By and large film historians and cinephiles seem to agree that 1939 is not simply a great year in film but the great year in film. Looking over the roster of films released that year, it’s difficult to argue with that logic:
Gone With The Wind: The highest grossing film of its time, an Oscar juggernaut, and a bona fide classic despite its problematic treatment of race. It hasn’t aged quite as well as some of the other films of that year – it is one of the most poorly paced great films I can think of – but its main characters are timeless. Scarlett O’Hara is one of the greatest female characters in fiction and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of her one of the best in film history.
The Wizard of Oz: A beloved classic for people of all ages. Its production history is as storied as that of Gone with the Wind - both films are credited as being directed by Victor Flemming, though both had other directors doing early legwork - and it has proved to be as enduring, if not more so.
Ninotchka: Garbo laughs! My personal favourite of all Garbo’s films, it’s a great comedy of manners, clashing cultures, and an interesting look at Hollywood’s treatment of Communism prior to the Red scare that would follow WWII. The only bad thing about this film is that it’s the only good comedy Garbo ever made (the less said about Two-Faced Woman the better), as she proves to have great aptitude for the genre.
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: I’m a bit of a cynic, but even I get a little choked up during the filibuster sequence as the once wide-eyed innocent Jefferson Smith fights for the integrity of the American political system. After 70 years, it hasn’t lost any of its power or charm.
The Women: Okay, so the remake proved to be pretty lame but the original certainly has a pretty loyal fanbase – personally I don’t think it’s all that but it definitely has its moments and it provides a showcase for many of the best actresses of the era.
Stagecoach: John Ford and John Wayne are the classic American western and Stagecoach marks the first of their many collaborations and the first film Ford would make in Monument Valley.
Wuthering Heights: The classic story from Emily Bronte has been made many times but this version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is the favourite for many. The twisted love of Heathcliff and Cathy was perfect for this duo, who apparently detested each other off-screen.
The Rules of the Game: Renoir’s film features a large canvass of characters whose lives and problems criss-cross and overlap, and inspired one of the great American directors. In Robert Altman’s own words: “I learned the rules of the game from The Rules of the Game.”
Gunga Din: Granted, the film is probably guilty of a fair bit of exoticization, but how wrong can you possibly go with an adventure story starring the incomparable Cary Grant and based on the word of Rudyard Kipling?
Goodbye Mr. Chips: Robert Donat won the Oscar for his role as a beloved teacher Mr. Chips. The film itself has inspired multiple remakes, proving that there’s just something about this story that makes it worth telling over and over again.