The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, January 24, 2010
THE OVERPRAISED AND THE UNDERPRAISED: I've told you my favorite films of
1999, 1989, 1979, 1969, 1959, and 1949. Now we get to 1939, sometimes described as the greatest year in Hollywood history, though of the dates listed in the last sentence alone I'd rate both '99 and '79 (and maybe '59) above it.

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.

posted by Jesse 3:46 PM
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