When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1939, it gave its Best Picture award to an exercise in Old South nostalgia called Gone with the Wind. I can scrounge up some nice things to say about that one -- the stars are magnetic, the Technicolor photography is beautiful, and that shot of the wounded after the Battle of Atlanta is unforgettable -- but ultimately it's an overlong, overwrought epic with ugly racial politics. Yet it's always one of the first films mentioned when someone goes on about how great 1939 was, followed by such other dubious choices as Goodbye, Mr. Chips (sentimental and dull) and Dark Victory (a forgettable tearjerker). Those aren't the only overpraised pictures of the year: While I like Gunga Din and Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the claims made on their behalf can get a little excessive.
Winnow out such undeserving efforts, and here's the list that's left:
1. The Wizard of Oz Directed by Victor Fleming Written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, from a novel by L. Frank Baum
IMDb cites two additional uncredited directors and 12 additional uncredited writers. You might expect the results to have a too-many-cooks problem, but instead that collective produced the Great American Movie -- the one true masterpiece to come out of Hollywood in its alleged anno mirabilis.
2. The Rules of the Game Directed by Jean Renoir Written by Renoir and Carl Koch
The year's one true masterpiece that didn't come out of Hollywood.
3. Destry Rides Again Directed by George Marshall Written by Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell, Henry Myers, from a novel by Max Brand
In its way, this undermines the conventions of the western as thoroughly as Little Big Man or McCabe & Mrs. Miller would three decades later. But it's funnier.
4. Ninotchka Directed by Ernst Lubitsch Written by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Melchior Lengyel, and Walter Reisch
The first great anti-Communist comedy of the sound era.
5. Stagecoach Directed by John Ford Written by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht, from a story by Ernest Haycox
To make it feel as fresh as possible, don't think of it as a seminal western. Think of it as a tense thriller that happens to be set in the Old West.
6. Midnight Directed by Mitchell Leisen Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, from story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz
Another home run for the Wilder/Brackett screenwriting team, three years before Wilder finally got a chance to start directing their scripts himself.
7. Only Angels Have Wings Directed by Howard Hawks Written by Jules Furthman, from a story by Hawks
Hawks insisted he knew pilots who really lived like this. I don't believe him.
8. It's a Wonderful World Directed by W.S. Van Dyke Written by Ben Hecht, from a story by Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz
Not to be confused with that other Jimmy Stewart movie with the phrase "It's a Wonderful" in the title. This picture is practically forgotten -- it never appears on those "1939 was the best year ever!" lists -- but I think it's one of the funniest screwball comedies of the '30s.
9. Daybreak Directed by Marcel Carné Written by Jacques Prévert, from a story by Jacques Viot
Like its villain, this movie talks too much. But when the characters are quiet and Carné's camera speaks, the film earns its exalted reputation.
10. Young Mr. Lincoln Directed by John Ford Written by Lamar Trotti
The flipside of Gone with the Wind: just as absurd an exercise in mythmaking, but pro-Lincoln rather than pro-Confederate. The difference is that it's a much more watchable movie, with a witty script and a charming performance by Henry Fonda as the future president. Hollywood history is a pack of lies, but here at least they lie with style.
Bubbling under: I don't have a full roster of honorable mentions for this year, but I'd like to give a shout-out to You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (one of the best W.C. Fields vehicles) and Son of Frankenstein (from which Mel Brooks lifted much material when he made a Frankenstein film of his own). Of the movies of 1939 that I haven't seen, the ones that interest me the most are The Stars Look Down and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. And I suppose I should watch William Wyler's Wuthering Heights someday, though the chances that I'll like it as much as the Luis Buñuel version are vanishingly small.