Top 20 of 1939
20. Of Mice and Men
Having never read the John Steinbeck novel, this was sadly my first experience with Of Mice and Men, but it begins so much like the very best war scenes from Lewis Milestone’s terrifying All Quiet on the Western Front with the two men running away from a mob onto a bus that I was already mildly entranced. Nobody is really trying to hide what devastates about this particular journey through the American heartland, with the wilderness never looking friendly and Lon Chaney Jr. taking after his father’s tendencies to play the monsters with hearts of gold, killing the creatures of the world in his attempts to love them as Burgess Meredith spits venom. Nothing about this is subtle or particularly well developed beyond being a prestige literature adaptation, but it’s fairly close to being the perfect ideal of one, with material that embraces the inky blacks of these two and their gloomy lives. Meredith’s monologue near the start focused on how horrible the life of a rancher is feels like a darker version of It Happened One Night’s haystack scene when Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable are stuck on the side of the road, but where that movie was obviously going to turn out right, the bickering and repeated mentions of getting to pet rabbits make it quite clear that George and Lennie are pretty doomed. The pair of centerpiece sequences, however, echo each other in the sense of dread that concerns the inevitable. In the first, a dog is going to potentially be shot. The second is the same thing, but with a man. Aaron Copland’s score, a pretty astounding piece of work in what was already a year filled with iconic scores, spends most of the movie with haunting, undefinable instruments keening out mournful bird notes and watery plunking that ceases only to let horrible things happen, but it all seems much quieter when things look truly dreadful. The Depression really was happening, and this is a chronicle of sorts, with Big Characters interacting with people who seem genuinely beaten down by the Dust Bowl and a battered economy. Soon, Betty Field’s well meaning but ill treated wife of the owner’s son will do just as good a job at taking them down a peg…and said peg was probably their last foothold before they fell away forever, swallowed up by dust and time and the cruelty of man.
Favorite Moment: Throwing something at a billboard.
19. Goodbye Mr. Chips
Goodbye Mr. Chips sounds like the worst kind of sentimental garbage, and the opening chorus singing before the credits are even over does nothing to dispel that impression of sappy English teacher who inspires his student cliches. Yet we do not focus on the students of the school, but the teacher from his starting years in his 20s to his 80s. Yet it’s warm sentimentalist pap for the right reasons, with the bulk of the arc going to the poor teacher’s early years as someone who is subject to the whims and desires of his students when he takes on lower school prep (all of whom are witless little assholes), and finds the other teachers too cynical for his liking. His strictness backfires both career wise and in terms of getting along with his charges. The ultimate goal of Robert Donat’s portrayal is to show the man coming out of his shell over the lengthy period of time that we are covering, most notably when his love interest (Greer Garson at her least blandly maternal even if she is not exactly adding deep layers to a thin baseline) helps him become kinder and gentler to the children before she dies. He continues to follow her advice, but the movie is slowly shifting to a eulogy for a way of life that is well and truly about to end in the form of the British Empire. There’s a lot of subtle psychology to be drawn out of that, and Donat, while not quite being the correct choice for the Oscar in a very strong year, helps make all the little painful moments (H.G. Wells will never amount to anything, laugh at how silly that person is) easy to swallow and deeply sad. For in the long run, no matter how long the Empire and Mr. Chips have managed to last through good times and bad, it inevitably winds up being meaningless. Things will collapse, in both the personal as he dies in the last few moments and the overall due to the World Wars causing everything to collapse like the protagonist could have during the super pretty mountain climbing sequences, with the rocks and fog straight out of a much more pure cinema type of movie, particularly during the “We are gods!” sequence that really lends itself to an explicit reading of the downfall of the old days of Europe’s domination.
Favorite Moment: Final speech.
18. Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights has been interpreted in many different ways, but they’re all madly sensual and look gorgeous, ranging from Kate Bush’s two music videos (one in the void at her most wide eyed, the other in the woods with a red dress) to the most recent take from Andrea Arnold, suitably feral and filled with dirt as Cathy is swallowed up by the dirt and hisses that Heathcliff killed her when she grows older. When we think of wild and windy moors, however, Hollywood got William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland (warming up for Charles Foster Kane) to make the story on terms that may have slightly affected our perception of the book thanks to many a lazy English student (mostly because they were forced into making an ending that sucked, and which I certainly hope wasn’t what got the movie the acclaim it has today), but I would argue that both director and cameraman would worship Arnold’s pure cinema take on the material and were only constrained here by the fact that they were in late 30s Hollywood. Certainly, the score is straight out of a lush and Gothic universe straight from the imagination of Charlotte Bronte, adding nicely to the barking and biting dogs, horribly cringe-worthy and earnest proclamations of love and desire, and over the top tragedy of Heathcliff running out into the snow or breaking the glass with his head. Merle Oberon is a bland dud as Cathy where she should be a viper, Laurence Olivier is playing for the rafters even with Wyler clearly wearing him down a bit, Geraldine Fitzgerald’s nomination is good enough but I would have preferred some appreciation Flora Robson as the housekeeper who gets the largest amount of volume out of looking gloomy and wide-eyed about the state of affairs. The mad rain and angry plants that are always engulfing the lovers make their presence felt, and the schizophrenic tones somehow form something complete thanks to how goddamn pretty it all looks. Maybe it falls into the same vein as Night Must Fall where it takes something tawdry and it succeeds as a result of how gorgeous the cinematography is and it conveys a certain desperate mood that’s hard to pin down and harder to find in American films of this time period, but the vintage of this unpolished jewel makes it a standout, even if the reasons might be unexpected.
Favorite Moment: Anything involving the moors.
17. Alexander Nevsky
Sergei Eisenstein was never much one for changing with the times even when sound became a tool of the trade, and the opening minutes of Alexander Nevsky give us a hill strewn with skulls and hills in the fashion of a man who looks to be initially relying on the same old tricks, with the score huffing and puffing along through what is initially a very sterile beginning livened up primarily by the songs of the chorus and some pretty shots of the lake that the groups appear to be starting off at. Eventually, however, the titular character leads the Teutonic Knights to the city they wish to conquer and receive help from a traitor in order to destroy it, after a long stretch that could frankly use some of the insane montages of Eisenstein’s earliest work. We also get a romantic subplot that ends on a cheerful note, but who cares about that when this movie is all about the astounding forty minute sequence on the ice. The Battle of the Ice has influenced everything from Star Wars to Mulan and possibly a number of more obscure works in between that could not afford to rip off so blatantly, and it’s the strongest 40 minute sequence of 1939 bar none and makes the slightly dry nature of all the prior drama seem increasingly sterile for the right reasons, an irrelevant footnote to something so epic in its sweep yet the only reason to keep on living. With the knights having headgear straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail except much more terrifying, a truly vicious cut from someone getting their head bashed in to a child playing a flute, and the fact that fights in the snow are just inherently visceral in their coldness, it feels like Eisenstein is rolling up his sleeves, cracking a smile, and saying “Finally!” in getting to make the propaganda he loves. The gorgeous compositions are still there, but the scissors get used aplenty, and the adrenaline rush and clear message to the Germans still entrance. He does not come to seek our love, but our attention, and the message becomes increasingly entrancing in its delivery over time. Forget the decadent capitalism, give me the sickle and hammer and a large amount of warm clothes and armor so I can join in with this gruesome fight. It’s practically the first war musical.
Favorite Moment: Ice battle.
16. Love Affair
Leo McCarey was bouncing off from his incredible knockout 1937, with two classics that are now beloved although only one was liked at the time, into Hollywood’s most notoriously great year, with another Irene Dunne vehicle in the form of a romance starring the weirdly forgotten Charles Boyer. The latter was never much of an actor, but he was a pretty great movie star, and when he just had to be a bland romantic object he was incredibly good at it, both in this and History is Made at Night. The former, meanwhile, was a brilliantly talented comedienne who nevertheless called this her favorite role even if it was pretty dramatic. Her oddness and wit were incapable of fading, though, and even at 41 she looks simultaneously a little older and much younger, every inch the heroine this melodrama deserves. She’s idiosyncratic, and that works perfectly alongside a star partner who never really fit in either, with Maria Ouspenskaya getting another nomination for a role that could have practically been left on the cutting room floor (although she adds some zest to Dodsworth whereas her performance in this really is just…there, so your guess as to why the Academy cottoned onto her is as good as mine). Despite having a slight reputation nowadays that it is the weakest of the 1939 lineup, Love Affair is honestly one of the best of the lot despite a third act that gets a little wonky, with the very first line of “I beg your pardon” from Irene’s character of Terry immediately conveying flirtation yet ordinariness and constantly works to shift on its axis as someone who is every inch a movie character in how rich and oddly dressed she is and in how she immediately picks up the attentions of someone who gets asked for autographs yet signs them rudely. She knows she can needle him a bit, yet she also goes for forgiveness via coyness and her proper behaviors. The long and short of it is that while I’m not a hundred percent sure this tops The Awful Truth for me quite yet, it’s a dead heat, and the fact that you could watch this totally muted and follow the story simply by watching Dunne’s face is the highest of compliments. Eager to see An Affair to Remember, McCarey’s own remake of the work with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. “People fall in love on a boat” sure is a timeless genre.
