The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1939

1939 is the golden year of cinema. The amount of great (not good, great) films that came out in 1939 has never been matched in any other year, ever.

And as an Oscar year, this is also a year that, in terms of achievement, will never be matched. Gone With the Wind is the perhaps the greatest cinematic achievement in history. This is, to me, the quintessential Best Picture winner and the best Best Picture of all time. It also won Best Director for Victor Fleming (talked about here), who was basically a figurehead for what was essentially a David O. Selznick film, Best Actress for Vivien Leigh (talked about here), and Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel (talked about here), all of which are perfect decisions. Best Actor was Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (talked about here), which, while he was great in the film, Jimmy Stewart really should have won for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Best Supporting Actor was Thomas Mitchell for Stagecoach (talked bout here), which was an awesome decision, as much as I love Claude Rains and would have liked to see him win.

This is the finest year of American cinema, and there was a guaranteed winner. Really, what you do with this year is just marvel at how great everything is. Don’t think, just marvel.


And the nominees were…

Dark Victory (Warner Bros.)

Gone With the Wind (Selznick, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Love Affair (RKO Radio)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia)

Ninotchka (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Of Mice and Men (Roach, United Artists)

Stagecoach (United Artists)

The Wizard of Oz (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Wuthering Heights (Goldwyn, United Artists)

Dark Victory — This film is about Bette Davis as a spoiled heiress who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. And it’s about her deciding whether or not she’ll go out with dignity, or continue her selfish, partying ways. That’s pretty much all you need for this. It’s a great film. It’s really good. Definitely the weakest on this list, though, which says more about the year than it does about this film.

Gone With the Wind — You don’t get a synopsis here. It’s Gone With the Wind.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips — This is a film about the life of a teacher. We follow Charles Chipping from his first days as a teacher at a boys prep school. At first he’s very uptight and strict, but then, one summer, he meets a free-spirited woman and falls in love. And she teaches him to loosen up, and he becomes a better teacher. And then she dies giving birth to their child. And we follow Chipping over about fifty or sixty years, as he becomes essentially the school’s mascot. Everyone knows Mr. Chips and loves Mr. Chips. And we see him encountering several generations of a family’s boys. It’s a great film. It really is. It’s so good.

Love Affair — This film is an early version of An Affair to Remember. So, if you know that film, this is basically that, just done earlier.

For those who haven’t seen it — first, why haven’t you? — it’s about a man and a woman, both engaged, who meet on a cruise ship and fall in love. And after the cruise, the two agree to meet again a year later at the Empire State Building. And then, when the day comes (they’re both single now), she gets hit by a car on the way there. And he’s there, waiting for her, and thinks she hasn’t shown up. And then, later on, they meet by chance and she hides her condition from him, but then he discovers it and tells her he still loves her and will stay with her no matter what.

It’s a lovely film. It really is. Both this version (Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne) and the later version (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr) are terrific. Both were directed by the same man, too. It’s a classic story.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — You don’t get a synopsis here either. It’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Come on, now.

Ninotchka — Here’s another classic film. What a great comedy for all time.

The film is about three Russians in Paris, trying to sell jewelry that was stolen from the czar during the Russian Revolution. They have to do this on the sly. And while in Paris, they fall into the Parisian lifestyle (since back home, they’re used to sharing an apartment with several people and living in — well, a communist society), and start spending money like crazy. So the Russians realize they’ve done this, so they send their best agent, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), who is the most humorless, stern agent there is. She is like a machine. She does not smile, she does not laugh. She is the Soviet Union in a human being. The three men ask her if she wants to see the sites (like the Eiffel Tower and such), and she wants to go see the sewers and the infrastructure, to get a sense of how the city operates. Then she meets Melvyn Douglas, who is intrigued by her and wants to show her a good time. And eventually we see him break down her icy veneer, and eventually she falls in love with him and with Paris. And of course eventually she is recalled and they are separated, but then they find a way to be together. It’s a great comedy and a great romance.

It’s also a film you need to see. So get on it. It’s a masterpiece.

Of Mice and Men — This is basically the story of the book. You should probably know about it. Lennie and George. They travel around as itinerant workers. “Tell me about the rabbits.” You should know what this is about.

This is a great version of the story. I was surprised at how much I loved this film. It’s really good. Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. Just, really, really great.

Stagecoach — Again. You need to have seen this.

The Wizard of Oz — Really?

Wuthering Heights — Oh, Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff and Cathy.

It’s a pretty famous book, you should probably know what it’s about. But, simply — Heathcliff and Cathy meet and fall in love. He’s not on her level, socially, so theirs is a doomed love affair. And one day, he runs off when she’s about to be married to someone else in order to become a gentleman. And then he returns years later when she’s married and is now on her level. And he thinks she didn’t want him, so he basically comes back and flaunts it in her face by courting a friend of hers (whom he isn’t in love with). And then they have this sort of relationship, even though we know they love one another, and then they make up when she dies.

It’s a great tragic romance. And the film is gorgeously shot. I mean it. The black and white photography here is just stunningly good. It’s a great film.

My Thoughts: Come on, now. Only one film wins this.

My Vote: Gone With the Wind

Should Have Won: Gone With the Wind

Is the result acceptable?: Absolutely. One of the top five best choices of all time. Despite all the amazing choices.

Ones I suggest you see: Well, this’ll be easy:

There are no words if you haven’t seen Gone With the WindThe Wizard of OzMr. Smith Goes to Washington or Stagecoach.

You need to see Ninotchka. It’s one of the best comedies ever made. It’s hilarious. It’s essential.

Goodbye Mr. Chips is also amazing. Not essential, but highly, highly, highly recommended.

Wuthering Heights is also amazing. Highly, highly recommended.

Oh fuck it — just see all of them. Love Affair is amazing. Of Mice and Men is amazing, and Dark Victory is very good. Just watch them all.


10) Dark Victory

9) Love Affair

8) Of Mice and Men

7) Wuthering Heights

6) Goodbye, Mr. Chips

5) Ninotchka

4) Stagecoach

3) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

2) The Wizard of Oz

1) Gone With the Wind

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