1939 : Hollywood’s greatest year

by Paul Astin | Jan 18, 2017

At the end of each year, film critics and film watchers name the year’s best.  Imagine being a critic in 1939, how could you possibly rank these great films in a top 10 list.  Seventy-five years old and they still resonate not only for story and content, but for direction, set design, and cinematography.  Enjoy these top ten features from 1939, and the incredible number of other films released that year.  Will the films of today measure up to these amazing movies?


John Ford gave us a vista of Monument Valley that has become the symbol of the American West.  The simple plot line of a stagecoach going to Lordsburg under threat of attack by the Apache turns into a deeply layered study of class, survival, and second chances.

Ninotchka-Greta Garbo plays a stern Russian emissary who travels to Paris to collect jewelry that the Soviet government has claimed ownership.  Melvyn Douglas is a devil-may-care American.  Under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch,  the attraction and developing romance is magical.

Jesse James-With Tyrone Power as Jessie and Henry Fonda as Frank, the James brothers’ story is all Hollywood.  We don’t care if it isn’t accurate.  We accept that fact that robbing banks is just a way of continuing the Civil War.  Fonda is the one to watch.  He is more than a pretty face and delivers the best lines in the film.

The Wizard of Oz-Dorothy Gale opens the door and black-and-white becomes color.  Children still watch it in awe.
Hunchback of Notre Dame-A set design as dark and sinister as any in film creates the reality of life surrounding and inside Notre Dame Cathedral.  When we think of the Hunchback, he will always be Charles Laughton from the moment he brings Esmeralda into the cathedral and sanctuary to the tear falling down his cheek in the last scene.  A superb cast including Maureen O’Hara, Edmond 0’Brian, and Thomas Mitchell fill each scene as if it were a Pieter Bruegal painting, little stories within each frame.



Young Mr. Lincoln-Henry Fonda becomes Abraham Lincoln under the direction of John Ford.  Superb make-up and cinematography gives him the height and the look of Lincoln, but Fonda brings the young Lincoln to life.  The plot centers on Lincoln’s effort to prove a young man innocent of murder.  We see the brilliance of the lawyer behind the country homespun style.

Dark Victory-
How would you live your life if you knew your time was limited?  Bette Davis’ performance makes this film much more than afternoon movie melodrama.  Judith Traherne, a young socialite, tries to make sense out of her life after finding out that she has a brain tumor.   Pursuing a meaningful life under the threat of death is aptly titled a dark victory.

Gunga Din-
Three English Adventurers and their heroic waterbearer, Gunga Din, fight to stop a villainous Thuggee cult before it can take over India, based on the adventure story by Rudyard Kipling.   Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sam Jaffe star.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-Political corruption is as prevalent now as in 1939.  This film continues to be the film that all other films about American politics are compared.  The filibuster scene embodies our belief that one person can make a difference and idealism is essential to the American dream.



goneGone with the Wind-When compared with 12 Years a Slave, Gone With the Wind feels sentimental to some and a falsely romantic view of plantation life to modern viewers, but reviewed simply as storytelling in film, Gone with the Wind continues to be an amazing piece of work.  In Halliwell’s Movies that Matter, Dave Gritten labels it “an impeccable production.”   The scene where Scarlett O’Hara searches for Dr. Meade through thousands of wounded soldiers puts a face to what war really is, common soldiers screaming for help on the dirty ground.  The vision of that scene alone makes the film worth watching one more time.