Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Special: the 1939 Bumper Crop

The burning of Atlanta provides the back-lighting for this
iconic kiss between Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett
O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone with the Wind
1939 marked two major milestones in the history of Western Civilization: the outbreak of World War II in Europe, and the undisputed greatest year in movie history. Each of the ten films nominated for Best Picture that year would have taken home the Oscar had they been made any other year, but pitted against each other and the worldwide sensation that was Gone with the Wind, they did not get the acknowledgment they deserved. The ten nominated films themselves had stiff competition just for the spot at contention, with several four-star movies not even making the list.

As spectacular a year as it was for the movie industry, however, 1939 sadly marked the end of quality film-making for most of the '40s because of the devastation of the Second World War. This list, therefore, represents the swansong of a golden age of Hollywood production that shall never be equaled.

Had I added these films to my Best of the '30s list, they would have wiped out so many of the other great films made in the decade as to give the impression that Hollywood was a mediocre establishment until that year, which is simply untrue. For this special I shall exceed my limit of 10 to give you my choice of best movies from the greatest year in cinema history.

As with most adaptations of this novel, the ending does not stick with the downer that Victor Hugo originally wrote, but it certainly stay closer to the book than the Disney version. Charles Laughton shows his versatility as an actor by tackling the role of Quasimodo, imbuing the character, with innocence and intuition that make him incredibly sympathetic while his deformities still make him pathetically an outsider, almost a thing. Maureen O'Hara is breathtakingly lovely as Esmeralda, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as sinister a Frollo as ever graced the silver screen (and certainly more nuanced than his Disney counterpart). Surprisingly, too, Thomas Mitchell makes a great villain as Clopin.

If you haven't heard of this film, you've probably heard of the remake, 1957's An Affair to Remember. Director/writer Leo McCarey wanted Cary Grant for the romantic lead in this film alongside Irene Dunne, with whom he had already made the delightful comedy The Awful Truth. Grant, however, was unavailable, and McCarey had to settle with French actor Charles Boyer, whose delivery of the touching script lacked emotional depth, particularly in the memorable final scene. The movie endures mostly because of the strength of the story and the heartfelt performance of Irene Dunne. If you haven't see it, you should watch either the original or An Affair to Remember ASAP. I won't give away the plot.

This film is generally credited with making John Wayne a star in the western movie genre. More than just a shoot-'em-up, this movie gives us a glimpse of the marginalized people in the frontier west such as Mexicans and prostitutes, as they ride beside the middle-class in a stagecoach. Other characters posses notable vices such as avarice, alcoholism, and obsessive vengeance, but in a pinch they prove their worth, with Thomas Mitchell nearly stealing the show as the drunken Doc Boone.

In her only comedic role, Greta Garbo shines as a straight-laced Soviet commissar who succumbs to the beauty and capitalist decadence of Paris. While light and at times hilarious, it makes a biting commentary on the foibles of both capitalism and communism, including a hilarious scene with a letter from Paris that gets completely censored by the Soviet government. The movie was so popular that it was remade as a musical in the '50s with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charise, but while it's also enjoyable, the remake feels more like Cold War propaganda, despite a good score from Cole Porter.

Probably the darkest of my choices, this film stars Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in a drama about the brutal life of American mail pilots in the Peruvian Andes. Cary Grant plays their leader, whose volatile profession makes him reticent to commit to a relationship with Jean Arthur's character. Great supporting roles by Rita Hayworth as the girl Grant left behind and Thomas Mitchell (noticing a pattern?) as a personable but over-the-hill pilot make this picture a movingly memorable.

This film represents everything that's best about the screwball romantic comedy genre: it's smart, hilarious, and touching at the right moments. Cluadette Colbert sparkles as a would-be gold-digger hired by Mary Astor's husband (a memorable performance, as always, by John Barrymore) to seduce her lover away. Her plan goes horribly awry, however, when the humble taxi driver she loves shows up claiming to be her husband!

Considered in retrospect to be the Star Wars of it's day, Gunga Din has everything a good action film should have: fun characters with heart, a sense of adventure with urgency, and really evil villains. That being said, we do get an idea from this movie about both the good and bad side of British imperialism in India, though it's understated, to be sure. As a woman, I have to admit that I take great pleasure in watching two incredibly handsome actors in this film: Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., both of whom give spirited performances as two very different characters.

Before school films such as Dead Poet's Society, Mr. Holland's Opus, and The Emperor's Club came into being, there was this superb Robert Donat film based on the novella of the same title. It chronicles the development of Mr. Chipping, an almost neurotically disciplined teacher at a British boarding school whose life is changed when he falls in love over a long holiday. The joy he experiences transforms him from one of the most hated to the most beloved teachers in school, and sustains him even through great tragedies. Like the great teacher movies that followed it, this movie is prevented from being sappy by the very human struggles and frailties of its characters. I dare you to keep a dry eye at the ending.

Although this is not a particularly accurate adaptation of the beloved children's book, the movie's iconic status is unquestioned. It made Judy Garland a star overnight, and went down as one of the greatest children's movies of all time. It was helped, of course, by a spectacular array of songs, great character actors such as Ray Bolger and Frank Morgan, and the famous sepia-to-Technicolor transition. With all that said, however, I find the Wicked Witch of the West a little too scary for young children, which is why it falls down my list both of 1939 movies and the greatest children's movies of all time.

I am obliged to put the film that swept the Oscars that year in the #2 spot because I feel it's slightly overrated. Along with being one of the most iconic American films of all time, Gone with the Wind is also a surprisingly good adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's +1000 page novel, condensing it in
to about four hours, which was still an unheard-of length for a movie at that time. What Can I say about this film that hasn't been said? Of course they still had to cut a lot from the book, including Scarlett's children from her first two marriages, but the production still captures the essence of the novel to such an extend that we don't seem to mind very much. The four main characters are played to perfection by Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland, and even the supporting cast won Oscars for their incredible work, Hattie McDaniel being the first African-American to win an Oscar, and Thomas Mitchell taking home a statue for his entire 1939 oeuvre, basically.

James Stuart as Sen. Jefferson Smith finds out how politics
really works as his opponents manufacture public opinion.
Frank Capra commented in his autobiography that he had the misfortune to produce his magnum opus the same year as Gone with the Wind, but many in retrospect feel that he actually made the superior film. Edgy and controversial, Mr. Smith was very nearly banned for its honest portrayal of American politics. Both the media and politicians writhed at the negative light in which the film portrays them, but Americans outside those professions have always appreciated this glimpse at the truth.

In what is perhaps James Stuart's greatest role, he portrays a young idealist used as a patsy by his state's political machine. When Stuart's character finds out what's really going on in Washington, he tries to expose the truth, only to find out that with money and the media in their pocket, his opponents are the creators and absolute arbiters of truth (gee, does that sound like contemporary politics to anyone?).

Surprisingly, it's not Mr. Smith's courage and integrity that make him triumph in the end. He does not win by his own power or the power of the people at all. Instead the corruption topples only when one of its own conspirators has a change of heart. So in this movie political machines cannot be defeated by an ordinary American--that's a dark is a dark message indeed. Apart from wonderful plot and filming, this movie also gains from the incredible supporting cast of Jean Arthur as the Dulcinea to Stewart's Don Quixote (reference's to Cervantes' windmill-tilting hero are made throughout the movie), Claude Rains as the idealist who sold his soul to the devil, and Thomas Mitchell again as Arthur's cynical reporter boyfriend.

No comments:

Post a Comment