18. The Great American Screenplays Part III: 1939

Now that we’ve looked a little at some great foreign films from Japan and China, let’s go back to the United States.  Where in my last section we discussed the works of one director (Yimou Zhang), we are now going to focus this section on one year.  The year in question?


“It was the greatest year in Hollywood history.” —Jack Mathews, The Los Angeles Times

It’s an article of faith that 1939 was the pinnacle of American movies and it has all been downhill ever since.” —Ty Burr, The Boston Globe

1939 is undoubtedly the most celebrated year in American film history.” —Tim Dirks, AMC

Hollywood’s Golden Year.” —Roger Fristoe, TCM

“In 1939 Hollywood, the Yellow Brick Road glowed like gold.” —Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

“1939—The Best Year for Movies…Ever!” —Michael Giltz.

…You get the (motion) picture.  There have been many great years in Hollywood history.  I think 2011 is probably the best in the last decade or so.  If you look at my Top Films list, you will notice that it is not 1939, but rather 1962 that is the most represented, with 18 films from that year in the list of 555.  But, look closely at the films in 1962.  Well over half of those films are foreign.  When it comes to American movies—Hollywood—there is little chance that any year can stack up.

Think of this powerhouse line-up.

  • Gone With the WindThink on this.  Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time, has made $760,507,625 domestically (with an inflation-adjusted domestic gross of $789,712,800).  Avatar is far behind the other James Cameron blockbuster when it comes to inflation-adjusted gross: 1997’s Titanic comes in with a domestic count of $1,100,052,700.  That’s over 1 billion dollars!  And Titanic is only number 5 on the all-time list!  E.T., The Sound of Music, and Star Wars are all ahead of it; Star Wars is actually $300,000,000 ahead of it.  (And we can only imagine how much more money that first Star Wars will continue to make).  With all this being said, Star Wars—with all its $1,446,331,100 gross valuation—is only in second place.  In first place is 1939’s Gone With the Wind, who comes in with a mind-blowing $1,640,602,400! That is more than twice the adjusted domestic gross of Avatar.  And, I’m only dealing with domestic numbers.  Worldwide, Avatar has made an adjusted gross of $3,020,000,000, good enough for second place on the all-time list.  Gone With the Wind?  $3,440,000,000.  This is, hands down, the most popular film ever made.
  • The Wizard of OzEven if this hasn’t made the money that Gone With the Wind has made, The Wizard of Oz is likely even more recognized and more widely-viewed than Gone With the Wind is for those of my generation.  It’s a massively popular cultural sensation, that has reached its cultural tentacles out into all reaches of world culture, from Times Square to Las Vegas to Tokyo.  An adaptation of a popular book, this movie cemented a lovable world full of lovable and iconic characters into the cultural psyche of not only the United States, but the entire world.  Imagine a world where there is no “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (a song almost universally considered as the best song of the century) , no going “Off to See the Wizard” or following the “Yellow Brick Road.”  The characters, songs, stories, and locations of this fantasy—which The American Film Institute named the greatest fantasy of all time—have a firmer place in our hearts than practically any other set of characters, stories and locations in literary or film history.
  • StagecoachWith the massive popularity of Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz well-established, the most critically-acclaimed American film of 1939 is John Ford’s Stagecoach.  I’ve already written a review about Stagecoach‘s role in the American Western mythology.  The movie also went on to resurrect the Western genre and put it into a new realm of cultural dominance headlined by its star, John Wayne.  Orson Welles called it a “textbook” of filmmaking, watching it forty times in preparation for his making of Citizen Kane the following year. This is one of Three movies that Ford would release in 1939, and one of four or five that he would be working on during the course of the year.  This is, arguably, the very best of the best of 1939.
  • Mr. Smith Goes to WashingtonIn my humble opinion, Stagecoach’s crown for “best of 1939” could be debated, and the movies with the most potential to stage the coup are probably The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  Where Stagecoach introduced us all to John Wayne, Mr. Smith did the same for another superstar of the screen: James Stewart.  Sure, Stewart (like Wayne) had been in plenty of other movies at this point in his career, most notably the previous year’s You Can’t Take It With You, but not like this. This was the movie that cemented his stardom forever. It is the perfect mix of screwball comedy and political drama, and features Stewart in what is undeniably one of the greatest acting performances of all time.  And, in a year that featured such iconic performances as Clark Gable’s in Gone With the Wind, Laurence Olivier’s in Wuthering Heights, Robert Donat’s in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Charles Laughton’s in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that is really saying something.  It was also Frank Capra’s last masterpiece of his pre-war period.  (Meet John Doe was good, but is not a manifestation of the same degree of film-making mastery)
  • Wuthering HeightsSpeaking of Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, here it is, the film that is perhaps the most elegant and haunting of all the films made in 1939.  This stunning adaptation of one of the most famous romances in literary history, this movie was the creation of three of the greatest minds in industry: Olivier himself, director William Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn.  This could be the best photographed film of 1939, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly deemed it so, awarding Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane fame) with the cinematography award that year.
