If you love the movies, and you still love old classics like the Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind, then the year 1939 was a year Hollywood created the best motion pictures of all time. Ten movies were nominated for Academy awards and all 10 are great and still much beloved.
That year, some of the best directors became household names including: Frank Capra, Victor Fleming, John Ford, Sam Wood and Billy Wyler. Listed are the 10 films that were nominated for academy awards that year starting with the nominated films and ending with the winner of the Oscar that year.
Love Affair was actually the first “An Affair to Remember” and starred Irene Dunn and Charles Boyer. Two people meet on a ship, and although they are engaged to others, they fall desperately in love and decide to meet at the top of the Empire State Building. Irene Dunn’s character gets hit by a car and doctors don’t know if she will ever use her legs again. She decides she doesn’t want to be burden to her lover “Charles Boyer” so she doesn’t meet him there. And the world knows the rest of the story. He finds her and tells her he can’t live without her, even though she may never walk again he chooses to stay with her. Fans of “An Affair to Remember” should love this original classic which was originally directed by Leo McCarey, who did NOT win the Oscar for best director but was honorably mentioned.
Ninotchka, was the almost the last movie the late, great Greta Garbo made. She wanted to quit the business after this film but was talked into doing “Two Faced Women.” Although the film was critically acclaimed and nominated for the Oscar, Greta Garbo called it “her grave.”
The story is a romantic comedy. Three Russians, are in Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from the aristocracy during the Russina Revolution of 1917. Upon arrival, they meet Count Leon d’Algout on a mission from the Russian Grand Duchess Swana who wants to retrieve her jewelry before it is sold. He corrupts them and talks them into staying in Paris. The Soviet Union then sends Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova, a special envoy whose goal is to go through with the jewelry sale and bring back the three men. Rigid and stern at first, she slowly becomes seduced by the West and the Count, who falls in love with her. The three Russians also accommodate themselves to capitalism, but the last joke of the film is that one of them carries a sign protesting that the other two are unfair to him.
Stagecoach, directed by John Ford is still considered one of the best westerns ever made and if you watch it today it’s just as entertaining and spectacular as ever. But it’s probably best remembered for being John Wayne’s breakthrough role. Ford was insistent that John Wayne play the role of the villian/hero Ringo Kid. At the time Stagecoach was in production, many studios believed westerns were going out of style. Stagecoach and John Wayne put the western back on the screen in full force to the delight of audiences and for generations to come.
The story is about a motley group of people, a prostitute, a pregnant woman meeting her husband, a drunken doctor and a whiskey peddler who all ride together on a stagecoach. John Wayne of course ends up a hero, but after Indian attacks, and avenging himself of treacherous gang who killed his father and brother. This is still a great and true American western and will probably be watched 100 years from now as an example of what a western film is all about.
Wuthering Heights, written by Emily Bronte who died at age 30 is one of those stories that never dies and perhaps the film has been re-made a half a dozen times. Directed by the great Billy Wilder in 1939 and starring Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon. This timeless love story shows the heartbreaking love of Olivier for the haughty and ambitious Oberon.
The story is about a young boy who is adopted by a prosperous farmer. He is raised with the farmers two children, a girl and boy. Heathcliff, the adopted boy falls in love with Cathy the young girl in the family. She ends up marrying the wrong guy, for money and position. Heathcliff goes away heartbroken, makes his own way in the world, becomes a millionaire and tries to win Cathy back. She dies young but not before she declares her true love for Heathcliff. A brilliant film it never fails to bring a tear to your eye, even today. The ghostly tale of Cathy haunting Heathcliff is an example of how true love lasts forever even after death.
Dark Victory -A young socialite, with a taste for fast cards, smoking and hard drinking, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and must decide whether she’ll meet her final days with dignity. Although some have called this film dramatically “over the top” and oozing with heartbreaking sentimentality it’s one of the first films to address how people deal with terminal cancer and the decision to die with dignity.
The film was directed by Edmund Goulding and starred Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Ronald Reagan. It was basically a vehicle for Bette Davis, and no matter how much people loved, or hated Davis, she was brilliant in this film. Humphrey Bogart plays a small role, which helped to launch his career further.
Of Mice and Men, a great story by John Steinbeck, this film has been acted on stage, on and off Broadway and been remade a half a dozen times. The 1939 version was directed by Lewis Milestone. Two migrant workers dream of having their own ranch and work towards that goal. Burgess Meredith plays an intelligent quick-witted man, George, and Lon Chaney Jr. plays the mentally handicapped Lennie. Lon Chaney Jr had already played in 50 movies at the time, but this was his first major role. Burgess Meredith was relatively new on the Hollywood scene.
