Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

1939 A Montage - Part One: Over There

As I think about my Dad’s favorite movies, I am inextricably drawn to the year 1939.  I’ve already considered “Gunga Din,” "The Oklahoma Kid" and “Destry Rides Again,” but there is also “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Stagecoach,” “Another Thin Man,” “Jesse James,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Only Angles Have Wings,” all among Dad’s favorites. 

So I have embarked on a project to encapsulate the movies of 1939 in a series of montages.

In 1939, my Dad would have been ten years old.  He would have spent his hard-earned nickel going to see “B” cowboy movies on Saturday morning, not classy studio financed “A” pictures.  So these films became my Dad’s favorites later, when re-released to theaters, or even over a decade later when aired on television.

In 1939 in America, the good news was that the Great Depression was approaching its end.  The bad news was that this was in no small part due to the country rearming in response to the escalating wars in Europe, Asia and Africa, wars already lumped under the collective designation World War II, a conflict American would enter two years later.

A recovering economy and encouraging returns spurred American studios and filmmakers to go bigger and better than ever before, resulting in 1939 often being considered Hollywood’s Greatest Year.  This claim can be made on the strength of two films alone released that year, both by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.  The first is “Gone With the Wind,” independently produced by maverick and iconoclast David O. Selznick.  The second is “The Wizard of Oz,” produced by MGM itself.  Amazingly, both films credit the same director, Victor Fleming, although both productions were actually guided by multiple directors.  George Cukor, Sam Wood, Melvyn LeRoy and King Vidor worked un-credited.

 “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” may be the most beloved and remembered productions from the 1939 or from any year during the Hollywood Studio System, but the films of 1939 do not end here.  There were ten movies nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Picture Oscars from 1939, and the remaining eight were “Dark Victory,” “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” and “Wuthering Heights.”

But there was more than these movies to 1939, more than Greta Garbo laughing on screen for the first time in “Ninotchka,” more than a stunt horse being driven over cliff to its death in “Jesse James,” more than the cat fights of “The Women” and “Destry Rides Again,” more than Astaire and Rogers recreating the dances and “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” more than Robert Donat’s Oscar winning, decade-spanning performance in “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” more than the tipsy sparring of William Powell and Myrna Loy in “Another Thin Man,” more than the Technicolor Shirley Temple in “The Little Princess,”  more than the swashbuckling antics of “Gunga Din.” Over 500 features were released in the United States alone, not to mention over 150 cartoons, at least eleven serials and innumerable short subjects, newsreels and travelogues. Budgets ranged from almost 4 million dollars for “Gone With the Wind” to Poverty Row potboilers at as little as $3000.  Film series included installments from Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Our Gang, the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, the Dead End Kids, Nancy Drew, Mr. Woo, Charlie Chan, Tarzan, and Blondie.

The motion picture industries in Europe and Asia were severely impacted by the escalating conflicts there. By 1939, the Germany film industry was nationalized and controlled by the Nazi Party, non-Arians were barred from employment, and film criticism was abolished.  The Japanese film industry was taken over by the state in 1939 as well.  France and Britain declared war on Germany in September; France would surrender to Germany less than a year later.  China and Japan had been at war since 1937, and Italy had invaded Ethiopia in 1935.  Still, Great Britain released over 75 feature films in 1939, including movies starring Bela Lugosi, Leslie Banks (five films), James Mason, Ralph Richardson (four films), Rex Harrison (2 films), Laurence Oliver and Valerie Hobson (four films).  There were only a handful of films produced in Italy.  This is also true of France, but this included one film by legendary director Abel Gance (“Louise”) and what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time, Jean Renoir’s “a Règle du jeu” (“The Rules of the Game”).  Germany produced over twenty films, many of them anti-Semitic treatises.  Infamous director Viet Harlan, who would a year later inflict the notorious “Jud Süß” (“The Jew Suss”) upon the world, released a remake of F.W. Murnau’s sublime “Sunrise.” China’s massive film industry released over 130 films in 1939, but only a dozen or so were generated on the mainland; the rest originated in Hong Kong. The Soviets produced over 40 films, among them the amazing "Vasilisa Prekrasnava." Indian Cinema was characteristically vibrant.

Here’s a brief look at the foreign films of 1939, Part One of  "1939 - A Montage."

"Over There"

© 2009 Edward Bowen