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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Hollywood's Golden Year - 1939

One of the topics that I will cover in this column from time to time is a review of Hollywood films released in a specific year, with an indication of current DVD availability and desirability. I'm going to start with perhaps the obvious year - 1939. Obvious, of course, because it's the year that is most often cited as the Golden Year of Hollywood's Golden Age. The films released that year certainly have some of the greatest reputations among classic films. Is it the single best year for classic films overall? I'm not going to debate that here, but it is fair to say that a few other years have a good claim in that respect also. Personally, I've found virtually any year from 1936 to 1945 to have some pretty persuasive credentials.

Before getting into the year's films, I'd like to suggest that a useful DVD starting point is a disc issued by Whirlwind (Rykodisc) - Timeline 1939. This provides an interesting overview of the year's events around the world in the areas of world affairs, domestic issues, popular culture, and sports using original footage from newsreels of the time. Included are trailers for a number of the year's top films plus audio footage of the year's most popular songs as well as radio newscasts of the time. The image quality is passable, but any deficiency in that area is more than compensated for by the wide variety of content. It's a good way to set the mood for viewing some of 1939's great film titles.

The year 1939 saw 483 feature films produced in the United States. Less than 10% of them have made it to DVD so far and sadly fewer than half of those are the year's major films. Public domain and B-pictures predominate.

The obvious film starting point for 1939 is Gone with the Wind. The making of this epic film under the guidance of producer David O. Selznick had been a topic of great interest for over three years. The film was finally premiered in Atlanta in December. It received widespread critical and public acceptance and handily won the Academy Award as Best Picture as well as a number of other Oscars. Originally released on DVD by MGM, the disc is now distributed by Warner Brothers (WB). What looked initially to be not a bad-looking disc (at least in comparison to existing video versions) has come to be considered as a less than satisfactory presentation of such a fine film. Aside from the image issues, the supplementary content too is extremely disappointing - merely a trailer. Given that an outstanding making-of documentary exists for starters, this DVD needs to be revisited by WB in order to package the film as it deserves. Fortunately, it appears that such an effort is on the way for 2004, the film's 65th anniversary.

In winning the 1939 Best Picture Oscar, Gone with the Wind beat out an impressive field of nine other nominees including, alphabetically: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Let's take a closer look at each:

Dark Victory (WB) contains Bette Davis's fine portrayal of a rich socialite suffering from blindness. Co-starring is George Brent with support from Geraldine Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. A DVD is available, again originating with MGM but now distributed by WB. Recommended.

Goodbye Mr. Chips (MGM) is the James Hilton story of the shy schoolmaster who becomes a favourite of the school's boys, with a wonderful performance by Robert Donat. This is not available on DVD; rights are held by WB.

Love Affair (RKO) will be familiar to more modern audiences for its remakes as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant in 1957 and as Warren Beatty's Love Affair in 1994. Both remakes are inferior to the 1939 original which contained strong work by both Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne as the principals. The title is in the public domain, and the existing DVD versions (from Madacy, for example) are in rough shape and not recommended.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia) is an excellent film from director Frank Capra and contains one of Jimmy Stewart's signature roles. It's one of those films that also includes a virtual who's-who of Hollywood character actors. A few years ago when Columbia seemingly cared about its classic titles, the company did this film proud in its DVD release - a very good transfer and fine supplements. Highly recommended.

Ninotchka (MGM) was a comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and co-scripted by Billy Wilder - enough said. Except, it's not available on DVD. WB holds the rights.

Of Mice and Men (UA) was an outstanding adaptation of the Steinbeck novel, with definitive performances by Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., and Betty Field and a memorable turn by Bob Steele. Much superior to the 1992 remake. A fine-looking, if sparse, DVD is available from Image. Recommended.

Stagecoach (UA) is one of those western film benchmarks that retains its power 62 years after it was made. Director John Ford, star John Wayne and another memorable cast of supporting players make this a must. The DVD issued by WB contains an image that looks rather beaten up compared to the best classic film DVDs, but it's still the best the title has looked on video to date. Recommended.

The Wizard of Oz (MGM) certainly requires no further comment. A wonderful special edition DVD is available from WB. Highly recommended.

Wuthering Heights (UA) was a beautifully-crafted version of the Emily Bronte novel with outstanding photography from Gregg Toland. Laurence Oliver and Merle Oberon starred. HBO issued a great-looking transfer of the film on DVD. It's now out-of-print, but worth looking around for. DVD rights are currently held by MGM and it will hopefully release this title in the near future.

I think you would agree that in anyone's book, those are ten pretty fine films. But they are far from exhausting the year's riches. Let's take a look at what each of the major studios offered audiences in 1939.

