Vintage Years

Peter BogdonovichGuest blogger The Lady Eve writes:

The notion that 1939 was the greatest of all movie years has been around for so long that it’s pretty much an accepted fact these days. A while ago, as I was roaming the blogosphere, I happened upon a post by Peter Bogdanovich on his Indiewire blog (appropriately called Blogdanovich) titled “The Greatest Year?” I read on, having always respected what Mr. B has to say about films and filmmaking. He not only possesses an encyclopedic knowledge and intimate understanding of the subject, but has also made some classics of his own that I much admire – The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

With “The Greatest Year?” Bogdanovich looked back on one of his 1972 columns for Esquire magazine. In that article he’d selected and reviewed a great movie year of the past to illustrate his contention that films of the early ’70s weren’t measuring up. He zeroed in on 1939 in particular because–in addition to the fact that it had been a banner year for movies–it was also the year he was born (as were Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin, two other major filmmakers of the time). Not long after Bogdanovich’s column appeared in Esquire, he recalled, a lengthier, more elaborate piece written by film critic Richard Schickel on the films of 1939 appeared in Life magazine . Schickel once and for all declared ’39 to be the great year. The rest, as we know, is history.

Peter Bogdanovich admitted in his Blogdanovich post that he actually believes “the absolute high point” of American film (he prefers the term ‘cinema’) encompasses 1939, 1940 and 1941. He has a point. 1940, too, was notable for a raft of classics. Here is one man’s tribute, via his YouTube channel, to some of the year’s best films:

YouTube Preview Image

Other of 1940′s offerings include Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Letter, The Mortal Storm, Pride and Prejudice, and The Westerner, to name a few. 1941 was no less stellar, bringing Ball of Fire, (ahem) Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, High Sierra, How Green Was My Valley, The Lady Eve, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, Sullivan’s Travels, Suspicion, and more. Perhaps I’m less a purist or maybe just more democratic, but I’d extend Hollywood’s high point back in time to 1937. That year introduced The Awful Truth (still my favorite screwball), Captains Courageous, Dead End, Lost Horizon, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I’d also add, on the other end, 1942, the moment just before World War II’s impact was fully felt in Hollywood. 1942, after all, was the year of Casablanca, The Magnificent Ambersons, Now, Voyager, The Palm Beach Story, This Gun for Hire, To Be or Not to Be, Woman of the Year, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. 1937 – 1942 were all vintage years in Hollywood.

Here’s what Peter Bogdanovich originally wrote for Esquire in 1972, courtesy of critic/author Clive James’s website: The Best American Films of 1939.

It may seem ironic that Bogdanovich was disheartened by what he called “the meager pickings” of his own era, a time now viewed as another golden age. “The New Hollywood” had arrived and international cinema was in full blossom. 1972 alone saw the release of Fosse’s Cabaret, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Boorman’s Deliverance, Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the film many consider the greatest of all, Francis Coppola’s The Godfather – not to mention Bogdanovich’s own very popular and award-winning What’s Up, Doc?

Parenthetically, 1972 would be the year Joseph Mankiewicz directed his last film. Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director. With this final effort, Mankiewicz became one of few filmmakers who enjoyed success in both the old Hollywood and the new. The second Oscar nomination of his career (he won four and was nominated for eight) had been a Best Picture nod for producing MGM’s The Philadelphia Story in 1940.

What do you think the greatest year ever for movies was? Let us know in the comments!

The Lady Eve lives in Northern California and works in TV. Her blog posts have won CiMBA Awards from the Classic Movie Blog Association and been reprinted in newspapers and magazines. For more information, visit



  • Dennis Scott Moore

    Wouldn’t it really depend upon what kind of film you’re talking about? Are you talking old Gene Kelly dance movies? Westerns? War movies? I’m sort of partial to those years of ‘The Blue Max’, ‘The Great Escape’…….’The French Connection’…………’It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World’…..’The Sand Pebbles’.

    • ReelLadyEve

      You could look at movie years in terms of genre, but my post
      and Bogdanovich’s original piece took a more general view in looking at output
      of quality films. Film noir would be an interesting genre to look at in terms
      of its best year(s).

  • akentg

    Also overlooked is 1960 (perhaps easy to forget) For starters there are Elmer Gantry and The Apartment. Others as well for this overlooked year.

    • ReelLadyEve

      Some favorites of mine – La Dolce Vita, The Magnificent Seven, The Entertainer, Pollyanna, L’Aventurra – also love The Apartment, one of Billy Wilder’s very best.

  • Wayne P.

