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‘GONE’ WITH THE PAST

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 12, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s been a lot of press this week about HBO Max kicking ‘Gone With the Wind’ to the curb. I understand the backlash about that film’s insensitivity regarding slavery in the South but it should be noted that this isn’t a new argument; ‘GWTW’ has long been a flashpoint regarding race in movies. But the truth is that there are many, many films that have tasteless comments or depictions of black people, dating back to the silent era, all of which are readily accessible. For some reason the only film that has been completely pulled from any form of video circulation due to its lackadaisical treatment of slavery is ‘Song of the South’ … but that’s another conversation. It’s worth noting that ‘GWTW’ remains the biggest box-office hit of all time, when dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation, of course. And that was during a year when so many classic movies were released that there was a lot of competition. Recent revisionist essays suggest that 1962 or 1974 or the ’80s or ’90s were better, but I would argue otherwise. So when I stumbled across a nine-year-old column on the subject it seemed like a logical choice for this week’s ‘Blog’ item. Under the headline, ‘Hollywood’s pinnacle year? Check out 1939.’ it was published in the Deseret News on Dec. 18, 2009, and offers plenty of suggestions for streaming choices to occupy your evenings during the current pandemic.

Once upon a time, someone noticed that two of our most enduring motion pictures — "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" — both came out the same year. And a little research revealed that quite a few more classic movies also came out in 1939.

Thus was that 12-month period declared Hollywood's pinnacle. More high-quality films were churned out in 1939 than during any other year in motion picture history.

Who made that declaration and when exactly did he or she have the epiphany? Beats me.

But despite the obvious subjectivity of the claim no one seems to dispute it. Of course, 70 years later, no calendar year has challenged the crown — and as time passes, the chances are less and less likely that we will ever see that many high-quality films on movie screens in a single year again.

How many 2009 movies are likely to endure as beloved classic for another 70 years?

There are a few arguable candidates, judging from box-office returns and critical acclaim — "The Soloist," "Star Trek," "Up," "(500) Days of Summer," "Julie & Julia," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglorious Basterds," "The Blind Side," "Precious," "Invictus," "The Princess and the Frog," "Avatar," "Nine." And maybe some surprise that will show up in the next couple of weeks.

But any way you slice it, there aren't enough of them to come close to the 1939 collection. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Or perhaps it's in the popcorn.

If "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" were the only great films to come out that year, they would be enough make it a notable season. After all, these are two of the most popular movies of all time. They may be THE most popular movies of all time.

"Gone With the Wind" remains the No. 1 box-office hit ever and by a very wide margin in adjusted-for-inflation lists. And "The Wizard of Oz" gathers a new appreciative audience with every generation.

Here are some of the other 1939 classics, and if you haven't seen them, consider this a list of suggestions to brighten up your Netflix queue. (And yes, they are all in glorious black and white.)

"Wuthering Heights." From Emily Brontë’s novel, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Note Gregg Toland's Oscar-winning cinematography.

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Frank Capra's wonderful parable of political idealism, for which James Stewart should have won his Oscar. (He got it the next year for "The Philadelphia Story.")

 

 

 

"Of Mice and Men." John Steinbeck's classic tragedy would be filmed twice more, but this version, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., remains the most compelling.

"Stagecoach." John Ford's dynamic western made John Wayne a star, and it was beautifully filmed in Monument Valley.

"The Women." Last year's remake didn't come close to capturing the wit and verve of this all-female film. And what a cast: Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Godard, Marjorie Main.

"Dark Victory." A soap opera showcase for Bette Davis at the top of her game, playing a young socialite with a brain tumor. It also has something to say about the human spirit when faced with one's own mortality.

"The Old Maid." Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are evenly matched in this fine period tale based on the Edith Wharton novel, as cousins with a love-hate relationship.

"The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex." Bette Davis again, teamed with Errol Flynn for rivalries and jealousies in this terrific period drama.

"Gunga Din." Inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem, this action-adventure is loaded with rough-and-tumble comedy from Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

 

"Only Angels Have Wings." Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth star in this rousing Howard Hawks-directed yarn about mail pilots in South America.

"Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Oscar-winner Robert Donat is great as the title character, a socially awkward teacher at a boys school, with grand support from Greer Garson in her film debut.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Victor Hugo's oft-filmed novel gets the definitive treatment here, with Charles Laughton heartbreaking as Quasimodo. A great supporting cast is led by Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda.

"Ninotchka." The tagline was "Garbo laughs." The oh-so-serious Greta Garbo starts out as a stiffnecked Russian spy but lets down her hair when she is won over by cheerful Melvyn Douglas in Paris. Directed with abandon by Ernst Lubitsch.

And there are many more, including "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Destry Rides Again," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," "Bachelor Mother," "Midnight," "Love Affair," "Intermezzo," "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," "Beau Geste," "Jesse James," "Union Pacific," "The Little Princess," "The Rains Came," "Stanley and Livingstone," "The Roaring Twenties," "Babes in Arms."

We may not agree on all of these as "great" or "classic," but there are still enough winners to prove the argument.

And before we get technical about how many more films were churned out by the studios back then, and how the industry has changed, it doesn't alter the fact that all of these amazing movies being released in a single year is an astounding achievement.

One we are not likely to revisit.