Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

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George Kincaid

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Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

PostSun Jul 12, 2009 1:55 pm

Home / A&E / Movies
To the nines: 1939
Making the most of the studio system
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 12, 2009

It’s an article of faith that 1939 was the pinnacle of American movies and it has all been downhill ever since. To say otherwise is, in certain circles, to risk having your Criterion DVDs revoked and be sentenced to eternally wander the multiplex in sackcloth and ashes. The glow of that annus mirabilis extends into the future: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recent decision to increase the Best Picture category from five nominees to 10 arose during plans for this year’s 70th anniversary celebration of 1939, when a similar number were honored.

Is it true? Was the greatest year in the history of cinema seven decades in the past? Actually, yes, but let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Why 1939? Why not, say, 1946, a year that saw the highest movie attendance on record and films like “The Best Years of Our Lives,’’ “My Darling Clementine,’’ Hitchcock’s “Notorious,’’ Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ Bogart in “The Big Sleep,’’ a wave of film noirs like “The Killers’’ and the arrival on US shores of such post-WWII foreign classics as “La Belle et la Bête’’ and “Rome, Open City’’?

Or, as long as we’re playing the parlor game, what’s wrong with 1975? “Jaws,’’ “Nashville,’’ “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’’ “Dog Day Afternoon,’’ “Shampoo,’’ “The Man Who Would Be King,’’ and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail’’ aren’t good enough for you? Or how about 1986, a year that included everything from “Platoon’’ and “Aliens’’ to “Blue Velvet’’ and “Hannah and Her Sisters,’’ with “The Fly,’’ “Sid and Nancy,’’ “Something Wild,’’ “Pretty in Pink,’’ “Round Midnight,’’ and “Manhunter’’ in the middle. Now, that was a year.

Yet 1939 trumps them all, and only partly on the extraordinary quality of the movies themselves. Rather, the year marked the peak of the Hollywood studio system - a factory in the paradoxical business of mass-producing individual dreams. The previous year saw an antitrust case brought against the major film companies by the US Department of Justice, but it wouldn’t be until 1948 that the Supreme Court would order the studios to divest themselves of their theaters. In 1939, the system was a vertically-integrated money machine, controlled from one end to the other by five companies: Loews/MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, RKO, and Twentieth Century Fox.

On the production end, all the cogs were in place for streamlined assembly: writers in their bungalows, actors held to seven-year contracts, hair and makeup departments that processed actors like cheese. The keys were quality control and constant production - 761 films were released in 1939, just off the all-time peak of 778 two years earlier - and the difference was that the men who made the movies in many cases loved what they did. (Also, the scripts were written by novelists, playwrights, and other grown-ups.)

Those men worked their employees hard. Bette Davis starred in four movies in 1939: “Dark Victory,’’ “Juarez,’’ “The Old Maid,’’ and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.’’ Character actor Thomas Mitchell starred in five and won a supporting actor Oscar for his drunken doctor in “Stagecoach.’’

His other four roles were in “Only Angels Have Wings,’’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’’ “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’’ and a little thing called “Gone With the Wind,’’ in which he played Scarlett O’Hara’s father. Mitchell batted 5-for-5 that year, but the movies tailored the roles to his skill set and supported him with talent on all sides.

“Gone With the Wind’’ was the biggest movie of the year and, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the biggest moneymaker of all time. Of all that year’s big releases, though, it has aged the most problematically. The racial politics were dated at the time and are more so now; the celebration of marital rape is impossible to get around in the 21st century. It remains a very good epic melodrama, but it was as a pop explosion that “GWTW’’ achieved greatness, and the author of that explosion wasn’t novelist Margaret Mitchell nor directors (in order) George Cukor, Victor Fleming, William Cameron Menzies, and Sam Wood, but producer David O. Selznick. The head of the factory, in other words. That tells you something about 1939.

What else was released that year? Stand and behold: “Stagecoach,’’ the film that brought the western back from the dead and made stars of John Wayne and Monument Valley. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’’ in which Frank Capra’s iron-plated idealism found Jimmy Stewart, the actor to make it work. “The Wizard of Oz,’’ a problematic MGM “big show’’ and a film one critic likened to “a pound of fruitcake soaking wet’’ but destined to serve as a primal TV narrative for future baby boomers.

And more: “Wuthering Heights,’’ maverick producer Samuel Goldwyn’s bet that moviegoers would go for Bronte if you cast beauties like Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon and hired Gregg Toland to shoot it. The all-female, all-star “The Women,’’ which puts the 2008 remake to shame. “Destry Rides Again,’’ a comic western which has great fun with the idea of Stewart as a Wild West lawman and which saved Marlene Dietrich’s career from the dead. “Ninotchka’’ - Garbo laughs.

And more: “Gunga Din,’’ delightful, suspenseful action-adventure and insanely incorrect politics by today’s standard. “Dark Victory,’’ in which Davis plays a selfish heiress ennobled by a tumor and dares you not to be moved to tears. “Goodbye Mr. Chips’’ - irresistible corn about the teacher you wish you’d had, with Robert Donat pipping Clark Gable for a best actor Oscar. “The Roaring Twenties,’’ Warner’s formal farewell to the gangster movie. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’’ RKO’s attempt to deliver an epic of its own.