Favorite Moment: The meet cute.
15. Young Mr. Lincoln
Young Mr. Lincoln seems to be that most Fordian of John Ford films, a treatise on a man who would become a legend doing the right thing because nobody else would. Henry Fonda had been on the rise for a while, but this performance shot him to the top, and while this looks to be standard biopic hagiography in the same vein as the tedious Spielberg picture, we immediately are made to care anyway because of Ford essentially creating and defining the definitive “likable and awkward” entrance. The book, the hesitation, the fact that Fonda’s performance is totally convincing despite only having a Lincoln haircut and prosthetic nose. And not just as some godly concept like Daniel Day-Lewis, but a real human being who squints when the sun shines too brightly and tries to do good things for his neighbors that are struggling financially. What I mostly like is that the most exhausting parts of Ford’s films that I do not care for, such as the same year’s Drums Along the Mohawk, are basically gone. No ethnic comedy at the expense of minorities here, the photography is always gorgeous and well put together, the story and framing serve each other to make the characters seem deep even when they are saying the simplest things. The Informer’s mad German Expressionism is a bit missed, and he would make a real masterpiece also in 1939 that brought the whole mythos of this part of the American heartland to life in the realest of ways, but this is a mythology of a different sort, one where the facts of life are kept simple until the cloudy nature of politics serve to making the world seem more complicated. Fitting for a black and white world where our future President wears inky clothing as he places flowers on the snows of winter that cover his mother’s grave. It is a celebration of the fact that we elected a man of such character to the highest position of national office, one that makes the Spielbergian hamminess of Sally Field scribbling out WE ONLY NEED TEN VOTES for our benefit look even more vaguely embarrassing (to say nothing of the 2016 election featuring someone who unironically called him Honest Abe). It’s basically a fairy tale, something out of a different planet where our leaders are saints and we can explore our collective national consciousness via this medium.
Favorite Moment: Grave visit.
14. Le Jour Se Leve
Le Jour Se Leve’s opening of a blind man encountering another individual who has been shot and fell down the stairs, shouting at no one in particular, is haunting stuff that befits a structure that quickly goes into the shooter, Jean Gabin, locking himself into his apartment while everyone watches as the police interrogate away about what to do with him. It all looks and is shot in the same way as every French film of the time, with the camera navigating many an ensemble of lonely individuals all with their own reasons for wrecking their own lives and that of others. Where Renoir stuck primarily to humanism, Marcel Carne went for a bit more stylizing, and Gabin’s rants in dark clothing in front of a mirror are merciless on the eyes. The mood is fitting, with the poetry of the situation corresponding neatly to a country that was essentially on the verge of collapsing altogether thanks to the forces of World War II. The title translates to Daybreak, but it’s bullshit, as we spend the entire picture in the state of darkness just before a dawn that never occurs with only a lovely score to keep us afloat. Banned for being too demoralizing in the same year Rules of the Game launched riots, the meet cute is as obnoxiously cute as they come, with Gabin’s Francois and Jacqueline Laurent’s Francoise (who is, of course, a flower girl-the better to secretly devour the man alive) bonding over their shared name and the fact that they are both orphans. The pair becomes a quadrilateral when the lady falls for a dog trainer at a variety show that is much older, Valentin, while her male doppelganger falls for his assistant Clara. Valentin’s too smart to let Francois get away with two timing unscathed and drives him to madness with comments about his adultery, but class is always in the background of his taunts thanks to his eventual murder’s job being hugely risky. Francoise’s world is at least a little less grim because of her white clothing that surrounds her entire home, but the only light in her lover’s universe can be found in the band across his eyes. When he goes on a rant against the media circus surrounding his murder, it’s a hard truth to face, but so are the full volume of the miserable existential musings in this sad place.
Favorite Moment: Rant at the spectators.
