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1939 : It was the greatest year in Hollywood history: 365 films were released and moviegoers were buying tickets at the rate of 80 million a week! What did they get for their money? A feast of light and shadow: The movies of 50 years ago.

January 01, 1989|JACK MATHEWS

Pick a day in 1939, almost any day, and let the tornado whirl you into a never-never land of Hollywood excellence. Pick a day in the year that was Hollywood's best and try to imagine the luck of a movie buff with enough dimes to see every great movie released. Pick a day and skip past the portentous international news and go directly to the movie listings.

Pick Aug. 15, for instance, the day that "The Wizard of Oz" premiered at Graumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

In the news (you had to look, didn't you?), Adolf Hitler was pushing Poland toward war and Benito Mussolini was urging the Poles not to fight back. The mayor of Waterbury, Conn., and 19 others were being convicted of pocketing $1 million in city funds. And in Philadelphia, a 27-year-old golfer was apologizing for throwing a club the day before and killing his caddy.

If 1939 was a very bad year for peace (and caddies), it was the greatest of them all for movies. If you had been around on Aug. 15 that year and weren't on MGM's "Oz" premiere invitation list, you were not to despair.

Among the films then playing in theaters near you: "Gunga Din," with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; "Wuthering Heights," with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon; "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," with Robert Donat; "Dark Victory," with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the dashing newcomer Ronald Reagan; "Only Angels Have Wings," with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur; "Love Affair," a smash box office hit starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer; "The Little Princess," with Shirley Temple in one of only eight Technicolor films on the year's release schedule; "Juarez," a biographical drama starring Paul Muni and written by young John Huston; "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," the last in a series of romantic dance movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and "Stanley and Livingstone," with Spencer Tracy.

Don Ameche fans had to choose between the sophisticated comedy "Midnight" (co-written by the promising Billy Wilder), the critically acclaimed biopic "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell" and "Hollywood Cavalcade," which traced the history of Hollywood right up to 1939.

Five of the movies available that week--"The Wizard of Oz," "Love Affair," "Dark Victory," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Wuthering Heights"--would go on to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. In those days, the categories weren't limited to five, and a good thing. The final best picture ballot also included "Stagecoach," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Of Mice and Men," "Ninotchka," and the movie with which the year will always be identified, "Gone With the Wind."

"Gone With the Wind" was released at Christmas and, incredibly, lived up to its hype.

"We cannot get over the shock of not being disappointed, we had almost been looking forward to that," wrote New York Times critic Frank Nugent, alluding to the torturous three-year publicity campaign that preceded the opening.

"Gone With the Wind" dominated the box office the following year and, gauged by the numbers of people who have seen it in the five succeeding decades, it is by far the most successful motion picture ever made. But it was just one of dozens from that year that have become library classics, movies that have been perennial favorites at revival houses and retrospectives. Check the "Classics" shelves at your hipper video stores and you'll find more selections from 1939 than from any other year.

John Ford had a career in '39 with the release of "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Drums Along the Mohawk" and "Stagecoach." Victor Fleming, previously a seasoned but unremarkable veteran of adventure films, gained immortality as the director of record on both "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."

Bette Davis, attempting to overcome her rejection for the role of Scarlett O'Hara through sheer volume, adorned marquees everywhere as the star of "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "Dark Victory," "The Old Maid" and "Juarez."

It was the year that Garbo laughed, in Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka," and Marlene Dietrich came back in "Destry Rides Again." The year that James Stewart, Frank Capra's wise choice as the star of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and his pal Henry Fonda, Ford's choice for "Young Mr. Lincoln," became major stars.

David O. Selznick, one of the most powerful producers in the era of the producer, managed to discover Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman in 1939, casting the British Leigh in "Gone With the Wind," and the Swedish Bergman in an American remake of "Intermezzo."

When Judy Garland wasn't dancing with the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," she was dancing with Mickey Rooney in "Babes in Arms," the Busby Berkeley musical that earned Rooney an Oscar nomination as best actor. Rooney, who had just eclipsed Shirley Temple as Hollywood's leading box-office attraction, also appeared in three Andy Hardy movies and--in the role he seemed born to play--"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

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