Mike’s Top Ten of 1939

There’s a reason 1939 is referred to as one of the greatest individual years in the history of cinema. Legitimately half this list is among the greatest films of the decade and all time. And it’s not just the choices on top. This year goes deep.

You have one of the greatest westerns ever made, perhaps Frank Capra’s finest achievement, and one of the most uplifting movies ever made, an all-time classic that is one of the most beloved films ever made and has become so iconic that it’s become part of the lexicon and a cultural touchstone for every single person. Oh, let’s not also forget the landmark achievement of 1939, what still may be the finest achievement in the history of American moviemaking.

The important thing about this year isn’t just to fete the classics, it’s to talk up all the other great stuff that got released alongside them. There’s gonna be some great stuff here you haven’t heard of.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1939

Another Thin Man

Gone With the Wind

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

It’s a Wonderful World

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Only Angels Have Wings


The Wizard of Oz

Young Mr. Lincoln

11-20: Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Dodge City, Drums Along the Mohawk, Jesse James, Love Affair, Of Mice and Men, On Borrowed Time, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Wuthering Heights

Tier two: 5th Ave. Girl, Babes in Arms, Bachelor Mother, Beau Geste, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Each Dawn I Die, Fast & Furious, The Four Feathers, Frontier Marshal, Gulliver’s Travels, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Invisible Stripes, Juarez, Made for Each Other, The Oklahoma Kid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Rains Came, Union Pacific, The Women

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1. Gone With the Wind

“Rhett, Rhett… Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?”
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

This is, to me, the single greatest achievement in the history of American film. How they managed to pull this off is something of a miracle. Now, that’s not to say it’s the greatest film ever made, but it still does hold its own in that regard as well. You can’t tell the history of cinema without this movie.

Everything about this movie, from the sets to the costumes to the score to the acting — it’s all perfect. This is one of the few movies that are over three hours long that always holds my attention no matter what. Also, for anyone into movies, this is a necessity, so there’s really no need for me to sell it very hard. You pretty much need to get to it regardless. Though, for what it’s worth, it is one of my five favorite films of all time.

2. The Wizard of Oz

“Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
And the dreams that you dreamed of
Once in a lullaby

Somewhere over the rainbow
Blue birds fly
And the dreams that you dreamed of
Dreams really do come true”

What could I possibly even say or need to say here?

It’s The Wizard of Oz. This is all of our childhoods. This movie has become such a cultural touchstone that I (and I’m sure most of you) could catch even a slight vocal inflection on words and know them as a reference to this movie.

It’s also my favorite movie about a person who murders two people, steals one of their shoes, is fetted for doing so by an entire city and simply gets to go home in the end.

The real question is — did she kill Mrs. Gulch for stealing her dog?

If I only had a motive…

3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

“All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for and he fought for them once. For the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain simple rule. Love thy neighbor. And in this world today of great hatred a man who knows that rule has a great trust. You know that rule Mr. Paine and I loved you for it just as my father did. And you know that you fight harder for the lost causes than for any others. Yes you’d even die for them.”

This would be #1 any year but this one. This is my favorite Frank Capra movie. It’s perfect on every level, and the filibuster scene is of the greatest in cinema history. There’s something about this movie that makes me happy every time I watch it. It gives me hope. It makes me think that maybe not everything is broken and that there is a chance things could be all right.

In other news, I kinda wish my senator could just go around, punching other people in the face to make things right.

4. Stagecoach

“There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”

This is a top ten western film, all-time. It’s incredible. The simplest of stories, too. A bunch of people get on a stagecoach and travel out west. And the film is about the interplay between the characters and all of their different backgrounds and stories. There’s the liquor salesman, the drunk doctor, the gambler, the prostitute, the pregnant officer’s wife, and the convict, who broke out of jail to kill the man who killed his brother. It’s so good.

There are beautiful moments in this, like when they’re all sitting down to dinner, and the officer’s wife disapproves of the prostitute being there, but John Wayne, the convict, doesn’t seem to notice and treats her like he would any woman, pulling out a chair for her and being a gentleman. And even when they get up and move away from them, he thinks he’s the one they object to. With the great line, “I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.” It’s wonderfully done.

