Monday Matinee: 1939, Hollywood’s Greatest Year


Most movie buffs will agree with the title of this post; it is generally acknowledged that Hollywood’s Class of 1939 included the greatest of number of quality films produced in one year. To convince someone of this, all I need to do is list the 10 films that were nominated for best picture:

  • Dark Victory (Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers)
  • Gone With the Wind (Clark Gable. ‘Nuff said.)
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Classic remake of a classic novel.)
  • Love Affair
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Jimmy Stewart, Jeanne Arthur, Claude Rains)
  • Ninotchka (The Great Greta Garbo! Tag line: “Garbo laughs!”)
  • Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck’s novel, starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.)
  • Stagecoach (John Ford, director; John Wayne’s breakout role)
  • The Wizard of Oz (well, duh! And it didn’t win the Oscar!)
  • Wuthering Heights (Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven)

You have noted that for one of the films, I gave no parenthetical notes. There is a reason for that: I had never heard of Love Affair before. The other nine films are well-known, and many I have watched more than once. But Love Affair? Never heard of it. And so I decided to see why this film was included in this roster of the greatest films ever.

Love Affair starred contemporary heart-throbs of the day, Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, and was directed by one of Hollywood’s great directors, Leo McCarey. Alright, I knew all three names, but that didn’t signify anything to me. And then I started reading the plot, as given on Wikipedia (I’ve trimmed it down):

French painter Michel Marnet meets American singer Terry McKay aboard an oceanliner. They are both already engaged, but they begin to flirt and to eat dinner together on the ship, but his notoriety and popularity on the ship make them conspicuous, so they decide they should eat separately and not associate with each other.

As the ship reaches New York City, they make an appointment to meet six months later on top of the Empire State Building. When the rendezvous date arrives, they both head to the Empire State Building. However, Terry is struck by a car right as she arrives,…..

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; as in An Affair To Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr! I had no idea that the Grant/Kerr send-up was a complete remake of the 1939 Love Affair. And now I know why it belongs in the pantheon of great ’39 films.

For the next few weeks (months?), I’m going to focus on films from this one year. It was Hollywood’s greatest output of truly wonderful films. I hope you’ll stay with me for this.


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