The following article, originally published in December of 2014, is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the June 26-28 “Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, co-hosted by Movies Silently, Once Upon a Screen and Silver Screenings. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
Ah, 1939: every vintage movie fan’s dream year, the “Annus Mirabilis” of Hollywood’s Golden Age. This was the time, apparently, when Depression-weary filmgoers were flocking to theaters, studios large and small were firing on all cylinders, and creative types were at their most…er, creative. Want proof? Just look at the 10 classic titles that were nominated for the 1939 Best Picture Academy Award: Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, and (SPOILER ALERT!) the eventual winner, Gone with the Wind. Among the releases that didn’t make the cut? How about such gems as Beau Geste, Destry Rides Again, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Women, and Young Mr. Lincoln. Not too shabby.
And yet, as Tinseltown historians, bloggers and assorted fans in 2014 reminisced on the 75th anniversary of this “once-in-a-lifetime convergence of cinematic quality,” it became evident–to me, at least–that the time had come for everyone to get up off their knees and stop bowing at the altar of 1939, if only for a bit. Clearly, it was a very good year for film. But was ’39 really all that better than, say, 1941 (Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion), 1967 (Bonnie and Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night), 1976 (All the President’s Men, Network, Rocky, Taxi Driver) or even 1994 (Ed Wood, The Lion King, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption), to name a few? Let’s not forget, by the way, that movie studios were churning out dozens of pictures every month back then, and there were certainly many 1939 features that didn’t deserve to get anywhere near the Academy Awards, even with a ticket.
Here, then, is my rather subjective list of 10 movies that, for one reason or another, would easily qualify for the title of Worst Picture of 1939 (Surprisingly, none of the three films The Ritz Brothers made that year made the cut.). I give you, in alphabetical order:
The Angels Wash Their Faces — Over the course of 21 years and nearly 50 films, the streetwise slum-dwellers known variously as the Dead End Kids, the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys would morph from tough-talking juvenile delinquents to middle-aged goofballs. The tipping point in the fellas’ on-screen personae may have been this uninspiring Warner Bros. drama in which Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Billy Halop and company get help from crusading assistant D. A. Ronald Reagan in stopping an arson ring plaguing their neighborhood…and the Gipper gets to canoodle with Ann Sheridan, one of the guys’ sister. It’s an in-name-only follow-up to the previous year’s much more somber (and more star-filled) Angels with Dirty Faces.
Blondie Brings Up Baby — This was the fourth entry in Columbia’s long-running series of comedies based on the then-popular comic strip exploits of marrieds Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead, and was in fact the third Blondie film released in 1939 (and you thought there were too many sequels nowadays!). A slick-talking salesman convinces the Bumsteads that son Baby Dumpling is a genius and they enroll him at school (which, if he was old enough for, he should have been in anyway). Meanwhile, family pet Daisy gets picked up by the dog catcher, and Dagwood’s job is once again in jeopardy. Amazingly, these sorts of domestic mishaps, with Penny Singleton as the flighty but wise Blondie and Arthur Lake as her annoyingly hapless hubby, would continue on for another two dozen (!) movies over the next 11 years.
Chicken Wagon Family — Ah, for the days when ethnic families were seen as a source of gentle stereotypical amusement (casual racism was kind of a leitmotif in Hollywood films of the era, of course, and as we’ll see, 1939 was an equal opportunity offender). This laugh-deprived Fox comedy starred Leo Carrillo as Jean-Paul Baptiste Fippany, a trinkets dealer of apparent Acadian descent who packs up his wife and daughters in their mule-drawn wagon and leaves their backwoods Southern home to start a new life in New York City. Carrillo may have been the Fippany patriarch, but top billing in this Ma and Pa Kettle precursor went to juvenile actress Jane Withers, who played his youngest daughter. Withers was Fox’s number-two child star behind Shirley Temple, her brash irrepressibility (please, somebody, try and repress her a little!) serving as a counterpoint to Temple’s gentler (albeit more saccharine) mannerisms. Incidentally, you Baby Boomers may best remember the older Withers as Comet cleanser’s beloved Josephine the Plumber.
Everybody’s Hobby — Trying to cash in on the popularity of MGM’s Andy Hardy series, Warner Bros./First National came up with this gimmicky first–and last–film presenting the adventures of the hobby-obsessed Leslie family: photography-loving husband Tom (Henry O’Neill); his philatelist (look it up) wife, Myra (Irene Rich); record-collecting daughter Evelyn (Jean Sharon); and ham radio-operating son, Robert (Jackie Moran). Somehow, the Leslies’ various pastimes dovetail into an adventure that enables the clan to help nab an arsonist setting fires in state parks and help Tom to regain his newspaper editor job. One has to assume that an updated version, with each family member using a different iPad or iPhone app to solve their problems, is not in the works, but you never know.