Let’s also not forget the great chase sequence through Monument Valley staged by Yakima Canutt, one of cinema’s greatest stuntmen. (He also staged the Ben-Hur chariot race, FYI.)

This movie is a real classic, and continues to hold up better than just about any other western ever made.

5. Only Angels Have Wings

“I’m hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me.”

Do you hear that, birds? Fuck you.

This is Howard Hawks at his best.

It’s a story about pilots. Cary Grant owns a freight company that’s struggling to make ends meet. He and his pilots make dangerous trips along the mountains daily. They’re trying to secure a contract that would keep the company going. Meanwhile, through all this, we got a lot of scenes of the personal lives of the pilots. Grant’s brother is losing his eyesight, a new pilot who was responsible for the death of the men’s friend in a crash a few years earlier and is currently dating Grant’s ex, and Jean Arthur, a new piano player who has a thing for Grant.

It’s so good. Like all of Hawks’ best films, it’s about the characters and not the plot. It’s one of those films that might not sound great, plot-wise, but when you see it, you’ll find yourself engaged. Always trust the director and the cast in this era. And with Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell and Rita Hayworth, you can’t go wrong.

6. Another Thin Man

“I got rid of all those reporters.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them we were out of scotch.”
“What a gruesome thought!”

You know I love me my Thin Man films. You should really only be surprised if one of them doesn’t make the top ten.

This one’s about them being invited to a colonel’s house for a weekend visit, only for the colonel to be murdered during it. Nick, of course, has to take on the case, and in the usual fashion, ends up bringing everyone together in the end to reveal who did it. The nice twist of this one is that they now have a child. So the climax takes place at Nicky Jr.’s birthday party, as a bunch of criminal associates of Nick’s all bring their children to the party (some of whom are not actually their kids). That adds a nice screwball element to the usual reveal.

Of course, the real joy of these films is always Nick and Nora, and you get some great moments with the two of them, specifically involving alcohol. One scene has them at a bar, and he orders a Bacardi. He then looks over at her and says “two Bacardi’s.” She then turns to the waiter and says, “Same.”

I love this franchise.

7. Ninotchka

“Must you flirt?”
“Well, I don’t have to, but I find it natural.”
“Suppress it.”

Everyone knows the famous tagline from this one: “Garbo laughs!” She’d been doing these overly dramatic, “I want to be alone” films for so long, that’s how everyone knew her. And this was her first comedy.

It’s about three Russians in Paris to sell some jewelry. They soon become enamored with Parisian life and decide they want to stay. The Soviet Union then sends Garbo to get the men back. She is the ultimate Soviet — everything she does is for the good of the party. She doesn’t laugh, she doesn’t joke, and she’s seemingly incorruptible. Melvyn Douglas is a count who is interested in getting his hands on the jewelry (and was responsible for seducing the men with Parisian life). He greets Garbo and begins trying to charm her. He finds that doesn’t quite work. He asks he what sights she’d like to see — the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre — and she says she wants to see the sewers. She’s interested to see how their city is designed to perhaps they can use that in Russia. Of course he eventually makes her crack, and they fall in love.

It’s a really funny movie and a great comedy. They remade it as Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Which is a fine film, but not as good as this one is. It’s an all-around classic.

8. Goodbye, Mr. Chips

“I thought I heard you saying it was a pity… pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them… and all boys.”

Incredible film. This is a movie that is quietly one of the more impressive films of the late 30s, and one that often gets overshadowed by a lot of the major films that came out this same year.

The film is about the life and career of a teacher, Charles Chipping. Robert Donat plays him from age 25 to 83. It begins with him starting out as a new arrival to the school. He’s young and the students quickly take advantage of that. So in response, he becomes a disciplinarian, and isn’t much liked by many of his pupils. Though, over time, he softens. Eventually he does become a popular teacher, as the students soon discover that he really does care for them.

In his 40s, he meets and falls in love with Greer Garson. The two marry and she returns to the school, basically being the young, energetic half of him that the school (and he) needs. She helps bring him out of his shell and turn him into the most beloved teacher at the school.

