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1939 The Greatest Year in Movie History

Updated on September 20, 2014

There is simply no way you can compare 1939 films as a whole to any other year in film history. What a glorious year for Hollywood!

20 Other Films from '39 that could have won Best Picture in a different year.

Gone With the Wind is one of the greatest productions of all time and won the Oscar for Best Picture deservedly so. Gable and Leigh as well as the rest of the cast were perfect in their reconstruction of the old south during the Civil War as was the wonderful cinematography, screenplay, directing and characterizations of both the slave holders and of the slaves themselves.

However, just take a look at the 20 films below that GWTW had to compete with. Most of these films could have won Best Picture in any other year.

Let me begin with The Wizard of Oz which is still one of the most popular films of all time, especially for children. The characters were magical. Judy Garland was a perfect fit for Dorothy. The color and the sets were just overwhelming and certainly deserving of a Best Picture nod. The little people and the witches, both good and bad, remain with you always. Nominated for Best Picture.

Ninotchka was the first time for me to see the legendary Greta Garbo, or, Garbo as she was known to all, in a comedy. I was literally taken aback by her ability to take on such a different role from the normally reserved and distinct roles she played. Her laugh was addictive and her smile stretched clear across the screen. I just could not believe how funny and still sensuous she was. This film gave me a new appreciation for Garbo. Nominated for Best Picture.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington took a small town first year senator played by Jimmy Stewart into the political arena with the hard ball players. Even one he admired his entire life would prove to be only there to serve the political machine and the power and money it brings to the table. Stewart gave one of the best performances of his career and his passionate filibuster that he delivers on the floor of the Senate is without reproach. The film boasts an outstanding cast that includes Jean Arthur, Claude Rains and Edward Arnold. Nominated for Best Picture.

The Four Feathers was a classic set in 1898 about a young man from a strong military family who resigns his commission when learning that his regiment is leaving for battle in the Sudan. He receives white feathers from three officers in his regiment and one from his fiancee which are regarded as symbols of cowardice. To redeem his name for his family’s sake, he disguises himself as a mute Sudanese warrior and courageously fights alongside his countrymen. One by one, he surreptitiously returns the white feathers. This is an outstanding story!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton as Victor Hugo’s tragic and deformed Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as the beautiful young girl Esmeralda gives a tantalizing look at mob scenes that go wrong and an attempt by a town outcast to save the young woman from being hanged for being a witch. Lawton is one of our finest actors ever.

Only Angels Have Wings stars Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in a tale of cargo pilots taking their cargo over the Andes Mountains in South America while risking their lives each and every time they take to the air. Some of the men are fearless while others have self doubts, but, take their air ships out anyway just to prove themselves. Often, their misguided intentions get them in harm’s way.

Beau Geste is considered the best of the three screen versions. It stars Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston as brothers serving in the Foreign Legion. The struggles and care for each other make for an unforgettable film.

The Roaring Twenties stars James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Jeffrey Lynn as returning veterans. Cagney and Bogey get into bootlegging while their friend goes into public service. Cagney is in love with Priscilla Lane, but, she is discouraged by his self induced lifestyle and turns to Lynn who becomes district attorney. Meanwhile, Cagney and Bogey become bitter enemies as Bogey becomes a ruthless crime boss who is under attack by their old friend, Lynn. In one of the great Hollywood endings, Cagney is gunned down saving his old friend and his best gal.

Stagecoach directed by John Ford is John Wayne’s first major role. The film includes Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell (doing double duty as he was also in Gone With the Wind), Andy Devine and Donald Meek. This is simply a story about a stagecoach ride through dangerous Apache territories and the inner demons that attack some of the passengers along the way. Trevor is a prostitute shunned by some and befriended by the Duke who is on his way to revenge his brother and father’s deaths by three men at the end of the trail. Wayne would become a star with this film. Nominated for Best Picture.

The Women which was taken from Clare Boothe’s play had an amazing array of talent for the movie. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Ruth Hussey and Hedda Hopper combined to show the complexities that exist among strong minded women. Comedy, accusations of affairs and cat fighting bring forth a delightful film with outstanding performances from these women.

