Movies’ Greatest Year: Part I – The Studio Era

Last month Turner Classic Movies reran their documentary “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year.” The proclamation in the title is nothing new. Wikipedia notes that, “The year 1939 in motion pictures is widely considered the best one ever.” You see similar assertions in the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly, just to name a few. Bruce Handy wrote in Vanity Fair that, “On lists of the greatest movie years, 1939 always, always comes first.”

Is that true? More importantly, should it be true? There’s a general consensus that in 1939 the Hollywood studio system was at its peak. The year featured landmark films such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach. But there are noteworthy films in many other years. Now that we’re in the 75thanniversary of such a watershed, I must examine 1939 and some other outstanding years to see if 1939 really does come out on top.

Any year is going to have some excellent films, so we need some basic criteria:

  • Number of quality films
  • Variety of films (different genres, target audiences, etc)
  • Directors, actors at the top of their game
  • Seminal films (all-time greats)
  • Historical significance

    There is no reason to limit the list to Hollywood films; however, I do need to limit my selections to films I have seen. Otherwise how can I make any judgment? So these will be imperfect lists from an imperfect writer. Then again, perfection is boring.

    For the sake of brevity and my readers’ sanity, I’m dividing the 20 greatest years into three parts.

    I.The Studio Era
    II. The 70s (a decade worth its own section)
    III. The Modern Era

    This is Part I, with Parts II and III coming later this year. Depending on feedback, I will then follow up with my picks for the best of each section and the best of all.

    Let’s dive in:

    Gone With the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming)
    Goodbye, Mr. Chips (dir. Sam Wood)
    Gunga Din (dir. George Stevens)
    The Hunchback of Notre Dame (dir. William Dieterle)
    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (dir. Frank Capra)
    Ninotchka (dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
    Only Angels Have Wings (dir. Howard Hawks)
    The Roaring Twenties (dir. Raoul Walsh)
    The Rules of the Game (dir. Jean Renoir)
    Stagecoach (dir. John Ford)
    The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming)
    Wuthering Heights (dir. Victor Fleming)
    Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford)

    I’ve never understood why so many critics and fans adore Gone With the Wind. Do we really have a romantic yearning for the pre-Civil War slavery years? My feelings aside, I can’t deny that Gone With the Wind set a standard for Hollywood epics and that people keep coming back to that film.

    But even without Gone With the Wind, I can see why 1939 is so celebrated. Yes, it was the height of the studio system, but even within those parameters you had some of the greatest classical directors making some of their signature films. With Stagecoach, John Ford created the adult Western and made a star of John Wayne. With Young Mr. Lincoln, he did the same for Henry Fonda. Lubitsch made one of his most beloved comedies by tweaking the Greta Garbo persona (with the immortal tag line “Garbo Laughs!”). Hawks got Cary Grant to show talents that he never had before in Only Angels Have Wings. Capra did the same with Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

    The high points did not just come from Hollywood. Many filmmakers to this day return to The Rules of the Game to learn from Renoir’s brilliant camerawork and staging.

    Not only did 1939 deliver an excellent comedy, gangster film, adventure film and Western, it also provided a family film that has truly stood the test of time in The Wizard of Oz. No matter how old you are you have seen that film on TV at least once. We had a prequel just last year. It’s become part of the cultural dialogue (“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”)

    Whether or not 1939 was the greatest year, we can see that it certainly must be in the discussion.

    Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks)
    Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles)
    The Devil and Daniel Webster (dir. William Dieterle)
    The Devil and Miss Jones (dir. Sam Wood)
    Dumbo (dir. Ben Sharpsteen)
    Here Comes Mr. Jordan (dir. Alexander Hall)
    High Sierra (dir. Raoul Walsh)
    How Green was My Valley (dir. John Ford)
    The Lady Eve (dir. Preston Sturges)
    The Maltese Falcon (dir. John Huston)
    Meet John Doe (dir. Frank Capra)
    Sergeant York (dir. Howard Hawks)
    Sullivan’s Travels (dir. Preston Sturges)
    Suspicion (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
    The Wolf Man (dir. George Waggner)

    The studio system was still in fine form in this very underrated year, the last before Hollywood was changed by World War II. It was a fine year for comedies, with two of Sturges’s very best. Hawks showed his trademark versatility, turning in an exquisite comedy, Ball of Fire, (co-written by Billy Wilder) and Sergeant York, Oscar-winning war film. Speaking of versatility, there’s Gary Cooper shining in three very different roles, as the brave soldier in York, a suicidal man in Meet John Doe, and a nerdy scholar in Ball of Fire. There is also Barbara Stanwyck who co-starred with Cooper in the last two of those films while also befuddling poor Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.

