Thursday, April 30, 2015

1939: The Greatest Year For Movies

Updated as of 10-7-2017

Fans of movies have often pegged 1939 as the greatest year in history for cinema and especially the studio system. And no wonder: it's chock full of classic films. Years ago, I decided if 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 the movies week after week during Hollywood's vintage year. Below is a list of every film I've seen from 1939. Long after I began the project, I decided to write quick summaries of the movies I was watching since so many of them are obscure; that's why I have detailed reviews of little known flicks and not a word about some I consider masterpieces. I'm pretty sure you know what Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Gone With The Wind are about, but the details on the others (available on DVD or Netlfix or late at night on TCM) might prove interesting. As I re-watch the best, I'll fill them in as well. Usually, if I offer serious spoilers I alert you. Anyway, it's probably more fun to read about the plots than actually watch anything rated less than two stars.

One recurring thought: World War II is looming and Hollywood wanted to both capitalize on the growing tension but avoid charges of war-mongering. So they often set war movies in WW I, when Germans (conveniently) were also the bad guys. Or they simply didn't name the Teutonic-like spies and such our heroes were foiling. Sometimes this worked. Other times, it just becomes silly, as in Conspiracy, where they don't name the vague country our hero is trapped in but the studio insisted actors speak in a vague, "foreign" accent.

I'm a tough grader, so nine films -- so far -- that get a perfect four stars out of four is hard to beat. Others have argued for 1938 or 1940 or some other year further afield. None of them have nine films as great as these plus another five nearly as good and then another two dozen worthy of three stars. Yes, 1939 has the most classics, near classics and a very strong bench. What year can beat it? None.

After the movies and capsule reviews, I list them again alphabetically and then again by release date.

RELEASE DATES ET AL: Roughly 500 films were released by Hollywood in 1939. IMDB says 509 but take that with a rather large grain of salt. Release dates are also VERY tentative. Movies didn't have wide releases like they do today. 250 prints circulating would be a large number for a Hollywood A picture. A really top of the line movie might have 350 prints circulating. Remember, some movies would play at one theater for months on end, while others played for a week or two and were gone to make way for the next picture. Release dates are often from IMDB and it's not always clear if we're talking the world premiere or the actual release in theaters when paying customers could attend. B movies -- like low-budget westerns -- didn't even necessarily play major cities like New York and LA. They were for the hinterland. A movie might open in Chicago or Kansas City long before it came to the biggest cities -- if at all -- especially for smaller, more obscure films. At best, one day I might go through the archives and get NYC release dates when possible by going through newspaper listings week by week for the entire year. And that would only tell us if and when a movie came to NYC, not its actual first release in a theater.



1939 -- CINEMA'S GREATEST YEAR BY RATING

118 Movies...

Gunga Din ****
The Hound Of The Baskervilles ****
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame ****
Midnight ****
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ****
Rules of the Game ****
Stagecoach ****
The Wizard Of Oz ****
The Women ****


The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½
Love Affair *** ½
Of Mice and Men *** ½
The Roaring Twenties *** ½
The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum *** 1/2


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 ***
Each Dawn I Die ***
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) ***
Le Jour Se Leve aka Daybreak ***
Ninotchka ***
The Oklahoma Kid ***
Only Angels Have Wings ***
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe ***
The Saint Strikes Back ***
Son Of Frankenstein ***
The Stars Look Down ***
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
Pièges (aka Personal Column) ** 1/2
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** ½
The Rains Came ** 1/2
The Real Glory (Gary Cooper, Phillipines, Moro rebellion) ** ½
The Saint in London ** ½
The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** ½
Stanley and Livingstone ** ½
Thunder Afloat ** 1/2
Torchy Runs For Mayor ** 1/2
Wuthering Heights ** ½


Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever **
Babes In Arms **
Charlie Chan in Reno **
Confessions Of A Nazi Spy **
Daughters Courageous **
Fixer Dugan **
Four Girls In White **
The Lady And The Mob **
Made For Each Other **
Maisie (Ann Sothern) **
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning **
...One Third Of A Nation **
Pride Of The Bluegrass **
The Spy In Black **
Sylvia Scarlett **
Tail Spin **
Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite **
Twelve Crowded Hours **
Wife, Husband and Friend **
Women In The Wind **


Bad Little Angel * 1/2
Conspiracy * 1/2
Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2
Espionage Agent * 1/2
Fast And Furious * 1/2
Fast and Loose * ½
The Flying Deuces (Laurel and Hardy) * 1/2
The Frozen Limits * ½
The Great Man Votes (scenery chewing John Barrymore) * ½
Honolulu * 1/2
The Housekeeper's Daughter * 1/2
The Ice Follies of 1939 (Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford) * ½
Indianapolis Speedway (Pat O'Brien) * 1/2
It’s A Wonderful World (Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert) * ½
Jesse James * 1/2
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Andy Hardy series)
King Of The Underworld * 1/2
Let Us Live  * 1/2
The Marshall Of Mesa City * 1/2
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½
Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2
Nancy Drew...Reporter * ½
The Night Riders * 1/2
On Borrowed Time * 1/2
Panama Lady * 1/2
Private Detective * 1/2
Secret Service Of The Air * 1/2
Society Lawyer * ½
Stand Up And Fight * 1/2
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle * 1/2
Stronger Than Desire * ½
They Made Her A Spy * ½
They Made Me A Criminal * ½
Wyoming Outlaw * 1/2


The Adventures Of Jane Arden *
Arizona Legion *
Coast Guard *
Everything Happens At Night *
Five Little Peppers And How They Grew *
The Gorilla *
Hay Foot *
Henry Goes Arizona *
Here Comes Trouble *
Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) *
Jamaica Inn *
The Kid From Texas *
Nancy Drew...Trouble Shooter *
Naughty But Nice *
Nick Carter, Master Detective *
The Return of Doctor X *
Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot *
Tanks A Million *
Topper Takes A Trip *
Torchy Blane In Chinatown *
Way Down South *

Two Thoroughbreds  1/2 *

Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (tired farce) no stars
The Cowboy Quarterback no stars
Harlem Rides The Range no stars
Midnight Shadow no stars
Sea Scouts (animated Donald Duck short) no stars
Zenobia (Laurel And Hardy) no stars


THE ADVENTURES OF JANE ARDEN * -- The first of a would-be franchise starring a would-be hot new talent and a washed-up Ziegfeld Girl once promoted as the new "It" Girl to replace Clara Bow, this B movie is more interesting for the backstory of the talent involved than the movie itself. It's based on the smash hit comic strip about a girl reporter (see? they didn't start turning comic books into movies in the 2000s) and while I assumed Jane Arden was a poor man's Brenda Starr, turns out Jane Arden was first, running from 1927 to 1968, spinning off a short-lived radio show, this movie, merchandising and more. A spunky gal who investigated the news, she was never a big success in the US but did well around the world (including Canada and Australia) and inspiring Starr and others her in wake since Arden was the first female reporter of note (not to mention the most beautiful woman in news, as they boasted). Come WW II, the strip dumped her current storyline and sent Arden right into the thick of things in Europe, albeit a fictional country. Anyway, the movie begins right in the thick of things with Arden looking to bust open a jewelry smuggling ring. In typically dumb fashion, she goes undercover and gets a job with the bad guys in Bermuda; that doesn't stop her newspaper's managing editor from staying with her on the cruise ship until AFTER she meets her contact and then sneaking away Naturally, he's spotted and her cover is blown; at least the film lets Jane chide him for seeing her off, at least. The Adventures Of Jane Arden has cheap dialogue of the wise guy sort and a lot of actors who come off poorly, notably Rosella Towne as our gal Jane Arden, Though depicted playing dice with the boys and being quick on her feet, Towne is a stiff and it's no surprise they never followed up on this film --  her touted career soon sputtered out. The same goes true for director Terry Morse, who did better work as an editor and is best known today for having directed the American scenes (featuring Raymond Burr) for the butchered original Godzilla film that eclipsed the superior Japanese cut for decades. But never rule anyone out just because they're in a bad flick. Watching this, you'd probably single out William Gargan as the least bad, but in fact he had a good career, getting an Oscar nomination one year later and scoring in The Bells Of St. Marys and other films until throat cancer sidelined him as an actor and he turned to producing. Ditto the not awful James Stephenson who plays the main baddie. He stumbled into movies very late in life, starting at age 49 and though a few clunkers like this one arrived, Stephenson also received an Oscar nomination in William Wyler's The Letter opposite Bette Davis (playing a rare nice guy part), not to mention turns in The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth & Essex and other major films. Not bad for a guy who started in 1938 and died suddenly of a heart attack in 1941. Finally, there's the sad case of Peggy Shannon. She plays Stephenson's hard-bitten moll, one he's tossing aside for Arden, a real "lady" and one he prefers even when he discovers Arden is a reporter. Shannon was a kid growing up in Arkansas until -- in true Hollywood fashion -- she visited an aunt in New York City at age 16 and was discovered by the great Florenz Ziegfeld. In two shakes, she was starring on Broadway, signed to a film deal and replacing Clara Bow in a major film. But Shannon was an alcoholic and difficult to deal with (those don't always go hand in hand). Her reputation for being a pain kept her from capitalizing on the early heat. She was reduced to supporting roles by 1939 and drinking more and more, until dying of a heart attack in 1941 (the same year as her co-star Stephenson) due to liver problems due to pickling said liver for a good decade in alcohol. Her distraught new husband (a cameraman) killed himself three weeks later, shooting himself in the same chair in which he found her body. It's the curse of The Adventures Of Jane Arden! Read about all those actors and you might glean a very modest bit of interest in this weak nothing of a movie. Know nothing about them and it will be forgotten before it's even over. And if I know my casting couch, the handsome youth on the ship who gets a line and some good camera time when announcing "All ashore that's going ashore!" was sleeping with someone! Opened March 18, 1939.

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 this side of the law while they risk their lives to expose the bad guys and force the British military to meet their demands. Love interest Claire Trevor fell hard for Wayne as a kid and desperately wants him to see her as a woman now though he's too busy righting wrongs to notice. The British are not all bad and colonists are not all good; even the Indians are presented in a somewhat complex manner (given when the film was made). Smart little movie and quite effective despite the “curse” of dullness that dooms most movies set around the Revolutionary Era. Opened November 10, 1939.

ARIZONA LEGION * -- An RKO western vehicle for George O'Brien, this is a dull little movie in which half the action is taken up with watching horses raced around from one spot to another. It was shot in November of 1938, edited in December and released in January of 1939. Ahh, the good ole days. Despite myself, I found it a little intriguing if idiotic. A Lieutenant Bob Ives in the US Cavalry is all duded up and riding a stagecoach back to a new posting near his hometown. Played by Carlyle Moore, he's an annoying fellow. He angrily dusts himself off, saying he'd been away so long he'd forgotten how dreadful the dirt and mess of Arizona could be. A fellow passenger makes a seemingly polite comment and Bob bites his head off with some officious nonsense. They're robbed by a gang of bandits led by a portly, unmenacing fellow named Whiskey Joe. And when a fellow passenger insists he won't identify the man (since anyone who dares to testify against Joe is killed), Bob sneers at his cowardice. Dear god, is he our hero? I hate him already. Soon they're back home, arresting Whiskey Joe and watch as a farce of a courtroom trial leads to an acquittal. To make matters worse for the by the book, stick up his arse Bob, the jury is led laughingly by his old pal Boone (O'Brien). Boone is drinking up his inheritance, hanging around with bad guys and dismaying the prettiest girl in town (Laraine Day). She breaks off their engagement though can't quite bring herself to fall for Bob (who could?). Surely Boone hasn't gone all bad! Indeed not. It turns out Boone is undercover. Now the governor has formed the Arizona Legion, 14 men who for some reason will protect stage coaches and foil robberies but feel the need to do it with a kerchief over their face until the criminal mastermind behind all this lawlessness can be uncovered. O'Brien looks pretty out of shape (by modern standards, I guess) and is more believable as a dissolute bum than an action hero, always walking into rooms with a self-conscious swagger. This is a long way down from his work with Ford and starring in Murnau's Sunrise in 1927l, one of the greatest films of all time. Boone's sidekick is Chill Wills, who gets to tell tall tales and sing a comic number when they're not hunting down bad guys. (Wills of course was the voice for Francis The Talking Mule and may have lost an Oscar as a supporting actor in John Wayne's The Alamo by campaigning too hard. But anyone who refuses to support Richard Nixon and goes for George Wallace instead deserves all the bad luck they can get. ) Hilariously, they foil numerous criminal acts but the bad guys don't recognize them, even though they're riding their own horses and wearing the same clothes they show up at the local saloon minutes later. It's the kerchief! Who could figure it out? Worse is a "secret" door in the backroom of the saloon that seems to lead outside but is covered over with a giant Indian rug hanging on the wall. Never mind that anyone OUTSIDE would see the secret door. At the finale, Boone reveals his secret mission to Bob, announces he knows the criminal mastermind but for some reason doesn't say the guy's name. Bob of course steps out of the room and unwittingly tips off the villain, proving once again what an idiot he is. We get some more running around until a final shoot out, the day is won and Boone gets the girl and kisses her while manfully shaking Bob's hand over her shoulder. Moore is so satisfyingly annoying as a martinet and stickler for the rules, I wondered what else he'd done. Precious little, actually. Almost everything he did before this film was tiny or uncredited bit roles, other than a supporting turn in Humphrey Bogart's Two Against The World in 1936. After perhaps the biggest role of his career in Arizona League came five more parts amounting to nothing in 1940 (radio operator, intern typing and so on) before he quit the business for good. I'm not saying he made the wrong choice but the fact that I wanted to slap him the moment he came on screen is notable and in his favor. A smarter studio might have seen Moore's potential for playing annoying twerps and made something of him. Opened January 20, 1939.

