- Gone with the Wind, Victor Fleming*
- Dark Victory, Edmund Goulding
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Sam Wood
- Love Affair, Leo McCarey
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra
- Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch
- Of Mice and Men, Lewis Milestone
- Stagecoach, John Ford
- The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming
- Wuthering Heights, William Wyler
Well, this is the Big Year, widely acknowledged as the finest in American cinematic history. In addition to the nominees, all of which remain highly regarded (by many), this year also saw the release of The Women, Midnight, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and others.
Overall, it was a great year, with nothing that I’d consider to be a “bad” film. Of course, not everything rose above the strictures of the Hays Code entirely successfully, but the level of technical achievement in all ten nominees cannot be doubted. As the word count of this article attests, there’s a lot to say about them.
First on the slate was Love Affair, because it is in the public domain so I could watch it
at work on my lunch break. I’m glad it was first, because it is the lightest and most forgettable of the ten nominees–just a silly melodrama about a very flighty singer (Irene Dunne) and the dashing Frenchman (Charles Boyer) she meets on a boat to New York (RKO Studios). They’re engaged to others at this point but that doesn’t stop them–does it ever?–from making plans to dump their future spouses and meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months.
Up until this moment of reckoning, the film plants itself firmly in the romantic comedy genre, but with less screwballery than Capra and less singing than Lubitsch. (It also established the Empire State Building as a romantic rendezvous that has been disappointing estranged lovers ever since.) But then, tragedy strikes and nearly ruins everything, the kind of ruin that, in real life, could be saved by a single explanatory sentence but that leads to the third act in films. Here the film tries awfully hard to be dramatic and poignant, but the whole thing is hackneyed and the final payoff is something that was cliché in 1933, much less 1939.
As I said, it’s a forgettable experience. It was remade in 1954 as, ironically, An Affair to Remember, using the same script but starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.
Next came Dark Victory, another film in which Bette Davis plays a selfish girl who learns her lesson–this time around, she’s a wealthy Long Island socialite who comes down with a brain tumor that ultimately takes her life. The dark victory referred to by the title is her discovery, towards the end, of happiness and love, and all it took to find it was a fatal disease and the steadfast help of a strong male lead (George Brent, as the doctor who is always right in matters of medicine and of life).
The film hits all the three-act plot points required by such a story. The acting is phenomenal and Edmund Goulding’s direction is serviceable, but on the whole I found the enterprise a bit patronizing and too reliant on musical cues to convey its message. The message, of course, being that one cannot find happiness in an urban setting, or without someone more mature and nurturing to tell you what to do and how to feel. The takeaway is supposed to be optimistic, that contentedness can be attained even in the face of mortality, but when you think about it, it’s actually pretty pessimistic. How many people are going to have George Brent at their side when they snuff it?
It is entirely worth it, however, simply to see Ronald Reagan as a slurring drunkard (but a swanky society drunkard) and Humphrey Bogart back when he was still billed after the title and had to attempt an Irish accent.
Mr. Smith Goes to Town is the second in Frank Capra’s Mr. [Blank] Goes to [Blank] trilogy, which was never completed when production was halted on what would have been the third installment, Mr. Biddle Goes to Nuremberg. Here, Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic, naive-but-not-stupid young senator who arrives in Washington and is confronted by the crushing, cynical realities of a political system based on graft, betrayal, and steadfast devotion to money. Although he initially solves all problems with his fists, he is repeatedly knocked down and nearly quits in disgust, but in the end the love of Jean Arthur spurs him to rise up and fight for what is right.
If it sounds exactly the same as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, that’s not coincidental: the original title was Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, and Gary Cooper was to reprise his role from the original film. Thankfully, this didn’t come to pass; Deeds would not have worked in this film, and what would they have done with Jean Arthur’s character? In the end they were able to just push “reset” on her “cynical snarkypants who rediscovers her ideals when confronted with the real thing” character, but had this been a direct sequel to Deeds I’m not sure what purpose she’d have served.
On the whole, too, this film is significantly darker and less optimistic than what I’ve come to expect from Capra. Deeds triumphs in Mr. Deeds; Ronald Colman returns to Shangri-La in Lost Horizon; and Lionel Barrymore’s family is poised to take over the world at the end of You Can’t Take it With You. Here, while Smith succeeds in defending his honor and the ideals of the Constitution, the film still ends with Washington under the control of political bosses, the press compromised and corrupt (or, at best, indifferent), and little hope that anything will get better. The senators who aren’t controlled by outside interests are impotent and disinterested.