    John Huston began his legendary directorial career with The Maltese Falcon, which along with High Sierra (that Huston co-wrote), established Humphrey Bogart as a movie star. With Suspicion, Alfred Hitchcock explored Cary Grant’s dark side in a way no one else had. Dumbo may not be a very PC film, but I grew up watching it over and over again with my family, and its “ugly duckling makes good” message truly resonated.

    What am I forgetting? Only Citizen Kane, which the American Film Institute (AFI) still lists as the finest American film ever made. Its story, visual effects, deep focus, editing, and sound are both innovative and influential to this day.

    1941 was simply an embarrassment of riches.

    Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean)
    The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler)
    The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks)
    The Blue Dahlia (dir. George Marshall)
    Duel in the Sun (dir. King Vidor)
    It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra)
    Gilda (dir. Charles Vidor)
    The Killers (dir. Robert Siodmak)
    My Darling Clementine (dir. John Ford)
    Notorious (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
    Paisan (dir. Roberto Rossellini)
    The Postman Always Rings Twice (dir. Tay Garnett)
    The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (dir. Lewis Milestone)
    The Stranger (dir. Orson Welles)

    According to the AFI, 1946 was the most profitable year in Hollywood history. World War II was over, but television had not yet spread to many homes. Still, this year shows a definite change. Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life (years away from recognition as a timeless gem) away from the studios through Liberty Films, a company he created. That venture was short lived, but it was a bellwether for the eventual weakening of the studio system. Rossellini’s, no-frills cinema verite work foretold a stylistic change that was coming to Hollywood, albeit one decades away.

    This year is so fascinating due to the many ways filmmakers tackled postwar life. Some addressed it directly as Rossellini did with his neorealist films or Wyler did with The Best Years of Our Lives. Hitchcock and Welles used the threat of enduring Nazism to create intricate thrillers Notorious and The Stranger, respectively

    The explosion of noir films was another sign of the postwar uneasiness. Noir, both stylistically and thematically, captured the uneasiness and paranoia that slowly gripped America as it entered the Cold War. The Big Sleepmay be the biggest name on the list, as it is quintessential Bogart, but The Killers, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gilda and The Blue Dahlia are also key films that noir fans still revisit.

    Of course the year also featured one of the iconic Henry Fonda roles in My Darling Clementine, and the ambitious epic Duel in the Sun, which Martin Scorsese cited as one of his childhood favorites.

    Ace in the Hole (dir. Billy Wilder)
    The African Queen (dir. John Huston)
    Alice in Wonderland (dir. Clyde Geronmi, Wilfed Jackson)
    An American in Paris (dir. Vincente Minelli)
    Cry Danger (dir. Robert Parrish)
    The Day the Earth Stood Still (dir. Robert Wise)
    Detective Story (dir. William Wyler)
    The Flying Leathernecks (dir. Nicholas Ray)
    He Ran All the Way (dir. John Berry)
    The Lavender Hill Mob (dir. Charles Crichton)
    The Man in the White Suit (dir. Alexander Mackendrick)
    On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray)
    A Place in the Sun (dir. George Stevens)
    The Prowler (dir. Joseph Losey)
    The Steel Helmet (dir. Sam Fuller)
    Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
    A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan)
    The Thing from Another World (dir. Christian Nyby)

    This year has so much going for it. Hitchcock, Huston and Stevens turned in some of their very best, with Huston’s effort featuring the immortal Bogart and Katherine Hepburn pairing. Kazan, in Streetcar, launched Marlon Brando as a superstar, changing the way acting was taught and perceived.

    Wilder’s cynical Ace in the Hole was not warmly received, but is today regarded as well ahead of its time. In both that film and Detective Story, Kirk Douglas excelled at playing driven, morally conflicted men. Alec Guinness also double dipped, starring in both The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, two of the essential British comedies from Ealing studios. Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli expanded what musicals could do with An American in Paris.

    Noir continued to reflect the Cold War dread and paranoia in many ways. Joseph Losey was blacklisted soon after he made The Prowler. He Ran All the Way was the last film for star John Garfield, another blacklist victim. The Cold War fear was addressed much more directly in the landmark sci-fi films The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World.

    Overall, this was the best of what the 1950s had to offer.