13. Hunchback of Notre Dame
Victor Hugo’s two most famous works have been adapted in many different ways (not to mention The Man Who Laughs, but the silent with Conrad Veidt and that fake grin is undoubtedly the winner here), but where Les Miserables has a pretty clear winner in the form of Raymond Bernard’s magnificent epic (still waiting for the definitive musical version but the one we have is pretty good, Hooper and his many problems be damned), Hunchback of Notre Dame is in a thornier spot. The Disney version comes awfully close to being a masterpiece and has the best song in the company’s history, but those damned gargoyles are terrible comic relief. The 1939 edition, meanwhile, has a tremendous cast in the form of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara in her Hollywood debut, and it’s a better book adaptation in how it deals with Esmeralda’s romantic travails, but it also has the problem of not hitting the highest of highs when Judge Claude Frollo goes mad with lust. The rest is certainly more adult, though, with the problems of anti-intellectualism and our prejudices against both the beautiful and especially the ugly getting skewered and the way women are treated horrendously by men getting its due even if Esmeralda is very 30s if you want to take her in a feminist light (she goes for the mothering approach, which is valid, but Phoebus is just so awful to her that it undercuts it). The production values are absolutely stunning, but when the crowds clear away, there’s one moment that sticks out as something quietly perfect in its simple beauty. Quasimodo gives his love a caged bird, and she looks at him as he covers his face and looks so sad and human that it breaks your heart, yet he covers his face in a way that resembles the jail bars for that bird. Neither film is a perfect fit for Hugo’s vision, but that is okay. Both are good to have, stronger together, each filling a niche for adults and children to be introduced to the story. Yet which edition is for who at the end of the day? They are each frankly terrifying in different ways, and it is a shame William Dieterle got more love for his biopics than for this, which actually requires moral complexity no matter how broad the strokes of paint can be on this canvas.
Favorite Moment: Quasimodo is crowned.
12. Roaring Twenties
Sick of the gangster genre and its immoral tales that all ended the same way, James Cagney decided to go out on a high note in the genre for the bulk of the next decade, working with Raoul Walsh here and doing so again ten years later when he returned to the field in his most popular performance in the notoriously nuts White Heat from 1949. Here, however, Walsh’s story is more along the lines of an Arnaud Desplechin epic across the decades that pays its own form of homage to all that came before while saying farewell to the definitive star of the most memorable ones, starting in the trenches of World War I with Cagney and Humphrey Bogart playing soldiers that are also friends with Jeffrey Lynn. The two stars who you are actually familiar with proceed to get into the bootlegging business when The Great Depression throws them into the wilderness, and prohibition makes it tough for everyone to cope. Is this really a story of men engaging in thrilling crime exploits before the Code comes down on their heads so that they cannot win? Hard to say so, what with the life only coming to these men who are stuck in a rut post-war. Even Lynn’s college graduate cannot resist the lure of easy cash and fast living. Of the two women we get to know, Priscilla Lane gets co-leading status and isn’t bad, but Gladys George is the real knockout who the director clearly sympathizes with, a woman who feels like Mae West if she was put into a better movie, seeming perpetually beaten but never broken. Cagney’s morals are like Jean Gabin’s, perpetually schizophrenic and undecided as to what to do and whether it’s right. Best example is taking on the criminals who own up to their criminal behavior and dismisses the one who claims he was framed. Better employees to have if you’re running the speakeasy business and need reliable gangsters? Perhaps. The narrator, petulant scold yet always apart from these people as he comments on the passing of time over the airwaves, but even if he is busy making the parallels explicit (army of soldiers = army of gangsters!), the cuts are too fast and the pace too anticipatory of what will inevitably happen to pay him much attention besides delighting in the prose that he drolly recites and the hilarious hip flask montage.
Favorite Moment: Meeting Panama.
11. The Women
Sadly, The Women looks pretty silly when held up next to Stage Door, a movie that has a few men and proceeds to viciously take all but one of them apart for being sexist assholes who take advantage of them for their desires to be in show business. On the other hand, this movie does not exactly represent some groundbreaking new territory in feminism despite having exactly zero women in front of the camera. There is a random Technicolor fashion parade that George Cukor reportedly hated (I think it’s hilarious but it also goes on for so long that it’s like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes), and the ending…well, it does not hold up to contemporary mores. And the Bechdel Test just barely works here, with almost every conversation being gossip about a man (who admittedly does not get characterized in the most flattering light). Now, with all that said, I’m powerless to resist this anyway from the minute the actresses start getting compared to animals in the credits. Every single bon mot of verbal bitchery is probably the equal to those improvised conversations that Gregory La Cava borrowed from to write something new, and the complete lack of men results in plenty of creativity, with the scene of the two servants discussing the details of the divorce plans adding something fresh to the typical exposition parade that would result if Stephen was actually in the frame. Even when the camera isn’t gliding through the parody of a glamorous spa or lightly touching upon the class details of a woman from the perfume counter, you get Rosalind Russell serving up slapstick that would no doubt subliminally make its way into the conscious of Lucille Ball with her exercise routines and slap/bite fight at the ranch with an equally game Paulette Goddard. Where Stage Door makes you feel the crushing pressure of poverty before dismissing it with a joke, this truffle exists in some other plain where the villains’ status is only reinforced at the very end at an event where they are wearing glamorous outfits, with what’s lost equaling her entire social status. Gloomy, undoubtedly, and the only reason the ending can be swallowed is if we pretend that the lack of males in this is the result of Mary’s delusions that she is in love with a man named Stephen who does not exist. Actually a pretty fun alternate reading…
Favorite Moment: The maids recap.
