The Top Ten Films of 1939
I’m going to be honest with you: we had a hard time putting this one together. 1939 is one of those years, like 1974 or 1982, that to cinephiles glows with a radioactive importance. So much is happening this year, in the medium and in the world, to attempt anything like “criticism” is to sentence yourself to accusations of incompletism, research fails, or bland understatement.
But it is precisely this sweaty fear and heavy consequence that makes 1939 a year we must observe. The films of this year celebrate a new and complex relationship with their origins in stage storytelling, and they break new ground with bold experiments in technicolor and political demagoguery. European directors, even those working in Hollywood, allow the dread of the coming war to seep onto the screen, giving us moderns the opportunity to try to parse this implied dread both as the audience of the time might have seen it and also how that dread has fermented over time.
The ten films that Flickcharters rank the most highly offer an accurately eclectic cross-section of the artistic tastes and social priorities of this era. Some films are timeless and some are merely timely, but they all demonstrate that 1939 deserves its reputation as one of the Himalayan peaks of cinema.
“He used to be a big shot.”
While the “Golden Age” of the gangster picture may have been the early 1930s, with such big names as Little Caesar, Scarface, and The Public Enemy setting the tone for the genre, I would put forth The Roaring Twenties, closing out the decade in 1939, as one of the best gangster films ever (EVER) made. It’s quintessential in a way that only genres that have reached their full potential can be. Three WWI soldiers, friends in the trenches, return home and take divergent paths: lawyer (Jeffrey Lynn), bootlegger (Humphrey Bogart), and cab driver (James Cagney). Setting up the film like this does two things — it ensures that our three friends will eventually be pitted against each other, but it also makes the film a microcosm of the 1920s, the Prohibition era, the Depression, and the effect of WWI that colored all of that.
It’s easy to actively root for Cagney’s character, who falls into crime and bootlegging (of course) while yearning for the day he can go straight again. He’s not a hardened criminal like his Pre-Code gangster characters; that’s left for the more clear villain of the piece, played by Bogart. Villains in gangster films were Bogart’s stock in trade in the late 1930s, and his menacing, growly delivery works perfectly. Yet he’s also got an innate charisma that foretells his stardom, now only a couple of years away. Meanwhile, if any films have ever known how to use character actors, 1930s genre films did, and Gladys George all but steals the show as the wearily glamorous nightclub owner Panama Smith. She gets the final lines and the final image of the film, and deserves both. – Jandy Hardesty
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If you’re confused by the title of this one — where are the other Destry movies? — don’t worry about it, they’re all the same movie. This wasn’t even the first movie titled Destry Rides Again, because classic Hollywood didn’t mind recycling ideas any more than modern Hollywood does. But of the three movie versions, the Broadway show, and the 1960s TV series, this edition from The Best Year of Cinema is the one to see. The reason is simple: Marlene Dietrich. Yes, Jimmy Stewart is always good, but you can see him in over a dozen other Westerns. And yes, the plot is a nice arrangement of the usual Western themes of revenge, corruption, and order versus lawlessness, but you’ve seen all that before, too.
What you haven’t seen before is a Western in which Marlene Dietrich, international sex symbol and femme fatale who bent gender rules and helped fight Nazis, straddles a chair and sings “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” with the heavy Prussian accent and sultry physicality that made her one of cinema’s most indelible stars. Dietrich in Destry is what Madeline Kahn brilliantly spoofs in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, and the reference still worked in 1974 because 35 years wasn’t long enough to dim the memory of Dietrich. Even if you forget the plot points of Destry, you won’t be able to stop singing numbers like “Little Joe” in your best Dietrich impersonation. – David Conrad
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I’ve heard it said that one of the consequences of the United States not having a state religion is that our primal need for collective adoration causes us to deify our presidents and statespeople. Spend any time in Washington, D.C., and the overwhelming whiteness of the cathedralic memorials will make this point baldly clear. And so will this film, which is more of a “in the footsteps of the saints” study of the quasi-apocryphal parables that we Americans collectively celebrate as being formative to our sixteenth president, than it is any kind of photo-realistic biopic.
