Friday, January 30, 2015

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1939

The Contenders:

Dark Victory
Gone with the Wind (winner)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights

What’s Missing

With ten nominees, there are fewer options for missing films even in a year as solid and as packed as 1939. Still, there’s some room for additions here. I haven’t seen either The Women or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but both films have been touted enough by others on Fridays this month that I’ll put them here. Only Angels Have Wings is a film I liked better than a few nominees, so I wouldn’t mind seeing it here. The same can be said of Daybreak. The biggest miss in my opinion is The Rules of the Game, which may well be the best film of the 1930s. Chalk this up to the Academy’s blindness to anything not filmed in English.

Weeding through the Nominees

10. Goodbye right away to Love Affair. This is a drippy little melodramatic romance that probably played pretty well in 1939, but doesn’t today. One of the main reasons it doesn’t play very well to a modern audience is that it was remade a few years later as An Affair to Remember and the remake is substantially better in every aspect and still isn’t much more than a good romance. It’s not a terrible film, but there were plenty better in 1939 including every other nominee.

9. I’m also going to drop Wuthering Heights for pretty much the same reason. It ranks slightly higher than Love Affair if only because of the solid pimptastic performance of Laurence Olivier in one of the main roles. I’m sure this is a fairly accurate adaptation of the original novel (I haven’t read it), but it’s a story that I don’t much care for. I like how much of a badass Heathcliffe turns out to be in the middle section of the film, but there’s not a lot here that will bring me back for a second viewing.

8. Now is when things start to get very difficult for me. With the two minor league films dropped off, what’s left is a collection of eight films I like quite a bit. I’m going to slip Goodbye, Mr. Chips into this spot only because of the remaining films it’s the one with the least ambition or the weakest plot. This is more or less a character study. It’s a good film, one that I like, but also the film of the remaining list that I am the least likely to watch again. Something has to be the bottom of the films I like, and while I’m not happy with this being this low on the list, something has to be, and I feel the least guilty putting this film here.

7. Bette Davis’s performance in Dark Victory is one of the great performances of her career, which says a great deal. It’s one of the films that made me a Bette Davis fan (along with most of her other films that I’ve seen) and it’s also a film where she plays against type for her. That’s all to the good. But the story itself has some Hollywood-y elements that simply don’t work much. Davis is great as a woman with a terminal disease, but her only symptoms seem to be that she gets more and more beautiful as she nears death. It gets sappy toward the end, although Davis manages to overcome this. But Davis just isn’t enough.

6. I won’t go against my pick a couple of weeks ago for James Stewart winning Best Actor for his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I think it is the single best male performance of the year. But the film itself is so far down the rabbit hole of Frank Capra’s sappy “Hooray for America” ideology that there are parts of it that are difficult to take seriously. I like this film almost in spite of itself, because it hammers it’s message so hard that it comes close to farce and is only saved by Stewart’s performance. It’s a good film, but it kind of shouldn’t be, and it only is because Stewart saves it.

5: I stand by my comments a couple of weeks ago that both Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. were robbed of nominations for Of Mice and Men. I like this film a lot. In fact, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. Coming in fifth in a field this packed with great films is no small accomplishment. I don’t have a specific reason to put it here other than I just like the other four films more. Released a year earlier or a year later, I could make a pretty convincing case for this winning Best Picture. It just can’t do that in 1939.

4: I’ve seen a number of Garbo films, and of all of them, Queen Christina made me a believer in her skills, but it was Ninotchka that made me excited to look for her in other movies. She’s great in this, and the film is a hell of a lot of fun all the way through. Ninotchka, in addition to having a good plot and being beautifully filmed, is hugely fun. One of the things that is often missing from great films is the pure pleasure of watching the film. Ninotchka has that all the way through. Comedies often have difficulty winning Oscars, which may account for it not winning here (at least in part), but I love this nomination.

3: Stagecoach belongs on the short list of Westerns that are not only great but have an influence on the genre that is still being felt. It’s more than just the breakout role for John Wayne that makes this film worth seeing and admiring. To a modern audience, a lot of what happens in Stagecoach feels like cliché. That’s not the fault of the film—it’s the fault of every other filmmaker who went back to this one to see how to make a truly great Western. When you’re the movie that starts the clichés, you get a pass on being filled with clichés. Stagecoach is essential viewing, but it didn’t deserve to win in 1939.

