Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Was 1939 the greatest year ever for movies?

Well, I don’t know. I suppose it might be. Oh, hang on. I asked the question. Didn’t I? Of all the frigging pointless games that buffs play one of the most neglected is Best Ever Year Bingo. In the same …

Wed, May 2, 2012, 22:53

   
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Well, I don’t know. I suppose it might be. Oh, hang on. I asked the question. Didn’t I? Of all the frigging pointless games that buffs play one of the most neglected is Best Ever Year Bingo. In the same way that Citizen Kane (1941, since you ask) remains the critics’ choice for best ever film, 1939 has long been considered the annus mirabilis of cinema. Two movies alone make the case in very different ways. Whatever you think of Gone With the Wind, you can’t escape that fact that, by any sensible measure, it is the most successful movie of all time. It wins when you count the number of bums on seats. It wins when you adjust for inflation. Take that you annoying gang of blue aliens. In the same year, Jean Renoir released the sublime La Règle du jeu, which very often comes second to Kane in those polls. What else? Well, The Wizard of Oz might be the greatest family film ever made. Stagecoach might be the greatest — and is, unquestionably, the most influential — western ever to hit the plain. Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka showed that Garbo could be funny. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums was Kenji Mizoguchi’s greatest pre-war achievement.

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Having noted the achievements of Mizoguchi and Renoir, we must admit that the year belonged to Hollywood. Given certain misunderstandings then brewing in Europe, it is hardly surprising that the Americans went on to consolidate their position. A year later, while most of the great cinema nations were fighting the Nazis (or being the Nazis),  the US managed to deliver Rebecca, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and Fantasia. They may not have entered the war for another year and a bit, but the Yanks did export some cracking entertainment to blackout Britain. Everyday life progressed unmolested in the US and Hollywood continued to deliver some of its finest ever films.

What was it about 1939? Well, a lot of bunk is talked about economic depressions being a good time for popular entertainment. It does, however, seem that, during the 1930s, Americans really did take solace in the movies. In the years following the 1929 crash, the studios — gradually perfecting the art of sound — fed off that popularity and explored ever craftier ways of entertaining the masses. Cinema never again had such a clear run at the entertainment dollar. After the war, television began gradually to creep its way into homes with the view to poisoning minds. Oh, how Hollywood would love to be back in that time again. (Well, without the looming war and all.)

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There are other contenders, of course. We could make a very good case for 1972. The Godfather, Deliverance, Cabaret, Aguirre: Wrath of God, Solaris, Cries and Whispers, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: what do you make of them lovely apples? (I am probably obliged to also mention Last Tango in Paris, though I find it utterly ridiculous.)

In 1960, despite the attack from TV, we got The Apartment, L’Avventura, Breathless, La Dolce Vita, Psycho, Spartacus and Rocco and his Brothers. Hang on a moment. Scratch the header above. The first year of the 1960s was amazing.

Younger people might dare to suggest the strange false dawn that was 1999. Remember Magnolia, All About My Mother, Being John Malkovich, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix. (You already know my feelings on stupid Fight Club, but I mention it anyway.)

If you ever figure out how to make a comment then please do suggest your own favourite year.

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