And still more: “Young Mr. Lincoln,’’ “Only Angels Have Wings,’’ “Love Affair,’’ “Each Dawn I Die,’’ “Intermezzo,’’ “Golden Boy,’’ the last two introducing a pair of the factory’s next generation of stars, Ingrid Bergman and William Holden. Even Paramount’s “Midnight,’’ a screwball comedy with no thoughts of eternity in its elegant little head, plays as streamlined near-perfection today.

This is why the other years can’t match up. In 1975, 1986, 1999, Hollywood wasn’t a cogent machine but a collection of entities and personalities at odds with one another. The momentum isn’t there, the sense of a cultural juggernaut working on all its virtually integrated, trade-restraining cylinders to provide - what? Not the most meaningful movies or the most artistic, although that could be an industrial byproduct.

Instead, the studios understood that well-crafted, powerfully entertaining movies were the surest route to prestige and profitability. If they had to make the dreams great to make them sell, they could. And they did.

Ty Burr can be reached at [email protected].

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.
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Harold Aherne

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PostMon Jul 13, 2009 4:41 pm

To be honest, I think the only reason 1939 gets so damn much attention is because of GWTW and Oz; most of the other titles just ride on their coat-tails. If those two had been released in 1940, *that* year would be considered the greatest ever. I suppose it's a little silly to divide up film history by years and pit them against each other, but I think a much stronger case can be built for 1915, 1924, 1927, or 1933. They're all a lot more interesting than the year of GWTW.

And by the way, the all-time numerical peak of American features is actually 1917, with around 945 releases.

-Harold
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PostMon Jul 13, 2009 9:13 pm

Harold Aherne wrote:I think a much stronger case can be built for 1915, 1924, 1927, or 1933. They're all a lot more interesting than the year of GWTW.


Those are some good years, but they don't hold a candle to what makes 1939 what it is: Probably at least 80% of the classic films that the average person has heard of (and most likely even seen) are from 1939. Look at the movies mentioned in the article, every single one of them is one that just about everyone's heard of, still screen regularly (TV, etc.) and sell well on every video format . How many people other than those on this forum, can name more than two movies from each of the years you've mentioned? Most people couldn't name even one. Well, maybe King Kong and Birth of a Nation. (And they'd have only seen the former.)

Fred (not that one)
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CoffeeDan

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PostTue Jul 14, 2009 12:33 am

In terms of tickets sold, the biggest year for Hollywood was 1928, when box office sales swelled to 110 million admissions a week. The combined one-two-three punch of the WB/Vitaphone productions THE JAZZ SINGER, LIGHTS OF NEW YORK, and THE SINGING FOOL in the summer and early fall of that year drove so much business by themselves that the other major studios immediately started gearing up for sound. Of all the major innovations in movie making in the last century or so, none has exceeded the Vitaphone (or sound, in general) in impact.

Plus, THE SINGING FOOL set a box office record that wasn't surpassed until . . . 1939, when GONE WITH THE WIND overtook it.
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Re: Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

PostThu Jun 01, 2017 9:26 pm

I am researching Claire Windsor and noticed that "The Denial" and "Tin Hats" have footage that has survived. Are the film fragments deposited right here in Kansas in the salt mines at Hutchinson? How many feet survive. Do you know what condition they are in? Any details you can pass on would be greatly appreciated.


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Harold Aherne

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Re: Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

PostThu Jun 01, 2017 10:49 pm

harry56 wrote:I am researching Claire Windsor and noticed that "The Denial" and "Tin Hats" have footage that has survived. Are the film fragments deposited right here in Kansas in the salt mines at Hutchinson? How many feet survive. Do you know what condition they are in? Any details you can pass on would be greatly appreciated.


For The Denial, 4 reels of 5 survive at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. Tin Hats was preserved by MGM with 6 reels surviving of 7. No archives are shown at http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/silentfilms/silentfilms-home.html, but Warners probably has it. No idea where it's physically stored.

There is at least one other Claire Windsor researcher here. You may get better responses to your posts by starting new threads instead of replying to long-inactive ones. ;-)

-HA
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Re: Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

PostFri Jun 02, 2017 11:34 am

Steve Richardson (cawkercitykid) has been researching Claire Windsor for quite a while and has started several Nitrateville threads about her career.
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Re: Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

PostSat Jun 03, 2017 8:37 am

This article is the typical example of mediocrity in the media, prepared by absolute incompetent people who keeps repeating exactly the same garbage over and over again throughout the years in order to keep things as being the same... geared to an audience that don't care at all about this issue.

These texts are nothing more than reedit reprints just to keep business as usual made to totally dismiss different approaches to Hollywood productions. Some of the so called classic films from 1939 are actually mediocre productions and even self indulgent.

It is a matter of taste, and nobody cares about that.
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Re: Boston Globe Article To the Nines: 1939

PostSat Jun 03, 2017 10:13 am

GONE WITH THE WIND is a 1939 release only for the fact that it had it's Atlanta premiere mid-December and Los Angeles opening in late December, which qualified it for the 1939 award year. It was way too late in the year to contribute to the box office grosses of 1939.
But it was produced in 1939, anyway, with filming from start to finish in that year.
Dick May

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