By allowing us to walk with Saint Lincoln in his contemplations along the Mississippi, this film (and others like it) gives us (we believe) a better understanding of his relationship with the unseen semi-divine forces that we’re taught in social studies underpin our republic: the Law (whatever that means), and a thing we typically call “Liberty” but which is in reality some much more indefinable quality of “America-ness”, a kind of wistful benevolent libertarian adoration of Man in the state of nature, unconstrained by the typical compromises of feudal systems of government.
A film about such heady concepts, in the hands of any lesser director than John Ford, would surely have collapsed under the weight of its own schmaltz. But what we have in Young Mr. Lincoln is a sober, if florid, meditation on the emotional origins of a uniquely impactful moral and political figure in world history. The film is not flawless, but what it lacks in realism it makes up for in a brand of bold optimism that Hollywood has since, sadly, lost. – Doug Van Hollen
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Only Angels Have Wings was a hangout movie before there were hangout movies. It’s full of dramatic plot points and death-defying (or tragically not death-defying) action set pieces, but it opts to place these “big” moments in the background and to make the “small,” in-between moments the real story. Dialogue and charisma are the keys to pulling off that inversion, and with director/writer team Howard Hawks and Jules Furthman as pilot and copilot to an A-list cast including Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth, these are a cinch. Hotshot mail plane fliers and their on-again, off-again gals drink and fight and love in a rainy Latin American port town, periodically jetting away for white-knuckle hops over the Andes, but you don’t actually need to see any of that in order to be swept up in the romance. In fact, the entire cast got together after the release of the picture and recorded an essentially word-for-word radio version that still survives, and their pure chemistry makes it work sans images. If you grew up watching TaleSpin on the old Disney Afternoon block, or appreciate the snappy, subversive, low-stakes spin that Hawks and Furthman put on films like To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Rio Bravo, don’t bail on this National Film Registry selection. – David
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Are you still allowed to love Gone with the Wind? In 2019, I think a significant portion of the population would now say no. Many consider its take on race problematic, to put it lightly, with it taking a fairly benevolent look at slavery and the Antebellum South. Many older films carry the weight of stereotypes and prejudices of the past, though, and we must learn to live with them. Gone with the Wind is the epitome of golden age Hollywood film-making, and a representation of what I wish more modern blockbusters would embrace.
A production on this scale was ridiculous, with more than 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras. The film captures that sense of epic, as the lengthy runtime and spanning story weaves a broad tale of love and the collapse of a way of life. You feel the scale and grandeur of Gone with the Wind and can’t help but get swept in. From the iconic theme to the smirking mustached smile of Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh’s taut simper as Scarlet O’Hara, the film almost feels mythological. It all goes to show you don’t need CGI and special effects to capture an audience’s attention, just fantastic cinematography and a story that you can’t look away from. – Connor Adamson
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Comrade Ninotchka came to Paris with a plan to do a simple jewelry deal for Mother Russia, but eventually found herself entranced by capitalist romance, and she decides to follow her heart instead of her party. Similarly, it feels like Ninotchka, the film, set out to make a simple anti-communist propaganda film, but eventually found itself in love with the chemistry between its two leads, and decided instead to make one of the screen’s great love stories.