Gunga Din was partially based upon a poem by Rudyard Kipling about three British sergeants in India and their water boy, Gunga Din played by Sam Jaffe. Stars Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. fight in epic battles with Gunga Din always at their side with ambitions of being one of them. He gets his chance and proves himself worthy of their admiration.

Love Affair starred my favorite actress, Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer in the first of three versions of this movie about a shipboard romance that evolved into a promise to meet at the top of the Empire State building at a certain time on a certain day six months from their docking back in New York. The plan was to see if they still felt the same way about each other in that long of a period of time. And, Boyer the playboy wanted to prove that he could earn a living to support Dunne. She has an accident and does not show up and the rest is both comical and heart wrenching. Nominated for Best Picture.

Young Mr. Lincoln told the story of Abe Lincoln’s early days in Kentucky and the love he lost and the struggles he overcame in a desire to be an attorney. In the final courtroom scene, Abe played by Henry Fonda defends two brothers accused of murder. Fonda gives a truly superb performance. In the film, he displays his backwoods ruggedness with a log splitting scene and a tug of war on logs in the river.

Wuthering Heights is a tale of an orphan boy who is taken in by a moderately wealthy family and works as a stable boy. The boy falls in love with the family’s daughter. As a man, played by Lawrence Olivier, he is denied the courtship of the daughter played by Merle Oberon because she feels he is beneath her station in life even though she is madly in love with him. She begins to court a wealthy neighbor’s son played by David Niven and Olivier leaves to make his fortune. He returns with moderate wealth only to find her married to the former neighbor. He marries their cousin in spite and treats this new wife, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, with total neglect. She truly loves him, but, he is still tormented by his love for Oberon. The results are quite tragic. Nominated for Best Picture.

Of Mice and Men is a film adaptation of a John Steinbeck novel brilliantly brought to the screen with raw interpretation of its characters played by Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.. These two men are migrant workers in California. Meridith a slightly built man and his counterpart a giant of a man capable of breaking your neck with his hands. Chaney’s character is unaware of his strength and kills a woman accidentally which leads to a dramatic conclusion for this community of laborers. Nominated for Best Picture.

Drums Along the Mohawk is another John Ford epic taking place in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York in pre-Revolutionary War days. Its stars, Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert live on the frontier where she assists her husband and their neighbors in Indian fights and the harsh way of life. Brilliant battle scenes and siege by hostile Indians to overtake their fort gives a fitting ending to this powerful film.

Destry Rides Again features James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Brian Donlevy. Donlevy is saloon owner in a town that is out of control. Dietrich is a saloon singer and Stewart plays the sheriff hired by the town to clean up a bad situation. Stewart is soft, mild mannered and does not wear a gun. Still, he manages to make headway in keeping the peace and along the way avoids the flirtations of Dietrich. She dies in the end in an attempt to save Stewart from a bullet. She also has one heck of a girl’s fight during the film which will stay with you.

Dark Victory stars Bette Davis in one of her Oscar nominated roles as a socialite diagnosed with a tumor on the brain which eventually makes her go blind. This star studded cast includes Humphrey Bogart, George Brent, Ronald Reagan and Geraldine Fitzgerald. Davis finds love with her doctor only to learn that she has limited time on earth. The ending is truly melodramatic. Nominated for Best Picture.

Babes in Arms is a Busby Berkeley musical bonanza starring Mickey Rooney in an Oscar nominated role for Best Actor and Judy Garland at her best as they sing and dance through one of Busby's best ever productions. Mickey and Judy could do it all and lit up the screen with their magical duo numbers.

Goodbye Mr. Chips is the Mr. Holland's Opus of the 1800's. I saved this film for last because it is my favorite of all. To tell you how great the lead actor is I will tell you that Robert Donat won the Oscar in 1939 to defeat some of the most celebrated performances in film history...Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, James Stewart as Mr. Smith and Lawrence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Donat would win for this role as a schoolmaster in England who is a role model to all of his students although a disciplinarian and would watch his students pass through the halls of this school from his youthful days until he is in his twilight years. He would lose the love of his life, Greer Garson, performing in her first American film. Nominated for Best Picture.


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