When it comes to movie history, 1939 is considered without question a banner year and rightly so. This has been established to such a degree that books on the subject have been written documenting the greatness of just that year in film, with breakdowns of the major films produced along with detailed background information on them, adding to the status already given it as the greatest year ever in Hollywood history.
With that being said, it’s interesting to note that over the years a certain amount has also been said, although more quietly, about other years in film that some feel are equal to 1939 in terms of sheer quality. While some may find this debatable if not outright ridiculous, the fact remains that a case has been made for other so-called banner years in moviemaking, and when looked at objectively, a certain amount of weight can be given to those opinions due to the quality of those years in film. Those years are, in quality if not chronological order, 1962 and 1950. So that raises the question: What is Hollywood’s greatest year? Is it 1939, 1950, or 1962? To answer, a basic overview of each year’s best films will be provided and by the end we’ll see what conclusion can be drawn based on the evidence clearly at hand.
Let’s start with 1939. The question for many would be, how can you look at any other year? The sheer number of great movies produced in that one year is truly staggering and it is quite a list. Let’s start with the obvious: A little movie you may have heard of called “Gone With the Wind” (Vivien Leigh, pictured above), along with another little movie called “The Wizard of Oz” (Judy Garland and cast pictured above), continuing with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (James Stewart, pictured above),then you have “Ninotchka” (Greta Garbo with Melvyn Douglas pictured above), and two great ones starring Bette Davis, “Dark Victory” and “Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (Bette Davis and Errol Flynn pictured above). On top of this you have “Stagecoach”, one of John Ford’s greatest Westerns, making a superstar out of a youngster by the name of John Wayne, along with “The Women”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Young Mr. Lincoln”, “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, and “Gunga Din”, one of the greatest adventure films of all time. Add to this “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with the incomparable Charles Laughton, “Beau Geste”, “Drums Along the Mohawk”, and “Destry Rides Again.” Then there are some personal favorites: The spectacular “The Four Feathers”, the great “Jesse James” with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, and the hilarious “Midnight”, starring Claudette Colbert. With some great movies not even mentioned from that year, it makes one wonder how any other year could even come close.
Let’s see if one can. Let’s now look at 1962. Though not having the same number of movies to cite, the ones that can be cited are more than impressive. Let’s start with the Big Three: “Lawrence of Arabia” (Peter O’Toole, pictured above), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Gregory Peck and Brock Peters pictured above), and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Just those three alone could hold their own against any great movie made in any given year, including 1939. “Lawrence” stands to this day as arguably the greatest biographical epic ever made, with director David Lean working at the height of his creative powers, filming scenes of great power and grandeur that have stood the test of time and have inspired countless directors, including Steven Spielberg who has said he watches this for inspiration before he begins shooting any film. “To Kill a Mockingbird”‘s lead character, lawyer Atticus Finch, in an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck, was chosen by the American Film Institute as the number one hero in 100 years of movies, and that just gives some idea of the impact this movie has had over the years on those who have seen it. Many of a certain age could relate to the character of Scout, Atticus’ young daughter, played by Mary Badham, and the poignant and powerful message of racial tolerance, especially during the height of the civil rights movement, resonated strongly at that time and can still today. “The Manchurian Candidate” is a brilliantly written and directed spy thriller, one of the best ever made, with top-notch performances from all involved, especially Angela Lansbury as one of the worst villainesses ever brought to the screen.
But that’s not all. There’s also “The Miracle Worker”, with jaw-droppingly good performances by both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, who both won well-deserved Oscars for their work in this searingly powerful film; “The Longest Day”, producer Darryl Zanuck’s pet project and one of the best epic World War II movies ever made; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, one of John Ford’s last great Westerns with a dream cast including John Wayne, James Stewart, and Lee Marvin; and “Ride the High Country”, legendary director Sam Peckinpah’s first great film, and in the eyes of some, his best Western. It is said that Randolph Scott, one of the greatest Western stars in movie history, retired after this film because he felt he could never surpass his performance in it and that’s a fitting testimony to its greatness.
Then there’s “The Music Man”, one of the best musicals of the post-MGM era of musicals, “Days of Wine and Roses”, with outstanding performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, “Birdman of Alcatraz” with Burt Lancaster, the great thriller “Cape Fear” with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford pictured above), a Grand Guignol classic with unforgettable performances by two of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s golden age. And there’s one more I must mention: “Lonely Are the Brave”, a poignant and beautifully acted modern-day Western, lead actor Kirk Douglas’ favorite of all his work and featuring his greatest performance.
Let’s move on to our next year, 1950. Two movies dominate any discussion of the quality of films that year: “Sunset Boulevard” (pictured above), one of the best movies ever made about Hollywood, and “All Abut Eve” (Bette Davis, pictured above) one of the best-written movies ever made. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s “The Asphalt Jungle”, John Huston’s seminal heist thriller, “Gun Crazy”, a cult classic and just as vivid now as when it was first released, “In a Lonely Place” (Gloria Grahame,pictured above) one of director Nicholas Ray’s greatest films with what many consider career-best performances from both Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, “Born Yesterday” with an Oscar-winning performance by Judy Holliday, and “Caged”, one of the best prison movies ever made, with an outstanding performance by Eleanor Parker as an woman gradually hardened by her life behind bars.
Then there was also “Winchester ’73”, Anthony Mann’s great Western starring James Stewart, which may have single-handedly renewed the popularization of Westerns in the 1950’s, the Westerns’ greatest decade, “Father of the Bride” (Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy pictured above), and the beloved “Harvey”, also starring James Stewart.
What has not been mentioned are foreign films from those great years. Add that to what has already been stated and the quality becomes even higher. There’s the French classic “The Rules of the Game”, from 1939, directed by Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” from 1950, and “Jules and Jim” from Francois Truffaut along with “An Autumn Afternoon” from Yasujiro Ozu, both 1962, along with other excellent ones from that particular year.
The point is that the quality of movies from all three years is quite high. So what conclusion can be reached? Which year is the greatest year? My answer: Whichever one you like. So go through all three years to get a taste of the high quality to be found in each one, and then see the best movies of some of the best years in moviemaking history, adding to your classic movie enjoyment for some time to come.