Golden Year - 1939
One of the topics that I will cover in this column from time to
time is a review of Hollywood films released in a specific year,
with an indication of current DVD availability and desirability. I'm
going to start with perhaps the obvious year - 1939. Obvious, of
course, because it's the year that is most often cited as the Golden
Year of Hollywood's Golden Age. The films released that year
certainly have some of the greatest reputations among classic films.
Is it the single best year for classic films overall? I'm not going
to debate that here, but it is fair to say that a few other years
have a good claim in that respect also. Personally, I've found
virtually any year from 1936 to 1945 to have some pretty persuasive
Before getting into the year's films, I'd like to suggest that a
useful DVD starting point is a disc issued by Whirlwind (Rykodisc) -
Timeline 1939. This provides
an interesting overview of the year's events around the world in the
areas of world affairs, domestic issues, popular culture, and sports
using original footage from newsreels of the time. Included are
trailers for a number of the year's top films plus audio footage of
the year's most popular songs as well as radio newscasts of the
time. The image quality is passable, but any deficiency in that area
is more than compensated for by the wide variety of content. It's a
good way to set the mood for viewing some of 1939's great film
The year 1939 saw 483 feature films produced in the United States.
Less than 10% of them have made it to DVD so far and sadly fewer
than half of those are the year's major films. Public domain and
The obvious film starting point for 1939 is Gone
with the Wind. The making of this epic film under the
guidance of producer David O. Selznick had been a topic of great
interest for over three years. The film was finally premiered in
Atlanta in December. It received widespread critical and public
acceptance and handily won the Academy Award as Best Picture as well
as a number of other Oscars. Originally released on DVD by MGM, the
disc is now distributed by Warner Brothers (WB). What looked
initially to be not a bad-looking disc (at least in comparison to
existing video versions) has come to be considered as a less than
satisfactory presentation of such a fine film. Aside from the image
issues, the supplementary content too is extremely disappointing -
merely a trailer. Given that an outstanding making-of documentary
exists for starters, this DVD needs to be revisited by WB in order
to package the film as it deserves. Fortunately, it appears that
such an effort is on the way for 2004, the film's 65th anniversary.
In winning the 1939 Best Picture Oscar, Gone
with the Wind beat out an impressive field of nine other
nominees including, alphabetically: Dark
Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips,
Love Affair, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka,
Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach,
The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering
Heights. Let's take a closer look at each:
Dark Victory (WB) contains
Bette Davis's fine portrayal of a rich socialite suffering from
blindness. Co-starring is George Brent with support from Geraldine
Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. A DVD is available, again
originating with MGM but now distributed by WB. Recommended.
Goodbye Mr. Chips (MGM) is the
James Hilton story of the shy schoolmaster who becomes a favourite
of the school's boys, with a wonderful performance by Robert Donat.
This is not available on DVD; rights are held by WB.
Love Affair (RKO) will be
familiar to more modern audiences for its remakes as An
Affair to Remember with Cary Grant in 1957 and as Warren
Beatty's Love Affair in 1994.
Both remakes are inferior to the 1939 original which contained
strong work by both Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne as the principals.
The title is in the public domain, and the existing DVD versions
(from Madacy, for example) are in rough shape and not recommended.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
(Columbia) is an excellent film from director Frank Capra and
contains one of Jimmy Stewart's signature roles. It's one of those
films that also includes a virtual who's-who of Hollywood character
actors. A few years ago when Columbia seemingly cared about its
classic titles, the company did this film proud in its DVD release -
a very good transfer and fine supplements. Highly recommended.
Ninotchka (MGM) was a comedy
directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas,
and co-scripted by Billy Wilder - enough said. Except, it's not
available on DVD. WB holds the rights.
Of Mice and Men (UA) was an
outstanding adaptation of the Steinbeck novel, with definitive
performances by Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., and Betty Field
and a memorable turn by Bob Steele. Much superior to the 1992
remake. A fine-looking, if sparse, DVD is available from Image.
Stagecoach (UA) is one of
those western film benchmarks that retains its power 62 years after
it was made. Director John Ford, star John Wayne and another
memorable cast of supporting players make this a must. The DVD
issued by WB contains an image that looks rather beaten up compared
to the best classic film DVDs, but it's still the best the title has
looked on video to date. Recommended.
The Wizard of Oz (MGM)
certainly requires no further comment. A wonderful special edition
DVD is available from WB. Highly recommended.
Wuthering Heights (UA) was a
beautifully-crafted version of the Emily Bronte novel with
outstanding photography from Gregg Toland. Laurence Oliver and Merle
Oberon starred. HBO issued a great-looking transfer of the film on
DVD. It's now out-of-print, but worth looking around for. DVD rights
are currently held by MGM and it will hopefully release this title
in the near future.
I think you would agree that in anyone's book, those are ten pretty
fine films. But they are far from exhausting the year's riches.
Let's take a look at what each of the major studios offered
audiences in 1939.
At Warner Brothers, the main stars were James Cagney, Edward G.
