When I was a little girl helping out at my dad’s law office by putting stamps on envelopes, there was a set of stamps that honored movies from 1939. I knew The Wizard of Oz, of course, and I was vaguely familiar with Gone with the Wind, but I hadn’t seen Stagecoach or Beau Geste. The fact that they were on stamps meant they must be important, though; the Post Office wouldn’t let anything unimportant be on a stamp, I thought. Now I’ve seen all four of those movies, and it turns out I was right. They were important. 1939 was an amazing year for movies. The fact that one of those movies on the stamps wasn’t even nominated for best picture shows how many excellent movies were made that year. Beau Geste isn’t the only amazing movie made that year that wasn’t nominated, either. Other classics that I’ve seen from 1939 include The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; Gunga Din; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Bachelor Mother; Young Mr. Lincoln; and Four Feathers. I’m sure there are even more that I haven’t seen. I don’t know why it happened that year, but people made some amazing movies.
After watching all the movies that were nominated for best picture, I became very grateful that I wasn’t a member of the Academy in 1939. The fact that I wasn’t born was a big deterrent to that possibility, of course, but I wouldn’t have wanted to try to choose what the best anything was for that year. So many amazing things happened. There was lots of good acting. Yes, Robert Donat won for Goodbye Mr. Chips, and I think he did an amazing job and totally deserved an award for it, but that doesn’t mean that Clark Gable didn’t do just as well as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Geraldine Fitzgerald broke my heart as Isabella in Wuthering Heights, but if she had gotten official recognition, than Hattie McDaniel wouldn’t have gotten her Oscar, which she also completely deserved. How did those Academy members decide who was the best? I couldn’t have done it. Which score was best? Of Mice and Men? Gone with the Wind? The Wizard of Oz? The Wizard of Oz won, and it has wonderful music, but is it better than Gone with the Wind? Who can say? It almost makes me wonder if the Academy members got together to see if they could spread the awards around as much as possible instead of just giving them all automatically to Gone with the Wind. I can just see an old man saying, “Yes, Gone with the Wind has amazing music, but the music in The Wizard of Oz is every bit as good, and The Wizard of Oz won’t win any acting awards. Let’s give them music so that they know we recognize what a great movie it is.” Or maybe people truly voted for what they thought was the best in each category. I guess I will never know, but I’m glad I didn’t have to make any hard decisions about the movies that year.
Over the course of this project, I have noticed that every year, at least one actor is in more than one best picture-nominated movie. In 1998, both Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes were in Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love. Sydney Poitier and Beah Richards had roles in In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967. 2002 was the year of John C. Reilly. He appeared in three of the five movies that year and was nominated for his role in Chicago. In 1939, I noticed three people who were in at least two of the nominees. Astrid Allwyn played a pretty, slightly spoiled society girl in both Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Geraldine Fitzgerald gave excellent performances in Dark Victory and Wuthering Heights. And Thomas Mitchell played a drinking man in three movies. He was a drunk newspaperman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; in Gone with the Wind he plays Irish Southern gentleman Gerald O’Hara; and in Stagecoach, he plays a doctor who is being run out of town on account of his drunken ways. He won the best supporting actor Oscar for Stagecoach, and he did a good job, but I can’t help but wonder if the award was given with all of those performances in mind. I wonder that partially because I think Claude Rains should have won for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but maybe only doing one movie wasn’t enough to impress the Academy in 1939.
As I was watching all of these amazing movies, I kept thinking that it was a pity that they were made the same year as Gone with the Wind, because Gone with the Wind was just too big to fail. It was critically acclaimed and a runaway hit at the box office. Seeing all of these great movie that didn’t win made me wonder if Gone with the Wind was really better than all of those other movies, or if the hype was what made it win best picture. And then I watched Gone with the Wind again, and I realized that yes, it really did deserve its Oscar wins. David O. Selznick and Victor Fleming (and George Cukor, the director he replaced) and all the other men and women who worked on that movie did an amazing job. Everything–acting, cinematography, costume design, music, story and screenplay– came together to make (in my opinion, anyway) a near-perfect film. Although almost any one of those films would have won best picture any other year, Gone with the Wind truly was the best picture of 1939.
How do I rank the nominees?
10. Wuthering Heights
9. Dark Victory
8. Love Affair
7. Of Mice and Men
6. Goodbye, Mr. Chips
4. The Wizard of Oz
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1. Gone With the Wind
Join me next week to hear about Nazis, Communists, gangsters, old people, and missionaries!