  • Ninotchka“Garbo Laughs!”…  Perhaps, the most famous movie tagline of all time.  This was the silent great Greta Garbo’s first acclaimed performance in the realm of sound comedies.  The misfortune is that it is most remembered for Garbo, and not for the comedic workings of the great Ernst Lubitsch, who, in my humble opinion, stands as one of the great comedic directors of all time.  With such screwballs as To Be or Not to Be and Trouble in Paradise in his oeuvre, Ninotchka stands as a worthy contribution.  Truly, this is one of the quintessential screwball comedies that made the 1930s and 1940s the “Golden Age” of American screenplays.  (Free free to visit part one of my “Great American Screenplays” series for a refresher.)
  • Midnight—Like Ninotchka, this was another example of screwball mastery in 1939.  Starring the great Claudette Colbert (the 1935 Best Actress winner for It Happened One Night) and Don Ameche (who was also in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell in 1939), this movie tied in every important element of screwball comedy that existed in the genre: divorce, marriage, class politics, mistaken identities, and all that “sex without the sex” that goes on in its repartee.
  • The Roaring TwentiesOh, we’ll have plenty to say about this movie down the road!  While this movie, all to unfortunately, gets lost in the wave of grandeur that is the 1939 filmography, it is still an important contribution to the great collection of films from that year.  What a great movie, first of all, but second of all, what a significant chapter in the evolution of film noir, a genre which we will address at long lengths in the near future.  It was a bridge from the era of James Cagney (one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history) to the era of Humphrey Bogart (probably the biggest star in Hollywood history).  This was the last of three movies that the two would be co-stars in, the first being Angels With Dirty Faces from the previous year, and, also from 1939….
  • The Oklahoma Kid—This is the least-remembered of the three Cagney-Bogie films, and that is because it is the weakest.  But, still, can’t ignore the union of two of the biggest stars in cinema on screen, this time in a Western.  One of the classic examples of Westerns as “B-movies” (before Stagecoach and some others decided to propel them into full legitimacy), this is also an example of how “B-movies” can actually be good.
  • Gunga Din—So, we’ve talked about John Wayne, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Laurence Olivier, James Stewart, and Humphrey Bogart.  Might as well throw in Cary Grant.  This is one of his most famous adventure/action roles, and one of the biggest pictures for RKO in this proliferous year.  Unfortunately, it was one of the most expensive pictures in the studio’s history, and never made the money back.  As for Grant, he would ride his fame on to practically unparalleled heights.  He was in a few films in 1939, like In Name Only, Gunga Din, and….
  • Only Angels Have Wings—This drama film is the first Howard Hawks contribution on this list.  Starring Cary Grant and the incomparable Jean Arthur, this is one of the truly great romance/dramas in Hawks’ oeuvre.  Praised for its portrayal of pilots and professionalism, this is also famous for having the first significant role for the beautiful Rita Hayworth, a brilliant performer who would become one of America’s most popular stars and sex symbols.
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips—The one that got away, if there ever was one.  One of the big winners at the Academy Awards that year after taking the “Best Actor” award away from the presumed champion, Clark Gable (and more deserving candidates like James Stewart and Laurence Olivier), Goodbye, Mr. Chips has somehow stripped itself of its original critical acclaim and fallen into the terrible realm of non-memory (though it did procure a spot on the BFI’s Top 100 British films poll in 1999.  With that point, I must say that the BFI Top 100 poll was incredibly disappointing.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame—Thomas Mitchell took home the Academy Award in 1939 for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Stagecoach, but he—like practically every other actor in Hollywood—was in more than one movie that year.  He shared the stage with a young Maureen O’Hara and, of course, the infinitely brilliant and talented actor, Charles Laughton.  Today, Laughton’s Quasimodo remains the pinnacle adaptation of Victor Hugo’s character.  You’ve probably seen the Disney version of Hunchback.  It borrowed heavily from the 1939 edition of the tale.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles—Did you know that there was once a time when there were no Sherlock Holmes characters on TV or in the movies?  Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Johnny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, even Simon Baker (whose “Mentalist” was directly and unabashedly meant to be a Sherlock Holmes knock-off) would be significantly poorer were it not for the profound influence of one Basil Rathbone, the greatest of all the Sherlocks, who played the role in this, the first-ever film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.
  • The Little Princess—Sometimes, with all this talk about great movies, tales of the arthouse, and stories of corporate Hollywood, we forget about kid movies.  Well, ever hear about a cute little girl named Shirley Temple?  The greatest child star of all time was at her peak in and around 1939, and her role in The Little Princess is one of her most beloved.                                                