Robinson, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Paul Muni. It also had
Humphrey Bogart (still mired in supporting roles in A pictures and
leads in Bs), up-and-comers John Garfield and Ann Sheridan, old
reliable Pat O'Brien, young reliable Olivia de Havilland, and one of
the finest character actors around - Claude Rains. With this
embarrassment of riches, WB managed to come up with a fine slate of
films, yet aside from the above-mentioned Dark
Victory, only two of them (the B pictures They
Made Me a Criminal and Nancy
Drew, Reporter) are available on DVD. How far we have to
go! Here are some of the key titles, all of whose DVD rights are
held by WB:
Confessions of a Nazi Spy - WB
led the Hollywood studios in dramatizing the approaching Nazi
menace. Here Edward G. Robinson is quietly effective in tracking
down a Nazi spy ring in America.
Dodge City - Errol Flynn in a
rousing Technicolor western epic, well-partnered by Alan Hale and
Guinn Williams. Good villain turns from Bruce Cabot and especially
Victor Jory, but Ann Sheridan was wasted in an undeveloped role.
Each Dawn I Die and The
Roaring Twenties - Two opportunities to see the
incomparable James Cagney at his peak. Each film is highly
entertaining, with Humphrey Bogart prominent in the latter and able
support from the Warner stock company in both.
Four Wives - Sequels are
nothing new for Hollywood and this one was a follow-up to the
previous year's successful Four Daughters. It didn't have John
Garfield this time, but it did have Claude Rains again and that was
enough. Fine contemporary Americana. Juarez. Paul Muni's final
historical biography as the Mexican liberator, buttressed by a
top-notch cast including Bette Davis, Claude Rains, John Garfield,
and Brian Aherne, plus an array of familiar character actors. Superb
production values throughout.
The Oklahoma Kid -
Occasionally derided because it places the likes of James Cagney and
Humphrey Bogart in the old west, but this is a very entertaining
piece. Cagney has the title role and Bogart is his nemesis, the
black-garbed villain Whip McCord.
The Old Maid - Bette Davis and
Miriam Hopkins fight it out for screen time in this adaptation of an
Edith Wharton novel. Frequent Davis male-lead George Brent also
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
- Another of the studio's Technicolor efforts with Bette Davis
jousting with Errol Flynn whose casting she was unhappy with. Flynn
and a strong supporting cast were left in Davis' dust.
They Made Me a Criminal -
Melodrama about a boxer on the run after being accused of murder.
John Garfield, Ann Sheridan and Claude Rains star with the Dead End
Kids. An interesting departure for musical director Busby Berkeley.
Available on DVD from various public domain companies including a
pretty good version from Front Row Entertainment.
We Are Not Alone - Paul Muni
delivered his last performance for WB in this drama of a small-town
doctor accused of killing his wife. After a string of successful
historical biographies, Muni gave an unexpectedly restrained
performance. Largely forgotten now, but unjustly so.
Over at MGM, usually considered the Cadillac of Hollywood studios,
the list of stars was almost too long to list. They had Clark Gable,
Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, William Powell, Mickey
Rooney, the Marx Brothers, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Greer Garson,
Norma Shearer, Judy Garland, Greta Garbo,
well, you get the
idea. MGM's films were about as polished-looking a product as
Hollywood produced. The plots often lacked the edge that one found
in Warner Brothers' films, but the entertainment value couldn't be
denied. Gone with the Wind (an
MGM release, but not an MGM production), Goodbye
Mr. Chips, Ninotchka,
and The Wizard of Oz have
already been mentioned, but there were other good entries from the
company that year. Only one of those mentioned below is on DVD. The
DVD rights to the MGM films are held by WB:
Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever,
The Hardys Ride High, Judge
Hardy and Son - The year saw three entries in the popular
Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney. Each film was fairly
typical of what to expect from the series, although Judge Hardy and
Son was a little more downbeat than most.
Another Thin Man - This was
the third entry in the Thin Man
series with William Powell and Myrna Loy repeating their roles as
Nick and Nora. An enjoyable outing with Otto Kruger, C. Aubrey
Smith, and Ruth Hussey among the supporting cast.
At the Circus - The Marx
Brothers' latest outing was another entertaining vehicle although
not in the same league as their earlier MGM releases such as A
Night at the Opera and A Day
at the Races. Margaret Dumont appeared again as Groucho's
foil. Babes in Arms. The enjoyable first entry in a series of
energetic musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The
plots usually involved putting on a show.
Northwest Passage - Based on
the first half of Kenneth Roberts' book of the same title (the
second half was never filmed), the resulting film had a lot to do
with marauding Indians, but little with finding a northwest passage
through Canada. Entertaining and exciting and shot in Technicolor,
with Spencer Tracy, Robert Young , and Walter Brennan.
The Women - A delicious tale
of marital discord and jealousy among women, with an all-female cast
featuring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and Joan
Crawford. Directed by George Cukor. Available on DVD from WB and
20th Century-Fox lacked the overall high quality roster of stars
that MGM and WB had, although there were certainly many talented
people under contract. The studio attempted to compensate with close
attention to good-quality scripts and production values, and also
benefited greatly from the presence of Darryl Zanuck as chief of
production. Key faces in 1939 were Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Henry
Fonda, Don Ameche, Shirley Temple, and, oh yes, the Ritz Brothers.