10. Dark Victory
Jezebel won her the Oscar, but Dark Victory is the melodrama that Bette Davis was born to make even if “unpleasant Southern belle” is a lot more her speed on paper. Yet for me, it’s all about Judith Traherne’s descent from a happy and well off girl straight out of what could have been a comedy on the misadventures of a daffy heiress to someone who realizes they are going to die of a malignant brain tumor and has to choose between one last blast of hedonism and settling down with a good man who loves her in the form of her brain specialist who has been lying to her regarding the level of malignancy post-operation for a few months. It is not her most typical performance, more something out of the Norma Shearer playbook, but it just feels so quintessentially Bette anyway that it is the definition of star vehicle. She considered this her best performance, and while she should have really rewatched All About Eve before making comments like that, she’s still magnificent in this. She goes broad, but by god it works magnificently. When she is happy, especially when she’s enjoying shallow pleasures (a very difficult thing to appreciate on screen but Edmund Goulding and his cinematographer Ernest Haller makes it look gorgeous thanks to his skills as a craftsperson rather than a personality like Hawks/Cukor), the screen lights up, if she is sad or angry, we feel every modulation of it. The score is particularly helpful in this regard, not the typical weeping strings of the period and something quieter and minor. Geraldine Fitzgerald as her friend and secretary may have gotten a decent enough nomination for Wuthering Heights, but this is what she really deserved it for, a mix of sardonicism and terror over what her friend’s fate may be and obliterating the doctor for trying to lie to his new love regarding the terrors to come in Judith’s life. There are plenty of hairpin turns and changes of heart, along with some questionable group scenes that require Ronald Reagan to be interesting and Humphrey Bogart to make a meal out of a nothing role, but it inevitably comes back to the staircase in that house, a German Expressionist creation nevertheless made out of white gleaming materials. Davis has never seemed lighter, breezier, or nicer to the people in her life even as she snarks away.
Favorite Moment: Bette calls out her friend/doctor.
Midnight sounds like a Lubitsch but it’s really directed by Mitchell Leisen (who was very good at doing the safe thing when making nice, fun romantic comedies). That’s not why it’s still kicking around as a classic today, however, with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett writing the script while Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche took the starring roles (incidentally, Wilder hated Leisen for reasons I find awfully hard to deny may have been homophobic and definitely involved creative interference but I say it was worth it for what was to come). This is what makes it so special, for Colbert never played a docile woman…well, there’s one scene where she agrees with a judge that men should be allowed to spank their wives, but I’m choosing to take that as a misguided attempt at naughtiness. Let’s focus on Eve Peabody, desperate to get her way to the top as a con artist in Paris who winds up bumping into a Hungarian immigrant cab driver, where they banter and flirt and get jealous. It is a whole marriage in an evening, and fittingly, he winds up posing as a baron to win her back when she poses as a baroness to earn entry into a club of rich bridge players who think she is high society. We all know how great at everything Claudette is in every one of her weirdly arch and rueful performances, making her a unique brand of comedian, but Don Ameche, who’s been fairly forgotten nowadays, is pretty wonderful as the love interest, casual yet a glorious series of reactions to whatever antics Eve’s gotten herself wrangled up into-and always in the proactive sense, with the taxi drivers going on the hunt for a woman who seems to have pulled off a con quite by accident that works. The supporting cast does decent work with thin roles (Mary Astor and Hedda Hopper are the biggest names of the lot), but it’s all about such delicious lines as “What a day, I could eat it with a spoon” as she drives through Paris with her secondary love interest that is clearly never going to happen. Look at the billing, smile, and then promptly ignore it so you can be swept up in the delicious nonsense, with a rare third act trial scene that does not feel horrendously contrived since it gets set up the minute we know she’s a criminal.
Favorite Moment: Driving around.