BAD LITTLE ANGEL  * 1/2 -- A curious little faith-based movie starring child star Virginia Weidler in one of her few leading roles. She had a great run as a spunky kid in The Women and The Philadelphia Story. Weidler could carry a film but the girl she plays here is such a drip that there's not much Weidler can do about it. The child is Patsy, an orphan who has a strong faith in God; you can tell because she's always sporting a crucifix and can barely speak a sentence without quoting the Bible or talking about God. It begins with Patsy under the care of a Bible-quoting old woman who reads stories to the child every night. (Size matters, apparently. Every single copy of the Bible we see is monstrously big, just so we know it's no ordinary book.) The excellent supporting cast (which like Weidler can't overcome the trite material) is typified here, with this feisty old lady played by Elizabeth Patterson, who would go on to play Mrs. Trumbull on "I Love Lucy." She teaches Patsy about divination, using the Bible as a sort of Tarot card or Magic 8 Ball where you open it up randomly and point at a passage and see if it answers your prayer. It's actually frowned upon by actual religious folk but here is presented with a child's guileless simplicity. The evil orphanage tries to reclaim Patsy (because they can get cold hard money for taking care of her) and the old lady fights them off but soon dies. Branded a jinx, Patsy then runs away, this time using the Bible to tell her where to go. "Flee unto Egypt" it says. Patsy doesn't have enough money to get all the way to the Middle East but she doesn't think God will mind if she goes to Egypt, New Jersey instead. (Yep, there's such a place, known as New Egypt.) In typical Anne of Green Gables style, Patsy shows up, befriends a boy with spunk but a drunken father, confronts a mean old miser and gets taken in by the crusading editor of the town's paper. Her faith charms and changes one and all of course. The rich old meanie is played by Guy Kibbee with understated believability, his butler is an over-acting Reginal Owens and the boy is played by Gene Reynolds, who's quite appealing here but would go on to much bigger success as a director and producer on smash hit shows like M*A*S*H and Lou Grant. Patsy's constant quoting of the Bible is the movie's only redeemingly offbeat touch here. Interestingly, no one else is remotely as religious. When she joins a family for dinner, they all dig in while she starts praying quietly and they awkwardly drop everything to politely join in. When Patsy starts praying over a Bible in the rich man's mansion, he looks at her suspiciously and wonders what the heck she could be doing. You'd think the entire country was godless before Patsy showed up. Faith is redeemed and if you think that's a spoiler, you're either a heathen or you've never seen typical Hollywood fare from the 1930s. Opened October 27, 1939.

CHARLEY’S (BIG-HEARTED) AUNT no stars – The umpteenth version of this tired farce that involves cross-dressing 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.

COAST GUARD * -- A silly programmer starring Randolph Scott and Ralph Bellamy. The backdrop of air and sea rescue by the coast guard is merely there to heighten the romance as two best pals fall for the same gal. Bellamy is of course the straight arrow, dependable type while Scott is a womanizer. Bellamy and Frances Dee are all but engaged yet he’s no fool – he does everything he can to keep her away from Scott. Then, in a typically illogical move, he goes away and asks Scott to keep an eye on her. Naturally, they fall in love and Bellamy is crushed. Then the movie gets really dumb as Scott and Dee get married and make each other miserable while Bellamy stands around waiting for it to all fall apart. High adventure strikes as Bellamy gets stranded near the north pole and Scott goes to rescue him. (Bellamy spends days alone and unconscious on the ice in a horrible storm, but a spot of tea revives him nicely.) The model work done for the coast guard scenes is very dated; you can practically see the toy ships floating in a tub. The romance is unconvincing on every possible level. And Bellamy really is a vampire of a movie actor, sucking the life out of every scene he’s in. Almost any gal would rather be miserable with Scott than bored with Bellamy. Opened August 4, 1939.

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY ** -- This film is far more interesting in its production and release history than the actual film itself. Still, the movie remains fascinating for what it shows and what it imagines in America in 1939 just prior to Nazi German plunging the world into war. It's prescient, damning and kind of remarkable. If only it were a little better.... Warner Bros. made the film and released it in May of 1939, four months before Germany invaded Poland and WW II started in earnest for Europe, at least. Nonetheless, it doesn't pull any punches. A German doctor (Paul Lukas) comes to the US to agitate among German Americans, urging them to embrace the Fuhrer's campaign against democracy and inferior races. He's shown preaching to willing audiences at German-American clubs, winning over a loser of a guy named Kurt (Francis Lederer) who likes to pretend he's important and a big thinker. Kurt is soon spying in a ham-fisted but effective manner (Americans are so trusting!), drawing in a big galumph of a pal behind him. Fistfights at American Legion Halls, Nazi propaganda being tossed out of skyscraper windows and from planes -- the Nazis are blanketing the country with their poison and America seems ready to boil over with tension. Edward G. Robinson, an FBI agent, is called in to crush the spy ring and naturally succeeds. In classic propaganda style, the Nazis are all portrayed as sad or hateful characters. Kurt is a loser, the doctor cheats on his wife and so on. There's a compelling sense of menace for a while. Robinson does a good job playing on their weaknesses to garner info but the second half is a lot less fun. The other major studios HATED this movie. They tried to get WB to dump it. They offered to pay for the entire budget if they could bury it. Why? Because they wanted to keep open the lucrative movie market in Germany and other countries that might have sided with it. WB persevered...and for their troubles got a flop. They re-released it again in 1941 with an update on what the Nazis had done since the movie first came out (an invasion here, an atrocity there). Watch it and you'll be even more puzzled and intrigued about how it was Japanese Americans were wrongfully imprisoned during the war and yet not a peep was said about Americans of German or Italian descent...even after an actual, honest to goodness Nazi spy ring -- The Duquesne Spy Ring -- was busted in 1941. No one ever said prejudice was logical. Opened May 6, 1939. 


CONSPIRACY * ½ -- A smidge under one hour, this B-movie (or C-movie, really) is a vague little political thriller that makes no sense. Allan Lane (best known for playing a Canadian mountie in serials and as “Rocky” Lane in a bunch of minor westerns) stars as a straight arrow American. He’s working on a ship as a radio operator; it’s pulling into harbor in a foreign country when he discovers a shipmate sending a coded message, probably about that mysterious cargo they’re carrying! Lane asks too many questions and before you know it the ship is boarded by the foreign military, the shipmate is dead and Lane must dive into the waters for his life – he slips onto land, soaked and bedraggled, only to immediately befriend a lovely woman (Linda Hayes) standing on the docks. Intrigue mounts: her brother was the shipmate sending the message, the ship is carrying material for poison gas, the country is a police state where no one is safe and Lane has been declared dead so now the government is determined to make that a fact so no questions will arise from the US embassy. It’s another 1939 movie that reflects the tense times with war in Europe and Asia exploding into the headlines. We never know the country so Hayes and half the cast must walk around speaking with a vaguely foreign accent, a hilarious decision that proves the only entertaining part of the movie. (“Trouble” becomes “twouble” and so on.) In real life, Lane was a football star at Notre Dame, so in one scene he’s describing a great game he played only to discover that the nightclub owner (an ex-pat named Tio) is a famed but disgraced college football coach gone into exile for gambling on the game. Tio’s sidekick? A former horse jockey, naturally, who says things like, “Now that’s what I call a photo finish!” after a close scrape with soldiers. The gang wanders around avoiding the police and the military, very little of it making sense. For example, Lane is a desperate fugitive but when he’s hiding alone in the apartment of Hayes and someone knocks at the door, he answers it! Hayes is particularly weak, delivering many of her lines in a stilted, awful fashion (she was a runner-up in Jesse L. Lasky’s “Gateway to Hollywood” radio talent search contest -- see The Marshal Of Mesa City --  but got a contract from RKO anyway, dropping out of the biz after three years then giving birth to Cathy Lee Crosby). Lane plays an unflappable American, always ready with a wisecrack and a sunny personality. He’s a pleasant screen presence and almost makes this watchable; with a lucky break or two he would have been a much bigger star. Opened August 1, 1939.

THE COWBOY QUARTERBACK  no stars -- Dire stuff. A B movie programmer about a hick named Harry Lynn who comes to play for the Chicago Packers. Complications ensue when his bossy girlfriend is sent back home, the cowboy falls in love with another gal who couldn't care less about him (at least she's got taste). Somewhere in the middle, gangsters swindle our hero and try to force him into throwing the big game. The redoubtable William Demarest is the fast-talking talent scout who signs the speedy yokel. Marie Wilson is the um strong-looking girlfriend. And vaudeville star Bert Wheeler of the famed duo Wheeler and Woolsey doesn't impress as the dim-witted athlete. It doesn't help that he was 44 at the time, about 24 years older than a rookie footballer should be. It would clearly be better to try and spot Wheeler's talent by seeing one of the many shorts he made with Woolsey. But this sure doesn't make you want to. Clem Bevans --who always plays an old codger -- appears briefly as an old codger delivering the mail. Opened July 29, 1939.

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 hold a nationwide talent hunt at colleges across the country to find the perfect female co-star for dancing dreamboat's next movie. But why take chances? The studio plants a ringer (Lana Turner) in a small mid-western college. 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. Opened September 29, 1939.

DAUGHTERS COURAGEOUS * ½  -- The backstory of this film is more interesting than the movie itself, a rather dull domestic drama. In 1938, director Michael Curtiz made Four Daughters, starring Claude Raines as a widowed music professor with four lovely daughters in a college town. Three of the sisters were played by three real life sisters – the Lane sisters – and they all juggled boyfriends and fiancés with ease. It was light, pleasant fare until John Garfield walked in from an entirely different movie. Where they’re in a studio-bound bit of froth, Garfield burst onto the screen (in his movie debut) as an angry, rebellious, cynical loner. Garfield is positively magnetic and became an instant sensation. Where the other suitors look polite and wholesome, Garfield actually looks like he might do something with Priscilla Lane’s character. He’s a genuinely dangerous fellow. That film was a big box office hit and inspired two direct sequels – Four Wives and Four Mothers. But the real oddity is  Daughters Courageous. It amounts to a do-over of sorts, a darker and stranger little movie with much the same cast and some crucial differences. You have the same four daughters and John Garfield as the loner who romances Priscilla Lane. But instead of a widowed father you have a lonely mother who was abandoned by her husband Claude Raines some 20 years earlier. She’s about to settle down to marriage with a dull but kindly businessman when in pops Raines, ready to upset the apple cart. He approves heartily of Garfield, recognizing a fellow nonconformist and quickly wins over the girls, even though he’s been the most absent of fathers and doesn’t even know which is which. In a really ridiculous scene, he has just arrived as an uncomfortable fact. The whole family gathers in the living room with their various beaus while Raines sits literally in the corner some 20 or 30 feet away and is roundly ignored. SPOILER: the dull businessman plans to pay for acting school for one of the girls and give another one’s fiancé a VP job in his company. Raines wants back and his wife still loves him, but she asks him to leave for good anyway. He talks Garfield into dumping the daughter so she won’t suffer the way her mother did all those years ago. Raines and Garfield hop on a train and head off for adventure, the daughter and mother pair off with their dull intendeds and sit down to dinner, a sad depressed look in their eyes as they accept domesticity and safety over real passion and fun. Everyone seems haunted by the sound of a train in the distance. You can’t help feeling they’ve made a terrible mistake and the only pleased person at the end is the dull businessman. Spinning off sequels of a hit film makes sense. Making a sort of strange remake of it, while emphasizing the bitterness and sadness of their square existence was truly a bizarre decision. Opened July 22, 1939.


EACH DAWN I DIE *** -- A prison film that hews so close to the genre, I wasn’t sure if I’d seen it before. James Cagney stars as a crusading journalist. When he gets too close to uncovering corruption, Cagney is framed: henchmen knock him unconscious, pour liquor all over him and place him in a runaway car. It careens out of control and kills three innocent people. The courts throw the book at him while taunting Cagney with the fact that his paper denounced drunk driving. Cagney enters jail convinced for some reason that he’ll be out in days, even though the powers that be (the governor, the head of the parole board, etc) are all determined to see he never makes it out. Inside, Cagney befriends George Raft, a fellow con serving 199 years. Cagney proves a good egg and the only guy without an angle so Raft takes a shine to him. When Cagney helps Raft break out, Raft determines to find out who framed his pal and spring him the legal way. You’ve got everything here: sadistic screws, dumb but lovable mugs (like a guy who is serving time because he was a dog catcher but couldn’t bring himself to kill the pets and kept setting them free) and one guy wound so tightly he’s constantly ready to explode. Interestingly, the Warner Bros. film makes an oblique point about the dehumanizing effects of prison and especially solitary confinement. (A few months in the Hole turns Cagney into a whimpering baby – it’s kind of surprising how often Cagney broke down and showed a weak side to his tough characters.) It’s a trim, well-acted 92 minutes until a positively nutty prison riot and a last-minute death bed confession, all so we can have a happy ending. Opened August 19, 1939.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS AT NIGHT * -- If you’ve ever wondered how ice skater Sonja Henie became a movie star for a few brief years, this film will still leave you 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 both hot on his trail and 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. Opened December 22, 1939.

FAST AND FURIOUS * ½ -- Nick and Nora-style married couple are rare book dealers. But they barely glance at a magazine much less discuss books before Franchot Tone and Ann Southern  escape the heat of the city to go to a seaside resort where the hubby becomes a judge in a beauty pageant and they all get involved in…murder! Pure nonsense but Tone and Southern have a nice bantering way about them. It's the third of three movies about rare book dealers/crime solvers, each one starring different people. So forgettable I watched it again halfway through before realizing I’d seen it before.  The best is 1938’s Fast Company. Opened October 6, 1939.

FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS AND HOW THEY GREW * -- The first of four movies from Columbia based on the children’s books. Barely an hour long, this is essentially episodic television before television was widespread. In this movie, the dirt-poor Peppers raise themselves while their widowed mom heads off to the factory to work for days at a time, leaving Polly Pepper (Edith Fellows) in charge of her brothers. Their pa died in a mining accident, leaving half of it to Polly. Wouldn’t you know it, the poor little rich boy they befriend is the orphaned grandson of cranky millionaire J.H. King (dependable character actor Clarence Kolb) who is trying to track down that very family so he can fleece them of their share for a pittance? Needless to say, they soon win his heart and not only does he not rip them off, he invites them into his home, though not before adventures with trying to bake a birthday cake for their hardworking mom, measles, and a scare of potential blindness for Polly. Dorothy Ann Seese is the “adorable” littlest Pepper at about four years old and she gets a ton of dialogue delivered in her cutesy little girl voice. Tommy Bond of “Our Gang” is Joey Pepper but they’re all about as anonymous as the story. Fellows holds the center pretty well and Kolb does what he can with a routine part but this is thin stuff. Thank goodness the sequels were all released in 1940 so I don’t have to watch them. Opened August 22, 1939.