Like Warners, Fox relied on a strong stock company of character
actors, including John Carradine, Jane Darwell, Nigel Bruce, and
Henry Hull. Fox, for the most part retains the DVD rights to its own
films. Among the company's stronger films for the year (only one of
them currently on DVD) were:
The Hound of the Baskervilles
and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
- The first two appearances of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as
Holmes and Watson. The success of these films spawned a lengthy,
fondly-remembered series from Universal starring the two principals.
Coming on DVD from MPI in early 2004.
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
- One of the best of the long-running series, this time starring
Sidney Toler as Chan with support from Cesar Romero and Pauline
Drums Along the Mohawk - Life
in the Mohawk Valley prior to the Revolutionary War as directed by
John Ford. Thoughtful and exciting and in Technicolor, with a fine
cast including Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. Hollywood
Cavalcade. Another Technicolor outing and a fun recreation of early
Hollywood. With Don Ameche and Alice Faye.
Jesse James - The usual
fictionalized account with Tyrone Power in the title role and Henry
Fonda as Frank James. Technicolor again and a good use of location
work in Missouri.
The Little Princess - One of
Shirley Temple's best films, in which she goes from little rich girl
to servant at a boarding school when it is learned that her father
has been killed and she left penniless. Shot in Technicolor.
Available from numerous public domain specialists, with Slingshot's
release possibly the best of a mediocre lot.
The Rains Came - Fine drama of
doctor returning to India to help townspeople of Ranchipur.
Excellent earthquake and flood special effects. With Tyrone Power,
Myrna Loy, and George Brent.
The Story of Alexander Graham Bell
- The role for which Don Ameche was best known. With Loretta Young,
Henry Fonda, and Charles Coburn.
Young Mr. Lincoln - Ford and
Fonda again. A beautifully-realized portrait of Lincoln, the young
lawyer, in Illinois, but not to be mistaken for 1940's Abe
Lincoln in Illinois.
In 1939, Paramount was only beginning to come out of a tailspin
that had seen it file for bankruptcy earlier in the decade. It
relied on the occasional Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster, Gary Cooper,
Barbara Stanwyck, and lighter fare from the likes of Bob Hope, Bing
Crosby, Ray Milland, and Fred MacMurray. Better days were ahead with
Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder coming into their own in the 1940s,
but for now, most of Paramount's product lagged behind the other
majors. The DVD rights to Paramount films are controlled by
Universal. None of the following highlights are available on DVD.
Beau Geste - The definitive
version of the oft-filmed tale of the French Foreign Legion. Gary
Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Brian Donlevy star.
The Cat and the Canary - This
old-dark-house tale with Bob Hope's brand of humour mixed in proved
to be a winner. A remake of the 1927 version, also starring Paulette
Midnight - Very funny comedy
of marital mix-up from the pen of Billy Wilder. With Claudette
Colbert, Don Ameche, and John Barrymore.
Rulers of the Sea - The first
steamship crossing of the Atlantic becomes a fairly entertaining
film. With Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
The Star Maker - Musical
biography of a Broadway impresario who turns children into stars is
simply another standard Bing Crosby vehicle of the time.
Union Pacific - This is one of
Cecil B. DeMille's extravaganzas and a pretty entertaining western
with two reliables - Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea - in the lead
RKO with its seemingly endless management turnovers struggled
throughout its existence to retain first-rate stars. In 1939, the
major players on the lot were Cary Grant (who split his time with
Columbia), Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball, with the likes of
Maureen O'Hara and Tim Holt just breaking in. Otherwise, the studio
tended to rely on loan-outs from other studios for some of its
films' lead roles. DVD rights to RKO films are for the most part
controlled by WB. The best of the year's releases, including Love
Affair mentioned above, were as follows. Only two of them
are on DVD.
Bachelor Mother - Fine comedy in which store clerk Ginger Rogers is
mistaken for the mother of an abandoned baby. With David Niven and
direction by Garson Kanin.
Five Came Back - An airplane
disaster film predating the disaster genre of the 1970s. Starring
Lucille Ball and Chester Morris, from quite a literate script
courtesy of Dalton Trumbo and others.
The Flying Deuces - Laurel and
Hardy in an entertaining outing as a hapless pair from Des Moines in
the French Foreign Legion. Not the boys' best, but far from their
worst. Available on DVD from numerous public domain specialists, but
none of the releases are great. Goodtimes' version is probably as
good as any in Region 1.
Gunga Din - Hollywood
adventure par-excellence with Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and directed by George Stevens.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame -
A rich amalgam of Hollywood expertise makes this a memorable
version, with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. Previously available on
DVD from WB (but now seemingly out of print) and recommended
although not a restoration in the same league as recent Warner
In Name Only - Top-notch
melodrama about a loveless marriage starring Cary Grant, Carole
Lombard, and Kay Francis. Nicely directed by John Cromwell.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
- This was the last of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers collaborations
at RKO, still entertaining but the least successful, probably
because it departed from the usual musical comedy and was more of a