My Choices

2: Sharp-eyed readers will realize that the top two spots were both directed by Victor Fleming, an argument for him having the greatest year as a director in 1939 in history. I’m putting Gone with the Wind second here for a number of reasons. I understand perfectly why this won Best Picture. In almost every respect, it was the greatest film ever produced up to this point in the movie industry. It’s huge, it’s colorful, it’s got everything anyone would want in a film. It’s nowhere close to my favorite movie from 1939, but it’s impossible to deny the impact that it had on the industry and on movies that followed up to the present day. In many ways it deserved to win and was the right pick. It’s just not my pick.

1: Ultimately, it comes down to impact. Gone with the Wind had (and has) tremendous impact on the film industry, but few films ever made have left the cultural imprint enjoyed by The Wizard of Oz. Even if you haven’t seen it (are there people who haven’t?), you can reference it. There is neither a frame of this film I would change nor a decision (aside from the Tin Man’s toxic makeup) I would do differently. It’s a virtually perfect film in every respect. Is it schmaltzy? Yep. So what? It’s also objectively one of the greatest films ever made on every thinkable criterion. For the record, I’d put The Rules of the Game in this same category, and were it nominated, we’d have a battle for the top. But of the films nominated, there’s no other choice for me.

Final Analysis


  1. Yeah. I'm with you on this. The Wizard of Oz.

    No. Wait. Can I change my answer? The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    Or maybe Stagecoach?

    No. Wait! The Women!

    But then again ...

  2. I'm with you all the way on your final paragraph.

    1. Ultimately, there was no other way to go with this.

  3. Gone With The Wind is a very good film, but it's overlong for me. I understand it's impact must have been huge at the time, and I understand why. Still, I completely agree on The Wizard Of Oz. To me, it's still one of the all time great films. The only thing that comes close for me is The Rules Of The Game. Great choices.

    1. I completely understand why Gone with the Wind won, and were I a voter in 1939, I'd be hard pressed to say I wouldn't have voted the same way. With 75 years of hindsight, though...

  4. I agree on your top 4. There are I liked better or would rather got back to see, but in term of greatness and impact you got it pat down.

    1. It's more evidence that the films of a given year really can't be properly assessed for half a decade after their release. It takes about that long to really determine a film's impact on the rest of the industry.

  5. When I did my A Great Year for Movies - 1939 posts in November and December I first listed my Top 5 films of the year. They were, in order, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Rules of the Game, and Wuthering Heights.

    Taking the Best Picture nominees from that yields Mr. Smith, Oz, and Wuthering Heights as my top three from among the nominees. Other than Love Affair, which I have not seen yet, I like all the nominees. The remaining six I have seen would fall into positions 4-9 at roughly the same rating. I agree on Gone with the Wind's greatness, but also didn't care for it because of the Scarlett character.

    1. Gone with the Wind is one of those films that I find hard to judge. It is, I think, an objectively great film in almost every way possible. But I don't particularly love watching it, and that has nothing to do with the length (after all, I never hesitate to watch Lawrence of Arabia). It is important, and I understand exactly why it deserved to win. I'm even okay with it.

      But I agree, I find it a difficult film to actually like or enjoy. I have no problem at all enjoying The Wizard of Oz.

      We'll disagree on Wuthering Heights. I like Olivier in it, but the more I see of Merle Oberon, the less I like her as an actress.

  6. The top three are so tough! There's really no wrong answer, despite my personal preference for Stagecoach.

    1. I do love Stagecoach. In a lot of ways, it's the purest distillation of what a Western should be.

  7. I'll duck behind my keyboard, but The Wizard Of Oz is a rather mediocre children's film which has gained an undeserved halo thanks to the cascading multi-generational impacts of nostalgic family viewings huddled around the television sets of the 1950s and 1960s. It's a sweet experience and all, but really, overall it's not much better than a corny school play with costumes and characters aimed squarely at the 6 to 12 market.

    Gone With The Wind is, by a wide margin, the best film of 1939. While all the other films nominated are good achievements in the context of the 1930s, GWTW could have been made unchanged in 1959, and still be considered a magnificent achievement. None of the others come close to its quality, ambition, scope, breadth, depth, music, cinematography, special effects, performances, execution and timelessness.

    We'll agree to disagree!

    1. You may be correct--I may well be blinded by nostalgia, but I stand by my love for The Wizard of Oz. I don't disagree that Gone with the Wind was in many ways the most deserving film.

      That's the joy of doing this, really. I get to pick what I'd like and damn the consequences.

    2. And I thoroughly enjoy and admire your posts just for those reasons!

    3. For what it's worth, it's also why I allow myself multiple possible winners. Especially for a year like this, one film really wasn't enough.