George protects Lennie at the beginning by telling him that if Lennie gets into trouble George won’t let him “tend them rabbits.” They are fleeing from their previous employment where they were run out of town after Lennie’s love of stroking soft things resulted in an accusation of attempted rape when he touched a young woman’s dress.
At the ranch, the dream appears to move closer to reality. But The dream crashes when Lennie accidentally kills the young and attractive wife of Curely, the jealous, violent son of the ranch owner, while trying to stroke her hair. A lynch mob led by Curley gathers. George, realizing he is doomed to a life of loneliness and despair like the rest of the migrant workers and wanting to spare Lennie a painful death at the hands of the furious and violent Curley, shoots Lennie in the back of the head before the mob can find him after George gives him one last retelling of their dream of owning their own land.
Goodbye Mr. Chips is hailed as one of the top 100 best films created by the British. Ironically the book was written by Brit James Hilton but was published by an American publishing house. It is probably one of the best “teacher” movies ever made.
The story begins as a flash back as Mr. Chips retells his career as a teacher and talks about the love of his life. Directed by Sam Wood and starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson, the film is about an aged school teacher and former headmaster of a boarding school who recalls his career and his personal life over the decades. The romance between Greer Garson and the aging school master is wonderful. Garson falls in love with Mr. Chips and marries him and actually turns his career around with her warmth and wisdom. Unfortunately she dies in childhood and the child dies with her, but Mr. Chip continues on to become the most beloved headmaster the school has ever known. And on his death bed he over hears people talking about him and proclaims. “I thought you said it was a pity, a pity I never had children. But you’re wrong. I have! Thousands of them, thousands of them–and all boys.”
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This film has been studied in school, and has had countless essays and reviews written on it and still shows us what is great about America. A great favorite throughout the decades this film shows how one man can make a difference even in a tough town like Washington. An American political dramedy starring Jean Arthur and Jimmy Steward, it was directed by Frank Capra and based on Lewis R. Foster’s unpublished story. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was controversial when it was released, but also successful at the box office, and made Stewart a major movie star and earned 11 academy award nominations.
The story is about a regular guy who is suddenly appointed junior senator to fill a vacancy in the US Senate with the help of crafty underhanded politicians and businessmen who put him there to manipulate them. The young man is given a task to keep him busy. Stewart’s character creates a bill to start a boy’s camp in his state. Unfortunately the bill he presents to Congress involves the same piece of land that the corrupted politicians want to use for financial gain. This film should be watched over and over again by current members of congress not just because of the shear morality of it but, because it portrays what is right with America…it’s people. This film has also been restored by the Library of Congress and is currently available on DVD.
The Wizard of Oz. Listed as one of the top 10 best movies ever made by the American Film Institute, it is also one of the most watched films ever made, and will probably continue to be enjoyed by children for the next 100 years or more. This timeless classic deserved the academy award as the rest of the films listed here. However it wasn’t received well when first released to the public. The critics liked it, but the public wasn’t quite sure. MGM studios were losing money. But they kept at it and re-released it and ended up breaking even on the 2M budget film. It wasn’t until much later they earned what the film was worth and much more.
The film was directed by Victor Fleming and stars Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and Frank Morgan with Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton and the Singer Midgets as the Munchkids. The Singer Midgets were a vaudeville group who performed in the early 1900s and were most famous between 1912 and 1913. Notable for its use of special effects, Technicolor, fantasy storytelling and unusual characters, the Wizard of Oz remains a sensation and very much a part of American pop culture.
Gone with the Wind — Let’s face it, all these movies are great and memorable, but none could really compare with this great epic. Not only did it portray history, it made history. Margret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, vividly portrays the disillusionment and devastation of war, the ignorance of the uninitiated, and the transformation of arrogance into tenacity that shaped the first “new South.” All the details of history and place come together as a rich backdrop for those unforgettable characters: shallow and selfish Scarlett, sincere Melanie, moony-eyed Ashley, and the sage, pragmatic, dashing, and rakish Rhett Butler–the most enduring heartthrob of American literature has produced.
Another great movie directed by Victor Fleming the film swept the Academy Awards in 1939 which included a few firsts. At four hours long it was the longest sound film ever made. The casting was epic itself as the studio auditioned such stars as Bette Davis,Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Joan Bennett, Jean Arthur and finalist Paulette Goddard, who narrowly missed getting the part. Selznick eventually chose Leigh, a relatively unknown British actress.
Hattie McDaniel, who played Mamie was the first African American to receive an Oscar for best supporting actress, beating out the lovely Olivia de Havilland who played Melodie.
The line “Frankly my dear Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” has been the most quoted line of all movies of all time and was the first time censors allowed a curse word.
All these movies made in 1939 are worth watching over and over again. Not only are they part of our American culture, the stories and tales continue to live on today and define who we are, and show the worst and best in all of us.