And this wasn’t all.  Jesse James, Love Affair, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, The Flying Deuces, Dodge City, Of Mice and Men, and much, much more headlined the lineup of films that were pumped out of the fine-tuned Hollywood machine and in to arthouses, theaters, drive-ins, and more.  And it’s more than just an issue of quality.  It’s also and issue of quantity.

Last year, MPAA-member studios (Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Twentieh Century Fox, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. Entertainment, and all their affiliate companies), made, collectively, 136 films.  This doesn’t include the handful from major studios like Weinstein and Imagine.  But, put that in perspective against the output of films in 1939: 761 films came out that year…and we’re not talking about independent companies and freelancers who squeeze a film into the mainstream through Sundance or SXSW.

Why is this so important?  Why am I talking about this?  And why am I including all of these stats, anecdotes, and quotes?  I have often written about film history, but only in the context of highlighting a particular point of my film theory.  My essays have been on film theory with elements of film history.  Now, it seems, I have turned everything on its head: I am dedicating an entire post to a topic of film history, and, within this context, will try to introduce an element of film theory.  Not unlike my recent writing on the oeuvre of Yimou Zhang, using his particular contribution to the medium to show how foreign films help us with anthropological benefits, this, I hope will go to show, briefly, what 1939 teaches us about the “Great American Screenplays.”

I want to, first, refer you to past articles in this blog.  My blog is designed as a pathway of sorts, and what we’ve written about in the past is supposed to buttress up what I am talking about in the present.  And, in all things, I write in the present to set the stage, as it were, for things forthcoming.  In particular, consider what I wrote about Citizen Kane:

“Mankiewicz was a screenwriter in an era that can be fairly defined as the era of screenwriters, just as the 1960s and 70s is known as the era of singer-songwriters.  Consider this quote from Kael: ‘If the first decade of talkies—roughly, the thirties—has never been rivaled in wit and exuberance, this is very largely because there was already in Hollywood in the late silent period a nucleus of the best American writers, and they either lured their friends West or were joined by them. Unlike the novelists who were drawn to Hollywood later, most of the best Hollywood writers of the thirties had a shared background; they had been reporters and critics, and they knew each other from their early days on newspapers and magazines.’  Novelists are often guided by symbols, motifs, and various literary conventions that supersede dialogue.  These ‘reporters and critics’ of the 30s were masters of the quick word and the catchy interchange.  The great American writers of the thirties were to be found in Hollywood, practicing a form of professionalism that Kael dubbed a ‘joyous prostitution’ of their talents.  The particular form of comedy that they put forward can fairly be called ’30s Comedy’, and Citizen Kane is meant to be seen as its culminating masterwork.” (from my essay entitled “The Story of Citizen Kane: The Mercury Theatre and Other Players”)

I further highlighted this point in the first of my reviews on the “Great American Screenplays,” a series of essays which was designed to build off the previous paragraph in particular:

