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'1939 Redux': Series digs beyond the classics of 'Hollywood's Greatest Year'

UCLA Film & Television Archive's tribute skips 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz' and still comes up with a list of gems.

November 05, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | FILM CRITIC

When talk turns to the golden age of Hollywood, by common consent 1939 is the year of years. In that 12-month period the studios released an unprecedented group of exceptional films, including "Gone With the Wind," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Stagecoach," "Gunga Din," "Ninotchka," "The Women" and "The Wizard of Oz." It was no wonder that Robert Dooley, author of the authoritative "From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s," was moved to write that Hollywood in that year "reached a fabulous zenith it was never again to attain."

So what did the UCLA Film & Television Archive decide to do to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that miraculous time? Did it decide to devote its Billy Wilder Theater at Westwood's Hammer Museum to screening the beloved year's acknowledged classics? No, it did not. Rather, in a series starting Friday called "1939 Redux," the archive has chosen to do something considerably more provocative.

As the series' subtitle, "Digging Deeper Into 'Hollywood's Greatest Year,' " hints, the aim here is to show what the studios were doing when they weren't making masterpieces, to put the business-as-usual flotsam and jetsam of that peerless entertainment machine on view.

Seeing these invariably captivating films is a tonic experience and also, especially in the context of what Hollywood is doing today, more than a bit disheartening. Just imagine, an entire industry dedicated to adult entertainment. Those were the days, indeed.

Of course, like people on a self-imposed diet who can't resist just a sliver of dessert, the UCLA series inserted a few classics into the mix. Howard Hawks' uber-masculine "Only Angels Have Wings" is on the program, which should make dedicated Hawksians swoon into their shot glasses. Considerably more cheerful is the combination of cynical dance hall femme Marlene Dietrich and aw-shucks sheriff Jimmy Stewart in the comedic western "Destry Rides Again," which features Dietrich singing her ever-popular "Boys in the Backroom."

Mostly, however, UCLA has been true to its standards, covering a multiplicity of genre bases in the process. There's a Busby Berkeley backstage musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland ("Babes in Arms"), a ripped-from-today's-headlines melodrama starring Edward G. Robinson ("Confessions of a Nazi Spy") and even a fright double bill of "The Cat and the Canary" and "Son of Frankenstein."

A characteristic of these films, and of Hollywood's Golden Age in general, is how much of this fine acting was invested in contrived, fairy tale situations.

It was a time when both audiences and performers instinctively understood that real emotions underlay all the artifice and behaved accordingly.

Though it's lots of fun to see Deanna Durbin in the Cinderella-themed "First Love," where a debuting Robert Stack gives her her first screen kiss, the most satisfying romance, especially if you like weepies with all the stops pulled out, is the little-seen "In Name Only."

This pip of a romantic melodrama stars Cary Grant as a wealthy, socially connected type who falls madly in love with striving single mom Carole Lombard. But wouldn't you know it, Grant is trapped in the loveless marriage to end all loveless marriages with conniving ice queen Kay Francis. It's a special treat to see Lombard, known mostly for comedy, exhibiting the naturalness and yearning that would have made her an even bigger star had she not died at age 33 in a 1942 plane crash.

"Five Came Back" is a who-will-survive-a-plane-crash-in-the-jungle tale tautly directed by John Farrow. The ensemble cast includes the venerable C. Aubrey Smith, whose expertise in the area of Jivaro headhunters comes in handy, as well as a pre-"I Love Lucy" Lucille Ball in a glamour puss role as a femme fatale with a past.

Especially notable is a script that both Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West had a hand in that turns a left-wing anarchist into a hero.

Also satisfyingly dramatic is "Jesse James" starring Tyrone Power as the outlaw and Henry Fonda as his brother Frank, two guys who reluctantly turn to crime after dastardly treatment by the local railroad. The first pure western to be shot in always-gorgeous three-strip Technicolor, it makes fine use of the James gang's original Missouri haunts.

Hands down the most unusual, almost indefinable film in the series is "Idiot's Delight," which stars Clark Gable as a hearty American actor/impresario trapped in a European hotel with a mysterious Norma Shearer as war breaks out. A watered-down version of Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play (the Europeans on screen speak Esperanto so as not to offend anyone), its antiwar sentiments are sincere but mixing them with comedy seems an odd choice at this remove.

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