Warner Brothers

At Warner Brothers, the main stars were James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, and Paul Muni. It also had Humphrey Bogart (still mired in supporting roles in A pictures and leads in Bs), up-and-comers John Garfield and Ann Sheridan, old reliable Pat O'Brien, young reliable Olivia de Havilland, and one of the finest character actors around - Claude Rains. With this embarrassment of riches, WB managed to come up with a fine slate of films, yet aside from the above-mentioned Dark Victory, only two of them (the B pictures They Made Me a Criminal and Nancy Drew, Reporter) are available on DVD. How far we have to go! Here are some of the key titles, all of whose DVD rights are held by WB:

Confessions of a Nazi Spy - WB led the Hollywood studios in dramatizing the approaching Nazi menace. Here Edward G. Robinson is quietly effective in tracking down a Nazi spy ring in America.

Dodge City - Errol Flynn in a rousing Technicolor western epic, well-partnered by Alan Hale and Guinn Williams. Good villain turns from Bruce Cabot and especially Victor Jory, but Ann Sheridan was wasted in an undeveloped role.

Each Dawn I Die and The Roaring Twenties - Two opportunities to see the incomparable James Cagney at his peak. Each film is highly entertaining, with Humphrey Bogart prominent in the latter and able support from the Warner stock company in both.

Four Wives - Sequels are nothing new for Hollywood and this one was a follow-up to the previous year's successful Four Daughters. It didn't have John Garfield this time, but it did have Claude Rains again and that was enough. Fine contemporary Americana. Juarez. Paul Muni's final historical biography as the Mexican liberator, buttressed by a top-notch cast including Bette Davis, Claude Rains, John Garfield, and Brian Aherne, plus an array of familiar character actors. Superb production values throughout.

The Oklahoma Kid - Occasionally derided because it places the likes of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in the old west, but this is a very entertaining piece. Cagney has the title role and Bogart is his nemesis, the black-garbed villain Whip McCord.

The Old Maid - Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins fight it out for screen time in this adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel. Frequent Davis male-lead George Brent also appeared.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex - Another of the studio's Technicolor efforts with Bette Davis jousting with Errol Flynn whose casting she was unhappy with. Flynn and a strong supporting cast were left in Davis' dust.

They Made Me a Criminal - Melodrama about a boxer on the run after being accused of murder. John Garfield, Ann Sheridan and Claude Rains star with the Dead End Kids. An interesting departure for musical director Busby Berkeley. Available on DVD from various public domain companies including a pretty good version from Front Row Entertainment.

We Are Not Alone - Paul Muni delivered his last performance for WB in this drama of a small-town doctor accused of killing his wife. After a string of successful historical biographies, Muni gave an unexpectedly restrained performance. Largely forgotten now, but unjustly so.


Over at MGM, usually considered the Cadillac of Hollywood studios, the list of stars was almost too long to list. They had Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, William Powell, Mickey Rooney, the Marx Brothers, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Greer Garson, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, … well, you get the idea. MGM's films were about as polished-looking a product as Hollywood produced. The plots often lacked the edge that one found in Warner Brothers' films, but the entertainment value couldn't be denied. Gone with the Wind (an MGM release, but not an MGM production), Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, and The Wizard of Oz have already been mentioned, but there were other good entries from the company that year. Only one of those mentioned below is on DVD. The DVD rights to the MGM films are held by WB:

Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, The Hardys Ride High, Judge Hardy and Son - The year saw three entries in the popular Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney. Each film was fairly typical of what to expect from the series, although Judge Hardy and Son was a little more downbeat than most.

Another Thin Man - This was the third entry in the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy repeating their roles as Nick and Nora. An enjoyable outing with Otto Kruger, C. Aubrey Smith, and Ruth Hussey among the supporting cast.

At the Circus - The Marx Brothers' latest outing was another entertaining vehicle although not in the same league as their earlier MGM releases such as A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Margaret Dumont appeared again as Groucho's foil. Babes in Arms. The enjoyable first entry in a series of energetic musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The plots usually involved putting on a show.

Northwest Passage - Based on the first half of Kenneth Roberts' book of the same title (the second half was never filmed), the resulting film had a lot to do with marauding Indians, but little with finding a northwest passage through Canada. Entertaining and exciting and shot in Technicolor, with Spencer Tracy, Robert Young , and Walter Brennan.

The Women - A delicious tale of marital discord and jealousy among women, with an all-female cast featuring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and Joan Crawford. Directed by George Cukor. Available on DVD from WB and recommended.