FIXER DUGAN ** A B movie set among circus performers that you’ll forget soon after watching. Nonetheless, it has almost by accident two sterling actors who “might have been” if fate hadn’t intervened. Lee Tracy plays the title role, Fixer Dugan. We’re meant to believe a fixer is as much a part of circus life as the lion tamer and the master of ceremonies. He wanders around putting out fires: dealing with local cops, warning off shysters and generally smoothing things out when unexpected problems arise. In a good running gag, Dugan shows up whenever a customer complains they’ve been short-changed by a cashier. He’s filled with righteous rage, apologizes to the customer and fires the chastened employee on the spot! “Honesty is our policy,” he tells the happy customer. Then he really does chastise the cashier…for getting caught. There’s no romance here. Dugan says at one point, “To me, all dames are as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.” But he’s caught between two women anyway: one is a high wire act and the other a lion tamer. They’ve been feuding for years. “I don’t know what I hate the most: her or spinach!” says the lion tamer. But when the aerialist dies in a tragic fall, Dugan and the lion tamer naturally find themselves looking after the woman’s tomboy child Terry (Virginia Weidler). They spend the rest of the movie trying to keep the kid out of the orphanage and outsmarting two dumb guys trying to steal the lions. (I love the bit where Dugan keeps popping a cigar into the mouth of one of the dopes. “Here, have a cigar!” “I don’t WANT a cigar!’) Tracy can do this fast-talking stuff in his sleep. He played the lead in The Front Page on Broadway and if Pat O’Brien hadn’t stolen his part for the film version, who knows? Mind you, he had other problems, such as hard living off screen and a hair trigger temper. Studio after studio signed him to deals and apparently lived to regret it. One studio even apologized to Mexico after his brawls south of the border made headlines during the filming of a movie. Weidler has a ball as Terry, playing along with some cons, undermining others when she thinks the carnies are fleecing people too much, letting kids slip under the tent to see the big show for a nickel a pop and so on. She and Tracy beat A League Of Their Own to the punch with their refrain at sad moments that “circus people don’t cry.” Child actor Weidler was already a major talent, scoring big alongside Mickey Rooney and proving herself a triple threat, when given the chance (she’d head to vaudeville when the movie roles dried up). In 1940 alone she’d have two great parts in Young Tom Edison and especially her scene-stealing work in the masterpiece The Philadelphia Story. But according to IMDB she got shunted aside by MGM when Shirley Temple showed up for teen parts and by 16 years old she was done; Weidler died at 41 of a heart ailment. This is by no means a good movie but you do get to watch some pros making the most of mundane material.  Opened April 21, 1939.


THE FLYING DEUCES * 1/2 -- A timid Laurel And Hardy vehicle in which the lads join the French Foreign Legion. Their best work was obviously done in the shorts but L and H did make a number of movies. This quickie for RKO is an expanded version of their short “Beau Hunks” and it shows, since the movie feels stretched out at 69 minutes. Ollie falls in love with a barmaid and when she spurns him, Ollie plans to commit suicide. He and Stan are about to do the deed when a soldier (who happens to be the barmaid’s husband) convinces them there’s no better way to forget a broken heart than joining the Foreign Legion. They’re game and sign on but after a few minutes of drilling Stan and Ollie wisely realize this isn’t the life for them and decide to leave. The Foreign Legion begs to differ and a wild chase ensues. The modest pleasures here include little extended bits, such as Ollie getting ready to commit suicide only to have Stan interrupt him at the very last moment time and again. Or the jailer locking Stan behind bars and then taking Ollie and locking him in as Stan gets out and then trying to put Stan back in until he gets frustrated with despair over ever having both of them inside the cell and with the door locked at the same time. Very desultory. Opened November 3, 1939.


FOUR GIRLS IN WHITE ** -- Harmless programmer about young women training to become nurses. It’s as predictable and silly as you can imagine, but not bad for all that. Our heroine Norma Page (Florence White) is a gold-digger, in it to snag herself a husband.  Her little sister Pat (Ann Rutherford) is along for the ride. Norma is so savvy that when she is going to be late for her first day of classes she calls in a false alarm and then casually asks for a ride back to the hospital from the ambulance that shows up. In the ambulance is the dashing Dr. Melford (Steve Marshall), who'd be perfect for Norma if he wasn’t so devoted to medicine and research and instead would wise up and just go into private practice and make the big bucks. More her type (or so she thinks) is the playboy Bob Maitland (Kent Taylor), a patient at the hospital that she toys with beautifully. Rounding out the four girls in white are the giggly Gertie (Una Merkel) who flirts with a bumbling orderly (Buddy Ebsen, the same year he almost died putting on that silver paint to play the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz) and the saintly Mary Forbes (Mary Howard), who has a baby daughter but for some inexplicable reason can’t see the child more than once a year while she trains to be a nurse so she can make money and be reunited with her baby. You won’t be surprised to know the head of the nurses is a battle ax with a heart of gold (Jessie Ralph) or that Norma discovers a passion for nursing (though not before some wild melodramatic twists.) It all climaxes with a natural disaster and some crazy derring do fit for a season finale of ER. Opened January 27, 1939.

THE FROZEN LIMITS * ½ – Would-be British Marx Brothers called Crazy Gang (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 nutty old coots, young love and a hidden mine bursting with “ore with an e.” That’s actually one of the more amusing jokes. Another oddball bit of whimsy worked: the Canadian Mounties keep singing in unison wherever they go. That was about it.

THE GORILLA * -- An exhausting suspense/mystery film starring the Ritz Brothers. Sort of the poor man's Three Stooges (if there could be such a thing), they are just three numbskulls who don't even bother to differentiate one from the other. In this tepid movie directed by Allan Dwan, a wealthy man finds himself the latest target of...The Gorilla! The newspapers wonder if it's a man or a beast, this mad villain who announces its victims and then kills them 24 hours later. One wonders how an actual gorilla would send notes of warning, but no matter. This wealthy man has a lot of problems: he seems to be sunk into financial despair and someone is putting the squeeze on him to pay back money. His niece is in town with her fiance and doesn't realize her entire inheritance has been squandered. The Gorilla has named him its next victim. Some strange man is lurking outside his mansion and peering in windows during a thunder storm -- spectacularly exposing himself every time lightning flashes though no one ever notices him. The financier has hired the hapless Ritz Brothers to protect him. A REAL gorilla is on the loose. And creepy Bela Lugois is his butler. Patsy Kelly is the maid who just knew she should have turned in her notice and gets off a few good lines and a few good screams. But the film is wildly uninteresting, with secret panels revealing hidden passages in virtually every room and so many twists and double twists that the finale involved not one, not two but three surprises and none of them explained Lugosi's supernatural ability to appear in any room at any time. One star strictly because it involves a guy in a gorilla suit and that has to count for something. Released May 26, 1939.

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 and 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. Opened February 1, 1939.

HENRY GOES ARIZONA * -- A movie as dumb as its title. Character actor Frank Morgan gets a rare, almost unique chance to be the leading man in a film. (The Great Morgan barely counts as a film.) A pity that chance came here, a dimwitted Western comedy w Morgan as a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian who discovers he's inherited a ranch out west. So Henry goes Arizona, ungrammatically and unprepared for the bad guys who want to kill him and seize the ranch for their own nefarious but unexplained reasons. Very modest humor is made out of Henry's big city ways and scaredy-cat nature -- he's like Bob Hope without the sexual desperation (and funny one-liners) or Don Knotts without the slapstick. Anyway, he shows up and then tries to leave once danger is afoot but is charmed/shamed into staying by an adorable little girl who claims to be his niece. Naturally, Henry uses his theatrical talents to outwit the bad guys and save the day, not that you'd care. Morgan is such a charming screen presence, you feel sorry for him here. Tucking in the little girl at night, he exudes decency and sweetness -- if only the film had a half-decent script he surely would have made the most of it. Instead, you spend the film looking over his shoulder, wondering when the star of the film is going to make an entrance. Set pieces include Henry facing down a lynch mob by having a delicious meal and lots of beer ready for the gang, greeting one and all like old friends (not bad in theory but blandly done) and oh, well, that's about it. A running bit has Henry surprising himself with a gift for tossing knives; typically absolutely nothing comes of this talent even in the "action" climax. Some fine actors do what they can in supporting roles, including gabby Guy Kibbee as a lawyer/judge and Slim Summerville as a sheriff. Virginia Weidler is her usual dependable self as the kid, almost making you care for a minute or two. But when the climax involves a drawn-out bit with Henry trying to mount a horse and getting stuck on a tree limb and so on, you're ready to lynch the screenwriters. They are Florence Ryerson (who at least has one good credit to her name -- she's one of three listed on The Wizard of Oz) and Milton Merlin, who did this and said, Gee maybe I should try TV. Similarly, Owen Davis Jr. is a dreadful stiff as a nominal heroic figure and he turned to producing. Weidler made much better but retired from acting a few years later at 16 years old (!) and shunned the spotlight for the rest of her life. Director Edwin L. Marin is strictly B movie but a lot of B movie directors might have made more out of a pretty strong cast. Or at least put a "To" in the title. Opened December 8, 1939.

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. It would have made a very dull episode of a half hour TV western. At this length, only the mild songs keep it from getting no stars. Opened February 3, 1939.

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 -- if not hilarity -- ensue. George Burns and Gracie Allen are along for the ride, providing the only sparks of humor in this tired farce. Opened February 3, 1939.

THE HOUSEKEEPER'S DAUGHTER * 1/2 -- Hal Roach -- a key player in the careers of Laurel And Hardy, Harold Lloyd and of course the Little Rascals -- also directed some features, though his heart remained with shorts. In 1939 he made two movies, the serious drama Captain Fury and this nutty comedy set in the world of newspapers and gangsters. The poster makes it look like a steamy drama and it does star Joan Bennett, now a brunette and all the better for it. She's a gum-snapping gangster's moll in the first scene, breaking up a poker match where the boys are fleecing a customer. What does she care? Bennett has had enough of her boyfriend Victor Mature (in his film debut) and the gang, absconding for her mom's home. There she melts immediately into a kind-hearted daughter, planning to spend some time with mom while the woman's wealthy employers are away. But the handsome son (a bland John Hubbard) is bored with archeology and wants to be a newspaper man. Around him our heroine becomes a sexy siren, of sorts. You know you're not in The Lady Eve territory because his interest in archeology is mentioned once and dropped while Bennett isn't teasing him or flirting but seems unaware of her effect, which dims the pleasure all around. Oh and amidst all this we watch one of the gangsters be cruel to his Broadway star girlfriend -- that raises the ire of a creepy little flower seller named Benny who spends the rest of the movie trying to kill the gangster with poisoned coffee but offing everyone else around him instead, starting with the Broadway star. That headline blaring crime proves the son's entre into the newspaper biz and the real focus of the movie. From crime drama to reformed bad girl to creepy murderer and finally lighthearted comedy a la The Front Page, all in ten minutes. For the rest of the movie, it's all silliness: the boring Hubbard takes lots of notes and tags along with real journalist Adolphe Menjou and photographer William Gargan. You know they're real journalists because all they do is drink, make up stunts to sell papers and sponge off Hubbard. For some reason, they move into his mansion, along with that squirrelly little flower seller Benny (George E. Stone). The "nuttiness" and misunderstandings increase until an all hands on deck finale at the mansion crowded with gangsters, returning parents, cops, firemen and the two journalists shooting off fireworks at one and all. For a brief moment, the insanity is kind of amusing, but the moment quickly passes and you emphasize with lead gangster Marc Lawrence when he fires his gun into the air to shut everyone up. Opened October 26, 1939.

INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY * ½ -- Pat O’Brien stars (rather stiffly) as a race car driver and three time Indy champ who does it all so his kid brother (the even stiffer John Payne) can go to college. Little does he know little bro has chucked school so HE can become a race car driver as well. Even worse, Payne falls for Ann Sheridan, a friend of O’Brien’s long-suffering fiancé that O’Brien positively despises, blaming her for the death of another driver. O’Brien can provide fine support but he’s no leading man. Nonetheless, his vitriol towards Sheridan is so nasty and off the charts I figured maybe he’d had an affair with her or something. No he just can’t stand the sight of her. (Whores get more respect from the wives of their johns than she gets from him.) The brothers break apart after yet another horrifying crash and O’Brien spirals down but by gosh at the big race they bond again and make a dash for the championship. Sure, other guys may have to die along the way, but at least the race track can double as therapy for these two to work out their personal demons. This is a remake of The Crowd Roars (1932) which starred James Cagney and uses a LOT of the same footage, especially since the dependable Frank McHugh plays the same best pal “Spud” Connors in both. It’s quite routine but there’s a pretty fun gag at the very end. Comparing the two movies and seeing how much footage they reused keeps this a curio. Opened August 5, 1939.


JESSE JAMES * ½ -- 1939 was such a rich year for movies that almost everyone involved in this prestige Western didn’t just do better work in their careers, they did better work and got it released in the same calendar year. The director, star Nancy Kelly and character actor Henry Hull re-teamed on Stanley and Linvingston. Randolph Scott made 20,000 Men A Year which might have become his motto if he wasn’t rooming with Cary Grant. Tyrone Power’s movies from 1939 aren’t well known to me but Henry Fonda made two much better films: Drums Along The Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln. Of course they were all proud of this movie about the famed outlaws Frank and Jesse James. In this risible retelling in poorly shot color (I thought for a minute that TCM was showing a colorized monstrosity), the James brothers are noble, decent, honorable men completely done in by a rapacious railroad company. The railroad was jilting their friends and neighbors out of their homes when bullying and conning the poor suckers didn’t work. In a rare effective scene, Frank and Jesse tangle with the nefarious representatives and deliver some frontier justice. “If he ain’t the sneaky one,” says Fonda in astonishment when the ring leader of the bad guys tries to scythe his brother in the back. They’re forced to go into hiding since the strain of their arrest would break their ailing mother. But the evil railroaders dynamite their home anyway, even though they’ve been told repeatedly only a sick, old woman is inside. If that isn’t nasty, I don’t know what is. Frank naturally tracks the killer and guns him down in a fair fight. The brothers are forced to go outlawing, but they prey only on the trains of the company that done them wrong, politely taking only cash from passengers and urging them to sue the railroad to get it back. Everyone loves them, including the local marshal who pines for the same gal as Jesse but does right by them despite double-dealing from the law. There’s what passes for complexity at the time, with Jesse driven to despair and madness over his life on the lam. Essentially these are the most upright fellows a country could ask for and they’re memorialized right to the end when that coward Robert Ford steps in. (Cue the hissing.) It’s a lifeless affair, with Kelly and Power striking no sparks whatsoever. She’s constantly moping and whining out her lines; let Randolph Scott have her, I say. Power and Fonda can’t be all bad but they have very little to do here but bemoan their fate. That initial confrontation is pretty well-acted and their jailbreak is alright, but this is a slow, talky, boring and relatively action free film. As history it stinks. As a film on its own merits, it isn’t much better. It was a big hit and others rate it highly; I assume they haven't watched it in years. Opened January 27, 1939.