    “Blogdanovich’s post’ is absolutely spot on about the greatness of the Golden Age of the Studios and its overall quality output during the late 30′s and on into the 50′s. For anyone who still questions whether 1939 was the clear winner by year…heres a pretty comprehensive list of films made then. When you consider that each major studio probably had to turn out around 1 picture a week (A,B or even C grade) the high standard was a worthy goal for succeeding generations to aspire to:

    Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex, Love Affair (first version of Affair to Remember–also directed by Leo McCarey), Drums Along the Mohawk, Dark Victory, Union Pacific, Golden Boy, Beau Geste, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Stanley and Livingstone, Jesse James, The Roaring Twenties, Babes in Arms, The Four Feathers, Only Angels Have Wings, The Cat and the Canary (Bob Hope & Paulette Goddard version of the silent), Another Thin Man, The Women, Young Mr. Lincoln, Rose of Washington Square, Maisie, Hollywood Cavalcade (just thrown in because Alice Faye is in it;).

    • Wayne P.

      As PB said in his original 1972 Esquire article, there were 476 US movies made in 1939. Having just forgotten a few more, such as: Intermezzo, Destry Rides Again, Midnight, Northwest Passage, Jamaica Inn (Engish film by Hitchcock before he came over to the US by 1940), Frontier Marshal, Bachelor Mother, Juarez, Made For Each Other, In Name Only, The Old Maid, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. I can see were already up to 45 total (leaving off the aforementioned Hollywood Cavalcade as its only my second favorite Alice Faye picture that year, Rose of Washington Square being much better!), so thats almost one good picture a week for a whole year…about 10% of the total; and, not too bad for a dream factory!

      • ReelLadyEve

        When this post was first published on my own blog, one commenter had this to say – I’m sure you’ll appreciate it: Regarding 1939, I always remember what my uncle once said about it. He
        remembers that year with fondness because it was the year he turned nine
        and was finally allowed to go to the movies by himself. Gone With the Wind
        never enters his 1939 equation because he didn’t see it until 1941, but
        as for the others he said, “Can you imagine what it was like to
        go to the movies week after week and see things like Gunga Din, The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Jesse James, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Beau Geste…Week after week! Is it any wonder I’m a film buff?”

        • Wayne P.

          Thanks a bunch for the nice post and comments, ReelLadyEve…sounds like you know a good classic picture when you see one as do a lot of our bloggers here and elsewhere! Btw, while you were replying some others popped up above and so will also add a few of my own as well from that greatest year in movies: “Balalaika” (great Nelson Eddy musical period piece sans Jeanette MacDonald), “The Rains Came” (already noted before), “You Cant Get Away with Murder”
          And, to get up to the coveted 1939 a ‘movie a week’ and counting status: “Tail Spin” (its just a programmer but Alice Faye is in it so that makes it not more than half bad;)!

          • ReelLadyEve

            Wayne, Btw, I’m a big fan of Rose of Washington Square. But I’ve never understood why certain lyrics to “My Man” weren’t changed for the picture. When Alice Faye sings it, a song supposedly inspired by her passionate love for Tyrone Power, and comes to the line “he’s not much for looks” I have to wonder if she’s singing about someone else or just couldn’t see too well.

          • Wayne P.

            great thought…but I just read on IMDB that she said when she kissed him, whether it was In Old Chicago or Alexanders Ragtime Band, that she had the idea of dying and going to heaven as he was so good looking! Louis B. Mayer said of Alice that the camera just loved her so he always had plenty of close-ups of her singing in those MGM musicals…my personal fave of hers is Weekend in Havana…my wife enjoys John Payne and they were fab together but any picture with Carmen Miranda is no slouch either…her contract required her to be the only one onscreen while she sang too! I do wish John Payne had sung more in his films because he has a nice voice, which Hello, Frisco, Hello proved very well.

          • Wayne P.

            My bad…of course, it wasnt L.B. Mayer or the Freed unit of MGM, but Alice was at Fox and Darryl Zanuck was the one who made that comment about giving her lots of face time…

          • Wayne P.

            Don Ameche was also a talented but underused singer (IMHO:) as his roles, with Alice and Tyrone, In Old Chicago along with Alexanders Ragtime Band; plus, with her alone in Lillian Russell all showcased his abilities very well.

          • ReelLadyEve

            I remember reading that Alice Faye thought Ty Power was the handsomest man she’d ever seen and that for the rest of her life she was asked what it was like to kiss him. They’re well teamed in the three films they made. But I still say that lyric should’ve been changed for the movie…

  • Nick Z

    1939 was, is and is likely to remain the greatest year in Hollywood’s history – period. The culmination of a decade’s worth of assembly line mass production entertainment built up to a year of unparalleled success and artistic achievement. The films released during those 12 months were not simply testaments in and of themselves, but in retrospect they seem the perfect embodiment of their respective genres.

    Name me an epic more satisfying that Gone With The Wind, a melodrama more perfectly realized than Goodbye Mr. Chips, a fantasy more timeless and alluring than The Wizard of Oz, a comedy more scathingly original and bitchy than The Women, a tragedy more full fleshed out than Dark Victory, a romance more tragic than Wuthering Heights, a patriotic political flag waver more inspirational than Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, a Shirley Temple classic more enduring than The Little Princess, an action/adventure more exhilarating than Gunga Din, a drama more emotionally satisfying than The Rains Came…and the list goes on and on.

