A year to remember: Cary Grant (left) was quite possibly never funnier than as the most feral fellow amongst three British Army buddies in Gunga Din, which plays the Castro's 1939 series.

'The Greatest Year in Film' at the Castro

Dennis Harvey July 2, 2009

What was the best year ever for painting? Music? Literature? Any answers would be arbitrary at worst, debatable at best—the truth being, of course, that these art forms are just too vast, historied and changeable for the question to be useful at all.

Yet ask when was the best year for movies (Hollywood movies, that is), and there is actually a consensus so widespread it’s gone from opinion to virtual fact. That year would be 1939, when for whatever reasons—some explicable, others just accidents of timing—Hollywood’s "golden age" went platinum, delivering so many classic features it still beggars belief they all arrived in such close proximity.

Celebrating that stellar annum’s 70th anniversary is a Castro Theatre series called (surprise) "Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Greatest Year in Film." The 18 titles included here just scratch the surface of 1939’s bounty, leaving out some underappreciated gems as well as a few famous ones. (What, you might well ask, is a ’39-o-rama without Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz? A relief, I’d say, since those two show up on the Castro screen at least once a year already.) But they do provide a very good idea of the period’s quality, star wattage, and diverse genres.

Some of the movies included weren’t regarded as anything special at the time, being "just" another popular series entry or vehicle for a bankable star. Into the former category fall Tarzan Finds a Son and Son of Frankenstein, each the last high-quality item for some time in series that their studios (MGM, Universal) would soon kick down a notch to B-grade status, then abandon entirely to competitors. Note that Johnny Weissmuller’s Ape Man had to "find" a son: In 1939 it wouldn’t do to suggest the Tarzan and Jane were shackin’ up in every way in their pagan jungle paradise.

The other Son was Boris Karloff’s last turn as the monster that made him famous, in a rare pairing with Bela Lugosi (as Igor!). The English actor could by now choose less grotesque (or least makeup-heavy) roles, like the mad doctor in sci-fi-tinged British thriller The Man They Could Not Hang, the only real "B"movie on the Castro schedule.

Another last good entry in a great series was Another Thin Man, with Myrna Loy and William Powell in their third turn as serenely witty (and usually tipsy) married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. Likewise regarded then as simply more of the same (good) thing was Marx Brothers vehicle At the Circus (not one their best) and W.C. Fields’ You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (definitely one of his).

There were some comedies, however, which no one took for granted. MGM’s all-star The Women was a deluxe catfight that remains delightful—its politically incorrect charms only heightened by last year’s horribly misguided remake.

Game-changers for two more leading ladies were the smashes Destry Rides Again and Ninotchka. Marlene Dietrich was considered one glamour puss past her expiration date until she won fans back as a Wild West saloon singer roping in new-sheriff-in-town James Stewart. Even fewer thought tragedienne Greta Garbo could get a laugh. Yet as the Soviet bureaucrat thawing under Paris’ romantic spell, she surprised them all—then did so again two years later when, despite this triumph, she retired from the screen and public eye forever.

On the rough’n’tumble side, two hardboiled crime flicks summed up the Warner Brothers aesthetic. Each Dawn I Die stuffed rival wiseguys James Cagney and George Raft in the same steel-cage joint—which you can bet wasn’t big enough for the both of them—while They Made Me a Criminal had new arrival John Garfield on the lam. Based on a celebrated Broadway play, boxing drama Golden Boy put William Holden (an actor whose career wouldn’t reach the top till the 1950s) in the ring and Barbara Stanwyck at ringside. Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, another mix of action and snappy dialogue, had Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and a young Rita Hayworth embroiled in South American intrigue.

Speaking of Grant, he was quite possibly never funnier than as the most feral fellow amongst three British Army buddies in Gunga Din, a shamelessly (or is that shamefully?) enjoyable colonial adventure kinda-sorta derived from Kipling. An equally big hit with the public was another big period piece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton hamming merrily under heavy makeup as Quasimodo.

Then as now, certain films were "prestige" titles made for art’s (and hopefully Oscar’s) sake. Gone with the Wind swept the majority of 1939’s major Academy Awards. But Clark Gable must have felt a bit stung when Best Actor fell to Robert Donat’s tour-de-force as an English boarding school teacher from youth to old age in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Equally fine was another Brit, Laurence Olivier (not yet Sir), as passionate Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights—though incredibly, the film’s producers had considered firing him mid-shoot, while they were quite pleased with the Cathy of Merle Oberon (a performance that has not, to put it politely, aged well).

If you want to be obsessive and watch nothing but movies from 1939 for a while (seriously, there are worse ways to spend time), here are a few films not in the Castro series.

These are U.S. titles only because, well, there’s no room for anything else: Babes in Arms (Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland), Beau Geste (Gary Cooper in the year’s other colonial-military-hi jinks extravaganza); Buck Rogers Conquers the Universe (classic kids’-matinee serial); Dark Victory (deluxe Bette Davis weepie); Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford-directed color pioneer drama); Gulliver’s Travels (Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer’s cartoon); Idiot’s Delight (Gable and Norma Shearer in a sophisticated stage comedy); Intermezzo (Ingrid Bergman’s English-language breakthrough); King of the Underworld (gangster Humphrey Bogart terrorizes society dame Kay Francis), and….well, we’re not even halfway through the alphabet yet, but you get the idea. There is a lot.

Just what was in the Los Angeles water in 1939? Was it a combination of the major studios being at the peak of their expertise, the Depression’s fadeout lifting spirits, and just dumb luck? No doubt all the above. Everyone once in a while (not often, alas), there’s cause to think, "You know what? This has been a really good year for movies!" But it’s not unreasonable to predict there will never be another half as great as that one seven decades ago.