20th Century-Fox

20th Century-Fox lacked the overall high quality roster of stars that MGM and WB had, although there were certainly many talented people under contract. The studio attempted to compensate with close attention to good-quality scripts and production values, and also benefited greatly from the presence of Darryl Zanuck as chief of production. Key faces in 1939 were Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche, Shirley Temple, and, oh yes, the Ritz Brothers. Like Warners, Fox relied on a strong stock company of character actors, including John Carradine, Jane Darwell, Nigel Bruce, and Henry Hull. Fox, for the most part retains the DVD rights to its own films. Among the company's stronger films for the year (only one of them currently on DVD) were:

The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - The first two appearances of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. The success of these films spawned a lengthy, fondly-remembered series from Universal starring the two principals. Coming on DVD from MPI in early 2004.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island - One of the best of the long-running series, this time starring Sidney Toler as Chan with support from Cesar Romero and Pauline Moore.

Drums Along the Mohawk - Life in the Mohawk Valley prior to the Revolutionary War as directed by John Ford. Thoughtful and exciting and in Technicolor, with a fine cast including Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. Hollywood Cavalcade. Another Technicolor outing and a fun recreation of early Hollywood. With Don Ameche and Alice Faye.

Jesse James - The usual fictionalized account with Tyrone Power in the title role and Henry Fonda as Frank James. Technicolor again and a good use of location work in Missouri.

The Little Princess - One of Shirley Temple's best films, in which she goes from little rich girl to servant at a boarding school when it is learned that her father has been killed and she left penniless. Shot in Technicolor. Available from numerous public domain specialists, with Slingshot's release possibly the best of a mediocre lot.

The Rains Came - Fine drama of doctor returning to India to help townspeople of Ranchipur. Excellent earthquake and flood special effects. With Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, and George Brent.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell - The role for which Don Ameche was best known. With Loretta Young, Henry Fonda, and Charles Coburn.

Young Mr. Lincoln - Ford and Fonda again. A beautifully-realized portrait of Lincoln, the young lawyer, in Illinois, but not to be mistaken for 1940's Abe Lincoln in Illinois.


In 1939, Paramount was only beginning to come out of a tailspin that had seen it file for bankruptcy earlier in the decade. It relied on the occasional Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, and lighter fare from the likes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ray Milland, and Fred MacMurray. Better days were ahead with Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder coming into their own in the 1940s, but for now, most of Paramount's product lagged behind the other majors. The DVD rights to Paramount films are controlled by Universal. None of the following highlights are available on DVD.

Beau Geste - The definitive version of the oft-filmed tale of the French Foreign Legion. Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Brian Donlevy star.

The Cat and the Canary - This old-dark-house tale with Bob Hope's brand of humour mixed in proved to be a winner. A remake of the 1927 version, also starring Paulette Goddard.

Midnight - Very funny comedy of marital mix-up from the pen of Billy Wilder. With Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, and John Barrymore.

Rulers of the Sea - The first steamship crossing of the Atlantic becomes a fairly entertaining film. With Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The Star Maker - Musical biography of a Broadway impresario who turns children into stars is simply another standard Bing Crosby vehicle of the time.

Union Pacific - This is one of Cecil B. DeMille's extravaganzas and a pretty entertaining western with two reliables - Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea - in the lead roles.


RKO with its seemingly endless management turnovers struggled throughout its existence to retain first-rate stars. In 1939, the major players on the lot were Cary Grant (who split his time with Columbia), Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball, with the likes of Maureen O'Hara and Tim Holt just breaking in. Otherwise, the studio tended to rely on loan-outs from other studios for some of its films' lead roles. DVD rights to RKO films are for the most part controlled by WB. The best of the year's releases, including Love Affair mentioned above, were as follows. Only two of them are on DVD.

Bachelor Mother - Fine comedy in which store clerk Ginger Rogers is mistaken for the mother of an abandoned baby. With David Niven and direction by Garson Kanin.

Five Came Back - An airplane disaster film predating the disaster genre of the 1970s. Starring Lucille Ball and Chester Morris, from quite a literate script courtesy of Dalton Trumbo and others.

The Flying Deuces - Laurel and Hardy in an entertaining outing as a hapless pair from Des Moines in the French Foreign Legion. Not the boys' best, but far from their worst. Available on DVD from numerous public domain specialists, but none of the releases are great. Goodtimes' version is probably as good as any in Region 1.

Gunga Din - Hollywood adventure par-excellence with Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and directed by George Stevens.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame - A rich amalgam of Hollywood expertise makes this a memorable version, with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. Previously available on DVD from WB (but now seemingly out of print) and recommended although not a restoration in the same league as recent Warner efforts.

In Name Only - Top-notch melodrama about a loveless marriage starring Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Kay Francis. Nicely directed by John Cromwell.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle - This was the last of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers collaborations at RKO, still entertaining but the least successful, probably because it departed from the usual musical comedy and was more of a musical biography.

On to Part Two

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