Garbo Laughs is among the most famous taglines for a movie ever (and it’s a pretty great tagline on its own even without the knowledge of Anna Christie, mostly because Ninotchka was specifically written around Garbo’s gloomy European persona), but let’s take a look at the movie behind it, one of two films written by Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett, but this got the better director in the form of Ernst Lubitsch, resulting in a beloved comedy that got the critique card “I laughed so hard I peed in my girlfriend’s hand!” Yet this subject matter on paper is no laughing matter, dealing with the upcoming war in the same great vein that all 1939’s best tapped into. If Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored had not been, ultimately, a tragedy of sorts about a woman who took a little too much pleasure in her job as a spy that still adjusts her stockings down to her last breath, then this would be what it had been as a pure comedy with Garbo’s stern Russian emissary Nina Yakushova Ivanoff looking to help the people of Russia only to be forced into falling in love with a Frenchman by those traitorous chemicals and hormones in her brain, and being further worn down by receiving a crash course in Marxism and engaging in behaviors that the most dignified actress reportedly found vulgar. Personal favorite moment is her early trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower where she says without cracking a smile even behind her eyes that Leon (her future lover) is the product of a doomed capitalist society that will be destroyed soon as he cheerfully ignores her bemoaning the wasted electricity and admires the view of the City of Lights. I’d let Ninotchka analyze me to death, but tragically, the whole film is not her obliterating a romantic with just a stare and a few clipped words, and when they fall in love the nonsense spins out into greater ridiculousness. Every artificial frame, with the doors implied by Lubitsch’s deliriously phony stage work brought over to film, pops with small details that set this apart from all other comedies. Everything in this story has stamina, cheerfully sprinting its way through an above average running time with no one noticing the mileage we are covering in this stupidly delightful farce of the age of strained but diplomatic relationships with Russia. I demand a nuclear power plant hat!
Favorite Moment: Ninotchka on the Eiffel Tower.
7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra’s politics were made deliberately impenetrable when he got political with his films, thus rendering them timeless in their approach to the rotten nature of politics and people. For all his corniness, he was actually an incredibly intelligent director who did not shy away from the depressing, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is rightly regarded as one of his peaks even if I very much prefer his first Best Picture winner It Happened One Night of all his works (only other contender is It’s a Wonderful Life). His conservatism can be painted with the same brush as John Ford, a man who deeply valued the very notion of American independence and wanted those at the bottom to be just as happy as those at the top. Still, he does allow his movies to have a cheery rendition of Yankee Doodle Dandy over the opening credits, so maybe he really was as Capracorny as everyone liked to paint him as…and then the deeply cynical process of appointing a replacement senator when the original dies, lead by a bunch of men who are not coincidentally played by rather heavyset and extremely talented character actors, and that gets blown away like dust in the wind. Harry Carey received a Supporting Actor nomination and it was not a bad choice, but his fellow nominee Claude Rains is the real knockout here, representing the cynicism associated with political profits while also coming across as a living, breathing person (Eugene Pallette and Edward Arnold are also in fine form). Jean Arthur finally got to play an independent woman who genuinely loved Jimmy Stewart as opposed to just being someone who wanted to get married and stop having a personality, with only Howard Hawks giving her something worthy of her clear talent to do that same year. You could fault the scene where he visits the Lincoln Memorial, but why? It gives us the key to really appreciating the speech on Mr. Smith’s end, a hoarse throated excoriation of the corruption that goes on forever and inspires many a filibuster. You can practically hear a chewing sound in the background as it drags on. It is the sound of Alfred Hitchcock eating his popcorn with relish, knowing exactly what he is going to do in a few decades time now that he has found his perfect star for his vehicles. And good for him, let him have his moment.
Favorite Moment: Filibuster.
6. Story of the Last Chrysanthemums
Kenji Mizoguchi’s feminism had been revving up thanks to Sisters of the Gion’s undiluted anger at the way the world worked, but he slowly began to understand just how poignant hiding one’s pain could be, and proceeded to come up with his first real triumph in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (sometimes entitled in such a way so that Late is substituting Last). He was experimenting and transitioning, and in the process came across a triumph of a story that I would argue would warrant its own sort of remake, with the son of a famous actor realizing he is the mockery of the troupe he is in, and only his adoptive brother’s wet nurse is telling him the truth about it. She is fired because of the scandal of a potential relationship, he leaves the group and goes outside of Tokyo, and she encourages him to become a famous actor to regain his family’s respect. You can practically smell the pathos at an enormous remove just from that summary, even if it is unusually male-centric for the director, but this is a painful scenario for both sides of the couple anyway, with the woman Otoku dying on behalf of Kikunosuke right when he comes around to realizing that the only thing he ever really wanted was her love, not the respect of his rotten adoptive family or the spiteful troupe. But it was too late for him from the beginning, with the long takes reducing him to someone trapped in the environment of the movie, trapped on a rigid path with no room for deviance. He is barely even part of the drama when he tells off his family (we focus on his mother) or as he returns triumphantly to the stage (which character is he? So much makeup). There is certainly a level of beauty and power involved in giving up everything you ever had for someone else, but does it bring Otoku anything in the end? Of course not. Japan to this director is a world that crushes up its women and spits them out with no gratitude for all they have done, and the main difference here is that there is a moment of gratitude…as she is about to die. Had this movie gone into metacinema territory with the kabuki performances, it could have very well been the number one of the most popular year in cinema.
