Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1939

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

If ever a year of cinema could, or should, call for the need of the expanded Best Picture category, it damn well better be this year: 1939 – The Golden Year of Hollywood. And truthfully, it does; the field that did get nominated is unquestionably the best the Academy has managed thus far, and there really isn’t a bad film among them – it’s just to what extent some films are better than others. Still, none could match the extravagance and spectacle of Gone With the Wind, the longest film ever released up to then, which would net eight competitive and two honorary Oscars, including Best Picture, as well as the historical win for Hattie McDaniel in the Supporting Actress category.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

-It seems I’ve had a rough history in these segments with literary adaptations, so maybe I should’ve been more wary of Goodbye, Mr. Chips than I was. That’s not to say that this is poor or bad, because it’s actually quite likable. But thats the thing; thats all it is. Likable. It features a likable character having likable things happens to him, with one or two misfortunes that are ultimately shrugged off thanks to everyone supporting him because he’s so likable, and there is literally nothing else to this. I was partially through it when I started to wonder how it managed a Best Picture nomination amid the field it was in, and it’s that that puts it at the bottom for me.

Of Mice and Men

-Not very much room separates the prior nominee and Of Mice and Men; while I still enjoyed it, there wasn’t much to it that really stood up and shouted at me that this was Best Picture material. Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. are certainly worth the watch, but they’re not enough to elevate this any higher than it’s ending up.

Wuthering Heights

-Continuing this segment’s woes with literary adaptations of classic novels, we have Wuthering Heights, which while being rather atmospheric and consummate, helped along a lot by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, ends up falling into many of the same pitfalls as other literary Best Picture nominees of the past. It’s rudimentary and melodramatic, and doesn’t do enough to rise above that, so it’s unfortunately ending up below the fold for me.

Love Affair

Love Affair might be better remembered as the basis of the later remake An Affair to Remember, also directed by Leo McCarey. Remakes always tend to do one of two things; either they’re bad, and thus shouldn’t have even been remade at all, or they’re good, and they thus threaten to or successfully overshadow the previous version of the film or story. This is unfortunate in Love Affair’s case, because this is actually quite good; it’s got plenty of emotion and romance, and really doesn’t misstep at all with its story, and at an hour and a half, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Really, the only reason it’s not higher is because of how good the remaining films are.

Dark Victory

-This is another one that’s also no higher because of the remaining films, and not because of any faults with it. Dark Victory, I suspect, managed a Best Picture nom because of Bette Davis’ performance, but it’s actually a lot better than it really has a right to be, given how thrifty the actual story is, but it more than makes up for that in how it tells what story it does actually tell. Coupled with Davis doing her thing at the level she’s accustomed to doing it, and this is definitely worth the watch if one is inclined to seek it out.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach is largely considered the progenitor of what the Western genre would build itself out of in the years to come, and the genre could’ve picked a much worse film to do so from. Stagecoach originates many of the conventions and tropes of good, solid Western films, complete with John Wayne being his best John Wayne, and director John Ford would revisit the genre several times. So, does that mean it’s a good enough film to win Best Picture? In my opinion, not quite, and not against most of the remaining films; this would end up being another example in these segments of a film that is a great and worthwhile viewing, but just doesn’t do enough to really warrant a win for the big one. I will say, though, that I’m glad it was at least up for the award.

Ninotchka

-Ernst Lubitsch’s films in this category have so far been mostly lacking, almost as if the director were giving perennial warmups up for the award instead of the home run he and the Academy clearly wanted him to give them. Ninotchka might not be the absolute home run the Academy wanted out of Lubitsch, but it is damn close; not to mention however many times the latest Greta Garbo picture has been mentioned in the potential nominations section, and one of her films finally gets a nom for Best Picture, as well as one for her for Best Actress. Still, while this is a winner, and unquestionably the best Lubitsch film yet nominated for the big one, there are still better films that wrangled a nom in this golden year, and so Ninotchka ends up here.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

-The 30’s absolutely belonged to Capra. That said, I was hesitant about where to place Mr. Smith Goes to Washington before my rewatch of it, almost as if I didn’t want to give Capra yet another award, like I was tired of doing it or something. Well, Capra never fails to deliver when he really needs to, and this ends up above the one before it for a somewhat-backwards reasoning; while this doesn’t have the Lubitsch touch going for it, it makes up for it and then some with a whole lot of heart, an amazing amount of relevance that still shines today, and more feel-goodiness than a film like this really has any right to. Add to it the never-better James Stewart, and in any other year, one could easily put this one smack at the top of the leaderboard.

Wizard of Oz

-Unfortunately for the previous film, and really all the other nominees, this is 1939, the Best Year in Hollywood History, and director Victor Fleming isn’t gonna give up this award without a fight. The Wizard of Oz became an annual tradition on television in the late 50’s, and it wasn’t long before it was a staple of American cinema classics; thus, it is quite difficult to look at the film through any eye but a nostalgic one, let alone critically. If one does manage it, though, Oz is still an excellent film, filled with fantasy and wonder, and perhaps the greatest attention to detail of any film up to that point in time. This wasn’t just a film; this was an achievement, and while the Academy might’ve been a little scoffed at for awarding Best Picture to what was ostensibly a children’s film, the reputation of this one over time would’ve seen their decision validated… save for one other picture.

Gone With the Wind

-Really; was there any doubt this was gonna end up on top? Gone with the Wind is monumental; a staggering achievement in literally every way, a groundbreaking color film, and a massively entertaining picture all in one. I’ll echo the thoughts of some that the film’s second half doesn’t match up to the first, but this is a piddling criticism in the face of just how amazing Gone With the Wind is as a whole. With this and Oz, Victor Fleming had one of the best single years of any director in history, so his win for Best Director was absolutely unquestionable; and, I’ll go ahead and say it, so was this film’s win for Best Picture. The Academy basically had no other choice. It really is that good.

-What Should Have Won-

While GWTW absolutely deserved the win, and even with the field being as exemplary as it was this year, there are a few films that could’ve reasonably made it into the fold. The 1001 List’s field from this year includes Only Angels Have Wings, Destry Rides Again, and Gunga Din, each of which might’ve stood a chance, and certainly would’ve in other years. It also includes Babes in Arms, which I don’t think would’ve. On the foreign front, Jean Renoir gives us The Rules of the Game, which many consider the best foreign language film ever made, and after his previous film managed a nom last year, the Academy could’ve seen fit to add this one as well, if it weren’t so busy reaping the spoils of the English language fare. If they had looked to box office, they might’ve considered the Henry Fonda vehicle Jesse James, or the Charles Laughton picture The Hunchback of Notre Dame; they evidently did consider producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Rains Came, which was nominated for six Oscars, including beating The Wizard of Oz for Best Special Effects, but not Best Picture.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

Seriously; would I pick any other film than Gone With the Wind for this year? Would anyone?

-How Did Oscar Do?-

Finally. Finally, you managed a great field, Oscar, even with the expanded category. Of course, it only took the greatest year in Hollywood history for you to do it, and I have no pretenses that the next few years are going to match this in any way. But still, I will give you this year, Oscar. Well done.

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2 thoughts on “Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1939

  1. A great year, isn’t it?
    I think it is telling that so many of these movies are on the 1001 list. There is really quality here.
    Personally I would move Mr Smith goes to Washington way down the list and introduce The rules of the Game and Only Angels have Wings.

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