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. Opened December 22, 1939.

THE KID FROM TEXAS *– This B movie struggles hard to turn its tired boy meets girl premise into an actual movie and falls pretty flat. It’s good for a laugh at the beginning – our hero is a cowboy named Bill Malone (from Texas, if you weren’t paying attention) who is just plain loco for polo, even though he’s the only fella in the state who wants to play it. When a wealthy playboy comes out there looking for horses for his team, the cowboy (Dennis O’Keefe) shows off his stuff and we see him riding the range in full cowboy regalia…and a polo mallet, whacking away at a ball. Before you know it he’s followed that horse back east so he can try his hand at the game. And darned if the playboy’s sister (Florence Rice) ain’t durn pretty. Why she just can’t STAND him at first, though he’s so dosh-garn polite. Along for the ride is the dependable Jessie Ralph as the wealthy Aunt Minnie -- who takes a shine to the cowboy and his tall tales -- and Buddy Ebsen as a cowboy pal who gets the lamest excuse for a lame dance routine imaginable. Malone behaves like a doofus in his first polo game and heads off to a Wild West show…which he promptly turns into a showcase for polo, with cowboys squaring off against Indians. It’s as dumb as it sounds, with an Annie Oakley style gal tossed in to turn his head just long enough to keep the movie from being a short. It ends with a reaction shot of a horse laughing, which just about says it all. Opened April 14, 1939.

KING OF THE UNDERWORLD * ½ -- Poor Kay Francis. Despite a notable speech impediment, she was a Hollywood star. (Robert Osborne says she was dubbed “the wavishing Kay Fwancis” by studio wags.) She starred in the Ernst Lubitsch gem Trouble In Paradise, one of the all time champs back in 1932. But now it’s 1939 and she doesn’t even get above the title billing despite being the female star: Humphrey Bogart is above the title and Francis comes clumped together with the rest of the cast. Even worse, her husband in the film is a wimpy nobody, a pushover doctor who performs surgery on a pal of Bogey’s. In return, Bogey gives him $500 as a thank you and the doc starts living the high life. When Bogey starts insisting the doc perform secret surgery on his gangster pals when they’ve been shot, the doc has no way to back out and suddenly he and Francis are dragged into the underworld. Bogey has delusions of writing his own memoir and constantly talks about Napoleon. It all comes to nought and ends in a boring showdown. Francis is nonplussed and after about a dozen more movies, she was through. Opened January 14, 1939.


THE LADY AND THE MOB ** – I’m probably being a little generous to this modest little flick, but it has an amiable charm that had me smiling even as it meandered along. Fay Bainter has great fun as the richest woman in town, a skinflint of an old woman who gets upset when her dry cleaner ups his prices. She’s also wary of her son’s latest fiancé (Ida Lupino). When she finds out the dry cleaner is being extorted – and so are all the other local businesses – she swings into action. Hattie recruits a “gang” of eccentric mugs who once did crimes but kinda sorta went clean. They go toe to toe with the bad guys and after a stirring speech winning over the local businessmen despite the risks, Hattie also wins over Lupino. The two women join forces while the hapless son/fiancé Fred (Lee Bowman) stands helplessly aside. Her gang is filled with oddballs, like a squeaky voiced fellow and another who constantly wants to start shooting. Nothing particularly clever in how its all resolved but Bainter has a lot of fun playing a spry elderly ball of fire (she was 46 at the time). Lupino isn’t nearly as vivid as she would be in other films but has a few good moments. Better than your average bear. Opened April 3, 1939.

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/fiance Maureen O’Sullivan desperately works to prove his innocence. The cops are so lazy that it's not fun. (Even when Fonda is in jail and the same gang pulls another brutal heist that's clearly the work of the same villains, the cops can’t be bothered to even imagine Fonda might be innocent.) The film’s lone saving grace involves the ending (so stop reading if you don’t want a spoiler). SPOILER: Fonda becomes deeply cynical about the law and justice and is clearly bitter. But he remains so even 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. Opened March 29, 1939.

MADE FOR EACH OTHER – Overwrought drama about newlyweds struggling to make a life for themselves. James Stewart is a young attorney in a big firm, great at law but not great at office politics. Everyone expects him to marry the boss’s daughter but on a business trip he meets and marries Carole Lombard in a whirlwind weekend. It ruins his chances at work and forces them to live with his mother, who is petulant and needling, making their home life a misery, even after they give birth to a baby boy. Lombard is fine but has some hysterical moments of laughing and crying where she seems on the verge of instability. Even in this undistinguished nothing of a movie, Stewart finds moments of grace and emotion and humor. When he’s nibbling on a chicken leg and Lombard is pushing him to ask for a raise from his skinflint boss, she asks, “Are you a man or a mouse?” He snaps back, “A mouse!” making it funny and honest and sweet. He gnaws at the chicken leg, struggling with a piece, talking with his mouth full, voicing his concerns and fears and hopes and dreams and it’s all so natural and believable and moving. What an actor. It climaxes rather bizarrely with the baby getting pneumonia and a desperate need for a serum that’s only available thousands of miles away. This crisis is what finally gives Stewart backbone to demand something and sets their life on the right course. Opened February 10, 1939.


THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY * ½ -- A very B western notable for a rather complicated plot. Mesa City is a Wild West town plagued by thugs and rowdy men, no thanks to the Sheriff (Leon Ames), the ringleader of the criminals who bullies everyone into doing as they’re told and even has the judge in his back pocket. He tries to woo the schoolteacher (Virginia Vale) but she’ll have none of it and leaves town for good. His gang chases after her stagecoach which loses a wheel and crashes to a halt. She might have been killed but it’s the Old West and everyone brushes this off after a quick comment. Before they can drag her back, in walks “retired” marshal Cliff Mason (George O’Brien, in a very large cowboy hat). He escorts her back, starts to woo her himself and when the sheriff tries to have him killed, decides he’ll un-retire and clean up this town. The Sheriff brings in a gunman (Henry Brandon) to take care of Mason but Mason saves his life (inexplicably, some random guy at a bar is about to shoot the gunman in the back) and they pair up to right wrongs. The final showdown takes place in a smoky fog (the jail was set on fire) so our heroes just walk slowly into the mist and we can’t see what happens – sort of dramatically interesting and a nice dodge for a B movie’s big climax. Usually, a marshal outranks a sheriff but this movie makes much of the law and who controls what and everyone is arresting everyone else every five minutes in this convoluted tale. The history of the cast is far more interesting than the film. O’Brien was plucked out of obscurity by John Ford for The Iron Horse and used him in bit parts forever. O’Brien also starred in Sunrise, one of the all-time greats. But sound dimmed his star a bit and he was reduced to B Westerns thanks to his barrel-shaped solidity and deep voice. But O’Brien’s offscreen career is even more notable: He was the son of the chief of police of San Francisco; hanging around police stables is how he became horse savvy. O’Brien served with great distinction in World War I, World War II (he was also the heavyweight boxing champ of the Pacific Fleet), Korea and Vietnam (he was recommended for admiral but retired with many medals as a captain). Virginia Vale was the winner of Jesse L. Lasky’s “Gateway to Hollywood” radio talent search contest (see Conspiracy). After peaking with 12 movies in 1941, she did a few in 1942 and one in 1945 and left Hollywood for good, working for Lockheed for 30 years and serving as an ice skating judge on the side. The very dependable Leon Ames would shoot to fame in Meet Me In St. Louis, leading to a long and successful career as a character actor and father figure. But he’s best known for being one of the original 33 actors who met in secret to form the Screen Actors Guild (Ames had card #15). Finally, the hired gunman turned lawman Henry Brandon was 6 feet 5 inches (extremely tall for Hollywood) and this was one of his relatively rare good guy roles. Brandon played the bad guy in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes In Toyland and onstage made a career out of playing the villain in a melodrama called The Drunkard that he performed for years and then reprised in the 1980s. He was the longtime companion of Mark Herron, who was once married to Judy Garland, which is about as gay as it gets. Opened November 3, 1939.

MIDNIGHT SHADOW -- A no-budget mystery made with an all-black cast, this is a curio strictly of interest for scholars and cultural historians. While once in a while an all-black cast of talented actors came together, more often than not these B movies were peopled with non-actors who never acted before and would not do so again, which is certainly the case for most of the people here, including the lovely light-skinned Frances Redd, who was a popular model but obviously not an actress. She is the love interest for two men. One is the shady Prince Alihabad, a mesmerist who works the theater circuit but also gets pretty high and mighty, telling her father that his family insists the men in it all marry women of means. The other is handsome Edward Brandon, who stands around and mopes. On a very busy night indeed, Redd's father (Clinton Rosemond) shows Prince Alihabad the deed to oil fields he's gifting to his daughter, the Prince asks the daughter to elope with him (which confuses his presumed interest in her money), the former boyfriend hangs around outside spying on everyone, someone breaks into the house and drugs her parents and steals the deed and I think someone ELSE breaks in and kills the father. It's hard to tell. It's all clumsily wrapped up in under 55 minutes. Points of interest: this seemed to be considered a launch for a potential series, since the comic relief is provided by a duo of would-be detectives named Lightfoot and Lingley. Lightfoot walks around in a Sherlock Holmes style outfit and smokes a pipe, furiously looking for clues; while Lingley gets bug-eyed around a dead body. (Apparently, stereotypes die hard, even when an all-black cast is making a movie for an all-black audience.) They actually have one or two very modest moments of amusing banter but obviously it was not meant to be. Prince Alihabad is clearly a fraud but he's also clearly a Muslim, which doesn't seem to be a problem for the girl's family. (Later, he's called a Hindoo by Lightfoot.) Even in these circumstances, Jess Lee Brooks is commanding as Sgt.  Ramsey, spitting out dialogue as if it meant something and cross-examining witnesses in such a ferocious manner he could teach Perry Mason a thing or two. He died at the age of 50, with almost all of his roles being uncredited ones, including his turn as the preacher showing a movie in the key scene of Sullivan's Travels. And finally, it's worth contrasting Clinton Rosemond as the father here with his role in 1939s Stand Up And Fight. In that movie he's a tremulous slave who sho' nuff loves his massah, Robert Taylor. Here he's an educated, well-off man of means entertaining suitors for his daughter in a stately home. Midnight Shadow may have been crappy and he probably shot all his scenes in one or two days at most, but it's easy to imagine which film he found more satisfying. Opening date unknown, 1939.

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 cute in-joke shows a Charlie Chan film playing at a movie palace but about to close.) Opened January 20, 1939.

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) plays a big palooka and humanitarian Jean Hersholt is one of the many suspects. Opened April 7, 1939.

MR. MOTO TAKES A VACATION * ½ --  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. Opened July 7, 1939.

THE NIGHT RIDERS * ½ -- It’s amazing how many nooks and crannies there are in Hollywood history. John Wayne is one of its biggest stars. And the B movie series The Three Mesquiteers featured 51 (fifty one!) westerns from 1936 to 1943 or more than six movies a year. And eight of them starred John Wayne. But I’d absolutely never heard of it. The lame pun in the name of the series was of course a nod to the Three Musketeers though of course Mesquite lets you know they are cowboys instead of swordsmen in France. Wayne’s stint in the series occurred right before and after he became a star of the first order thanks to Stagecoach. But his exiting the series didn’t really matter since they’d had a rotating cast throughout. In this movie barely more than an hour long, there’s a preposterous plot where a conman pretends to be a foreign nobleman with the deed to a huge chunk of the west. (As in multiple states or territories.) Oh well, the authorities can’t do anything about it so he takes charge of the equivalent of two or three states and starts browbeating the homesteaders for money before kicking them off their land. Our heroes spot a fraud and uncover the bad guy, not without complications including the assassination of President Garfield (I didn’t see that one coming!). The film has no racial overtones whatsoever so the real oddity here is the title of night riders (an allusion to the KKK) and the fact that our heroes don disguises exactly like the vicious hate group when they go galloping around the countryside dispensing justice. It’s sheer happenstance and no coded message is intended. The only unintended message is how blasé people were to this imagery in Hollywood at the time. It’s a very anonymous film with one bizarre touch: apparently one of the mesquiteers is a ventriloquist. Being able to throw his voice a la ventriloquism plays a quick role in getting them out of an early scrape. Then later in the film, they’re at a tense dinner with the bad guy when suddenly out of nowhere that cowboy’s dummy (a little cowboy duded up nicely) is suddenly brought out and the bad guy and his gal chat with the dummy, pretending it’s a person, playing along with the cowboy’s talent though never quite acknowledging it. This guy has been riding all over the area fighting evil and apparently he’s been lugging around his toy so he can do party tricks at a moment’s notice. It’s not even played for laughs, which makes the whole scene wonderfully surreal. It’s about the only distinctive moment in the entire, bland movie. That and the KKK costumes are the sole curiosity value other than seeing Wayne on the edge of stardom still churning out anonymous fare. You can assume he would have become a star one way or another or you can see how close he came to slipping into obscurity. Sure he was working steadily but you’d never really expect Wayne would dominate screens for years to come by watching this film. How easily a film star might have been a footnote. Opened April 12, 1939.

NINOTCHKA *** -- Finally saw Ninotchka again after many years on New Year’s Eve. As I vaguely remembered, it’s a little creaky but saved by Greta Garbo’s hilarious turn as a dour Soviet emissary extraordinaire, sent to clean up the mess of three bumbling emissaries very ordinaire – Buljanoff, Iranoff and Kopalski. Their mission is to sell the crown jewels of Russian royalty for much needed funds. But Melvyn Douglas is the Countess’s lover and convinces the fellows to live it up and have fun and split the proceeds fifty/fifty rather than face a long court battle (not a bad deal, actually). One scene indicative of the wit of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch’s script simply shows us the door to their hotel suite. As waiters come in with food, roars of approval can be heard. Champagne? Bigger roars. Cigarette girls? The loudest roar of all. Then comes Garbo, grim, determined, beautiful. Melvyn Douglas falls in love with her even before knowing who she is. Their battle of wills – communism vs capitalism but really joy and pleasure vs duty and abstinence – is the heart of the film. Garbo deploys an hilarious dead pan delivery of her lines for almost half the movie that is a delight. But it goes on quite a bit, with a drawn out section back in Moscow as Garbo pines for her man but returns to her duty with vigor. It’s all a bit labored as the movie arranges a happy ending. Frankly, my original 3 ½ stars was a little generous. Melvyn Douglas is no William Powell (though he’s certainly never more appealing than here, his best work in his prime). But seeing Garbo melt at the sight of a silly French hat makes this worth returning to. Opened October 6, 1939.


