1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year
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1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year
is a once-over-lightly evocation of a slate of classic films unmatched before or since. In a year permitting 10 Best Picture nominees, the final cut included Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Love Affair. Shut out: The Roaring '20s, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Intermezzo, Destry Rides Again, Idiot's Delight, Young Mr. Lincoln, Gunga Din. This hour-long film finds room to acknowledge a few of these non-starters, but its brevity means a lot gets left out. This includes the absence of anything that doesn't celebrate the studio system, including the practices of the shrewd tyrants who ran them, seen in brief archival footage.
The glory years continued for a few years during the war. Then the studio's fortunes nosedived. First James Cagney, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart revolted against the chokehold contracts Hollywood routinely imposed on its stars and the studio's stiff resistance to craft unionization. Then the courts stepped in with an antitrust ruling that forced the studios to divest themselves of the theaters they owned. Then there was TV. It took Hollywood years to realize that TV could be a huge source of revenue. Although these dark clouds are mentioned, none hovers long over 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year. It comes at us like a series of parade floats, and in a way it's foolproof. We provide the content, the resonance. We become collaborators as the various clips trigger our stored memories of the stars and the films. And let there be no mistake. The system to which the film repeatedly genuflects genuflected means the star system.
Louis B. Mayer, whose Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leads the parade, boasted of his studio that it had "more stars than there are in the heavens." Although the history of movies and the history of hype have always been intertwined, it at least shows where he was coming from - movies as star vehicles. MGM had them. The film focuses on Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and the irrepressible duo of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Although the film was made by a subsidiary of Time-Warner, it would have been a mistake to deny Mayer and MGM pride of place in this survey. Besides, Warner comes in a strong second. If MGM dished out glamour, Warner gave the public excitement in gangster pictures ripped from contemporary headlines. Cagney and Bogart held down that fort, and volatile Bette Davis satisfied the women's audience with high-powered emotions. From late 1938 through 1939, force of nature that she was, she made Juarez, The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Dark Victory.
John Wayne isn't seen until minute 49 of the film. He gets four minutes of screen time, courtesy of hindsight. The other actors all were icons in 1939. Wayne (1907-1979) was an icon to be. He was used to patience. His career began in 1926 after getting on the Fox lot as a prop man courtesy of Tom Mix in exchange for football tickets Wayne got as a member of the USC eleven. John Ford, who gave him his first acting job, Stagecoach (1939), cast him as The Ringo Kid, a handy man with a shotgun. It was his 82nd film out of 179. It was also his breakthrough. Leaving him out would have been unthinkable. He was still working on molding the persona. The passage of time helped. Much later, Michael Caine thanked Wayne for advising Caine to "talk low, talk slow and don't talk too much."
Howard Hawks, the other twin pillar of directing giants who enjoyed working with Wayne, pointed to Wayne's stillness as particularly impressive. "Just standing there, he exerts a moral authority," Hawks said of Wayne's less-is-more approach to acting. At 6 feet 4 inches, he loomed well, too. Wayne didn't win an acting Oscar until True Grit (1969). He cited his favorite role as that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). Stagecoach did win an acting Oscar. It went to the ever-simpatico Thomas Mitchell for Best Supporting Actor as the kindly doc who rescues shady lady Claire Trevor from the wrath of the guardians of public morality. It also gave Wayne a chance to exhibit kindness, at which he was ever convincing, despite the relatively few roles that gave him the chance to project it. Oh, and Wayne's nickname, "Duke"? It was the name of his beloved Airedale.
By Jay Carr