I love that about this film, its fractal nature, the fact that it seems at times to don the serious practical clothes of social and political commentary only to be tempted back to the silly haute couture hat of clever, love-struck farce. In the hands of a lesser light than Lubitsch, the result would have felt like incomplete implementations of two bad ideas. But with a bright, muscular script by Billy Wilder among others, and a cast that absolutely throws their shoulder into every scene, we have an absolute gem, an unlikely plot with weird and (at first) mostly unlikable characters, which unfolds into a sweet testament to the joy of being stupid-in-love with someone, just absolutely post-rational, non compos mentis, let the cities burn, in love. The tribulations of high-stakes international politics offer merely an amusing backdrop to the story you’ll one day tell your grandchildren. – Doug
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The brilliance of a stagecoach setting is that it is at once static and mobile. It is an enclosed space that forces different kinds of characters together for long periods of time, leading to intimate character drama, but it is also a sort of rolling base of operations in which characters can experience the excitement and danger of long-distance travel. John Ford understood both uses of the stagecoach when he made a movie called, simply, Stagecoach. It was approximately Ford’s millionth movie, and it was John Wayne‘s 82nd, though Wayne was still young enough that he could play a character with the sobriquet “Kid.” And yet in a way Stagecoach was also their first movie: it was the first time the two Johns, “Pappy” and “Duke,” went to Monument Valley in southern Utah, the location where over the next several decades they would travel nine times to make “some of the greatest American movies without giving it much more thought than the whisky and the poker games and the campfires with which they occupied their evenings,” in the words of Roger Ebert.
A generation before John Ford came along, Monument Valley was thought to be an “ugly,” “repulsive,” and ultimately useless part of the country, so much so that the federal government, never generous to Native Americans, let the Navajo have it as part of their reservation. Ford’s movies, starting with Stagecoach, helped trigger a 180 in the place’s image. Interestingly, though Indians are villains in the movie (members of the area’s Navajo population played Apaches in the famous chase sequence), Ford paid a native medicine man $15 per day to pray for good weather during the shoot. It must have worked; the shapely buttes of the valley looked great on celluloid and soon became among the most recognizable symbols of the American West and everything that people believed it stood for. If not for the success of Stagecoach — a million dollars in box office receipts and seven Academy Award nominations in a highly competitive year — who knows if this would have happened. The landscape didn’t do it alone, of course. The success and staying power of Stagecoach is equally due to its brilliant cast headlined by Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, and Andy Devine, all huge stars in their own rights. How their archetypal yet believable characters enliven the inside of the stagecoach proves just as entertaining as the scenery outside.* – David
*See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/behind-the-scenes-in-monument-valley-4791660 for more on the history and cultural significance of Monument Valley.
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In a system riven with pinheaded, loopholey annoyances, surely the filibuster is legislative democracy’s most annoying weapon. To engineer the climax of this wildly optimistic serenade to American optimism around this enshrined bauble of anti-intellectualism is the subtlest knife of this film’s attack: Even when the United States is at its most annoyingly American, insisting on the use of unyielding histrionic speech as an actual crime-fighting tool, we still refuse to see ourselves as anything but the ultimate evolution of the idea of the republic. On nothing more than the love of our land, the love of our people, and our utter refusal to believe we are fallible, we can power the engines of finance, war, peace, music, art, and the entire novelty cocktail industry.
This film, like Young Mr. Lincoln, speaks to that hope we Americans hold in our hearts, that the sheer burning purity of our beliefs and the stiffness of our spines are enough to overcome the darkness that lurks among us. – Doug
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If the point of movies is to tell the stories that we need to hear; if the point of movies is to show us worlds that do not exist and could not exist, the better to understand our own; if the point of movies is to distill and concentrate the extremes of the human experience, from brilliant happiness to harshest terror to deepest sadness to richest love; if the point of movies is to create legacies and shared experiences that bind generations together; if the point of movies is to have an art form that combines all others, transcending them; if the point of movies is to make our hearts sing, then surely The Wizard of Oz is a great movie.
Anything so immensely popular and such a foundational stone of our collective culture is doomed to never live up to its hype, but if you bring the right kind of innocent eyes (they can be as piercingly critical as you like, but they must not be overexposed; Oz is a confection, too much of which will make you sick), then you too will be swept up in the sheer power and audacity of this film. Paul F. Tompkins calls this the scariest film ever made. There’s a pretty good case that “If I Were King of the Forest” is more brilliantly funny than “Make ‘Em Laugh.” All of this is true. It is this film’s full-spectrum superlativity that has made it endure. – Doug
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An artist as intelligent as Jean Renoir is capable of great sadness and rage, but unlike the rest of us he chooses to express it in his art through only the sharpest, obliquest satire imaginable. Rules of the Game is “about” an upper class country party, but it’s about societal decay. It’s about the inevitability of Europe’s violent dissolution (again) which by this point was well underway. We, in 1939, could have been forgiven for choosing not to see the situation this way; for some, the ending of the Great War gouged a blind spot with the desperation of its hope. But it made others, like Renoir, perpetually raw to the potential for such a thing’s return.
