Gone with the Wind (winner)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The two screenplays that jump out at me immediately are The Wizard of Oz and Of Mice and Men. Both of these are great screenplays and I’m pretty surprised that neither one earned a nomination. Dark Victory is a surprisingly engaging film, and given the time, I’m a little surprised that no one considered Gunga Din worthy of a nomination, either (although given all of the great films from 1939, I probably wouldn’t nominate it, either). There’s been a great deal of talk on this blog over the last few days about The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I haven’t seen the 1939 version, but based on reputation, I think I’d be remiss not to mention it here. Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t technically qualify as an adapted screenplay, but Stagecoach does, and it should be here.
Weeding through the Nominees
4: On the other hand, I rather liked Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but the story is kind of a nothing. We watch a man essentially age, experience love and loss, and then eventually die, having realized at the end what his life was truly all about. It’s a fine movie, but the story and the screenplay are pretty unexceptional. Looking at the snubbed films for 1939, I’m surprised that this earned a nomination over most of my suggestions above, if only because there’s not that much here and because I expect more from a nomination.
3: I’m surprised every year that no one has remade Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the modern era. It has such obvious polemic possibilities for either the Right or the Left that it seems shocking that it hasn’t turned into a propaganda piece in someone’s hands in the last five years. I like this movie almost in spite of itself. I have trouble taking much directed by Frank Capra too seriously since he was so keen on corn. This is a great movie and one of the great performances of James Stewart’s career, but there’s just too much melodrama here for me to love it.
2: No one was more surprised than I at how much I enjoyed Ninotchka. It’s not the romance that sells the movie for me here, but how much of what happens on screen is very subtle and clever. There are jokes here that are funny not when they happen but a couple of minutes later after they’ve had a chance to process. That’s not terribly surprising, coming from an Ernst Lubitsch film, but it’s also exactly why Ninotchka is as good as it is. I like it when filmmakers don’t talk down to the audience, and this one expects us all to be smart enough to keep up.
1: As much as Gone with the Wind isn’t my favorite film of 1939, it has to be handed to Victor Fleming for keeping the whole thing on track, coherent, and entertaining. This is a massive story and it still holds together as well now as it did 75(!) years ago. Bringing a story like this to the screen is no small accomplishment, and a major part of its success comes from its adaptation from Margaret Mitchell’s novel. It earned this Oscar almost by virtue of its very existence, and I won’t be the one to take it away.