Fans of movies have often pegged 1939 as the greatest year in history for the studio system. And no wonder: it's chock full of classic films. Years ago, I decided it 1939 really was the greatest year in film history then I should see as many films from that year as possible. Good, bad, or indifferent, I wanted to know what I would see if I headed to movies week after week during Hollywood's vintage year. Below is a list of every movie I've seen from 1939 that I can track down and remember. Halfway through the project, I decided to write quick summaries of the movies I saw since so many of them were obscure. I'm pretty sure you know what Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Gone With The Wind are about.
1939 -- HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST YEAR
Gunga Din ****
The Hound Of The Baskervilles ****
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame ****
The Lady Vanishes ****
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ****
Rules of the Game ****
The Wizard Of Oz ****
The Women ****
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½
Love Affair *** ½
Of Mice and Men *** ½
The Roaring Twenties *** ½
Wuthering Heights *** ½
Allegheny Uprising (John Wayne and Claire Tevor) ***
Bachelor Mother (Ginger Rogers w baby and David Niven) ***
Beau Geste ***
Charlie Chan in City In Darkness ***
Clouds Over Europe see Q Planes
Destry Rides Again ***
Dodge City ***
Drums Along The Mohawk ***
Five Came Back (Lucille Ball – plane crash in jungle) ***
Gone With The Wind ***
Goodbye, Mr. Chips ***
Intermezzo: A Love Story ***
Invisible Stripes (Geroge Raft, William Holden, Bogie, ex-cons) ***
The Oklahoma Kid ***
Only Angels Have Wings ***
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe ***
The Saint Strikes Back ***
The Stars Look Down ***
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle ***
Union Pacific ***
Young Mr. Lincoln ***
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn ** 1/2
Calling Dr. Kildare ** ½
Captain Fury ** ½
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ** ½
In Name Only ** 1/2
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt ** ½
Night Nurse ** 1/2
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** ½
The Real Glory (Gary Cooper, Phillipines, Moro rebellion) ** ½
The Saint in London ** ½
The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** ½
Stanley and Livingstone ** ½
Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever **
Babes In Arms **
Charlie Chan in Reno **
The Falcon’s Brother **
Made For Each Other **
Maisie (Ann Southern) **
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning **
One Third Of A Nation **
Sylvia Scarlett **
Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2
Espionage Agent * 1/2
Fast and Loose * ½
The Frozen Limits * ½
The Great Man Votes (scenery chewing John Barrymore) * ½
Honolulu * 1/2
The Ice Follies of 1939 (Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford) * ½
It’s A Wonderful World (Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert) * ½
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Andy Hardy series)
Let Us Live (1939) * 1/2
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½
Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2
Nancy Drew, Reporter * ½
Society Lawyer (1939) * ½
Stronger Than Desire (1939) * ½
They Made Her A Spy * ½
They Made Me A Criminal * ½
Everything Happens At Night *
Fall In *
Hay Foot *
Here Comes Trouble *
Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) *
Jamaica Inn *
Nancy Drew, Trouble Shooter *
Naughty But Nice *
Nick Carter, Master Detective *
Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot *
Tanks A Million *
Topper Takes A Trip *
Way Down South *
Harlem Rides The Range no stars
Charley’s Big-Hearted Aunt (tired farce) no stars
Zenobia (Laurel & Hardy) no stars
Updated as of 08/14/2011
ALLEGHENY UPRISING *** -- Surprisingly nuanced film about folk in the colonies before the Revolutionary War who chafe under the tyrannical behavior of a British soldier and the smuggling that threatens their livelihood. John Wayne leads them in semi-legal uprising, always striving to stay in the law while they risk their lives to expose the bad guys and force the British military to meet their demands. Claire Trevor fell hard for Wayne as a kid and desperately wants him to see her as a woman now. British not all bad and colonists not all good; even the Indians are presented in a somewhat complex manner. Smart little movie and quite effective given the “curse” that dooms most movies set around the Revolutionary Era to being awfully dull.
CHARLEY’S BIG-HEARTED AUNT no stars – The umpteenth version of this tired farce is very threadbare with cheap production values, no standout talent in the cast and the feeling that you’re watching some community theater troupe delivering a very bored performance of a play they’ve done one too many times.
DANCING CO-ED * ½ -- When the distaff part of a famous dancing team gets pregnant, the studio decides to turn it into a publicity stunt. They do a nationwide talent hunt at colleges across the country to find the perfect female co-star for the romantic man in his next movie. But why take chances? The studio plants a ringer (Lana Turner) in a small mid-western college. Only the school reporter is convinced it’s a scam, only to have the ringer herself “work” with him to see if they can spot the plant. Nothing special.
EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT NIGHT * -- If you’re wondering how ice skater Sonja Henie became a movie star for a few brief years, this movie will leave you still wondering. As an actress, Henie skates beautifully. Here in her most substantial role, Henie plays the daughter of a Nobel Prize-winning author hiding from publicity and the Nazis. Ray Milland and Robert Cummings are two reporters hot on his trail and both hot for Henie. They vie for her affection while taking way too long to figure out what is really going on and then, of course, trying to protect her and papa from the Nazis. Dull.
THE FROZEN LIMITS * ½ – Would-be British Marx Brothers (with six or so instead of four; I couldn’t be bothered to actually count them all) head to the Yukon Territory to search for gold in a timid tale of crazy old coots, young love and a hidden mine bursting with “ore with an e.” That’s actually one of the more amusing jokes. One oddball bit of whimsy worked: the Canadian Mounties keep singing in unison wherever they go. That was about it.
HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE no stars – In this all black western, Herb Jeffries gives Gene Autry a run for his money as the “dullest singing cowboy” on the big screen. In this case, the production values are even lower and the story so minimal, this film ranks even lower than Autry’s Home on the Prairie. Jeffries is a new foreman of a ranch who suspects foul play in the disappearance of a miner who may have hit a rich vein but has been missing ever since. Lucius Brooks is his sidekick, a fella who never saw work he couldn’t avoid or a word he couldn’t mangle. Brooks seems like a stereotypical “colored” character but in this context he’s just comic relief. Sometimes a goof-off is just a good-off. Spencer Williams – the ground-breaking writer, director and producer – is along for the ride in a minor role and also had a hand in the script, such as it is. Williams of course went on to play Andy in the TV version of “Amos “n’ Andy.”
HOME ON THE PRAIRIE * -- Gene Autry has to be one of the stiffest movie stars around (except when he’s singing). This very typical B movie plays more like a C or D movie. Autry is a cattle inspector. The bad guys have herds infected with hoof and mouth disease and are trying to sneak them to market and blame the problems on Autry. At 59 minutes, it’s very drawn out., thin fare.
HONOLULU * ½ -- Robert Young proves he’s more of a dependable TV presence than a magnetic leading man…even when he plays two leading men. In this movie Young plays a famous movie star looking for a break from his rabid fans. Young ALSO plays a wealthy plantation owner in Honolulu who is a dead ringer for the star. They trade places and complications ensue, if not hilarity. George Burns and Gracie Allen are along for the ride, providing the only sparks of humor in this tired farce.
JUDGE HARDY AND SON * ½ -- A rather tired episode in the Andy Hardy series. But there’s one terrific scene for star Mickey Rooney. Andy Hardy’s mom has fallen seriously ill, with Andy and his sister risking life and limb to get her the medicine/doctor she needs. All they can do is wait. Andy is alone in the hallway and prays tearfully to God to spare his mother. Even back in 1939, scenes of prayer weren’t exactly common in the movies. This scene is so natural and moving and direct, with Rooney given a marvelous close-up that tears your heart out as he cries and pleads his case. It’s a corker.
LET US LIVE * ½ Pretty stiff melodrama. Henry Fonda is a very decent guy who drives a taxi. He gets falsely identified as a killer and sentenced to the chair. His girlfriend/fiace Maureen O’Sullivan desperately works to prove his innocence. The cops are so lazy (even when Fonda is in jail and the same gang pulls another brutal heist, the cops can’t be bothered to even imagine Fonda might be innocent) that it’s no fun. The film’s lone saving grace involves the ending (so stop reading if you don’t want a spoiler). Fonda becomes deeply cynical about the law and justice and is clearly bitter. He remains so after being freed, which is the one touch that seems interesting and fresh. His faith isn’t restored; it’s shattered forever and the movie makes no bones about that.
MR. MOTO’S LAST WARNING ** -- A trim little programmer with Peter Lorre as the famous international policeman. One of three Motos released in 1939 on the eve of war. This one came out on January 20 and had Moto frustrating the plans of saboteurs who hope to blow up ships off the coast of Egypt and sow divisions among the British and French. We’re never told the government these baddies work for. Officials merely gasp when they discover the truth during the last moments of the film. Germany, anyone? (One cut in-joke shows a Charlie Chan film playing at a movie palace but about to close.)
MR. MOTO IN DANGER ISLAND * ½ - A nondescript entry in which Mr. Moto takes on drug smugglers in Puerto Rico. Two points of interest: tragic character actor Warren Hymer (who drank himself out of Hollywood by urinating on Harry Cohn’s desk) as a big palooka and humanitarian Jean Hersholt as one of the many suspects. Opened April 7.
MR. MOTO TAKES A VACATION * ½ -- Opened July 7. Final Mr. Moto with Peter Lorre (just as the Japanese would soon become enemies of the US and a movie series with a Japanese hero untenable) finds Mr. Moto protecting the crown of Sheba and on the trail of a master criminal. Quite routine.