At least, it seems that way from watching this film. Who could film what is on paper a charming comedy of manners with such elevated, detached derision, the camera in frequent dolly, the dialog overlapping, making the characters seem like chattering, idiot birds? When Altman uses these exact same techniques, you feel present and engaged, identified with the characters, but here it aggressively holds the characters at a distance, asking you to see everything for the weird tableau that it is, a wispy cotton candy sculpture that stands naively in contrast to how ugly the world can be. “How could you forget?”, the unsimulated hunting scenes seem to say. Twenty-two years ago Frenchmen were drowning in gas and trench mud but here you frolic, taking pleasure in the slowly stiffening limbs of a freshly shot rabbit. Fuck you, 1939 Europe. That is what Renoir is saying. – Doug
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Doug – Son of Frankenstein
I don’t think fans of Young Frankenstein realize that this film, not the original Frankenstein, is the basis of most of Mel Brooks‘s memorable parodic moments. Hunchbacked Igor? This film. The inspector with a fake arm? This film. Calling the monster using music? This film. A mustachioed descendant poo-poohing ancient rites of zombiism only to fall under its spell himself? This film.
But more than just providing an antecedent to one of the most popular comedies of all time, the third entry in the Frankenstein cinematic universe offers dark and twisted echoes of these now iconic scenes, and a modern viewer, only familiar with the parody, will find new levels of horror in these moments just from the contrast. Ygor’s twisted spine? Due to surviving his own hanging, and every step causes excruciating pain. Inspector Krogh’s wooden arm? A replacement for the one that that monster tore off, when he was a child, after the monster killed his father in front of him.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that this film “ruins” Young Frankenstein, but it provides an essential dramatic counterpoint to a much more popular later movie, as well as a tragic and muscular example of Universal horror.
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Jandy – The Women
These days we hear a lot about equity in cinema, the gender wage gap, and the appalling lack of good female roles in front of the camera and opportunities for female creators behind it. That has been accompanied by an interest from classic film fans in unearthing female pioneers in cinema, and in one way The Women (which in all honesty cannot really be claimed as a rediscovery, as it has retained a certain popularity) seems like a great find — an entire cast full of women and not a man to be seen? But the very tagline lets us down easily: even with an all-female cast, this movie is “all about men.” Some claim it passes the Bechdel test, but only barely.
That doesn’t mean it’s not a great movie, of course. Norma Shearer is the ostensible lead, as a woman whose husband is stolen by perfume salesgirl Joan Crawford, but Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and even Paulette Goddard steal the show from the suffering Shearer. (People who only knew Shearer from this and other late-30s films like Marie Antoinette got quite a shock when her Pre-Codes came back in vogue.)
But besides the delicious cattiness of the cast and the incredible script full of zingers, I truly love how surprisingly deep this film is about the subject of marriage, and how varied it allows its women to be, when they’re all going through various stages of divorce. You’ve got Shearer, the woman who can be catty when she needs to be, but really does want the domesticity of home (and THAT’S OKAY), the home wrecker/golddigger Crawford, just in it for what she can get out of it; Russell, who’s everyone’s best/worst friend; Joan Fontaine, the young wife who heads for Reno at the first blow-up with her husband; and Goddard, who’s a gold digger herself, but has the best advice for Fontaine when she admits how much she misses her husband.
This is a movie about a lot of people who are getting divorces, but the Fontaine subplot and Goddard’s advice show that it’s not necessarily primarily about divorce; it’s about marriage and what makes a good one. Most of these women will never have (and may not even want) what Fontaine and ultimately Shearer have, but the movie is fair to those who do, and I appreciate the plethora of examples it gives us.
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