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THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thirty years ago I wrote a column extolling what was considered by critics and film buffs to be the greatest year in movie history. These days, the consensus is a little more clouded. While modern critics concede that 1939 was a very good year, they are just as likely to cite 1972, when ‘The Godfather’ led a parade of fine movies, albeit from a more up-to-date, often R-rated era. Or 1991, led by ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ But elderly guy that I am, I still prefer the older classics, as reflected in this story, published in the Deseret News on July 21, 1989, under the headline, ‘1939: The Peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age.’

Ask any movie buff and he or she will tell you that the late 1930s and early 1940s comprise what has come to be known as Hollywood's Golden Age. And if you narrow it further, you'll find most in agreement that 1939 was the peak of that age, a year when more "classic" films were released than any other 12-month period in motion-picture history.

 

Do I detect a modicum of doubt?

 

In terms of sheer numbers, of course, Hollywood's theatrical film output during the ’30s and ’40s is unrivaled. The studio system was going strong and literally hundreds of movies — most on double-bills — were released annually, without competition from anything resembling television or home video.

 

But during 1939 there seemed to have been a particular outpouring of talent in the writing, directing and acting that combined to produce an amazing number of glorious movies — movies that remain highly entertaining and inspirational 50 years later.

 

Two MGM examples stand out, both because they are superbly crafted pictures at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum and because MGM is touting them anew with special theatrical and video releases to celebrate their respective 50th anniversaries — "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."

 

 

 

And those are certainly two of the most enduring and beloved films of all time.

 

But there were many more in 1939. And though we may quibble about the "classic" status of some, their current popularity in varying degrees is indisputable.

 

(And perhaps someone should notify Ted Turner that of all the pictures released that year, only 10 were in color.)

 

There's "Stagecoach," the John Ford western that made a star of John Wayne (and of Utah's Monument Valley); "Wuthering Heights," with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy; Ingrid Bergman's stunning American debut in "Intermezzo"; "Ninotchka," the rollicking comedy advertised by the slogan "Garbo Laughs"; James Stewart in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"; "The Women," with Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard; Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. brawling in "Gunga Din"; Henry Fonda as "Young Mr. Lincoln." …

 

Actually, the list almost seems endless — "Dark Victory," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Goodbye Mr. Chips," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "The Roaring Twenties," "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "Northwest Passage," ""Beau Geste," "Dodge City," "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," "Midnight," "Of Mice and Men," "Juarez," "Love Affair," "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man" and many more.

 

That's an amazing list, especially to a film critic who has trouble compiling a top 10 at the end of each year because it's hard to come up with 10 movies that might be classics in the future.

 

In 1939 I'd have had trouble keeping my list down to 20.

 

But a lot of things have changed in 50 years.

 

In 1939 the average admission was 25 cents, popcorn was a nickel and more than 750 movies were released.

 

In 1989 admission prices went up to $5.50 locally, popcorn costs as much as $3.50 and at the end of the year some 260 movies will have played in Salt Lake theaters, which seems like a scant number in comparison.

 

 

 

Of course we have many more choices today — ranging from live concerts and sports events to video and cable TV. Cable TV. Thirty-four channels and still there's nothing to watch.

 

Except old movies.

 

There are more choices, but are they better?

 

Technically, movies are better than ever. The sound quality, the picture quality, the more realistic acting and special effects — all of these elements have improved remarkably.

 

But the heart of moving pictures has diminished just as remarkably.

 

What all those 1939 movies had that so many films today lack can be summed up in two words — story and character.

 

The richness of nuance has been replaced by the laziness of explicitness.

 

A few months ago Gregory Peck was honored with the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, and he took the opportunity to tell his peers and the studio heads of today that he felt Hollywood should get back to telling good stories.

 

"I would like to hear some glamorous talk about elevating the quality of film and television," Peck told the audience. "It just may be that you can make a buck and at the same time encourage, foster and commission work of quality and originality."

 

Admittedly, it may be too much to expect that another year like 1939 will come along.

 

But wouldn't it be nice to think that Hollywood was at least trying?

 

EDITOR’S ENDNOTE: Note the disparity between ticket (and popcorn) prices in 1939, 1989 and now, with the average ticket price nationally being $9 but which can go up to $20 in some areas, and for 3-D, D-Box, VIP and other upgrades (and a large popcorn is $8 locally, more in larger cities … and how quaint is it that 34 cable channels was considered a large number). Also, with the advent of streaming today and how much easier it is to make independent films, the sheer number of movies released each year has increased dramatically, but whether very many are very good is debatable.