“Where the great writers of the 1910s and 1920s found inspiration as a generation ‘lost’ in Paris, the great American writers of the 1930s migrated to the newspaper capitals of New York and San Francisco…The great writers had been hired on for the decades leading up to 1930 by the great newspaper conglomerates led by power-players William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  Their job: sensationalize a story with satire and aggression by midnight, every day, seven days a week.  Political cartoonists rose to power, and the ability to scream a whole story in one line (bold and extra-large on a front page) became a necessary skill for any editor.  These writers learned how best to tell a quick story and keep an audience.  They learned how to find the best possible image to include on the page in order to make that story stick and thrive.  And they learned how to do it at a pace and quality that absolutely had to be better than the pace and quality of their competitors…This was the era of Newsies and robber barons, and they rode on the waves made by writers whose skill was perpetually honed by an appeal to good old Capitalistic competition.  The result: a brand new style of writing that focused on pace over imagery, and far more approachable to the simple consumer than the wordy literature that preceded it.  This style of writing took over where Ernest Hemingway left off: short sentences led to short paragraphs.” (from my essay entitled “The Great American Screenplays Part I: Fast-Witted Masterpieces in the Golden Age of American Talkies”).

The latter quote was included in the first essay of my “Great American Screenplays” series, which focused on screwball comedy.  The second essay in that series focused on the American Western.  This is the third essay in the series.  All of these should coalesce to explain this great phenomenon that was 1930s and 1940s screenplays: they were so plentiful yet so great, so funny yet so classy, so concise yet so lasting because they were written in a time when the best writers worked at newspapers, and these newspaper writers were migrating westward to California to stake their claim in one of the few industries that wasn’t dying in the Great Depression.  There was an air of politic, drama, and cynicism in these screenplays that could only come from those sort of satirical writers and headline artists that could guide an entire nation’s heart and mind through a Great Depression and a World War.

And, during this era of the Great American Screenplays, an era when writers shone even brighter than directors, and stars were made like none we’ve ever had since, 1939 marked the summit, the top of the mountain, as it were.  Slightly more films came out in 1938, but 1939 still stands as one of the top three or four years in Hollywood history in terms of sheer production.  And, it’s not so much about the production as it is the quality of production.  In the 1998 version of AFI’s Top 100 films, five 1939 films were in the top 75.  Two were in the top 10: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Combine these with such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Roaring Twenties, and you get the quintessential example of great Hollywood cinema in the 1930s.  These were movies whose strength lay first in their dialogue, then in their story, and then in the actors who delivered both.  Certainly, this was a capstone year for the decade most remembered for its precision in writing.

But, it also acted as a bridge into a new era of filmmaking.  For the first time since D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille had dominated the silent screen American film started to be focused on the exhibition of sight.  Obviously, the favorites here are the two color masterpieces, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  But, these are only the tip of the iceberg.  While they are certainly gorgeous, colorful, and vibrant films, it bears recognition that they do have their visual hang-ups.  I’ll probably talk about those hang-ups briefly (I like to focus on all the good things, you know), in the reviews of these films that I plan to do down the road.  When it comes to the exhibition of sight, the real champions of 1939 in America were Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights.

Enough of this blog, I think, has been dedicated to the brilliance of Stagecoach is a directorial and cinematographic feat.  (See my essays on montage, and the review of the film itself).  But, in the case of Wuthering Heights, no time has been taken, nor paragraphs filled, giving it its proper praise.  All in due time, my friends, all in due time.  This is certainly a laudable film, and one that you will undoubtedly hear about in a forthcoming review.  While Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were using camera, colors and special effects to dazzle and amaze their viewers in what would be the prerequisite to countless blockbusters going all the way into the present day, Wuthering Heights and Stagecoach were the real winners of best photographed films of 1939.  And, the fact that Orson Welles would go on to study Stagecoach thoroughly in preparation for the filming of his masterwork, and the fact that Gregg Toland would win an Academy Award that year for cinematography for his work in Wuthering Heights, and the fact that Welles and Toland would later join together with a newspaper man named Herman Mankiewicz to film Citizen Kane only one year after 1939, should go to say how important these movies were.  This goes to show just how right I was to say that Kane was the culmination of the decade’s labors.

As I mentioned earlier, the year was a star-maker, too.  One of the more forgotten stars is, undeniably, Gregg Toland, whose work in Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane, The Long Voyage Home, and others would define his tragically short career and put that career in the echelons of all the greats.  Others would certainly benefit from the year’s brilliance, but they were already stars in the first place; Clark Gable, the endowed “King of Hollywood” would only add further gems to his crown with his performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.  Charles Laughton, who played alongside in Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty a few years earlier would just add another beloved character with his portrayal of Quasimodo.  James Cagney, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Claudette Colbert, and Bette Davis would do the same in their movies of that year.