It’s such a great film. What is really impressive is how great the makeup job on Donat is. He seamlessly plays this guy for almost 60 years and you just accept it. One of the truly great and underrated films of the 30s.

9. It’s a Wonderful World

“You need me.”
“I need you about as much as I need a giraffe.”

Screwball mystery with Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert.

He’s a private detective who ends up being framed for being an accessory to a murder, along with the man he’s supposed to be watching, who is framed as the murderer. On his way to jail, Stewart discovers that someone saw the whole thing take place and can exonerate him and the other guy. He escapes and runs into Colbert, who he has to kidnap in order to prevent her from turning him in. She thinks he’s a criminal, and comedy ensues as he tries to clear his name.

It’s hilarious. But did you need more than screwball, Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert?

10. Young Mr. Lincoln

“I may not know much of law Mr. Felder, but I know what’s right and what’s wrong. And I know what you’re asking is wrong.”

Aww yeah. John Ford and Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln.

It’s fictionalized as hell, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great. It’s about Lincoln’s early days as a lawyer.

Henry Fonda also has the one of the best dances I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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Dark Victory — Bette Davis melodrama and… where are we… our seventh Best Picture nominee from this year. She’s an heiress who finds out she’s dying and becomes determined to live out her last days with dignity and live life to its fullest. One of the few times Humphrey Bogart played a love interest.

Destry Rides Again — Western starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. Need I say more or are you sold yet? It’s about a town that needs a good sheriff to clean it up and Stewart coming in to do so. He’s great with a gun but refuses to wear one. He quickly becomes at odds with the town boss, Brian Donlevy, with Dietrich, the sultry bar singer, caught in between.

Dodge City — 1939 is the year where the western became classy. Stagecoach made it worthy of being consumed by “adults,” and then there’s stuff like this, that was made in Technicolor and looks great. This is an Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland western directed by Michael Curtiz. He’s a cattle man who takes the job as sheriff when he sees the town could use some cleaning up. A classic western.

Drums Along the Mohawk — One of the most gorgeous looking westerns ever shot. The Technicolor here is stunning even now. It’s Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert trying to start a farm on the eve of the Revolutionary War, dealing with soldiers and Native American threats. Trust me when I say this is one of the most gorgeous movies you’ll ever see.

Jesse James — Our fourth western in a row. This movie — it’s your standard Jesse James story (not quite as honest as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but definitely hits all the story beats you know). Tyrone Power is Jesse, Henry Fonda is Frank, John Carradine is Bob Ford. A couple of iconic western moments (the horse drawn carriages trying to outrun a train, the horse bursting through the storefront window, and a waterfall jump that’s really only missing the words “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh Shiiiiiiiiiiiiit!”), and a couple of… not so iconic ones (“a darkie named Pinky on a mule named Stinky”). Also a great supporting performance by Henry Hull as a newspaper editor who starts every editorial with “If there’s ever to be law and order in the west, the first thing we need to do is round up all the (insert group of people here) and shoot ’em down like dogs.”

Love Affair — Iconic love story, and another Best Picture nominee. This was remade as An Affair to Remember, which is the more well-known of the two, yet they’re both very good. Two people meet and fall in love while on a cruise ship and plan to meet at the Empire State Building in six months, after they can get their romantic affairs in order. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne. One of the greatest romance films ever made.

Of Mice and Men — Best Picture nominee number nine. Everyone knows the story. Steinbeck. George and Lenny. Migrant workers. “Tell me about the rabbits.” This is Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. and directed by Lewis Milestone.

