1939 Ten Best Movies

On to the consensus greatest year in Hollywood history. Do people still call it that? 20 years ago, everybody agreed on the magical status of 1939, the year of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach. I haven’t heard much about it lately, even though we’re noting the 70th anniversary of those movies this year. Either the obviousness of the year’s pinnacle status has been challenged lately (what about 1959? North by Northwest, Rio Bravo, Some Like it Hot, The 400 Blows? Whoops, I’m giving away a future entry) or 1939 is quietly slipping away, with the rest of pre-WWII cinema, into a dignified but museum-y place in the public imagination.

rules5That would be too bad, because 1939 was indeed a swell year in film. No question Hollywood was at a kind of peak of the studio system, even if the European system was being buffeted by other concerns (see WWII reference, above). Still, the film of the year is from Europe, a defining masterpiece that stands as the great example of a cinema that makes room to breathe rather than follow out a set of preordained blueprints. The Rules of the Game is a flexible picture that nevertheless always displays a firm guiding hand: it’s both sympathetic and satiric, passionate and detached, melancholy and joyful. And having reached this high point, Jean Renoir and many of his colleagues were about to see their lives rooted up, like so many others on the edge of the catastrophe to come.

The ten best of 1939:

1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)

2. Stagecoach (John Ford)

3. Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)

4. Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford)

5. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming)

6. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra)

7. The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda)

8. Love Affair (Leo McCarey)

9. Gunga Din (George Stevens)

10. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)

No Gone with the Wind in the 10, but I like it all right. Look at the year John Ford had: two in the top five, plus Drums Along the Mohawk coming up high on the next tier. I had to give the advantage to Stagecoach, because when it comes to fountainhead movies, you can’t do much better. Only Angels Have Wings is one of my favorite films, and I have The Wizard of Oz happily ingrained in my head just like everyone else in my generation. The Four Feathers (which I describe in more detail here) is something of a sleeper, but this movie ought to be as well known as, say, Gunga Din, another adventure story.

Next week: 1974.

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