ON BORROWED TIME * ½ -- Whimsical is always a dangerous word. When you hear a play or film or book described as “whimsical,” you’re usually smart to run in the opposite direction. This oddball film is based on a play by Paul Osborn about a cranky old man determined to look after his orphaned grandson. When Death in the form of Mr. Brink (as in, “on the brink of….”) shows up, Gramps tricks the fellow into an apple tree in his yard and – thanks to a magical wish – keeps Death trapped there. No one in the world can die until Death gets back down and Gramps doesn’t plan on allowing that until his grandson is grown and standing on his own two feet. Lionel Barrymore is in fine dudgeon as Gramps and never hesitates to ham his way through each and every scene. What else could he do with such twee material? It’s actually an interesting concept, but the film never really deals with the ramifications of how people would react if suddenly Death was held at bay. The local doctor realizes the danger and acts accordingly. But mostly we have paper tigers like a mean old aunt who wants to adopt the boy – rather grotesquely named “Pud” – so she can get a hold of his money. It’s tiresome in the extreme, breezing past the death of the boy’s parents in an auto accident (the kid barely seems to notice, he loves his Gramps so much) and then reaching a risible finale that would not pass muster today in its attitude towards “cripples.” (Better paradise, apparently, than a wheelchair in this movie’s mind.) The film’s biggest flaw however is Bobs Watson as Pud, an affected performer who weeps rather hideously whenever called for. It’s not nice to dislike a child when he’s crying but that’s how Pud makes you feel. Opened July 7, 1939.

...ONE THIRD OF A NATION ** -- Well, here’s a fascinating oddity. It’s based on a play by Arthur Arent that was put on by 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 that 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. Opened February 10, 1939.


PANAMA LADY * ½ -- Lucille Ball starred in four movies released in 1939. This certainly isn’t a good one but it’s got glimmers of maturity and Ball is pretty appealing, even when not joking around. Ball plays a down on her luck cabaret performer. One of a motley group of gals going through the motions in a seedy club in Panama.  The financially struggling club owner dumps them all. Luckily, Ball has an aviator fiancée. Unfortunately, Roy (Donald Briggs) is a heel who smuggles guns to profit off war and is just stringing Ball along for the fringe benefits. The plot gets very confused: Ball feuds with other gals, stumbles on his smuggling ring and gets dumped back in Panama broke and homeless. She’s forced into a cruel little scam with her former boss: they roll a drunk named McTeague (Allan Lane) for his thick wad of dough. He wises up, calls the cops and demands Ball fly into the heart of the jungle and serve as his “housekeeper” while he drills for oil. In the film’s rare bit of adult behavior, McTeague clearly expects much more from Ball. She turns him down but this isn’t playful banter. When he demands more once they’re at his isolated cabin in the jungle, it feels more like a potential rape than sparks flying among two people. Ball keeps him at bay (a gun helps), McTeague finds oil and Ball’s bum of a boyfriend comes back to kill Ball and steal his oil find in the bargain. On the side, you’ve got natives who work for McTeague that range from lazy to murderous, especially the lovely young Cheema (Steffi Duna) who would like to keep McTeague for herself. The whole story is told in flashback, with McTeague a rich man and Ball wandering the streets of Manhattan, clearly down on her luck and working as a prostitute to survive. “Do I have to draw you pictures?” she asks him testily. Lane also made “Twelve Crowded Hours” with Ball in 1939 and he’s got at least B movie star potential. (Lane made tons of Westerns and ultimately provided the voice of the talking horse in “Mr. Ed.”) Donald Briggs made nine movies released in 1939 and reunited with Ball on “The Lucy Show” where he played a recurring role on seven episodes. Opened May 12, 1939.

PIÈGES aka PERSONAL COLUMN ** 1/2  -- An odd duck. Director Robert Siodmak's final film before absconding to Hollywood, Pièges is a light/dark French trifle that deals in crime and serial killers and white slavery...but with a romantic comedy layering on top. From the start, the tone is sophisticated and adult. In a Psycho-worthy twist (on a modest level), we begin with a "taxi dancer," a woman who dances with men in a club for a small fee. The possibility of romance or at least a commercial transaction is always in the air but this woman spurns the oafish man who tries to woo her. Why? Because she's just answered a personal ad that's too good to be true. Indeed, she's soon offed and we realize she's not the heroine, but her best pal will be. That woman is Marie Déa (a revelation to me) as Adrienne. She is recruited by the police to answer personal ads so they can ferret out what is feared to be a serial killer. (Not that the idea of a serial killer held much currency back then.) Siodmak creates a vivid world filled with strong characters who register strongly, from Adrienne's police escort/guardian angel to a string of nutjobs. seh stumbles across a once-famous fashion designer who has gone mad and insists she parade in his latest outfits to an imaginary audience to a white slavery ring. And while she doesn't find the serial killer, she does find true love with night club impresario Robert Fleury (Maurice Chevalier). But in a late film twist, perhaps she has found the killer after all and doesn't know it? At first, the movie is brisk and confident, thanks to an excellent production and a strong cast. It's a pity the episodic nature grinds to a halt in act three where our heroine suspects Robert, he is arrested and brow-beaten, she becomes convinced of his innocence and it all takes FOREVER to resolve. But Déa is delightful (I'll be sure to check out her other work) and Chevalier quite charming, certainly better than I expected even if his two musical moments are nonsense shoe-horned into the story. No more than a curio but worth a look. Opened in France on December 16, 1939 (and in the US on February 2, 1941). 

PRIDE OF THE BLUE GRASS  ** -- An "inspiring" horse racing B movie overseen by Bryan Foy, the pride of the B movies at Warner Bros. (Foy's official nickname was "Keeper Of The B's.") In typical B movie fashion, this just over 60 minute flick races through its storyline: a father and son are on hard times and have all their hopes investyed in a new colt. A lightning strike kills the father and leaves the young man Danny (James McCallion) on his own. He's pals with Midge (Edith Fellows) the daughter of a wealthy horse breeder and despite the two being the same age and clearly fond of each other, I guess naming her "Midge" makes clear this won't be a romance. Danny's dad was a disgraced jockey/trainer, though interestingly we never learn WHY he was disgraced. Midge's ailing but not mean dad (Granville Bates) wants nothing to do with Danny. The boy gives Midge his prized colt Gantry The Great and goes off to seek his fortune. But his late father's shame dogs the lad and he can't succeed anywhere. He's about to be thrown into correctional school but Midge rescues him and convinces her dad to give him a job in the stables. Now Gantry is a fine, fiery horse but no one can tame him...no one but Danny of course. Despite setbacks, major success ensues...until Gantry is blinded by a vicious trainer who knocks down Danny and then is attacked by the horse. Well, surely that's it for Gantry who is scheduled to be put down...until Danny secrets him away in a backfield and trains the horse to be a jumper and though blind and never having run in any steeplechase race before, is somehow entered in th Grand National in Europe, with the fate of the horse farm and all their dreams hanging in the balance. I wonder what will happen?  Gantry The Great aka Elmer Gantry was indeed blind and plays himself. However, the blindness is about where fact ends and fiction begins. Gantry did exhibitions at state fairs and the like but certainly never competed in a horse race and certainly never at the Grand National. I liked that we never learned exactly what Danny's dad had done (and whether even he was wrongly accused or made a mistake of hubris and in fact was guilty of some ethical lapse or worse). It's a B movie for sure with stock footage and voice over filling in gaps ably. Heck, in two scenes where they flash headlines on the screens, I noticed they only wrote the first paragraph of the supposed news story about Gantry; read the second graph and you realize it's text from some entirely different article they just erased and slapped a new headline and first graph onto. Now that's penny pinching!) I liked that the two kids didn't have some romance tossed into the mix. Fellows was fine as a slightly spoiled daddy's girl who knows how to get her way. Bates is fine as her dad. Sam McDaniel maintained his dignity as a compatriot to Danny, despite "hilarious" mangling of big words and some banal comic moments. True, he's a stand-in for the horse during training but his insight allows them to figure out how to help Gantry compete and McDaniel gets the final dignified line of the movie. I'm sure he had many worse roles to play (indeed, he appeared in 11 blink and you miss 'em roles in 1939 and this was the only credited one and amounts to the third lead.) Finally, I thought McCallion was very appealing as Danny and wondered about his career. Turns out he was a journeyman but a good one. McCallion played on Broadway and then broke into radio, doing regular voice-overs on Gangbusters, a true crime radio show that enacted headline grabbing stories and ended with descriptions of criminals on the loose, encouraging viewers to look out for and turn them in, a la America's Most Wanted. Then he got regular work in the movies and especially TV, notably as an ex-jockey in the series National Velvet, which ran for 58 episodes. A solid actor. Opened October 7, 1939.

PRIVATE DETECTIVE * 1/2 --  In August, actor Jane Wyman starred in the last of nine movies starring Torchy Blaine, a fast-talking reporter who ran circles around her detective boyfriend and the rest of the police force while solving crimes. A few months later she launched a new would-be series about a fast-talking female detective who ran circles around her long-suffering detective boyfriend and the rest of the police force while solving crimes. At less than one hour in running time, this is pure B movie fare and doesn't rise to even the heights of the so-so Torchy series, which had one or two better than average episodes. Still, Wyman is appealing (only later would she become a bore), it's relatively painless and I was diverted a little just by trying to figure out the mystery. Not who dunnit, but the movie's convoluted attempt to offer up twists and turns that made no sense to me whatsoever.  Since every description of the movie I found online has substantial errors, I'll recount the plot which is hardly worth the bother. It begins in court, with our heroine Jinx prepared to testify in a custody battle between a husband and his ex-wife. We know she's the one to root for because the wife weeps tragically and Jinx screws up her face in distaste over the behavior of the husband's attorney. Quite why she knows not to trust the guy isn't clear, but she doesn't. The battle is over custody of their son, a child who has been willed a massive estate by the kid's grandfather. Now suddenly showing paternal interest, the husband is pulling every trick to paint his ex-wife as a floozy and drunk and slattern who practically has sex with men in front of her little boy. (This is the accusation that sets her weeping.) Jinx won't have it! She wants to quite the case and refuse to testify but before she can the husband and wife have a late night meeting, someone kills him with a gun and the wife is seen fleeing the scene by a nosy neighbor. Who killed him? The wife? Her fiancee? The sleazy lawyer? Or perhaps the thuggish chauffeur who overhears the husband saying he'll get rid of the dumb oaf know that he knows the bum is an ex-con and in violation of parole. The husband has always hated the chauffeur and wanted to fire him but the brute knows too much. Don't pity the chauffeur: he gets angry when confronted over the fact that he's three sheets to the wind when getting set to drive the little boy out of the city to a secret hideaway. Sadly, the movie is just getting started and I kept losing the ins and outs of a plot that just mAde no sense. Jinx overhears where the wife is hiding out...but instead of getting the jump on her detective boyfriend she waits to follow him there. Late in the film, we realize Jinx has typed a note explaining why the lawyer is the murderer...even casually predictingthe impossible to predict bit of evidence she's about to discover in his office files. Whenh confronted by the villain while ransacking the office, Jinx is on the phone to her boyfriend saying where she is and explaining all to him...and instead of shouting out "Help, he's pulled a gun!" she quietly hangs up without even being asked to do so. While Jinx spends the whole movie crawling out on to ledges and dodging bad guys and out thinking everyone, she spends the finale woozy and out of the way from an attempted murder by car engine fumes gag while the men bash the hell out of each other in an elaborate fist fight. In an interesting touch, the detective and his sidekick are seen immediately after the fight with bruised and swollen faces, a rare instance of classic Hollywood showing actual physical damage from being punched repeatedly in the face. (The sidekick should know: he was played by former boxing champ Maxie Rosenbloom, the Jewish champ who played lots of lovable oafs in the movies and TV, opened one of if not the first comedy club with Slapsy Maxie's and had a good supporting role in the classic live tv movie "Requiem For A Heavyweight.") On the downside, Jinx is a little overwhelmed by the attempt on her life and insists with a smile she wants to give up detecting and get married. Hollywood's idea of a happy ending. Opened December 9, 1939.

Q PLANES *** -- Jaunty doesn’t even begin to describe this interesting British film that’s paced like The Front Page, which is to say fast fast fast. 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 TV series The Avengers). His sister is a newspaper reporter who keeps scooping him. He also has a girlfriend that Richardson continually makes plans with and then cancels at the last minute. 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. (For instance, 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. Opened June 20, 1939.

THE RAINS CAME ** 1/2 -- A prestige pic from FOX directed by Clarence Brown and starring Myrna Loy (both on loan from MGM) and George Brent (on loan from Warner Bros). No wonder actors resented feeling like studio property, being loaned out like so many props! It's based on a novel by Louis Bromfield, a perennial best-seller who won the Pulitzer Prize very early in his career and is remembered more for his pioneering work on organic farming than his fiction. The quiet life of the British colonials in the Indian region of Ranchipur is upended when the beautiful and deeply unhappy Myrna Loy comes to town with her belligerent, aging husband in tow (he's there to buy some stallions from the local nobility). Loy is the former lover of a dissolute painter (Brent). They spar playfully and with genuine regret over what might have been, but there's no real spark. She immediately sets her sights on the noble, high caste and handsome Dr. Safti (played in brown face by Tyrone Power). Meanwhile, Brent is fending off the very persistent come-ons of a neighbor's beautiful 18 year old daughter (Brenda Joyce). For 45 minutes, the tone of the movie is sexually frank and adult and quite watchable. Then, rather shockingly if you don't know the plot, a massive earthquake strikes, the local dam collapses, water floods in and the resulting devastation is truly stunning. Then cholera breaks out! The film beat The Wizard Of Oz in the newly created Oscar category of Special Effects (which combined both visual and sound in one award). And rightly so. The miniature work remains pretty jaw-dropping and the human toll is very real. Unlike most "disaster" movies, The Rains Came doesn't climax with the tragedy or focus merely on who survives. Half the film is a pretty engaging drama and the rest of the movie deals with the practical and real after effects. It's very admirable in its tone and seriousness. Of course, one could dismiss the movie for having Tyrone Power stiffly playing a young Indian doctor (fated to rule his nation, by the way). Not to mention the great but diminutive Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as the Maharani or numerous minor roles that are caricatured or an emotional climax where we're told Safti must pull himself together because he's damn near white! Yes, it's all here. But what's also here is a very real romance between Loy and her Indian object of desire. In this case, it's the white woman burning with desire...and it's not for his exoticism but the genuine moral poise, intelligence and decency of this man. She lusts after him but then she admires and truly falls in love with him and that love saves her soul, redeems her. An interracial romance where the dark-skinned person represents civilization and morality while the light skinned creature is fallen but can be saved? That's pretty fascinating in my book and makes this movie worth watching. It's also very well-acted, with the obvious exception of Power, who happily isn't asked to do much more than look handsome and quietly heroic. Brent is very good as the washed-up painter while Loy has subtle fun playing against her wholesome image as the perfect wife. A lesser actress might have hammed it up but Loy makes this woman very real. Nigel Bruce has a hammier time as her thoroughly unpleasant husband. As the Lolita-like girl stalking Brent, Joyce shows real promise. (She later played Jane to two Tarzans but never got the career she perhaps deserved.) The racial elements not to mention the Hayes Code need for a fallen woman to suffer and die (with a shining, saved look in her eye) keeps this from being good. But from the special effects to the notably positive portrayal of an interracial romance to the solid acting, there's a lot to like here. Opened September 15, 1939.

THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X * -- B movie notable because it features Humphrey Bogart in a dreadful secondary role (Bogie reportedly said it was the worst of his career) and of course because it came out in 1939. The rather laborious tale barely makes it to 60 minutes but seems to take forever in spinning out its tiresome story: in short, a junior reporter and a young doctor stumble across the fantastic experiments of a scientist, experiments that have successfully brought people back to life. Of course, keeping them alive proves trickier but the scientist is working feverishly to create artificial blood...never mind that creating artificial blood alone would make your name forever. Until he succeeds, Bogie -- as the clammy, pale-faced, back from the dead child murdering Doctor X -- will just have to kill and kill again to keep up a fresh supply of blood. We only discover this about two reels in. For most of the time we follow bumbling reporter Wayne Morris who sets up to interview famed actress Angela Merrova (the wonderfully named Lya Lys), then finds her dead body, then finds her alive again after she too is revived by the mad scientist. That leads him and his pal (Dennis Morgan) to the real heart of the mystery. Enter Bogie, who makes his entrance sporting a dash of white in his hair a la the Bride Of Frankenstein, clutching a bunny rabbit in his hands a la Blofeld and whispering out his lines in the best Peter Lorre manner. Ten years into his career, Bogie must have been aghast to be tackling such material, but such was the life of a contract player. Indeed, the film is filled with decent actors, from Morris (who looks like an overgrown kid but would have one final hurrah in Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" before dying unexpectedly) to Morgan (who has a strong screen presence and with a little luck might have had a better career) to of course poor ole Bogie. It's worth recording on TCM just skip to the 22 or so minute mark and watch Bogie's hilariously camp entrance. Opened December 2, 1939. 

SEA SCOUTS no stars -- An eight minute Disney short from 1939 starring Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie (and a shark). True, I'm no fan of Donald Duck; though his spluttering behavior amuses some he seems one of the least interesting Disney characters -- and there is some serious competition for that designation, starting with Mickey Mouse in most everything after he became the Disney spokesmouse. Here Donald is trying to captain a sailing vessel with the willing but incompetent assistance of H, D & L. Hilarity ensues, though of course it does not. The humor is tepid and the gags tiresome. Dick Lundy made his uncredited leap to the director's chair with this cartoon after working as animator on numerous projects including Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. He did dozens of shorts over the next 20 years and I assume he got better. Opened June 30, 1939.

SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR* ½ -- B movie series starring Ronald Reagan as Brass Bancroft, a pilot who is recruited by the Secret Service to smash an illegal alien smuggling ring in the first of four adventures. There’s one doozy of a moment in this first film: a nervous pilot smuggling aliens in a small plane panics and decides to dump his load: he pulls a lever and a trap door opens up underneath all the passengers, dumping them thousands of feet to their death. That’s about it for surprises. Reagan is competent while pretending to be a down on his luck pilot, winning the trust of the bad guys and bringing them to justice. There’s a mild twist or two towards the finale to keep it from being too predictable. But the best part of the movie is his name: Brass Bancroft! Still it moves along and frankly, most of the other actors are so stiff Reagan looks like a movie star in comparison. Opened March 4, 1939.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN *** -- Very strong third entry in the Frankenstein series, this is long on atmosphere and solid actors, albeit short on action. Overall, however, for someone like myself who is not a fan of horror, quite a happy surprise. Rather surprisingly in an era where movies were churned out by the hour, the classic blockbuster original Frankenstein in 1931 didn’t spawn a sequel until 1935. Bride of Frankenstein of course is the James Whale classic that added dollops of humor to the mix and in some lights is even better. Both were smash hits but it was still another four years before Son Of Frankenstein. That’s an eternity for those days (Son Of Kong came out six MONTHS after the original). According to the TCM introduction, Universal was purchased by a company that thought horror films were low rent and tawdry so they produced no movies in the genre that made Universal a success. That didn’t work out so well and the company was sold again, this time to people who said, hey, let’s film some of those movies that made tons of money. Hence Son Of Frankenstein which apparently was cheap to make (a reported $250,000), all of which was apparently spent on the sets. Those sets are what I remember most vividly about this relatively quiet drama. Basil Rathbone and his wife have arrived at his father’s estate for the first time in the young man’s life. He’s ready to claim his inheritance but the townspeople are cold and unforgiving. The last thing they want is another Frankenstein in their midst, creating monsters. The local policeman is suspicious because a number of people have died under mysterious circumstances, all of them linked to Igor’s trial where the servant was found guilty, hanged and pronounced dead – only to be still alive and walk away. What with Rathbone as Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the Monster and Bela Lugosi as Igor, this is a movie packed with strong actors. And those sets! Frankenstein’s mansion is a Germanic nightmare, filled with sloping walls and dramatic stairways and secret passages. There’s also a dilapidated laboratory the young Rathbone has fixed up. Add in a thunderstorm and before you know it the Monster is roaming the countryside again. Other than a lot of talk and some angry mutterings from the villagers, it’s practically over before it begins. But the sense of foreboding is strong and some quirky humor left over from Bride can still be found, especially in the scenes with Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh. As in the Mel Brooks parody, he has one wooden arm and shifts it into place to salute, shake hands and yes even stabs darts into it for easy access when playing a game with a frantic, worried Rathbone. Brooks didn’t have to change a beat to get his laughs because Atwill was getting them already, although they came with an uneasy undercurrent that works well here. Really, a very good looking, trim B movie with an excellent cast making the most of a familiar story. Opened January 13, 1939.

THE SPY IN BLACK ** -- The very first modest collaboration between the great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. On the eve of World War II, they managed to tell an anti-German story by setting it in WW I, though for all intents and purposes you imagine it dealing with events soon to happen. The rather rococo story involves a young schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson) headed to the Orkney Islands. She’s given a lift to the ship that will transport her there, thanks to an elderly dowager who turns out to be a Nazi spy. The girl is choked to death (we think) and the female chauffeur takes her place. At the same time we meet submarine commander Conrad Veidt, whose sub has a lovely lounge area. His secret orders are to head to the Orkneys and meet up with the spy and follow her orders. Those come from the "fake" schoolteacher who has befriended a bitter UK serviceman that offers up secret information which will allow the submarine and others to strike a deadly blow to the British navy. Both men of course fall in love with the spy. But wait! She’s not the spy! She’s the real school teacher who was thrown off a cliff but survived anyway. They stopped her replacement and put the schoolteacher back in the girl’s place. Her fiancé also shows up to complicate things (he must be tied up for appearances sake) though strangely she’s still giving her affections to the fake British turncoat (he’s a patriot; it’s a trap for the Nazis) AND the poor fiancé is left tied up for ages. The melodrama gets really crazy when instead of just arresting Veidt once he’s delivered the fake plans that will doom the submarine, for no good reason they allow him to hang around. He figures things out, escapes while posing as the fiancé, arranges the revolt of German prisoners on a prison ship and is then  sunk by his own submarine! The two lovers clutch each other in joy and someone presumably unties the poor fiancé by the end. The print shown on TCM was very, very dark and many scenes were hard to follow, especially night scenes. It’s all silly nonsense with not enough elan from the solid cast to make it more than mildly watchable. Opened October 7, 1939.

STAND UP AND FIGHT * 1/2 -- Made the same year as Gone With The Wind, this is a very convoluted drama that is set in 1844 and revolves around the Fugitive Slave laws forcing free states to returns escaped people to their "owners" in slave states. But it's more complicated than that, with the movie addressing both fugitive slaves, slave catchers, abolitionists AND the march of progress as trains overtake stagecoaches as the main means of transportation. Not to worry: in true Hollywood fashion you can watch the movie and barely grasp all the political issues at play, much less have your ideas challenged. Nonetheless, despite its confused nature, I doubt strongly this one played in the South. I almost gave it two stars just for keeping me on my toes with its many, many plot twists. Robert Taylor stars as a down-on-his-luck slave owner. At the beginning of the film he woos the ready-to-be-wooed Yankee Florence Rice but not before announcing loudly at a party that he's broke and everything he owns is being sold off immediately. He's not the "bad" sort of slave owner because he insists on keeping the families of slaves together, even though it means he'll get less for them. Merely setting them free, of course, is out of the question. In this not-good-but-interesting movie's first of many unexpected moments, late at nite Taylor blithely suggests Rice stick around unchaperoned so they can sleep together. (It's virtually that blunt.) When she is taken aback, he mocks her for being a prude. When she upbraids him as a sad sort of example of a Southern gentlemen, he retorts that Southern women know their place. This spat means it will take quite a bit longer for their inevitable romance to bloom. So she takes off and he's desperately looking for -- ugh -- work. That sends Taylor out West where he considers employment with the railroad. Said company wants control of the lines owned by a financially struggling stagecoach company, run by the always blustering Wallace Beery. Now, hold onto your hats. The stagecoach is losing money because of the encroaching Iron Horses. Beery is using those coaches to illegally shuttle slaves to freedom in a side business that may or may not be keeping the stagecoach afloat. (I think it's just lining Beery's pockets.) HOWEVER, Beery is being betrayed by his henchmen who are secretly getting paid by abolitionists to ferry slaves to freedom but then selling them off again to other slave owners so they can make twice the money. Taylor is asked to spy on the stagecoach but refuses since the idea is tacky for a gentleman and then he proceeds to do precisely that. Oh and the stagecoach is owned by that Yankee gal Rice. Taylor is thrown into jail when he fights men cheating him at poker, is "bought" by Beery, refuses to be freed by Rice and then breaks up the bad guys, fights Beery twice, saves his life and then Beery returns the favor and then they both almost die and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the enslaved people, of course. It's all very, very confusing but somehow interesting what with about seventeen different ideas fighting for attention. I'm sure actor Everett Brown enjoyed this a lot more than Gone With The Wind. In that movie, he plays Big Sam, who is thrilled to be digging ditches for the Confederacy and tells Miss Scarlett how they're going to send those Yankees packing. Here, he's a slave who questions the white men who are betraying the abolitionists. He takes action rather than passively suffering by breaking a bottle, slitting the canvas of the stagecoach they're in and attacking the driver, thus leading a revolt of slaves who shoot and kill some of the evil slave traders before dying themselves. Sure they all seemed to die (it's unclear if any got away) but in this context, that's a happy ending. Opened January 6, 1939.

THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE * 1/2 -- A dour end to the official screen duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (they would reunite ten years later for one more film -- The Barkleys Of Broadway). The team tips their hat to an earlier dance sensation: husband and wife Vernon and Irene Castle. In the film version, Irene is a would-be actress and Vernon a two-bit comic character. They fall in love, form a dance team and gosh before you know it they're in Paris...penniless. But after some colorful hard times, they become the toast of the town. World War I interrupts and Irene has a very bad feeling about it...Vernon holds out as long as he can (he's British) but finally enlists in the air corps. He survives reconnaissance missions but dies in a tragic training accident back in the US. Irene bursts into tears but their ghostly selves dance off into the sunset. It's that kind of movie. Very few songs and a stolid, boring tone predominates, with Walter Brennan and Edna May Oliver providing some much needed snap as sidekicks. One remarkably dull passage is a seven minute (!) montage showing their massive success and how they endorsed everything from hats to candy. It goes on and on and on. Tragically, most of the dancing is uninteresting as well. They're impeccable, of course, but there's little inventiveness, except for an early bit where Astaire playfully upstages a guy doing an impromptu tap dance on the street. Their final number -- a reunion in Paris during the war -- is very nicely judged and beautifully done, a tribute to the Castle's style with some genuine emotion. According to TCM, a lot of people from RKO and even other studios came to watch their final dance number when the movie was being made; if it was the final live number in the movie, they had a great send-off. Opened March 29, 1939.


TAIL SPIN ** -- A silly melodrama about women competing in an air race for tons of prize money. Most are hardscrabble gals risking it all for fame and fortune or more often just so they can get by, eat, pay their bills and make it to the next air race. That’s the M.O. of Alice Faye, who is so focused on competing she can’t see the great guy standing in front of her. (Proving this is a woman’s film, he waits on the sidelines until she finally asks him to join her in Los Angeles when she gets a firm sponsorship (she’ll be the breadwinner); in fact, she doesn’t even say she loves him, just invites him along for the fun. Then there’s Constance Bennett, a hell of a flier, but she’s wealthy and can afford the best equipment and fastest plane (the others build their own and have to bargain for parts). Naturally, they resent her though she’s not so bad once you get to know her. Some fun flying and parachuting sequences but it’s mostly backdrop for the melodrama of their personal troubles. Two interesting moments: a slap fight between Faye and Bennett is very fun. Faye says Bennett is a spoiled rich girl and Bennett says it’s better than being a…and gives Faye a look as if to say, a trollop. Faye SLAPS Bennett, who looks shocked and then SLAPS Faye back and then they each trade slaps again before rolling on the floor. And later when a pilot dies in a crash, his airplane-flying wife (a dreadful Nancy Kelly, who is also bad in Jesse James) is watched over all night long by her friends. In the early dawn she steals away, grabs a plane and dives it straight into the ground so she can join her husband in heaven. Her face is beatifically resigned as she plummets to her death. Oddly, the others actually sort of endorse her suicide by saying it was kind of beautiful. I wasn’t expecting that. So-so in general but offbeat material and flying sequences make this a little unusual. See also Women In The Wind. Opened February 19, 1939.