On Borrowed Time — This is a movie I knew nothing about for the longest time, and was stunned when I saw it. The set up is a bit complex, but bear with me. It’s a film about Death (played by Cedric Hardwicke) going around and “taking” various people. He begins with the parents of a young boy, and soon returns for his grandmother (Beulah Bondi). The boy, meanwhile, becomes best friends with his grandfather (Lionel Barrymore). Death eventually comes for the grandfather, but through a magical wish he made, Death gets stuck up in the family’s apple tree. So the rest of the film is Death trying to come down to “take” Grandpa, while Grandpa tries to figure out how to handle the situation and what’s best for his grandson’s future. It’s — incredible. I loved this movie. It just missed my top ten, and in a year that’s not potentially the greatest single year in the history of cinema, this would have made the top ten. It’s one of the great hidden gems of all these lists, and I could not recommend it highly enough.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle — It’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their ninth collaboration, and the only straight drama they made together. It’s based on two real dancers who were a husband and wife team that achieved huge stardom pre-World War I. It’s wonderful to see them dance together any time, and I really love that they did a drama together. Oh, and Walter Brennan is in this too. Talk about all your favorite people in one place…

Wuthering Heights — And our last Best Picture nominee. Impressive that all ten of them made the top 20. Usually there’s one that falls out somewhere. This is a very classy literary adaptation directed by William Wyler and starring Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Kathy. A great supporting turn by Geraldine Fitzgerald and also a really gorgeous looking film. Immaculately shot by Gregg Toland.

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Tier two:

  • 5th Ave. Girl
  • Babes in Arms
  • Bachelor Mother
  • Beau Geste
  • Confessions of a Nazi Spy
  • Each Dawn I Die
  • Fast & Furious
  • The Four Feathers
  • Frontier Marshal
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Gunga Din
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Invisible Stripes
  • Juarez
  • Made for Each Other
  • The Oklahoma Kid
  • The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
  • The Rains Came
  • Union Pacific
  • The Women

The Women is one of the landmark films of cinema because the entire cast is female. There’s not a single male in the movie, and thank god for that. It’s an all-star cast of women and a really great movie too. The Rains Came is another one of those dramas with a big visual effects disaster sequence near the end. Here, rain falls so hard if floods an entire town. Looks awesome. Made for Each Other is a Jimmy Stewart/Carole Lombard screwball comedy. Need I say more? Okay, Charles Coburn is in it too.

The Oklahoma Kid is a James Cagney western (the one they reference in Goodfellas). It’s basically a gangster movie out west. Him and Bogie are feuding train robbers. Invisible Stripes is about an ex-con trying to go straight but finding it impossible to get back into society with prison time on his record. This has George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden (in only his second film). Confessions of a Nazi Spy is important for film history because it’s the first film to openly take an anti-Nazi stance. Before this, Hollywood had been trying to pretend like all the stuff in Europe wasn’t happening. Bachelor Mother is about Ginger Rogers as a shopgirl who finds an abandoned baby and becomes determined to raise it, despite everyone believing she’s an unwed mother (something which, in this era, was a hugely shameful thing to be).

Each Dawn I Die is a really solid prison film with James Cagney as a crusading reporter framed for murder and thrown in prison. There, he befriends George Raft, a gangster. It’s the only movie with both of them as the leads. Beau Geste is a historical adventure film about three brothers (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston) who join the French Foreign Legion after one of them steals a family heirloom. They deal with a very sadistic drill sergeant (an Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy) who tries to pit them against one another. It’s a stacked cast.

Juarez is a solid historical drama about Napoleon (played by Claude Rains) installing a puppet ruler in Mexico so he can keep it as part of his empire. However, the ruler starts talking to the country’s president, Benito Juarez, and actually starts developing ideas of his own, and trying to actually rule the place and do what’s best for the people. Paul Muni gets top billing as Juarez, but Brian Aherne steals the show as the puppet ruler. Union Pacific is a Cecil B. DeMille western about two railroads competing to get to the west first. Gunga Din is based on the Kipling novel, starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe and Joan Fontaine. And directed by George Stevens. Solid all around. 5th Ave. Girl is a comedy about a rich guy who feels his life has gotten boring so he hires Ginger Rogers to pose as his mistress. You know, just to make things interesting.

The Four Feathers is a great Technicolor adventure film that looks gorgeous. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the Charles Laughton version, second maybe only to the Lon Chaney one. (Yeah, yeah, I know… the Disney one’s good too.) Frontier Marshal is an early version of the story that would become My Darling Clementine. Gulliver’s Travels is one of the few non-Disney animated films in the studio era. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale and Vincent Price in glorious Technicolor. Babes in Arms is a “put on a show” musical with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

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