But, there were plenty of stars in the making.  Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the good graces of Hollywood’s golden year were James Stewart and John Wayne.  With dozens of films under his belt already, the Duke’s golden role in Stagecoach moved him from the ultimate “B-movie” guy to a true Hollywood headliner.  James Stewart, who had only one significant film under his belt (the previous year’s You Can’t Take it With You, also directed by Frank Capra), proved to everyone that he was not a one-hit wonder and that Capra had truly found someone great.  Snubbed by the Academy in favor of Robert Donat, Stewart would go on to win a “make-up” award for Best Actor in the following year’s The Philadelphia Story.

He wasn’t the only one to benefit from 1939 in such a fashion.  Another great Hollywood actress, one we often overlook, is the great Olivia de Havilland, sister of Joan Fontaine.  De Havilland, like Stewart, had been really introduced to mainstream America the year before with her work in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and 1939 worked as the “proof” that she needed that the previous year’s work was not a fluke.  Like so many in 1939, she was in multiple pictures that year, including a reunion flick with Flynn called Dodge City, a Western directed by the great Michael Curtiz, who also had directed Robin Hood the previous year and would go on to direct such films as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Angels With Dirty Faces, White Christmas, and a little movie called Casablanca.  

But, de Havilland’s great performance of 1939 wasn’t in Dodge City.  It was in Gone With the Wind.  Again like Stewart, she would get nominated for an Academy Award for a 1939 performance but lose, only to go on to win an Oscar later on in her career.  She lost the Best Supporting Actress nomination to a co-star in Gone With the Wind, the scene-stealing Hattie McDaniel, who became the first ever African-American to win an Academy Award.

Two other stars were born to the American mainstream thanks to the good grace of 1939, a couple who were romantically involved and who would actually marry in 1940.  They had known each other a while and worked together on multiple projects in their native England before migrating to America to get in on the bustling movie scene.  Together, they would go down as some of the great film actors in Hollywood history.  His name was Laurence Olivier.  Her name was Vivien Leigh.

Olivier was granted the coveted role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Samuel Goldwyn, who saw in the accomplished stage actor an enigmatic brilliance that could be a real money-maker.  Actually, the folks at Goldwyn studios, and Mr. William Wyler, who directed the film, found the man that could be fairly considered the best pure actor in the history of the movies.  He wasn’t a method actor, and is, therefore, not remembered as fondly as some of the Strasberg and Adler, but from 1939 to about 1960, he was the consensus favorite for the title of best actor in the world.  One of the most famous anecdotes about him, as told by Dustin Hoffman and “tweaked” somewhat by Time Magazine, involved a time when he and Hoffman were sitting together during the filming of Marathon Man and Olivier asked Hoffman why he was putting himself through such painstaking sleep deprivation during the filming of the movie.  Hoffman had undergone a divorce and was struggling with that emotionally, but of course, Hoffman half-joked that it was with the intent to better put himself “in character” and to get in touch with role. (To undergo such stringent solidarity with the character is typical of method acting, see my essays on acting for more).  Recognizing the subtext, but, true to form and his true to his personal acting theory, Olivier responded with a now immortal phrase: “My dear boy, have you ever tried acting?”

He was not a method actor, so he was not as “made for movies” as, say, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, or Robert De Niro.  But, neither was Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, or James Stewart.  And of all of them, perhaps no one was as great as Laurence Olivier, who, according to Hoffman, had HamletKing Lear, and Richard III all in his head at once and could bounce back and forth between them with a thoughtful and meditative mastery.

His future wife may not have been as technically brilliant, but may have been a bigger star.  Offered the role of Isabella in Wuthering Heights alongside Olivier, but having turned it down because she wanted to play Cathy, Vivien Leigh established herself as the perfect cast for the stubborn, entitled, and emblematic “role of a lifetime” in Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind.  Starring alongside the “King of Hollywood” (Gable) and the aforementioned new stars, Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel, Leigh stole the show as one of the most hated and loved characters you’ll ever see in a movie.  And, ultimately, that character is one of the most important female characters in American film, period.

