14 of the Best Movies From Hollywood’s Most Miraculous Year – Rolling Stone
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14 of the Best Movies From Hollywood’s Most Miraculous Year

In honor of the Oscars, we look back at the classics that made 1939 Hollywood’s annus mirabilis

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At the Oscars this Sunday, there'll be a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, serving as a reminder that 2014 is a 75th anniversary—not just of the Judy Garland classic, but of the year critics often cite as the greatest year in movie history, 1939. In those days, the old studio system made Hollywood a factory town that was running at peak efficiency, cranking out well-written, wonderfully directed and impeccably acted films in breathtaking abundance. It was the year of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and one of the most popular film of all time, Gone With the Wind—not to mention dozens of other sexy, sophisticated, lush movies that any 2014 filmmaker would kill to have made. Here are 14 of the best films from that landmark year, along with the reasons they're still worth watching today.—Gary Susman

 

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‘Dark Victory’

Cast: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Story: A hard-living socialite learns she has an inoperable brain tumor and falls in love with her surgeon.

Memorable Moment: Davis argues with stablehand Bogart over whether a colt, Challenger, will grow up to be a champion. Symbolism alert!

Behind the Scenes: Having co-starred in eight films already, Davis and Brent began an on-set affair that lasted a year.

Oscars: Nominated for Best Picture, Actress, and Original Score.

Why It’s Still Fresh: The live-life-to-the-fullest theme will always be timely, and despite the story's melodramatic trappings, Davis—in full movie-star bloom—is refreshingly unsentimental.

 

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‘Destry Rides Again’

Cast: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich

Story: Expert marksman Tom Destry is called upon to clean up the frontier town of Bottleneck, but he refuses to wear a gun. He nonetheless wins over most of the townsfolk, including saloon singer Frenchy. Ultimately, of course, he will have to make use of his formidable shooting skills.

Memorable Moment: Dietrich sings "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have."

Behind the Scenes: According to director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, Dietrich allegedly told him she had an on-set affair with Stewart, became pregnant, and had an abortion before he ever found out.

Oscars: No nominations.

Why It’s Still Fresh: This gently comic cowpoke tall tale is the apparent inspiration for modern classic Western spoof Blazing Saddles (with Dietrich's Frenchy the clear model for Madeline Kahn's Lili Von Shtupp), as well as for every other Western where a reluctant gunslinger straps on the holster one last time to Do Whatta Man's Gotta Do.

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‘Golden Boy’

Cast: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Lee J. Cobb, Adolphe Menjou

Story: In this Clifford Odets drama, Joe Bonaparte (Holden) defies his father and rejects a career in music to become a boxer, only to become trapped in a web of corruption.

Memorable Moment: Joe tries to play the violin again—but can't.

Behind the Scenes: Columbia was initially unhappy with newcomer Holden's work, but Stanwyck insisted against his firing. The movie would go on to make him a star.

Oscars: Nominated for Best Original Score

Why It’s Still Fresh: It set the template for virtually every boxing drama made since.

 

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‘Gone With the Wind’

Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen

Story: Margaret Mitchell's famous novel of the Civil War's impact on a Georgia plantation heiress, Scarlett O'Hara, and the rogue who loves her, Rhett Butler.

Memorable Moments: Where to begin? There's the burning of Atlanta, the famous lines ("As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again!") and Rhett's final kiss-off, to name just three.

Behind the Scenes: The film underwent a famous nationwide open casting call for Scarlett before recruiting Leigh from England. Rhett's last words ("Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn") caused a bitter censorship battle over that final four-letter word.

Oscars: Out of 13 nominations, it won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director (Victor Fleming), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for McDaniel, who became the first African-American performer to win an Oscar.

Why It’s Still Fresh: Sorry, James Cameron, but adjusted for inflation, this remains the biggest hit film of all time. The movie's racial politics remain problematic, but it's still easy to lose yourself in the lavish, epic storytelling and to root for Scarlett, a feisty, fearless heroine decades ahead of her time.

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‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’

Cast: Robert Donat, Greer Garson

Story: British prep school teacher Charles Chipping recalls his life of triumphs and tragedies over the course of a life spent teaching thousands of boys.

Memorable Moment: During a World War I air raid, Mr. Chipping continues to teach Latin.

Behind the Scenes: Shot at the Repton School in England, with 200 real-life Repton students giving up their vacations to serve as extras.

Oscars: Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Screenplay. Won Best Actor for Donat, in an upset victory over favorite Clark Gable from Gone With the Wind.

Why It’s Still Fresh: This is the original dedicated-teacher drama, influencing everything from The Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver. 

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‘Gunga Din’

Cast: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sam Jaffe

Story: Inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem, it's the tale of Indian water bearer Din (Jaffe), who fights alongside British officers in Afghanistan in the 1880s.

Memorable Moment: Kipling's famous verses are read as a eulogy at Din's funeral.

Behind the Scenes: Grant and Fairbanks reportedly flipped a coin to see who would play which role; Grant won. William Faulkner took a turn as a script doctor.

Oscars: Nominated for Best Black-and-White Cinematography.

Why It’s Still Fresh: Granted, the imperialist attitudes have dated. Still, think of this as the first male buddy action-comedy.

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‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Cast: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara

Story: Based on the Victor Hugo novel, it's the torrid tale of the deformed medieval bell-ringer Quasimodo and the fiery gypsy girl Esmeralda after whom he pines.

