The studio titans who ruled Hollywood 70 years ago thought 1939 was a year like any other. True, it was an impressively productive year, one in which more than 500 movies were released. (In the factory-like studio system of the time, productivity was job one to satisfy an American audience that bought some 85 million tickets a week.) True, too, some of those pictures were big deals even before the public saw the first reel — the making of Gone With the Wind had been in the news for more than two years with breathless conjecture (in a pre-American Idol way) about which actress would land the plum role of Scarlett O’Hara. But other projects seemed to have made it to the screen almost in spite of the moguls who signed the checks: Jack Warner, for one, was baffled why anyone would want to see a picture about a girl who dies, yet he gave in to his prickly star Bette Davis when she wanted to headline what became the Oscar-nominated Warner Bros. hit Dark Victory. And although he had made plenty of silent Westerns before, director John Ford had a helluva time mounting Stagecoach, his first with sound, because he insisted on using a relatively unknown actor named John Wayne.
Today movie buffs still marvel at the cosmic alignment that blessed Hollywood in 1939, resulting in the release of so many films now revered as classics, all in one dazzling year. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Jimmy Stewart as an honest politician who exposes corruption! Destry Rides Again, with Marlene Dietrich singing ”See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”! Gunga Din! The Women! Henry Fonda in the title role of Young Mr. Lincoln! Wuthering Heights! The Wizard of Oz! But just as marvelous, and evident in the amazing range and ambition of the hundreds of other titles released that year, is the way Hollywood nearly hummed in that magic moment, with the energy of so much talent, working so efficiently in so many different genres — from Marx Brothers comedies to Goodbye, Mr. Chips tearjerkers, from epics to screwball romances. With better sound recording, dialogue mattered, and playwrights and novelists were hired as screenwriters. With color film processing improved, the world glittered in Technicolor. The era’s great Hollywood honchos may not have been art-house princes back then (or ever), but they knew to keep their artists busy. And audiences knew to keep an open mind when the lights went down at the movie house. As a result, in 1939 Hollywood, the Yellow Brick Road glowed like gold.
Gone With the Wind
Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
No wonder the movie is so long. According to Leigh, the shooting days were epic: ”There were months when I went to the studio directly from my home at 6:30 in the morning, breakfasted while making-up and having my hair done, then reported to the stage for the first ‘shot’ at 8:45 a.m. And it was the rule, rather than the exception, to leave the studio at 9 or 10 o’clock that night.”
Director John Ford and actor Tim Holt
With more than 130 movies to his name, Ford was amazingly prolific, but he’s best known for the Westerns he directed, including this, his first one with sound. ”Is there anything more beautiful than a long shot of a man riding a horse well, or a horse racing free across a plain?” asked Ford. ”Is there anything wrong with people loving such beauty, whether they go to experience it personally, or absorb it through the medium of a movie?”