    No, in 1939 the studios put their best feet forward, the weight of their workmanlike craftsmanship and peerless attention to fine detail creating movie art of the highest order. It isn’t just the quality that remains staggeringly untouchable – it’s the quantity. I’ve listed my favorites herein, but the list is easily twice or even three times as long for movies made in a single year that continue to fondly linger in our collective cultural mindset.

    And that’s important too. Because in the years since Hollywood and its film makers have repeatedly looked back to 1939 as that beacon of what Hollywood once was in the hopes that it may someday be all that and more once again. I’ll just quote Frank Sinatra, who once said “You can wait around and hope…but I’ll tell you, you’ll never see the likes of that again!”

    • ReelLadyEve

      I might argue with you on the epic, the melodrama and the romance, but agree completely on the fantasy (The Wizard of Oz), the action/adventure (Gunga Din) and the drama (The Rains Came). I tend to resist flatly labeling one thing the best over all others (and this extends far beyond movies) which is why I found Bogdanovich’s Indiewire admission so interesting.

  • Beirniad Gorau

    Many of my favorites come from this year-The Wizard of Oz, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, At the Circus (Marx Brothers), Babes in Arms, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Intermezzo, They Shall Have Music, The Rains Came, Son of Frankenstein, Mr. Moto takes a vacation, The Mystery of Mr. Wong, Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (3 Stooges short)

    • ReelLadyEve

      I’m happy to see The Rains Came among your favorites, it’s one of mine, too. Nominated for six Oscars, it only won one (S/FX) – the year being that of GWTW’s great sweep. At the moment my favorite of ’39 is Stagecoach.

  • CWVD

    While 1939 certainly was the most outstanding year in cinema history, my own personal ‘Greatest Year’ was 1967. I turned 16, got my driver’s license, and was able to take in classics like The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, To Sir With Love, Cool Hand Luke, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. I completely respect the output of ‘classics’ from ’39, but will always Love those memories of the fabulous theater experiences I had in my own ‘best’ year – ’67.

    • ReelLadyEve

      You and I are of the same generation and I remember all those films, too. What a year 1967 was (and several great years followed). I will never forget seeing Bonnie & Clyde for the first time and being just stunned by it. There have been many great vintage years of film – I’m hoping there are more to come.

  • fbusch

    Starting with March 16th of 1939, (being my birthday), I would have to admit that in that year there were many great films. I must say that in fairness, even though it still resides on my shelf, I’ve not watched GWTW in many years. Not because it isn’t great, but because once you know all the dialogue by heart, you just don’t get the same thrill. I’m not a movie reviewer or an expert, but I am the guy that movies are produced for. My likes are very ecclectic, from The Red Shoes to The Thing from another World. To paraphase some famous someone, “I don’t know Art, But, I know what I like!” Some of my favorites may be lightweights, and occasionally one of the more popular films will find a spot on my shelf. Where is the list? Since it changes rapidly and often, I haven’t posted it. If I watch a film every couple of months without being bored, it stays on my list. Recently, I’ve watched “The Beast from 20,000 fathoms”,” Destroyer”, “Key Largo”and “UP” .

    • ReelLadyEve

      Born the same year as Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola and William Friedkin (to name a famous few) – you’re in good company. I have eclectic tastes, too – ranging from The Devil is a Woman to Black Narcissus to What’s New, Pussycat? Having diverse taste in movies keeps life interesting, doesn’t it?

  • nicolas

    Certainly Hollywood of 1939 has what I would consider the two films that I would consider to be in the top ten most famous American movies ever, Gone With The Wind, and Wizard Of Oz, both credited as director to Victor Fleming, though there has been debate of how much was he really the director of both. I prefer Wizard of Oz of the two, and feel that it has stood the test of time far greater than Gone With the Wind, and might also add I enjoy Goodby Mr. Chips a hell a lot more. I think that 1939 is also somewhat the pinnacle of Hollywood, (Gone With The Wind is something of a symbol of that) which in some 13 or so years would be facing problems that they did not see coming. Oh yes, I also like Stagecoach as well, the film that really put John Wayne in the spotlight.

    • ReelLadyEve

      1939 was a watershed year for Hollywood and I have many favorite movies from that year, but Stagecoach is at the top of my list. Hollywood managed to get through the WWII pretty well financially, considering the worldwide impact of the war and the disappearance of most of its top leading men into the military. But then came the Supreme Court ruling on studio ownership of theaters and the advent of TV.

  • Bruce Reber

    Fast Forward 30 years to 1969 – now that was a very good movie year also! There was “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”, “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” (my family saw these two in a double feature at our local drive-in theater), “True Grit”, “The Wild Bunch”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Sweet Charity”, “Bob And Carol And Ted And Alice” and “Cactus Flower”.