The Flying Irishman — How many of you out there rememeber Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, the early 20th-century American aviator who got his moniker thanks to his 1938 flight from New York to Ireland…a flight that, supposedly, was meant to take him from New York to California. His transatlantic blunder–which Corrigan always said was unintentional, despite evidence to the contrary–earned him international headlines(including a backwards New York Post banner), a Manhattan ticker-tape parade, and this quickie RKO biodrama in which the GPS-lacking flyboy played himself. “Wrong Way,” unfortunately, proved to be no better an actor and he was a pilot, and the not-very-interesting effort to cash in on his 15 minutes of fame was quickly relegated to the dustbin, along with films featuring such other ’30s celebrities as the Dionne Quintuplets (The Country Doctor, Five of a Kind) and baseball great Lou Gehrig (who played a version of himself in the 1938 B western Rawhide).
Hotel Imperial — In the wake of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, 1930s Hollywood searched every hamlet and village in central and northern Europe, it seems, for the next exotic beauty to capture the public’s attention. Most of these breathlessly-voiced imports met with only limited big-screen success…Anna Sten and Vera Zorina, for example. The least of them, however, may well have been Isa Miranda. The Italian-born typist-turned-actress was cast in this Paramount melodrama–as a young woman who poses as a washerwoman in the title hotel to get revenge on the WWI Austrian officer responsible for her sister’s death– after original star Dietrich clashed with original director Henry Hathaway and second choice Margaret Sullavan broke her arm during shooting. To make matters worse, Miranda’s co-star, Ray Milland, suffered an on-set mishap of his own, falling off a galloping horse onto a pile of broken masonry and other debris. Between the casting changes and injuries, the lavish production got a reputation as a “cursed” feature, and Hotel Imperial’s box office failure effectively killed Isa’s stateside career.
Jamaica Inn — Speaking of baseball, even a great filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t “hit ’em out the park” every time he stepped behind the camera, and this labyrinthine Regency Era costume drama, based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel, is generally considered to be one of Hitch’s worst talking features. Part of the problem came from star and co-producer Charles Laughton’s ongoing clashes with the director over details ranging from Laughton’s insistence on casting a then-unknown Maureen O’Hara as the female lead to the elaborate walk the actor devised for his character, roguish squire and villain Sir Humphrey Pengallan. While it was a modest success at the box office, Jamaica Inn’s muddled production and surprising lack of suspense nearly cost Hitchcock the chance to direct another Du Maurier adaptation–Best Picture Oscar-winner Rebecca–the following year.
The Mystery of Mr. Wong — Earlier in this list I mentioned ethnic images in ’30s cinema. Well, 1939 moviegoers had a plethora of stereotypes to pick from in the “humble, wily Asian sleuth” subgenre. Along with three Charlie Chan films (all starring Missouri native Sidney Toler as Chan) and a trio of Mr. Moto whodunits (each featuring Hungarian-born Peter Lorre), they could also see Englishman Boris Karloff don makeup and mustache to play Chinese detective and magazine short story hero James Lee Wong. Karloff was certainly a capable enough actor, having had played Asian characters before (The Mask of Fu Manchu, anyone?), and originated the role in the previous year’s Mr. Wong, Detective. This low-budget Monogram mystery, however, did him no favors in the suspense department. Even with the Chan and Moto series going strong, Boris and Monogram would make three more Wong pictures over the next year before the studio brought down the curtain with 1940’s Phantom of Chinatown, which actually offered a Chinese actor–Keye Luke–in the lead. Oh, and by the by, Karloff’s Mr. Wong had no connection to the one played by his old pal Bela Lugosi in a 1934 film, The Mysterious Mr. Wong.
The Return of Doctor X — Humphrey Bogart as a vampire? Well, not really. Unrelated to Warner’s 1932 mad scientist tale Doctor X, this shock-free shocker–one of the studio’s occasional attempts at aping Universal’s horror efforts-–cast the unhappy actor as the titular Dr. Xavier, a deranged medico who was executed for conducting bizarre experiments in prolonging human life and later revived as a pasty-faced killer with a skunk-striped hairdo and a need for a rare blood type to maintain his artificial existence. Bogie’s zombie-like turn probably came as much from his dissatisfaction with the role as from the director’s instructions. As he himself said, “I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood, or Harry’s, or Pop’s, maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”
Zenobia — What do you get when you try to make a Laurel and Hardy picture without Stan Laurel? Well, if you’re producer Hal Roach, who was in a contract dispute with the comic at the time, you get this oddball and socially dichotomous comedy which teamed Oliver Hardy–sort of–with former silent funnyman Harry Langdon, whose career had languished over the previous decade. The rotund Hardy toned down his usual exasperated characterization and actually does a credible job playing a doctor in an 1870s Mississippi town who has two problems to cope with: his daughter’s romance with a young beau whose well-to-do family looks down on hers; and a carnival barker (Harry) who needs Ollie’s help in treating Miss Zenobia, his beloved star attraction elephant. The usual comic timing and chemistry in L&H films is absent, thanks in no small part to the limited amount of screen time Hardy shares with “substitute L” Langdon. And I haven’t even mentioned the strange and embarrassingly outdated subplot in which Hardy’s doctor schools a young black boy in reading the Declaration of Independence and then uses a “white pills/black pills” analogy to justify racial segregation…all in a picture deriding class prejudice.
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