There are those rare years where everything seems to gel. The “product” released by big Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers is par excellence. The films of that particular year reflect the zeitgeist of the time and strike a chord with audiences everywhere.
It seems like every great movie ever made came out in 1939.
Throughout the Thirties, Hollywood strived to refine the art of filmmaking, providing the highest quality entertainment to Depression-era Americans in desperate need of escape. By the end of the decade, the advances in technology, from enhanced sound recording to color film stock, ushered in novel approaches to cinematic storytelling while further making concrete the film theory developed over the past twenty-five years.
At the end of the day, all this meant to down-on-their-luck Americans was harrowing adventure, passionate romance, spine-tingling terror and gutbusting laughter. While that crazy bastard with the Charlie Chaplin mustache blitzkrieged Poland, the movies were echoing the isolationist thoughts of regular joes who didn’t want to get involved.
“There’s no place like home!” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” unintentionally reverberated the sentiment at home. A few years later Hollywood would issue a call-to-arms that America would answer as well, but for the time being it was Million Dollar Legs and Son of Frankenstein.
The movies offered unlikely heroes. Guys who didn’t even seem like heroes at all. Some guys seemed just like you and me. Everymen like Jimmy Stewart’s Tom Destry and Mr. Smith and simple water carrier Gunga Din. Even ex-cons like The Ringo Kid and the WWI veterans-turned-gangsters in The Roaring Twenties.
The best of ’39 reads like the top ten of the AFI’s 100 Greatest List. The Civil War romance, Gone With The Wind; the timeless Wizard of Oz; Ernst Lubitsch’s hilarious Ninotchka; Frank Capra’s definitive Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; two of the greatest Westerns, Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again; the crime thriller, Gaslight; the romantic comedy, Love Affair and the romantic drama, Intermezzo.
Needless to say, 1939 was a marquee year.