If you could only watch movies released in one year, which year would you pick? Would you pick the year that gave you your single favorite movie (for me, 1989 and THE PRINCESS BRIDE)? Or would you pick a year that gave us a lot of pretty good movies (a la 1984, with GHOSTBUSTERS, THIS IS SPINAL TAP, and THE TERMINATOR)? Or would you go back 80 years to “Cinema’s Greatest Year,” 1939?

It’s hard to imagine that most people in the year 2019 would think as far back as 1939 when imagining their perfect cinematic year. But there are few references more universal in American pop culture than ruby slippers, impressions of Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne, and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And with as much artistic value that the year has put out, its economic impact solidified Hollywood as the cultural powerhouse it is today.

Name a more iconic foursome, I’ll wait. Courtesy of MGM.

So, what makes 1939 truly “Cinema’s Greatest Year?” And is it still fair to call it that 80 years later?

A World On The Brink in 1939

1939 was something of a perfect storm when it comes to Hollywood. In both economic and cinematic terms, there were a series of transitions happening that placed the year at the crossroads of everything you need to make a cultural institution like the world has never seen before.

Escape From Depression

There are a few events that automatically come to mind when thinking about the ‘30s. Stock market crash, the Great Depression, the start of World War II. While most Americans and industries suffered during this period, Hollywood thrived. Going to the movies became a cheap form of entertainment, with the added bonus of a newfangled thing called air conditioning. Even with disposable income dwindling, the movies were a viable option for escapism. Ticket sales averaged 80 million a week — compared to about 25 million a week in 2018 with a population about two and a half times greater.

Hollywood reaped these benefits even stronger given the lack of international competition. Needless to say, Europe had other things on its plate in 1939. World War I destroyed the film industries in England, France, Italy, and Germany. Filmmakers immigrated to the U.S., like Billy Wilder and F.W. Murnau, while their home industries disappeared until after the next world war. But there were still markets to fill in those countries and in the U.S. Enter the Hollywood studio system.

A theater promotes THE MAN THEY COULDN’T HANG (1939), starring Boris Karloff. Public domain archival image.

An Economics Lesson From a Film Major

On the supply side, Hollywood had no trouble keeping up with the demand and, in a way, shaping the demand. Vertically integrated studios made a huge number of movies for cheap — with the occasional large-scale piece such as GONE WITH THE WIND — and sold them to theaters in a practice called block-booking. If a theater wanted to play one of the studio’s major releases, they had to purchase a whole block of movies that also included cheaper, less popular B-movies. (Imagine a theater that wants to show AVENGERS: ENDGAME also being forced to show, say, MISSING LINK.)

Block-booking gave studios monopolistic control over the industry, which is why the Supreme Court ultimately outlawed it. But it made money hand over fist, as monopolies often do. By 1939, the major studios were easily making back the money invested earlier in the decade into creating sound technology, hiring major actors and directors, and buying up smaller studios. That is a major reason why the label of “Hollywood’s Greatest Year” flies around. As much as it was a great year for audiences who got to see the movies, it was an even better year for bottom lines in Tinsel Town.

Making Movie Magic

All those factors also fed into a thriving artistic atmosphere. It’s kind of ironic that so many great films came out in this period given the strict limits often imposed on them. The Production Code puts quasi-censorship rules in place for things like violence, sex, and morality. But instead of just falling prey to these rules, the best films of the era subverted them with innuendo, visual metaphor, and endlessly clever dialogue. The requisite subtlety made movies better than if they had been able to be blatant.

Technically, they’re not kissing. Image from NOTORIOUS (1946). Courtesy of RKO Pictures.

That system of self-censorship was a means of keeping the government out of the studios’ business, not so much from regulating content but digging into the anti-trust violations they were certainly committing. Eventually, these violations would come to light and the studios would fall after court decisions in the Paramount (1948) and DeHavilland (1943) cases. Before that, studios kept above-the-line talent under contracts for terms of seven years. Again, this is a double-edged sword. For most actors and directors under contract, it was extremely restrictive. They had to do whatever projects the studio wanted or face fines, lawsuits, or creative retribution.

