By Jessica Pickens
The year of 1939 is often cited as Hollywood’s greatest year. And, as films released that year turn 80, there are a few that are usually touted – Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, The Women (you can rent all of these on DVD Netflix)!
However, there are so many excellent films released in 1939 that you need to make sure they all are included in your viewing. Here are several you can find on DVD Netflix that will help you see why this year is so special:
Get your hankies out, friends. “Dark Victory” is a fabulous tearjerker. I would consider “Dark Victory” as one of the top films of 1939, though film executives were convinced it would fail.
Bette Davis plays Judith Traherne, a socialite that has been behaving erratically. Everyone thinks she is always drunk, but her behavior is connected to a brain tumor. Her doctor, Fredrick Steele, played by George Brent, performs surgery to help her, but will she live? Executives didn’t think anyone would want to watch a film about an ill woman, but the film was one of the highest grossing films for Bette Davis at that point in her career. Davis also said it was one of her personal favorite films.
Errol Flynn in a western? Though he’s known for his swashbuckling roles, this somehow works. Flynn’s character is modeled after Wyatt Earp and cleans up the rough and tumble town of Dodge City when he becomes sheriff. This is one of the eight that paired Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. Dodge City is filmed in gorgeous Technicolor and has a host of Warner Bros. best character actors, including Bobs Watson, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Frank McHugh, John Litel, Henry Travers, Henry O’Neill and Victor Jory. Ann Sheridan also co-stars as a dance hall performer, and the only downfall of the film is that Sheridan is underutilized.
I include “First Love,” because it is most likely a film you aren’t as familiar with. In a Cinderella-like story, Connie, played by Deanna Durbin, is an orphan whose only relatives don’t care for her and she is brought up by servants. She falls in love with Ted Drake, played by Robert Stack, and wants to go to a ball with him, and the servants help her.
Opera singing Deanna Durbin started out as a child star. This is her first coming-of-age teenage role and she receives her first on-screen kiss from Robert Stack. This is also Stack’s first credited film role. This is a charming and sweet film, and a must-see if you aren’t familiar with Deanna Durbin.
This is an advertising phrase that most film lovers have heard, and it applies to Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka.” This charming comedy follows three Russians, played by Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach, who travel to Paris, France to sell jewels that the Soviets confiscated from Grand Duchess Swana, played by Ina Claire. To help Swana get her jewels back, her boyfriend Count Leon d’Algout, played by Melvyn Douglas, tricks the comrades out of the sell by showing the high life in Paris. While the three men are intoxicated by Paris, Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or Ninotchka, played by Greta Garbo, comes to clean up their mess.
It’s difficult not to gush over this fabulous film. “Ninotchka” was Greta Garbo’s first comedy and she is fabulous in it. With a Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett script, this movie is hilarious and such a cheerful viewing experience.
When anyone says that classic film special effects are lame, I instantly bring up this movie in an effort to prove them wrong. Set in India, the film follows Lady Edwina Esketh, played by Myrna Loy, who is unhappily married to Lord Esketh, played by Nigel Bruce. She falls in love with doctor Major Rama Safti, played by Tyrone Power. The romances are set against the rainy season in Ranchipur, India which brings about disaster and disease.
This film has one of the most breathtaking scenes using special effects that I have ever seen on film. When the rainy season begins, the water already causes a problem but then there is an earthquake, that causes a dam to break and people and items are washed through the streets of Ranchipur, India.
Other films to rent to celebrate 80 years of 1939:
Goodbye Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson
Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen
Love Affair, starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne
The Old Maid, starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins
Midnight, starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche
The Roaring Twenties, starring James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Jeffrey Lynn, and Humphrey Bogart
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.