    Advise & Consent (dir. Otto Preminger)
    Birdman of Alcatraz (dir. John Frankenheimer)
    Cape Fear (dir. J. Lee Thompson)
    Days of Wine and Roses (dir. Blake Edwards)
    Dr. No (dir. Terence Young)
    Knife in the Water (dir. Roman Polanski)
    Jules and Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut)
    Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean)
    Lolita (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
    Long Day’s Journey Into Night (dir. Sidney Lumet)
    The Longest Day (dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton)
    The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer)
    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford)
    The Miracle Worker (dir. Arthur Penn)
    The Music Man (dir. Marion DaCosta)
    Requiem for a Heavyweight (dir. Ralph Nelson)
    Ride the High Country (dir. Sam Peckinpah)
    Sweet Bird of Youth (dir. Richard Brooks)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (dir. Robert Mulligan)
    What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (dir. Robert Aldrich)

    Like 1941, this is another much underrated year that often gets lost in discussion. Start with Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, which defined what an epic film should be. There’s Ford directing Valance, his last Western and one of the first to question the Western mythology (which Ford helped create), which was also the first teaming of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. It was fitting that, as Ford was exiting, Sam Peckinpah was coming onto the scene. He directed his second Western, Ride the High Country, exploring themes he would develop in his later classics. You can see the film landscape shifting with the early work from Kubrick, Lumet and Penn who all tackled very difficult subjects. Truffaut and Polanski were examples of Europe’s rapidly growing influence.

    Films also examined politics very critically, a trend that would certainly continue in future years. An example was Advise & Consent, one of the first films to deal with homosexuality. Another was The Manchurian Candidate, a scathing combination of a thriller, satire, tragedy and black comedy that has lost none of its bite today.

    Finally, you also had the birth of two very different kinds of heroes. Dr. No launched Sean Connery’s career, James Bond and the longest film franchise of all time. To Kill a Mockingbird gave us Atticus Finch in the signature Gregory Peck performance. Peck’s Atticus stood up to racism in the way many Americans wished they could, and set a standard for quiet resolve. It is no accident that he finished first on the AFI’s list of the all-time greatest heroes.

    Barefoot in the Park (dir. Gene Saks)
    Belle de Jour (dir. Luis Buñuel)
    Bonnie & Clyde (dir. Arthur Penn)
    Cool Hand Luke (dir. Stuart Rosenberg)
    The Dirty Dozen (dir. Robert Aldrich)
    The Graduate (dir. Mike Nichols)
    Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (dir. Stanley Kramer)
    In Cold Blood (dir. Richard Brooks)
    In the Heat of the Night (dir. Norman Jewison)
    Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati)
    Point Blank (dir. John Boorman)
    The Producers (dir. Mel Brooks)
    Reflections in a Golden Eye (dir. John Huston)
    Two for the Road (dir. Stanley Donen)
    You Only Live Twice (dir. Lewis Gilbert)
    Wait Until Dark (dir. Terence Young)
    Who’s That Knocking at My Door (dir. Martin Scorsese)

    Mark Harris described the massive changes 1967 brought to the film world in his excellent book Pictures at a Revolution. By now, the studio system was crumbling, and the freedom of the 1970s was on the way. Younger filmmakers, heavily influenced by their European counterparts, made films in new ways, questioned values, and tackled subjects largely taboo before. Bonnie & Clyde shocked older filmgoers with its explicit violent scenes. The Graduate dealt not only with sex, but with the dissatisfaction and generational clash in the late 60s. Even old pro John Huston took chances, with homosexuality at the center of Reflections in a Golden Eye. Mel Brooks challenged conventions very differently, brazenly mocking Nazism in The Producers.

    Sidney Poitier starred in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, which both examined racism’s effects. The latter film holds up much better, while the former seems more dated and preachy. However, Dinner featured Spencer Tracy in his final role and Katherine Hepburn in addition to Poitier, and it is a treat to see those three legends working together.

    The year foretold the rise of the antiheroes, the “bad” guys we could root for. Everyone under 30 (and probably some over 30) pulled for Bonnie and Clyde. Lee Marvin, already an Oscar winner, became a superstar as antiheroes in both Point Blank and The Dirty Dozen. Paul Newman tapped into the cultural zeitgeist as the rebellious prisoner in Cool Hand Luke.

    It was also a transitional year for movie stars. Audrey Hepburn would soon be stepping back from her film career, but not before she sparkled in both Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark. Dustin Hoffman’s emergence in The Graduate was the first of the Brando-inspired ordinary looking stars that would figure so heavily in the 1970s.

    One of these was Harvey Keitel, who starred in Martin Scorsese’s debut film Who’s That Knocking at My Door. The film was not widely seen, but it garnered enough acclaim to get Scorsese’s career under way.

    To be continued . . .

    Adam Spector
    June 1, 2014

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