The year 1939 is considered a banner year in the annals of Hollywood history, and rightly so. Many of the movies released that year have stood the test of time as true Hollywood classics on a par that only a few have equaled. The titles that year speak for themselves: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Young Mr. Lincoln, etc. The year was, without question, one of the greatest of Hollywood’s golden era, with many feeling it was the greatest moviemaking year ever (although some stake a claim on 1950 or even 1962-but that’s another post, perhaps, for another day).
While certainly not minimizing the value of the movies made that year, which are great beyond question and show Hollywood at the top of its game, it’s also good to be aware of some unheralded gems made around the same period that could also be viewed as some of the best of the period and what Hollywood could offer at the time. While not being nearly as well-known or shown as often, they also have stood the test of time as well-crafted pieces of storytelling with outstanding visual imagery, great performances, or a combination of both. The following is a list of 5 films which in different ways stand out from the rest made at that time when the studios were churning them out by the truckload, the 1930’s. If you can find them, some of which are easier than others to find, they are well worth the search, and you may find them not only enjoyable, but perhaps equal to what was put out in what is considered to be Hollywood’s greatest year. Here they are, in descending order:
(1) Dodsworth (1936)Though known by true fans of older movies, it is less known by the general public and that is a shame. A true masterpiece that has also stood the test of time, one of the best screen actors in movie history, Walter Huston, gives what is probably his best screen performance as a retired industrialist who finds his life beginning to fall apart once moving to Europe with his wife in this adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel. Matching him is Ruth Chatterton as the rich, spoiled wife who spurns him despite his devotion, Mary Astor as the one true love he finds, and Maria Ouspenskaya in a short but unforgettable role as a possible future mother-in-law for Chatterton. Beautifully acted by all and wonderfully directed by William Wyler, it is without question one of the best, if not the best drama of the 1930’s.
(2) Make Way For Tomorrow (1937) Another beautifully acted story, with a heartbreaking premise: An elderly couple with nowhere else to live but with their grown children, are either neglected or treated disdainfully by them, unwanted and unloved. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are outstanding as the older couple, and their devotion to one another, despite the treatment, makes this one a real tearjerker. Another truly great film from the 1930’s, criminally unseen by many, it is also thought to be a basis for the Japanese film Tokyo Story from 1953, made by one of the greatest filmmakers in movie history, Yasjujiro Ozu, and considered one of the best movies ever made. See this one first.
(3) Confession (1937) Kay Francis was the biggest female star at Warner Brothers in the early 30’s and had her pick of projects. By the late 30’s her star had begun to wane and soon she would find herself out, working for lesser studios and far less acclaim, due in no small measure to the rise of a talented young upstart by the name of Bette Davis who then became queen of the lot. However, this movie was her greatest achievement while still at Warners. An extremely stylish soap opera told on a grand scale, Francis is at her best as a protective mother who will do whatever it takes to protect her daughter from the clutches of a scheming Lothario, played to the hilt by Basil Rathbone at his oily best. Compelling from beginning to end, it plays just as well now as it did then, which can’t be said for all movies made in the ’30’s, and makes for solid entertainment.
(4) Peter Ibbestson (1935) This has to be the most unusual movie Gary Cooper ever made, and one of the most unusual made in the 1930’s. Definitely one of his lesser-known efforts, it is a unique, beautifully filmed tale of how true love is eternal. It traces the love of a little boy and a girl, who despite separation over years of time, find each other again and despite tragedy and heartbreak, prove that real love never dies. Almost surrealistic in tone, it is a definite standout from the 30’s and worthy of greater attention.
(5) Crime Without Passion (1934) With a knockout performance by Claude Rains, this one is probably the least known and the hardest to find but definitely worth seeking out. Rains plays a brilliant but sleazy lawyer who, in a sense, feels he is above the law, who shoots his lady love, and begins a descent into madness. One of the first independent productions and directed by Ben Hecht, a brilliant screenwriter and former newspaperman, it is a flamboyant, over the top production, with a gripping opening montage, stunning cinematography, and Rains at his slickest. One of the most fascinating films to come out of the 1930’s.
These are the 5 films definitely worth a look by any true movie fan of any era for a little broader perspective of what the best of the 1930’s had to offer. Keep them in mind, seek them out if you can, and then get a sense of what may be more true than we realize: That the golden year of 1939 may have closed the door on a decade, but could open a door to a rich treasure trove of movies of that time that have not been but can now truly be discovered.