Shifting Power

By the end of the decade, with the formation of the Directors Guild of America in 1936 and a writers’ guild on the horizon, top-tier talent started to hold the cards. Powerhouse producers of the early ‘30s, like David O. Selznick and Darryl Zanuck, shared the same space as the new wave of powerful directors like John Ford and Frank Capra. Directors had more bargaining power than in the early studio days, giving them more creative freedom. The factory style of making studio movies started to fall into the oversight of the director, creating aberrations within the formulaic Hollywood style.

These talented directors — and the actors and technicians they worked with — existed at the perfect time in Hollywood’s technological history. The growing pains of the talkies have all been worked out, from the technology itself to the style of acting it requires. The theatricality of silent film acting evolved into the grounded, but still melodramatic, grandiose style that we all recognize as classic film stars.

Director Howard Hawks on the set of RIO BRAVO (1959) with John Wayne and Angie Dickinson. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This is also the early years of color films. Color had been around since the earliest days of film, but things like Technicolor were really perfected in the ‘30s. Whether to shoot in color or black-and-white became a choice. Usually, the latter was the default since it’s significantly cheaper. But there’s still artistry shown in great black-and-white cinematography. And, by contrast, the choice to shoot in color was both a novelty for the audience and a new means of cinematic artistry. Production design, costume design, hair and makeup, and editing all had to change, too. And by 1939, Hollywood had figured out how to make all those choices count to create beautiful, mesmerizing films.

1939 in 2019

We know that 1939 was a great year for Hollywood (and I obviously have a bias for the era). But how do you measure what the best year is? What the heck does that even mean? To an extent, it means nothing. A singular year doesn’t mean much to the grand scope of Hollywood history. Eras based on other historical events are much more meaningful. And no one is actually going to ask you to only watch movies from one year the way I did.

But the way we define “good” and “great” in terms of movies is important. There are a ton of factors that go into what society says is good art or entertainment. Some of them are objective — we can all spot bad acting or poor quality camera work from a mile away. But most of them are subjective and sociological. Nearly all “great” art in human history happens to be made by men. And most “great” western art is made by white men. And the people writing the articles and books and research on this “great” art are also white men. So there are some issues there.

The Atlanta premiere of GONE WITH THE WIND, which future Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel could not attend because it was a whites-only event. Public domain archival image.

Analyze This

In talking about what makes 1939 the “best” year, you could look at it from an economic or artist perspective. On the economic side, it very well might be the best year. Ticket sales were astronomically higher than they were at any other time in Hollywood’s history. With investments from the East Coast meeting the low production costs happening on the West Coast, Hollywood made serious bank. But that also means that the people employed by those studios and the theaters exhibiting their movies were getting shafted. There was no bargaining power for the little guy under this monopolistic system. Women and people of color were systematically denied work in this new patriarchal and white supremacist industry. Can we still say that it was a great economic year in that sense?

On the artistic side, it’s even harder to pin down what might make a “best” year. Quantitatively, 1939 has more movies in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry than any other year. (It has 20 and counting, with the most recent addition in 2017.) It has three entries on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movies,” but this isn’t the highest number. (1969, 1976, and 1982 all have four.)

A qualitative analysis gets even dicier. Every person will decide for themselves whether a movie lives up to its legacy. And 80 years after the fact, it is even more important to re-assess how we regard these movies in modern life. Many movies from classic Hollywood haven’t aged well. Many have. The vast majority fall somewhere in the middle.

Set Your Time Machine to 1939

To try to answer this question, we’ll look at five of the most commonly cited movies that make 1939 “Cinema’s Greatest Year.” We’ll talk about GONE WITH THE WIND, the ultimate blockbuster that would never be considered acceptable by modern moviegoers. We’ll look at MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the quintessential American movie with politics as strong as the names in its credits. We’ll journey into STAGECOACH, the classic Western that has the DNA of many modern genres.

We’ll chat about THE WOMEN, a feminist comedy less popular with modern viewers despite being remarkably timeless. And, of course, we’ll take a walk with THE WIZARD OF OZ, perhaps the most instantly recognizable move in Hollywood history. I’ll tell you now, we won’t answer the question, “Is 1939 Hollywood’s best year?” It is inherently unanswerable. But we will try to get to the bottom of why people say it is.

Why do these movies have legs in American culture and do they still deserve them? How can we use the knowledge of the last 80 years to better understand and interact with them? And why is GONE WITH THE WIND so damn long?

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