In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate very long to say that Scarlett O’Hara is the greatest female character in film history, were it not for another character by the name of Dorothy.  And….gasp!….Dorothy was also born on film in 1939.  Like Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, and many other films in 1939, The Wizard of Oz was based on a famous book.  The characters in that book have become center pieces in our world today, and Dorothy Gale is probably the most significant of all those characters.  Dorothy was played by none other than Judy Garland, who, after fighting for half a decade at MGM for respect, finally hit it big with her own version of a “role of a lifetime.”

Garland, Leigh, Olivier, de Havilland, Stewart, Wayne.  All great movie stars, who have been forever remembered by both the casual and the competent in film-going circles.  And I haven’t even gotten to Humphrey Bogart, whom the American Film Institute named the greatest movie star of all time, and whose work alongside James Cagney in The Oklahoma Kid and The Roaring Twenties went on to grant him greater success in later films.  Or, what about Don Ameche, a forgotten great who really hit his stride in 1939, who starred in five (that’s right, FIVE) films that year?

But it wasn’t just movie stars.  There were directors being stars, too.  Obviously, the one that bears most mention is Victor Fleming, because he has done what no other director in the world has even come close to doing in that he made two of Hollywood’s most iconic films in the same year: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  Fleming worked Wizard with several other directors, including King Vidor (who would go on to direct War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn), and George Cukor (who would go on to direct My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn, as well as The Philadelphia Story and many others).  Fleming would win Best Director that year for his work in Gone With the Wind.

Besides Fleming, Vidor, and Cukor, you had Michael Curtiz in the middle of his team-up with the great action star, Errol Flynn.  You also had William Wyler, the creator of such masterworks as The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, and Ben-Hur, working magic in Wuthering Heights.  You had Frank Capra with one of his quintessential feel-good comedy/dramas (Mr. Smith).  You even had Alfred Hitchcock over in Great Britain making Jamaica Inn for David O. Selznick.  The headlining actors in that movie?  Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, who played Quasimodo and Esmeralda in Hunchback that same year.  Oh man, 1939!  What a year.

While Victor Fleming deserves the most mention as the director in 1939, one director absolutely deserved the second most mentions: John Ford.  I would argue that John Ford is the greatest American director of all time, and few people would say that I’m wrong.  (For proof, feel free to check out my list of the Greatest Directors).  In 1939, Ford didn’t only direct three (count ’em…3) movies (Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk), he also would bring to life the very genre he helped to create in the 1920s.  The Western came alive again in 1939 after a multi-year hiatus, with Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, and Dodge City showing that this genre could indeed be “intelligent, artful, great entertainment—and profitable”.  And it’s important not to relegate the other two Ford films to an afterthought: Young Mr. Lincoln, according to Ford scholar Tag Gallagher, was “a deeper, more multi-leveled work than Stagecoach … (which) seems in retrospect one of the finest prewar pictures”, and Drums Along the Mohawk was a massive success at the box office, partly because it featured big-time box office draws Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert.

It was during that same year that Fonda and Ford would get started on another Ford masterwork, his 1940 adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  (Of Mice and Men, the novella, was published in 1937 and adapted into a movie in 1939.  The Grapes of Wrath, the novel, was published in 1939 and production began that same year).  He wouldn’t just team up with Henry Fonda for the film, he would team up with an Academy Award winner named Gregg Toland, who would take the brilliance that he practiced in Wuthering Heights into one of Ford’s most beloved films.  And, after that, we all know where his career would take him…into a certain movie with Orson Welles called Citizen Kane.

Of all the years that one could pick to best highlight the power of screenwriters in the 1930s and 1940s, the year to pick is 1939.  As was stated in my first essay on the “The Great American Screenplays”, we see that “stars (such) as these (and countless others—it was the era of Hollywood superstars), owed their careers to the masterful wit and taste of the men and women who wrote their lines.”  The fabulous scripts of 1939 were perfect frameworks to vault the careers of many great directors into high stratospheres of fame, and to propel many great actors into immortality and stars on the Walk of Fame.  The scripts were thoughtful, so thoughtful that there was little need to wonder where the camera needed to go, or how the image needed to be framed, or how the characters should behave.  Everything fell into place.  And the viewers, they fell into their seats…in masses.  According to most sources, they were buying more than 80 million tickets a week in 1939.  It was the perfect year for an America that was leaving the Great Depression and about to enter into a World War.

And, after that World War, everything would change.  Except for one thing…the Great American Screenplays would live on.

15 thoughts on “18. The Great American Screenplays Part III: 1939

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