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" (i.e. 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 the wrong guy in the electric chair. Rains is all wrong in the role, especially as he approaches the part. 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 pickings. Opened January 28, 1939.

THUNDER AFLOAT ** ½ -- Since the US wouldn’t enter the war for three years, films released in 1939 that wanted to take a jab at the Nazis had to be circumspect. Otherwise Hollywood -- aka Jews as any whisper campaign would have it -- would be accused of war-mongering and so on. How to get around this, not so subtly? Set your film during WW I, when the Germans were still the bad guys. That’s how we get to this B movie about a salty sea captain played by Wallace Beery. He’s competing with a younger, more handsome captain (played by Chester Morris) for a pricey contract. When he loses the deal, Beery and his plucky daughter (Virginia Grey) trick Morris into enlisting and snag the contract for themselves. Success! Until their beloved boat is sunk by a Nazi submarine plying American waters, that is. Beery vows revenge (when not tugging up his pants, a rather odd but consistent character trait of his). So he enlists only to discover his new commanding officer is…Chester Morris. Beery hates orders but sniffs out Nazi subs with ease and they both fight each other and the rigid chain of command until the finale when it’s not giving anything away to say they finally sink that hated sub and head off to do more damage. At the same time, the battling Morris and Grey finally admit that gosh, they kind of like each other, don’t they? Harmless fun delivered by pros who know just what sort of movie they’re in but give their all in the right spirit and elevate it from B movie to, oh, B+. Opened September 15, 1939.

TORCHY BLANE IN CHINATOWN *
TORCHY RUNS FOR MAYOR ** 1/2
TORCHY BLANE...PLAYS WITH DYNAMITE ** -- Torchy Blane was a fast-talking reporter, solving crimes and amiably clashing with the cops. She's perennially engaged to Lieutenant Steve McBride and always right that there’s something suspicious about such-and-such or so-and-so. They made nine films in all from 1936 to 1939 and Torchy was usually played by Glenda Farrell with the usual Warner Bros. vinegar. Journeyman actor Barton MacLane got as close to a leading man as he ever would playing her beleaguered boyfriend and throughout the nine film series Tom Kennedy played the dim-witted, poetry-spouting cop Gahagan. Chinatown was one of three movies Farrell made after ditching the series and then being lured back. It’s pretty dire, with a plot that’s banal in the extreme and seemingly the entire cast standing around in a group and rushing from room to room as the bodies pile up. A modest sop to the parade of Oriental stereotypes is a scene where McBride talks with the “mayor” of Chinatown, a man who speaks in broken English but offers insight into the case and is treated with friendly respect. Hey, it’s better than nothing. Far superior is Mayor, with Torchy battling corruption at City Hall. It’s the eighth in the series and the last with Farrell and they all seemed to raise their game with a better than average storyline that actually sort of makes sense. The final film in the series stars Jane Wyman as Torchy. She’s no one’s idea of a fast-talking, Front Page-style newspaper reporter but Wyman is actually pretty good and this case isn't bad either. Gahagan is less dumb than usual and there’s an amusing bit about a rigged wrestling match at the finale. To modern movie goers, B movies like these play more like episodes of a TV series than movies. By that standard, Torchy Blane was not appointment TV but passable entertainment if you happened to watch. ChinatownOpened February 4, 1939. Mayor: Opened May 13, 1939. Dynamite: Opened August 12, 1939.


TWELVE CROWDED HOURS ** -- A twisty little B movie about a reporter trying to bust a numbers racket. It goes for a breezy, Thin Man sort of attitude, creating a world where everyone knows everyone else, from the cops to the reporters to the criminals. It doesn’t succeed but the effort is appreciated and it passes by amiably enough. B movie director Lew Landers was churning them out but his film has some nice touches. Especially noteworthy is the opening and closing flourish: it begins with the sun setting and the camera travels down a New York City block at waist level while we watch life unfold. A window shade is drawn down, an empty milk bottle is put out, a man tired by his day’s work trudges home while the shapely legs of a gal step out for a night on the town. It ends with us seeing this all in reverse the next morning: the window shade is raised, a full milk bottle is taken in, the gal trudges home and the man heads off to work in a jaunty manner. Nothing else in the film matches this clever bit of business. Reporter Nick Green (dependable but never truly captivating Richard Dix) is crazy about his girlfriend Lucille Ball but she’s mad his stories put her no-good brother behind bars. Green vows to bring down the gangster really responsible for the crime her brother has been jailed for. Green starts by snatching a bag with $80,000 right from under the gangster’s nose and a very complicated game of back and forth ensues, with a dim-witted cop thrown in to keep Green and the gangster guessing who did what. One extended scene has so many people ducking in and out of doorways and stumbling across one another that it generates a sort of surreal fascination. Mostly the movie just moves along, with everyone going through their paces about as you’d expect until it all finishes up in just over an hour. Opened March 3, 1939.

TWO THOROUGHBREDS 1/2 * -- Tiresome little B movie (C movie?) about a boy and his horse. Criminals steal a thoroughbred but the colt gets away from them. Sad little orphan boy David finds the helpless colt, looks all around to see if anyone lost one, even reads the papers but to no avail. HIs mom died when he was a little boy and his miserly aunt and uncle keep him in the barn. Thinking there might be some money in it, they grudgingly let him keep the colt and raise it. The boy lives in the hayloft and communes with animals, speaking in a whiny voice whenever he has to talk to adults or when praying to his saintly dead mother. (About the only time he shows some spunk is when his aunt mocks the boy's mother.) Anyway, the owners of the colt return home from a trip, the boy realizes he has their stolen colt, he tries to bring it back but darn it the colt won't come and they get it back anyway but he's too ashamed to say it's theirs. They like the lad and arrange things so he'll confess (confess what? He didn't steal the colt and tried to bring it back but somehow can't bring himself to tell them? It's all too contrived.) and so he does "confess" and they all love him and the colt. The end. The lead Jimmy Lydon seems to have had a tough life but his role here is pretty thankless; I've never seen the Henry Aldrich B series wanna be Andy Hardy tales that are his claim to fame. The only fun touches come from his hateful aunt and uncle, with the aunt played by Marjorie Main, who would of course go on to her own successful series with the far more likable Ma and Pa Kettle. Opened December 8, 1939.

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, kind of a male Deanna Durbin and vehicles like this 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. This 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. (You can find it on YouTube.) Breen in general is good, despite the annoyingly wholesome character he plays here. A real oddity. Opened July 21, 1939.

WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND ** -- In  this very silly comedy, Loretta Young plays a socialite who always dreamed of becoming a great opera singer, the very same dream her mother harbored for many years. Her voice is quite good for an amateur but it's quite clear she's not some undiscovered gem. Warner Baxter is her "working class" contractor, a man who doesn't want to deny his wife anything but also doesn't want to have her be embarrassed on the stage. Her singing coach (Cesar Romero)  -- like singing coaches everywhere -- insists she has great talent and needs lots and lots of lessons and before you know it she's book a concert recital and Baxter is forced to fobbing tickets off on all their friends so the place won't be empty. Things get really nutty when Baxter becomes the object of affection for a genuine operatic star (Binnie Barnes), a woman with the mannish name of Cecil Carver. She hunts Baxter and discovers to everyone's astonishment that HE in fact has a one in a million voices. before you know it he's secretly touring the country and knocking 'em dead. Young is put out that he's the real talent but SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER it all turns out right when in a ridiculous turn he's cast in an Italian opera and freezes onstage. As long as neither of them has talent, they can be happy together, or at least that's the icky message of the finale. END OF SPOILER END OF SPOILER. The film was remade in 1949 as Everybody Does It, but the discordant ending and general absurdity kept me from truly enjoying this one. But it has some great touches. So many great comedies have minor characters who have a major fixation. In this one, it's Young's father, played by George Barbier. He's hilariously funny in ranting and raving about the curse of music that runs in the women of their family and warns Baxter to stamp out this disease or he'll be paying the price for the rest of his life. Binnie Barnes as the man hungry opera singer is just plain weird. Maybe they were scared to just show her as lustful, but the result is this character ranges from lascivious to almost psychotically focused on her career and making Baxter a star. I literally had no idea what she really thought or wanted, which was pleasingly disconcerting. Certainly one of the pleasanter trifles of 1939 and Young, who I usually find a bore, was pretty loose and fun here. Oddest detail of all? It's based on a short story by noir novelist James M. Cain. Opened March 3, 1939.

WOMEN IN THE WIND ** -- Were aviatrixes all the rage in 1939? Were all-female flying competitions sweeping the nation? There must be some headline news that spurred Hollywood to make not one but two movies about this topic. The first -- Tail Spin -- came out in February. This one apparently came out second and has a pretty strong cast. Kay Francis is the no-nonsense gal who wants to enter a flying competition so she can pay for her brother's operation; he's the ace pilot who taught her everything she knows. Listen close for the speech defect that Francis masked so well. Eve Arden is the fast-talking pal who also sports a mean set of wings. (Her onscreen presence is effortless, as always.) Unfortunately, the romantic male lead is William Gargan, a drip intended to be a sexy, playboy version of Charles Lindbergh. He's just set a world record in flying so Francis wants to borrow his plane and guilts Gargan into it. But his gold-digging wife decides he's too famous to dump now; she rescinds their Mexican divorce and claims the plane for her own. Francis scares up her own fast flyer and the race is on. Tail Spin has more melodrama and more well-shot flying sequences; this one feels slightly more believable, by Hollywood standards. Also in support are Max "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom, a real life former boxer playing a dimwitted former boxer who is Gargan's right hand. The diminutive Frankie Burke is another hanger-on. Gargan is the main drawback: he worked steadily in Hollywood but never to much effect. It's hard to imagine a woman falling for him. Appropriately, Gargan died during a transcontinental flight between NY and San Diego. Presumably he was not the pilot. Opened April 15, 1939.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS ** 1/2 -- I've always had reservations about Wuthering Heights, beginning with the novel, a melodrama that depends on a character only hearing HALF a speech -- if only Heathcliff had waited a moment to hear the rest of Cathy's speech where she declares her undying love, they might have been spared a lifetime of agony. Instead, he's off to America before she's finished and both Cathy and his maid obstinately refuse to share this vital bit of information for decades to come. Nonetheless, the novel does have its virtues; the film, however, only underlkines its flaws. It begins with ok child actors as the well-off siblings Cathy and Hindley take offense at their father bringing a dirty orphan boy (a quite good Rex Downing) into their home. Cathy soon warms up to him but the son nurses a grudge and as soon as their father dies it's off to the stables for poor, Heathcliff. He grows up quite nicely into Laurence Olivier while Cathy is the more tiresome Merle Oberon. (Oh, how Vivien Leigh would have nailed the mercurial nature of this woman!) Olivier can't bear to leave her side, even if it's to run off and make his fortune. What does money matter when you're in love? In pops David Niven as a milksop of an aristocrat to give Cathy bland, passionless kisses that leave you wondering who to pity more, him or the girl. In the film's best moment, the truculent Heathcliff for some reason puts a curse on the home of Niven and storms off. Cathy is thrilled to imagine him exploring the wide world and her disappointment when she realizes he is still at home, still dirtying his hands in the stables is acute -- here, at least, the film makes sense of their doomed romance. Then comes the overheard conversation that finally convinces Heathcliff to leave for good and he's off. One hour into the film and finally, we get some real drama. Oberon's nonsensical back and forth between the safe Niven and the moody Olivier has been so willy nilly it's been hard to care. But now she's married to Niven and Heathcliff's return can only bring pain. In director William Wyler's best gambit, we see Heathcliff enter their home from a far distant door; he strides up to them in intimidating silence. For quite a few scenes, Olivier simply glowers. His quiet, powerful presence is so thoroughly discomfiting it's almost surprising Niven doesn't collapse and say, "Take her! Taker her!" This tension reaches a climax at a dinner party where Niven's sister throws herself at Heathcliff, who barely acknowledges her while smoldering in the general direction of his one true love -- it's all underlined thrillingly with a piano solo on the harpsichord. After that, we just tap our toes until the end, a death scene where Oberon over-emotes painfully and the whole bitter melodrama of the novel is betrayed by a soppy ending where true love triumphs, a far cry from what Bronté envisioned and deeply unsatisfying to those who prefer their doomed romances to remain just that: doomed. Olivier is very impressive and makes an excellent Heathcliff but he's the only really outstanding element in the movie. Opened April 7, 1939.