Favorite Moment: Aftermath of the first performance.
5. Rules of the Game
Yes, Rules of the Game barely makes it into my top five for the year, but it’s still pretty safely an all-timer so don’t yell at me or start a riot in the same vein as the French back in 1939. What I love about this movie, just as much as I love plenty of other 1939 pictures that were upset over something, is how goddamn weird it is, down to an ending that feels awfully casual despite the second to last scene being a big speech from one of the most important and thematically rich characters. Sure, on paper it sounds like a straightforward satire of the way our social frameworks have been implemented to make it so damn easy for people to be casually nasty to each other, and there is plenty of stuff in there about Jews and minorities to make the World War II and Nazi parallels really pop (the scene where the poacher gets a job when he is caught and admits his desires to wear a uniform is pretty jawdropping stuff), but look at Grand Illusion (which I still worship by a few hairs more, sorry) and then this. The former is a straightforward enough WWI story that cleanly excavates class and boundaries as Jean Gabin gets shuttled around to different places as a prisoner of war, with a plot that you could follow easily enough even with digressions like the Marguerite performance. Here, to use a common thread as an example, there’s another performance digression, but really: dancing skeletons and Jews and whatever the hell else is going on, all while people are having their feuding backstage entanglements that lead to deep focus fights that tear open the class distinctions of the time with brute force that all somehow coheres into a labyrinth of anger? It’s basically a messier version of all-time favorite Nashville, I suppose, except with less show stopper numbers and more…discussions? Whatever these idle rich folks do, it makes them look terrible, from the innocent rabbits that were so mercilessly slaughtered to the constant affairs and whining they carry on with the least amount of dignity just because they can get away with it. One thing is for sure: I will need to see this again. Outside of Nora Gregor being a shade too flat even by the director’s intentions, there is very little material for bitching. Take a hint, residents!
Favorite Moment: Poacher is caught.
4. Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind is arguably the definitive movie where it’s sort of difficult to know where to begin, particularly in how it lasts a full four hours, plus intermission and overture to match the BIGGEST title cards ever. For this is going to be a big goddamned epic that captures the full scope of the single film that was required viewing of the 1930s if you wanted to fit in when talking about pop culture. Happily, the budget was spent to make sure the product was top shelf, and everyone is rolling up their sleeves to make sure everything from the burning of Tara to the most intimate of scenes between Scarlett and Rhett are photographed the right way. Not to take away anything from Olivia de Havilland’s perfect ideal of a genuine plaster saint, Hattie McDaniel creating a character that may have racist roots but also feels like a genuine person underneath the harsh behavior that does not take away from the leading cast like you should want any supporting part to do, and Clark Gable’s naturally angry tendencies making Rhett Butler’s righteousness fiery and perfect for a war where everything is about to be torn down. They all deserved their attention at the Academy Awards, with McDaniel correctly winning (unless you factor in a certain non-nominee) and Gable getting snubbed, but we know who the real star of the show is, right? Leigh’s performance is one for the record books, a woman who learns not a single goddamn thing over her entire epic journey that is seen through by a revolving door of directors, writers, and possibly even producers in creating The Most Magnificent Motion Picture of all time. She is the real auteur here. Somehow the disparate gallery of styles from directors on three different ends of the spectrum in Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and King Vidor blend together to form a united vision that looks as if it was handled by just the one person’s mind thanks to Selznick insisting that everyone go as big and as glamorous as possible. Is the racism against Butterfly McQueen acceptable? No, not even by the standards of that time, but it’s practically progressive compared to Margaret Mitchell’s tome, and I’d say that just the glint in Leigh’s eyes as she stares impassively at whoever has trespassed her or rages indirectly at being a woman in a man’s world is enough to override very valid concerns.
Favorite Moment: Atlanta burns.
