1939 and Laughton’s makeup still impresses today.
One of those “three buddies in the Foreign Services” films. It was highly popular then but would be considered outright offensive today by many. It portrayed the Indian people as uncivilized, dumb and even evil. White actors in makeup which is essentially blackface because it’s so bad looking to us today. I haven’t seen it in years, and I’m considering writing about it here to outline how bad things were and how much has changed since.
The Story of Alexander Graham Bell
I have to confess I haven’t seen this one in eons. But I suspect it may have noticeably aged since then. The story is straightforward and stars Don Ameche as Bell and Henry Fonda as Watson. I may have to write about this one too.
The Ones Most Don’t Know Now
These are ones that most people today have no awareness of, but they belong on the list just the same. Even I haven’t seen all of these. More than one scores a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Bette Davis as a brain tumor patient. She was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Vivien Leigh. I have to admit I am not a Davis fan, but many will find this watchable
Greta Garbo as a Soviet emissary sent to Paris to complete a transaction in this still wonderful Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy. With Melvin Douglas as her love interest. Under the veil of comedy, this was one of the first films which portrayed Soviet life as dark and grey.
Of Mice and Men
Still critically acclaimed with a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this was the first film adaptation of the book. It stars Lon Chaney Jr. as Lenny and Burgess Meredith as George. This is one you should definitely see.
Drums Along the Mohawk
Believe it or not, Action-Adventure films weren’t invented in the 80s. In his third film of the year, John Ford directs Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in this action-adventure set during the Revolution.
Destry Rides Again
Jimmy Stuart and Marlene Dietrich–what more do you need to hear? Casting that should not have worked actually does work in this classic Western.
Remake of the silent version scene for scene. A French Foreign Legion adventure movie, it holds a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
130 speaking parts, all played by women. A monumental achievement with a star studded cast in a film about divorce and cattiness amongst women in the upper class.
A rising boxer story which now holds a 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though it was quite popular and well received in 1939. It was William Holden’s breakout role which led to him being cast in the lead of Our Town in 1940.
Stanley and Livingstone
Another action adventure, this time about the famous Stanley and Livingstone. It has apparently aged badly with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 50%. I haven’t seen it in ages, but from what I remember I can see how certain things would have become archaic by now.
You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man
W.C. Fields. What more is there to say? It’s actually one of his lesser efforts and today, like more than a couple Fields pictures, it can be slow and run out of gas.
Babes in Arms
The best of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” movies. I haven’t seen this one, but I do know there is at least one thing in here that is way out of place in 2021. Rooney and Garland do a minstrel act, complete with blackface. Yikes! It does have a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes though.
The Roaring Twenties
One of the finest gangster movies ever made, it still holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Featuring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, it also has the iconic shooting of Cagney on the courthouse steps in the final scene.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
A well liked and received historical drama about the fictionalized relationship between Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. Starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, it comes across as rather average today.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
The iconic Sherlock Holmes movie with its fog, rich black and white photography, shadows and light, and that hat. Still very watchable and enjoyable with a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The best Western you’ve never seen–with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes to prove it. Standard “cattle man’s best buddy is killed so he becomes sheriff to clean up the town” story, and you never once say “oh this again” or get bored with it. Recognize the Skipper’s look alike father Alan Hale Sr. in the photo?
The original happy ending at the top of the Empire State building romance film. Starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. It still holds up quite well. It’s better known remake An Affair to Remember came out 18 years later with Cary Grant and Debra Kerr.
This film about Emperors Napoleon II and Maximilian was well liked in 1939, but is now seen as plodding and over long. Starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Muni.
The Rains Came
The first “cobble together a story to lead up to the big special effects disaster at the end” movie. Some things never change. This one featured an earthquake with a flood thrown in for good measure. But it was popular and won the first special effects Oscar.
Intermezzo: A Love Story
Set in Vienna during the lead up to the war. Driven in no small part by the luminescence of Ingrid Bergman in her breakout role. Another film from 1939 with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Cat and the Canary
A “reading the will and comedic mayhem ensues in a spooky old house overnight” movie. Probably Bob Hope’s best movie away from the “Road” pictures, and with the captivating Paulette Goddard on your side how can you go wrong?
A Cecil B. deMille epic that fared well enough in its day. But like many deMille films, today it’s seen as overlong and somewhat plodding. It has a 65% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Wildly popular, it was the third highest grossing movie of 1939. While still praised for its photography and production values, it comes under scrutiny today for its historical inaccuracies and animal abuse. It has a mixed score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Five Came Back
A movie that inspired both Gilligan’s Island and one of the more popular episodes of the original Star Trek can’t be all bad. A plane crashes into the jungles of Africa in the middle of headhunter territory. Originally a B picture, it became so popular it’s status was elevated. Lucille Ball’s breakout movie.
The Four Feathers
Considered to be the best film adaptation of the book, this desert epic is also considered the grandfather to the greatest desert epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Yet another film from 1939 with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
One of the most popular serials of all time, second only to The Perils of Pauline (1914) and surely the most recognizable one today.
Films in this article with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes Rating:
- Young Mr. Lincoln
- Of Mice and Men
- Beau Geste
- The Roaring Twenties
- Dodge City
- The Four Feathers
Films in this article with a 96%-99% Rotten Tomatoes Rating:
- The Wizard of Oz
- Mr Smith Goes to Washington
- Wuthering Heights
- Destry Rides Again
Films in this article with a 91%-95% Rotten Tomatoes Rating:
- Gone With the Wind
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Gunga Din
- The Hound of the Baskervilles