1939 -- CINEMA'S GREATEST YEAR ALPHABETICALLY

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn ** 1/2
The Adventures Of Jane Arden *
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½
Allegheny Uprising (John Wayne and Claire Tevor) ***
Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever **
Arizona Legion *
Babes In Arms **
Bachelor Mother (Ginger Rogers w baby and David Niven) ***
Bad Little Angel * 1/2
Beau Geste ***
Calling Dr. Kildare ** ½
Captain Fury ** ½
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ** ½
Charlie Chan in City In Darkness ***
Charlie Chan in Reno **
Charley’s (Big-Hearted) Aunt (tired farce) no stars
Clouds Over Europe see Q Planes
Coast Guard *
Confession of A Nazi Spy Ring **
Conspiracy * 1/2
The Cowboy Quarterback no stars
Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2
Daughters Courageous **
Destry Rides Again ***
Dodge City ***
Drums Along The Mohawk ***
Each Dawn I Die ***
Espionage Agent * 1/2
Everything Happens At Night *
Fast And Furious * 1/2
Fast and Loose * ½
Five Came Back (Lucille Ball – plane crash in jungle) ***
Five Little Peppers And How They Grew *
Fixer Dugan **
The Flying Deuces (Laurel and Hardy) * 1/2
Four Girls In White **
The Frozen Limits * ½
Gone With The Wind ***
Goodbye, Mr. Chips ***
The Gorilla *
The Great Man Votes (scenery chewing John Barrymore) * ½
Gunga Din ****
Harlem Rides The Range no stars
Hay Foot *
Henry Goes Arizona *
Here Comes Trouble *
Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) *
Honolulu * 1/2
The Hound Of The Baskervilles ****
The Housekeeper's Daughter * 1/2
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame ****
The Ice Follies of 1939 (Jimmy Stewart and Joan Crawford) * ½
Indianapolis Speedway (Pat O'Brien) * 1/2
In Name Only ** 1/2
Intermezzo: A Love Story ***
Invisible Stripes (Geroge Raft, William Holden, Bogie, ex-cons) ***
It’s A Wonderful World (Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert) * ½
Jamaica Inn *
Jesse James * 1/2
Le Jour Se Leve aka Daybreak ***
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Andy Hardy series)
The Kid From Texas *
King Of The Underworld * 1/2
The Lady And The Mob **
Let Us Live  * 1/2
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt ** ½
Love Affair *** ½
Made For Each Other **
Maisie (Ann Sothern) **
The Marshall Of Mesa City * 1/2
Midnight ****
Midnight Shadow no stars
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning **
Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ****
Nancy Drew...Reporter * ½
Nancy Drew...Trouble Shooter *
Naughty But Nice *
Nick Carter, Master Detective *
The Night Riders * 1/2
Ninotchka ***
Of Mice and Men *** ½
The Oklahoma Kid ***
On Borrowed Time * 1/2
...One Third Of A Nation **
Only Angels Have Wings ***
Panama Lady * 1/2
Pièges aka Personal Column ** 1/2
Pride Of The Blue Grass **
Private Detective * 1/2
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** ½
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe ***
The Rains Came ** 1/2
The Real Glory (Gary Cooper, Philippines, Moro rebellion) ** ½
Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot *
The Roaring Twenties *** ½
Rules of the Game ****
The Saint in London ** ½
The Saint Strikes Back ***
Sea Scouts (Disney short) no stars
The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** ½
Secret Service Of The Air * 1/2
Society Lawyer * ½
Son Of Frankenstein ***
The Spy In Black **
Stagecoach ****
Stand Up And Fight * 1/2
Stanley and Livingstone ** ½
The Stars Look Down ***
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle * 1/2
Stronger Than Desire * ½
Sylvia Scarlett **
Tail Spin **
Tanks A Million *
They Made Her A Spy * ½
They Made Me A Criminal * ½
Thunder Afloat ** 1/2
Topper Takes A Trip *
Torchy Blane In Chinatown *
Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite **
Torchy Runs For Mayor ** 1/2
Twelve Crowded Hours **
Union Pacific ***
Way Down South *
Wife, Husband and Friend **
The Wizard Of Oz ****
The Women ****
Women In The Wind **
Wuthering Heights ** ½
Wyoming Outlaw * 1/2
Young Mr. Lincoln ***
Zenobia (Laurel And Hardy) no stars


1939 -- CINEMA'S GREATEST YEAR BY RELEASE DATE
(Most release dates per IMDB)

(Now, dates for NYC opening are per New York Times Screen Calendar -- their movie listings -- and advertisements as seen in their archives via TimesMachine)

January 1939

Friends -- dir Lev Arnshtam opens NYC on 1-1-1939 per IMDB, NYT reviews it on 1-2-1939

I Stand Accused (1938 -- opens NYC on Jan 4, 1939 per NYT) page 99 of 125 in Sunday, 1/1/1939 issue) ad on 1-5 page says "First NY showing)

Zaza (Cukor, Claudette Colbert, Hollywood premiere 1938, seems NYC premiere and commercial run in 1939 -- on Jan 4, 1939 *(Benny Goodman plays on bill, crowd boos movie and claps impatiently and chants "We want Benny")

The Cowboy and the Lady (1938, LA) opens at State on Broadway and other Loews theaters on 1-5-1939 per NYT (1-4-1939 page 29)

There's That Woman Again (12-24-1938 per IMDB), Melvyn Douglas opens Radio City Music Hall on 1-5-1939 per NYT (1-4 page 29) (reviewed NYT 1-6)

Tempest aka Storm aka Orage starring Charles Boyer opens Thalia on 1-5 per NYT (1-4 page 29)


King Of The Underworld * 1/2 -- opens Jan 6 in NYC at Rialto per NYT on 1-4, p. 29, reviewed 1-7

Going Places w Dick Powell (opens at Strand on Jan 6, 1939 per NYT 1-5 page 25)(reviewed 1-7)

Stand Up And Fight * 1/2 (Opened January 6, 1939)

Un Domingo En la Tarde aka On A Sunday Afternoon (opens NYC on  1-6, reviewed 1-7-1939 NYT) bullfighting film starring famous matador Lorenzo Garza. Played at Teatro Hispano 

Concert in Tirol aka Konzert in Tirol -- fictional film w Vienna Boys Choir w flimsy excuse of storyline opens 1-6 and reviewed in NYT on 1-7 at 86th St. Garden Theatre


Arrest Bulldog Drummond -- British film, opened in UK in 1938. Opens in NYC on 1-11-1939 per NYT on 1-8-1939 page 126)

Peck's Bad Boy With The Circus (1938) kiddie flick opens in NYC and reviewed in NYT 1-11, page 24


Pacific Liner W Victor McLaglen opens NYC Jan 12 per NYT info on Jan 9, page 16;

Topper Takes A Trip * (Opened January 12, 1939)

Trade Winds (1938) opens commercially in NYC on 1-12, reviewed in NYT 1-13 page 23)


Jesse James * 1/2 (World premiere on Friday Jan 13 at Roxy, ad in NYT on Sunday 1-8, page 126)

Sable Cicada aka Diao Chan (Chinese film opened Hong Kong in 1938), opens NYC on 1-13 per NYT info on 1-9, page 16

The Great Man Votes * 1/2 (Opened January 13, 1939) (opens NYC 1-19 per NYT calendar on 1-15, page 132)

Son Of Frankenstein *** (Opened January 13, 1939)

Disbarred w Otto Kruger (opens Jan 18, per NYT calendar on 1-15, page 132)

Arizona Legion * (Opened January 20, 1939) Mr. Moto’s Last Warning ** (Opened January 20, 1939)

Four Girls In White ** (Opened January 27, 1939)
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt ** 1/2 (Opened January 27, 1939)

They Made Me A Criminal * ½ (Opened January 28, 1939)


February 1939

Harlem Rides The Range no stars (Opened February 1, 1939)

Home On The Prairie (Gene Autry vehicle) * (Opened February 3, 1939)
Honolulu * 1/2 (Opened February 3, 1939)

Torchy Blane In Chinatown * (Opened February 4, 1939)

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn ** 1/2 (Opened February 10, 1939)
Made For Each Other ** (Opened February 10, 1939)
...One Third Of A Nation ** (Opened February 10, 1939)

Fast and Loose * 1/2 (Opened February 17, 1939)
Gunga Din **** (Opened February 17, 1939)

Nancy Drew...Reporter * 1/2 (Opened February 18, 1939)

Tail Spin ** (Opened February 19, 1939)


March 1939

Stagecoach **** (Opened March 2, 1939)

Twelve Crowded Hours ** (Opened March 3, 1939)
Wife, Husband and Friend ** (Opened March 3, 1939)

Secret Service Of The Air * 1/2 (Opened March 4, 1939)

The Ice Follies of 1939 * 1/2 (Opened March 10, 1939)
The Saint Strikes Back *** (Opened March 10, 1939)

The Oklahoma Kid *** (Opened March 11, 1939)

Midnight **** (Opened March 15, 1939)

The Adventures Of Jane Arden * (Opened March 18, 1939)

Society Lawyer * 1/2 (Opened March 21, 1939)

Let Us Live  * 1/2 (Opened March 29, 1939)
The Story Of Vernon and Irene Castle * 1/2 (Opened March 29, 1939)

The Hound Of The Baskervilles **** (Opened March 31, 1939)


April 1939

The Lady And The Mob ** (Opened April 3, 1939)

Love Affair *** ½ (Opened April 7, 1939)
Mr. Moto In Danger Island * ½ (Opened April 7, 1939)
Wuthering Heights ** ½ (Opened April 7, 1939)

Dodge City *** (Opened April 8, 1939)

The Night Riders * 1/2 (Opened April 12, 1939)

The Kid From Texas * (Opened April 14, 1939)
They Made Her A Spy * 1/2 (Opened April 14, 1939)

Women In The Wind ** (Opened April 15, 1939)

Fixer Dugan ** (Opened April 21, 1939)
Zenobia no stars (Opened April 21, 1939)

Calling Dr. Kildare ** 1/2 (Opened April 28, 1939)


May 1939

Union Pacific *** (Opened May 5, 1939)

Confession Of A Nazi Spy Ring ** (Opened May 6, 1939)

It’s A Wonderful World * 1/2 (Opened May 10, 1939)

Panama Lady * 1/2 (Opened May 12, 1939)

Torchy Runs For Mayor ** 1/2 (Opened May 13, 1939)

Only Angels Have Wings *** (Opened May 15, 1939)

Rhythm Romance aka Some Like It Hot * (Opened May 19, 1939)

Captain Fury ** 1/2 (Opened May 26, 1939)
The Gorilla * (Opened May 26, 1939)


June 1939

Le Jour Se Leve *** (Opened June 9, 1939 in Paris)
Young Mr. Lincoln *** (Opened June 9, 1939)

Charlie Chan in Reno ** (Opened June 16, 1939)

Nancy Drew...Trouble Shooter * (Opened June 17, 1939)

Clouds Over Europe see Q Planes (Opened June 20, 1939)
Q Planes aka Clouds Over Europe *** (Opened June 20, 1939)

Maisie ** (Opened June 22, 1939)

Five Came Back *** (Opened June 23, 1939)

Wyoming Outlaw * 1/2 (Opened June 27, 1939)

The Saint in London ** 1/2 (Opened June 30, 1939)
Sea Scouts (Disney short) no stars (Opened June 30, 1939)
Stronger Than Desire * 1/2 (Opened June 30, 1939)


July 1939

Naughty But Nice * (Opened July 1, 1939)

Mr. Moto Takes A Vacation * 1/2 (Opened July 7, 1939)
On Borrowed Time * 1/2 (Opened July 7, 1939)

The Rules of the Game **** (Opened July 8, 1939 in Paris)

Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever ** (Opened July 21, 1939)
Way Down South * (Opened July 21, 1939)

Daughters Courageous ** (Opened July 22, 1939)

Beau Geste *** (Opened July 24, 1939)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips *** (Opened July 28, 1939)

The Cowboy Quarterback no stars (Opened July 29, 1939)


August 1939

Conspiracy * 1/2 (Opened August 1, 1939)

Bachelor Mother *** (August 4, 1939)
Coast Guard * (Opened August 4, 1939)

Indianapolis Speedway * 1/2 (Opened August 5, 1939)

The Wizard Of Oz **** (Opened August 10, 1939 in LA; August 17, 1939 in NYC)

Torchy Blane...Plays With Dynamite ** (Opened August 12, 1939)

In Name Only ** 1/2 (Opened August 18, 1939)
Stanley and Livingstone ** 1/2 (Opened August 18, 1939)

Each Dawn I Die *** (Opened August 19, 1939)

Five Little Peppers And How They Grew * (Opened August 22, 1939)



September 1939

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes *** ½ (Opened September 1, 1939)
The Women **** (Opened September 1, 1939)

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island ** 1/2 (Opened September 8, 1939)

The Rains Came ** 1/2 (Opened September 15, 1939)
Thunder Afloat ** 1/2 (Opened September 15, 1939)

Dancing Co-Ed * 1/2 (Opened September 29, 1939)
The Real Glory **1/2 (Opened September 29, 1939)

Espionage Agent * 1/2 (Opened September 30, 1939)


October 1939

Fast And Furious * 1/2 (Opened October 6, 1939)
Intermezzo: A Love Story *** (Opened October 6, 1939)
Ninotchka *** (Opened October 6, 1939)

Pride Of The Blue Grass ** (Opened October 7, 1939)
The Spy In Black ** (Opened October 7, 1939)

Babes In Arms ** (Opened October 13, 1939)
Jamaica Inn * (Opened October 13, 1939)

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington **** (Opened October 19, 1939)

The Roaring Twenties *** ½ (Opened October 23, 1939)

The Housekeeper's Daughter * 1/2 (Opened October 26, 1939)

Bad Little Angel * 1/2 (Opened October 27, 1939)

November 1939

The Flying Deuces (Laurel and Hardy) * 1/2 (Opened November 3, 1939)
The Marshall Of Mesa City * 1/2 (Opened November 3, 1939)

Allegheny Uprising *** (Opened November 10, 1939)
Drums Along The Mohawk *** (Opened November 10, 1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ** 1/2 (Opened November 11, 1939)

The Secret of Dr. Kildare ** 1/2 (Opened November 24, 1939)


December 1939

The Stars Look Down *** (Opened December TK, 1939 in UK Per Academy -- December 1939, in UK)

Charlie Chan in City In Darkness *** (Opened December 1, 1939)

The Return of Doctor X * (Opened December 2, 1939)

Henry Goes Arizona * (Opened December 8, 1939)
Two Thoroughbreds 1/2 * (Opened December 8, 1939)

Private Detective * 1/2 (Opened December 9, 1939)

Gone With The Wind *** (Opened December 15, 1939 -- actually not road-showed till 1940)
Nick Carter, Master Detective * (Opened December 15, 1939)

Pièges aka Personal Column ** 1/2 (Opened December 16, 1939 in France; opened in US on February 2, 1941)

Everything Happens At Night * (Opened December 22, 1939)
Judge Hardy and Son * ½ (Opened December 22, 1939)

Of Mice and Men *** ½ (Opened December 24, 1939)

Destry Rides Again *** (Opened December 29, 1939)
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame **** (Opened December 29, 1939)

Invisible Stripes (Opened December 30, 1939) ***




CHECK:

Number of theaters in US: About 14,000 independently owned theaters. Studios controlled another 500-1000 each. (The seven majors active with theaters included Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, RKO, Columbia, Fox and Universal. A total of maybe 18,000 to 20,000 screens, since theaters equal screens. (No multiplexes back then.) As mentioned above, a really top of the line major studio A picture might have 350 prints circulating.

The Stars Look Down (Opened December TK, 1939 in UK) ***  Per Academy -- December 1939, in UK.


Fall In * (1939 per TCM) stars William Tracy
Hay Foot * stars William Tracy
Tanks A Million * stars William Tracy

Here Comes Trouble *

Charley’s Big-Hearted Aunt (tired farce) no stars (Release date in US unknown) 1940 UK film, directed by Walter Forde and starring Arthur Askey

The Frozen Limits * ½ (US release date unknown; UK film released November 1939 in UK; stars Jimmy Nervo and the Crazy Gang, Marx Brothers-like troupe)

Midnight Shadow -- release date unknown

Updated as of 10-7-2017



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