Stagecoach has a lot of falsehoods attached to its legacy thanks to both how it happened to work out historically and the sheer volume of the discourse around the John Ford and John Wayne partnership in cinephile groups, but the one that sticks the most is the fact that Orson Welles was obsessed with it and viewed it dozens of times in preparation for Citizen Kane. Maybe it’s because the directors were both fond of a good, pithy character introduction and the introduction for Wayne’s character in this film is one of the all timers, as if the director knew that this was the story that would make his most notorious leading man a star. I don’t want to dismiss arguably America’s definitive actor of all time just like that, but let’s look at the glorious, wonderful script. It’s just so simple yet so perfect, with seven passengers and two drivers going through the desert and being pursued by hostile Apache warriors. We have Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic doctor in a performance that rightfully won him the Oscar, Claire Trevor as a hooker (as always), and several other characters practically designed in a lab to be in conflict with each other yet each rooted in the Wild West’s historical time and place, complete with a racial conflict that sort of gets its due and sort of does not in true Fordian fashion. The coach itself, meanwhile, feels like an organism of sorts, with the seven passengers bouncing around in the cell walls over various conflicts related to how morality is perceived even when they have moments of kindness (sharing a canteen with the sickly soldier’s wife), a great stand-in for the flavor of our nation that begs for a modernized remake or homage, and the two drivers heading the same way but the senior strongly resisting the urge to cut off his younger, squawkier voiced partner and do the entirety of the work himself. The tenth person on the trip? Our director himself, heading into new territory to be mapped out over the next three decades via 100+ films, his signature stamp growing more embedded into the filmgoers’ consciousness as Wayne’s face grew more cragged and lined with age and worry from the various individuals destroying the place he held so dear. Hard not to find it poetic no matter what level I try to resist the racial issues that abound in this filmography.
Favorite Moment: Riding along post Kid.
2. Wizard of Oz
Name a film that uses the most basic tools of cinema more perfectly than Wizard of Oz. I don’t mean something like Citizen Kane that uses all the tools in ways that are fairly show-offy, I mean something like “what is the best picture you could make using very basic brush strokes in all respects”? This is impossible to beat. Direction? There are four of them, yet their different styles cohere into a grand vision from Kansas to the Emerald City endpoint. Acting? Name a better villain than Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch or a better song performance than Judy Garland’s rendition of the greatest song in movies, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Not to mention Frank Morgan and the gang. Screenplay? Set out a series of goals, either succeed or fail, advance after singing. Just what you need. Cinematography? Seriously, look at Kansas and the transition from black and white to color and the endless volume of gorgeous matte paintings, iconic yet real-fake looking sets (this is a compliment), to the visual matches on action between the opening road to the other roads we see as we progress through every scheme imaginable in the land that is over the rainbow with blue skies and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Think of the conspiracy theories about Glinda being the real evil bitch of the movie for playing around with the Wicked Witch’s anger about her sister and not having access to her rightful private property, inspiring a whole book series (pretty enjoyable stuff at that) and musical that strangely still will not be adapted to film for another few years. Think of the goddamn gay metaphors thanks to how sublime yet ridiculous the spectacle of Bert Lahr’s dandy-lion shrieking around when Judy Garland slaps him is. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the layered long takes of Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, or the absurdly perfect character dynamics of Rules of the Game and Stagecoach, or the sheer epic bombastic nature of Gone With the Wind, or pretty much everything from Only Angels Have Wings but especially the first and last half hour apiece…yet when it comes to a simple pleasure that refuses to let itself be boxed as such and is ever watchable while capturing ideas on home that cannot be pinned down, this is the one, the one that gave us a million dreams.
Favorite Moment: Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
1. Only Angels Have Wings
When I was narrowing down the last few films of 1939, I was fairly convinced that even with an unstoppable resume from that year, Thomas Mitchell’s peak would be in Stagecoach and he thoroughly earned the Oscar for that. Instead, it turned out that he gave an even better performance in a film that was somehow, miraculously, better than that-and arguably one of the best films I’ve ever seen, to boot. Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings managed to spark off the auteur driven revolution in French cinema, and it was like a dark twist on his Bringing Up Baby, with the sucker punches of laughter getting flipped on their head with Cary Grant as the axis. Why the hell are these men continuing to fly these planes through such horrible, risky terrain? It is never answered and the truth lies just out of reach, and that is the tragedy of their lives and the heroism of when they do succeed in pulling it off. “Who’s Joe?” is said twice, by two different characters, in the opening half hour after the accident that kills him, and what happens in between is not just critical but horrifying in how it turns him into some distant object to be forgotten. There may be a happy ending, but is it really? It’s not like the rain has stopped. All we have is one of the most clever and romantic gestures I have ever seen, a double headed coin that has to be modified from its original purpose slightly. Hawks’ attention to detail is as awe-inspiring as all the balls he juggles in the many different character arcs, with Jean Arthur going through as many shades of identity as a chameleon, but the actors really carry it over the finish line to glory, namely the three already cited and Richard Barthelmess on his way out from his glory days. Everything in the rhythms and layout of this masterpiece is an emotional crisis waiting to happen, and that ending is secretly among the most horrifying if that weather reporter has gotten his job wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time…? We can’t be sure. Maybe the angels are the only ones who have wings in this low down joint, but every second of this transcends. If I think about that initial death scene once again, I may promptly collapse from the sheer horror of being enveloped by codes.
Favorite Moment: “Who’s Joe?”