ONE THIRD OF A NATION ** -- Well, here’s a fascinating oddity. It’s based on a play by Arthur Arent that was put on the WPA and every cliché about the WPA’s leftist leanings is on display here. The play shows an Everyman who wants to get some decent housing – he travels through 250 years of housing history in the US, meeting landlords and supers and desperate tenants and all sorts of characters that depict the horrible housing conditions for most of the country’s history. They turned this into a film? Not quite. One Third Of A Nation (unfortunately, I missed the moment when the title was explained) was released in 1939 and sticks mostly to the present. Sylvia Sidney stars as a young woman who lives in a tenement house that catches fire. Her little brother (future director Sidney Lumet!) has a fall from a dilapidated fire escape and gets crippled for life. First the boy is whisked to the hospital by a wealthy man who is horrified to discover he’s the slum lord who owns this tenement. He vows to right this wrong and tries to begin by kicking out a whore, until Sidney’s friend –a leftist – wises him up to the hypocrisy of this. Everyone stands around declaiming their speeches in a stiff manner, with Sidney and the wealthy playboy (Leif Erikson) falling in love without realizing it. But the theatrical origins of the show start to take effect. First the boy Joey (lumet) comes back from the hospital on crutches and goes a little nutty. The rundown building literally starts talking to him and flashes back to the 1800s when the tenement was the site of a cholera epidemic. The building laughs at the boy and tells the kid desperately poor people will always keep moving in. The kid snaps and sets the building on fire. It’s a dullish melodrama, but on the fringes you can spot some fun: the scenes shot on city streets have an authentic feel and it looks like they filmed firemen working to put out a real fire. The defiant whore is never punished, unusual for a post-Code movie and the fires include bodies on fire that leap in despair from the building, screaming in fright. None of that can rescue the movie’s dullness, but it’s intriguing nonetheless, right down to the Soviet kitsch of the finale with smiling profiles superimposed over scenes of new and wholesome buildings where tenants can walk in parks and swim in pools. Maybe the one third of a nation can be okay after all.
Q PLANES *** -- Jaunty doesn’t even begin to describe this interesting British film that’s paced like The Front Page. It’s just a few months before WW II would break out and everyone knew it was coming. The bad guys aren’t identified but are probably Germans. British test planes are disappearing with top secret equipment and espionage agent Ralph Richardson is the only one who realizes it’s not just a series of “accidents.” But this is as much a breezy comedy as it is a spy story. Richardson is eccentric and unflappable and dapper (and reportedly an inspiration for Steed in The Avengers). His sister is a newspaper reporter who keeps scooping him. He also has a girlfriend Richardson continually makes plans with and then cancels. Then there’s Laurence Olivier as a test pilot. Like everyone else, he speaks in rapid fire patter that’s hilariously vivid. If Olivier is exchanging insults with the head of the plane manufacturer, you know it’s the sort of movie where they yell at each other but deep down, by George, they really like each other. Comic, serious, silly, well-acted if not terribly inventive plot-wise. (The bad guys have a secret ray to disable planes that looks like something out of Buck Rogers and is probably more important and useful than anything they could discover in their spying.) Fresh and fun.
THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL * ½ -- In this dull Warner Bros. drama, John Garfield is a boxing champ forced out of town on a bum murder rap without a penny to his name. He wanders onto the ranch where the Dead End Kids are wisecracking it up while they look to get regenerated (reformed). One of their older sisters is blonde enough to attract Garfield’s attention. Always wary of being a sucker, Garfield finally – sort of – learns to help out others. In truly odd casting, Claude Rains is a tough guy detective who wants to track Garfield down and bring him to justice to regain his good name after frying another guy in the electric chair. Rains is all wrong in the role, especially as he plays the guy. Garfield and the gal never convincingly click and the Dead End Kids just don’t belong on a ranch (and look about 25 to 30 years old to boot). Slim stuff.
WAY DOWN SOUTH * -- Bizarre curio makes Gone With The Wind almost seem subtle. On a plantation, the massah dies and leaves everything (including his beloved darkies) to his young son, Bobby Breen. Breen was a child actor with an angelic sort of voice, sort of a male Deanna Durbin and films were just an excuse to have him chirp out a number or two. In this case, the boy’s crooked executor treats the slaves cruelly, beating them and such when of course the massah never did no such thing. The cruel adult also wants to sell them off, not even keeping families together! The lad must risk everything to prevent such a cruel fate. Surprisingly, the story and script are by Langston Hughes and the pioneering black actor Clarence Muse, who plays Uncle Caton in the film. Full credit to the filmmakers for employing them but demerits to someone somewhere for the absurd tale they delivered. A bizarre high point occurs when Breen despairs of being able to halt the auction of his slaves. They’re all gathered in a barn during a storm, weeping and wailing over their fate. Breen stumbles in from the rain, dressed in rags, gets up on a bale of hay and launches into “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Yes, singing an old Negro spiritual to his slaves! And it’s actually quite a good arrangement and performance I must say. Breen in general is good, despite the annoyingly wholesome character he plays here. A real oddity.