Small wonder the film was condemned by the United States government, and it took some serious balls to release a film like this in 1939 on the eve of world war. Overall, while I think the moral of You Can’t Take it With You is a more mature and thoughtful one, I appreciated the contrast to Capra’s usual “everything’s going to work out fine” style and his willingness to present an image of America in serious trouble.
Although the poster for Wuthering Heights promises a faithful adaptation of the brooding, vengeance-fueled Emily Brontë romp, the product itself left me with wildly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it is brilliant: Laurence Olivier is mesmerizing as Heathcliff, commanding the screen from his first moment, and William Wyler’s steady and detail-oriented direction captures the melancholic spirit of the novel. Most impressive is Merle Oberon, who brings a passion and emotional maturity to the character of Catherine. When I read the novel I always side with Heathcliff and root for his soul-crushing revenge to be fulfilled, but here I couldn’t help but see Catherine’s side of things. She doesn’t come across as spoilt or materialistic, but genuinely confused and conflicted.
On the other hand, the film completely excises the second half of the novel, ending instead with Catherine’s death, and thus misses out on what made the novel so grand, imposing, and brilliant. Whereas in the novel Heathcliff’s long, methodical, sociopathic drive for vengeance not just against Catherine but the entire class that spurned him and enticed her away extends across generations, destroying the lives of those around him and their children as well, in the film his story ends with his happy reunion with Catherine in the afterlife. Thus his deviousness is shown to be worthwhile because they were always in love and meant for one another. This is, of course, completely absurd and, I would argue, insulting to the source material.
I surmised at first that the Production Code was to blame, imposing as it did the demand for a “happy ending,” but that really doesn’t hold water here. Had the writers finished reading the book, instead of stopping halfway through and saying, “Good enough, I think a martini, don’t you, old chap?” (because, entering into the spirit of the thing, the American screenwriters adopted British accents and attitudes), they’d have found that the end Heathcliff comes to is precisely the kind of moral the Hays Office was fond of. And most films had to find some way of shoehorning it into an otherwise fine narrative, while here it was actually written out for them, but they chose instead to shoehorn the opposite nonsense, the “love conquers all” ending.
However, this disappointment only arises from a familiarity with the original novel; as a standalone film, it is quite strong. The strong writing, directing, and particularly the performances give the film a feeling of completeness, and if I weren’t unfavorably comparing it to the novel I’d consider it just about a perfect film.
Of course the film from this year that is most highly regarded today is The Wizard of Oz, and not just because it can be synced (sort of) to The Dark Side of the Moon…and, if you’ve got time and the grass holds out, Wish You Were Here immediately afterwards (seriously, try it…”If I Were King of the Forest” actually pairs really well with “Have a Cigar”).
It was quite interesting revisiting this film as an adult, and sober, after not seeing it for a great many years. Besides the silliness of it all, I was struck by how my loyalties never settled on one Witch or another throughout the whole story, and in the end I found myself wondering just how much better off Oz really is now that the “wicked” Witches of the East and West are gone. And of course I use “gone” as a euphemism for “assassinated.”
Basically, Dorothy is a pawn in the murderous political machinations of Oz, in which the powerful, magical witches engage in a struggle for supremacy overseen by the impotent figurehead, the “Great and Powerful” Oz. It’s actually much darker and more cynical than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but as Rod Serling discovered with The Twilight Zone, you can say pretty much whatever you want about society so long as it’s couched in science fiction, fantasy, and/or catchy musical numbers.
(Speaking of musical numbers, did it ever occur to anyone else that “We’re Off to See the Wizard” must be like a pop song in Oz? How else does everyone know the lyrics, from the munchkins to scarecrows without human contact, to isolated tin men rusting in the forest, to woodland predators? Dorothy merely listens to the song in Munchkinland, picking up the melody and the chorus, and from there on out she’s singing the lead. This thing was at the top of the charts in Oz, perhaps over the peak of its popularity but still on everyone’s lips. I wonder what a mint condition 45 of the original is worth in Oz dollars…)
Also, I’m pretty sure the Technicolor aspect of Oz is representative of Plato’s cave, and Dorothy’s reawakening in the sepia tones of Kansas is even sadder than Charlie Gordon’s descent in the latter half of Flowers for Algernon. I don’t buy that “there’s no place like home” palaver for a second…she’s going to fall into alcoholism faster than a Kansan who hasn’t experienced a magical Technicolor world.
Okay, wow, over 1,900 words and we’re only halfway through the slate…time to wrap it up for now. Here’s Part II!