Memorable Moment: Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda, who's been framed for murder, from the noose

Behind the Scenes: Laughton spent two and a half hours in the makeup chair every day to become the disfigured Quasimodo. The film made a star out of O'Hara.

Oscars: Nominated for Best Score and Best Sound.

Why It’s Still Fresh: Watch either John Hurt's performance  as John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) or the 1996 Disney cartoon, and you can see how Laughton's performance set the stage for finding humanity in playing a so-called monstrosity.

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‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains

Story: Idealistic scoutmaster Jefferson Smith (Stewart) becomes a U.S. Senator, only to learn that even his wise mentor is a bought-and-paid-for member of the Make-Sure-Nothing-Gets-Done party.

Memorable Moment: Smith's final, go-for-broke filibuster.

Behind the Scenes: Stewart swallowed baking soda to make his voice hoarse for the climactic last-man-standing scene.

Oscars: Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director (Frank Capra), Screenplay, Actor, and Supporting Actor.

Why It’s Still Fresh: You may find the cynicism of House of Cards or Scandal fashionable, but the central problem of American politics—that corporate money wields too much influence—is one that Capra nailed decades ago.

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‘Ninotchka’

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas

Story: A Russian agent in Paris is seduced by the decadent West, and one decadent westerner in particular.

Memorable Moment: Garbo gets drunk!

Behind the Scenes: "Garbo Laughs" was the marketing tagline for the film, a reminder that the screen siren, known for her intense roles in romantic dramas, had never done comedy before. Indeed, she was so nervous about the shift that, during the shoot, she banned all non-essential personnel from the set.

Oscar: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay

Why It’s Still Fresh: Director Ernst Lubitsch directed satirical comedies whose sophistication and worldly wisdom was light-years ahead of today's multiplex fodder. You could not ask for a better example of "the Lubitsch touch" than this.

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‘Of Mice and Men’

Cast: Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr.

Story: As in the John Steinbeck novel, itinerant ranch hand George and his slow-witted companion Lennie work in vain toward their dream of owning their own rabbit-strewn farm.

Memorable Moment: Lennie has George repeat the oft-told dream about the rabbits one last time.

Behind the Scenes: Meredith and Steinbeck became friends; Steinbeck even wrote two novels while staying at Meredith's home in Mount Ivy, New York.

Oscars: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Score, and Best Sound

Why It’s Still Fresh: Meredith and Chaney are both incredible, and Steinbeck's take on loneliness and friendship will remain on school-reading curricula until kingdom come.

 

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‘Stagecoach’

Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell

Story: A diverse cross-section of people are aboard a stagecoach threatened by warring Apaches.

Memorable Moment: The attack, which features some hair-raising stunt work.

Behind the Scenes: This was the first of many Westerns John Ford shot in Monument Valley, and it's the one that made John Wayne a star (over the objection of producer Walter Wanger, who wanted Gary Cooper in the role).

Oscars: Nominated for seven prizes, including Best Picture and Director, it won two: Best Supporting Actor (for Mitchell) and Best Music Scoring.

Why It’s Still Fresh: Not only is this the horse opera that turns John Wayne into "John Wayne," it's the movie that made Monument Valley the go-to location for Westerns. There's a reason all Westerns look like this one.

 

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‘The Wizard of Oz’

Cast: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan

Story: A tornado drops Kansas farm girl Dorothy into a dangerous and wondrous fantasy world.

Memorable Moments: The song "Over the Rainbow," the Munchkins, the yellow brick road, the Emerald City, the flying monkeys, the ruby slippers….

Behind the Scenes: That rumor about a Munchkin hanging himself on the set? Totally false.

Oscars: Nominated for six prizes, including Best Picture, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, and Special Effects. Won for Best Song ("Over the Rainbow") and Best Original Score.

Why It’s Still Fresh: It remains one of the few book-to-movie fantasy adaptations that actually seems more imaginative on the screen than on the page. Its continuing hold over generations of kids and adults is apparent—see the megasuccess and many touring productions of Wicked.

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‘The Women’

Cast: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard

Story: In this adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's all-female play, a Manhattan socialite (Shearer) seeks advice from her friends when she learns her husband is having an affair with a shopgirl (Crawford).

Memorable Moments: It's a toss-up between the Technicolor fashion show and Crawford's final kiss-off to the ladies who lunch.

Behind the Scenes: Shearer and Crawford's enmity was real and long-standing, as both had vied for top diva status at MGM. During the fight between Russell and Goddard, Russell gave Goddard a permanent scar when she bit her on the leg. Director George Cukor, known for his skill at directing actresses, was hired for The Women shortly after he'd been fired from Gone With the Wind because Clark Gable felt he was making that picture too effeminate.

Oscars: None.

Why It’s Still Fresh: The movie was remade in 2008 with Meg Ryan, but it was clear that they don't make dames like the stylish, strong ladies who populated the original anymore.

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‘Wuthering Heights’

Cast: Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Story: Emily Bronte Gothic romance details the doomed romance between the aristocratic Cathy and the brooding Heathcliff.

Memorable Moment: In a softened ending, the spirits of Heathcliff and Cathy walk together after death.

Behind the Scenes: The filmmakers imported heather from England to Thousand Oaks, California, to simulate the story's famous moors.

Oscars: It earned eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Fitzgerald), and Best Screenplay. It won Best Black-and-White Cinematography (Gregg Toland).

Why It’s Still Fresh: It's not the most faithful version of Bronte's novel, but it's generally regarded as the best—and is certainly the most swoon-worthy.

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