Here’s to you, 1939!

It remains the greatest year the movie industry has ever seen.  The movies produced that year are an embarrassment of riches.  365 films were released in total – that’s an average of one per day – any number of which are considered among the greatest of classics.  That year is also the most discussed, ruminated and celebrated year in the history of Hollywood.


OK – got that out of the way!  That golden year, 1939, celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2019 and I can assure you there will be no shortage of attention paid its numerous glories in the months to come, which left me in somewhat of a pickle when considering this post.  What could I do or say that would be unique?  Nothing.  So, why not just go to the source – share the gold as it happened?

What follows is a calendar of events pertaining to the film happenings of 1939 with some fun tidbits thrown in for good measure.  Note, however, that I make few mentions of the serious events happening around the world at the time, choosing instead a lighthearted approach with mentions of major film releases and other film-related tidbits – all of which I hope you enjoy.

Let’s get to it.


Happy New Year!

Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr enjoy New Year festivities
Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr enjoy New Year festivities

January 13

American audiences see the premiere of Rowland V. Lee’s, Son of Frankenstein, marking the final time Boris Karloff plays the “Monster” in a feature film.

Karloff, Lugosi and Rathbone
Karloff, Lugosi and Rathbone

January 14

The film that did the most business in 1939 was released on this day, a film that is never mentioned when all the exchanges about “the greatest year” take place.   The film is Henry King’s, Jesse James starring the hugely popular Tyrone Power.


The popularity of Jesse James stands to reason, given the popularity of Tyrone Power at the time.  Here is a 1939 Movietone News, Hollywood Spotlight clip showing Power and Jeanette MacDonald crowned movie “King and Queen” in a presentation by then-columnist, Ed Sullivan.

As a reminder – Hollywood wouldn’t reap the financial rewards of the most memorable releases of 1939 until 1940 when many of them went into wide distribution.

January 15

A bit of fun from Candid Reporter, J. D. Spiro’s syndicated “On the Lots” column:

While visiting with Hedy Lamarr on the Metro Lot while the beauty worked on I Take this Woman Spiro reports Lamarr acted like any other woman on set.  The former wife of an Austrian millionaire is friendly, unaffected, eager, cooperative and has no retinue of attendants – no maid nor secretary to wait upon her and no chauffeur to drive her home.  The reporter is as impressed with the star’s beauty as he is with the fact she breakfasts on a pear and a pot of tea open to asking any of the crew who may have missed breakfast to join her.

Also by Spiro on that day a Filmdom’s Who’s Who:

In the same issue and write-up by Spiro makes mention of the Motion Picture Herald’s annual box office checkup and how closely everyone looked at individual star’s standings.  In January 1939 the Herald’s polls had featured only three stars at the top since the poll’s inception in 1932.  MGM’s Marie Dressler captured the top spot in both ’32 and ’33.  Will Rogers took the top honors in 1934.  But since that year the top spot belonged to one actor for four successive years, Shirley Temple.  Closest to Temple in those years was Clark Gable, making him the leading male actor of the 1930s.  Although when the polls for 1939 were calculated and reported in January 1939 the numbers of audience reactions were lowest in several years.

Also noted in the Herald Poll are the stars that lay on the bottom of the heap, in need of immediate box office rehabilitation by January 1939.  These are stars who’d previously dominated audience appeal and are noted as Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Dick Powell, William Powell and Joe E. Brown.  By the way, because I love them I must mention that William Powell’s mention on the “bottom” list was in part due to his being away from filmdom for long periods during these years due to illness.  He made a successful return in November 1939 with the premiere of the third installment of the Thin Man film series, W. S. Van Dyke’s, Another Thin Man.  And despite her label as box office poison, Crawford would be making a significant mark in the movies later in 1939 as well.

January 16

Superman made his debut in April 1938 in “Action Comics” #1.  However, it is arguable whether he became a household name until January 16 of 1939 when his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were granted what was their original wish – to feature Superman on a daily newspaper strip.  On that January day he appeared in the Houston Chronicle newspaper with the story “Superman Comes To Earth”. The daily strip would run until 1966. (Superman  But Superman would enjoy being one of the most recognizable figures in all media for decades to come.


January 24

George Stevens’, Gunga Din premieres in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Times reports it is a “Melodrama on a magnificent Scale.”

At The Pantages Theater for the Gunga Din premiere are Cary Grant, Annabella, Phyllis Brooks and Tyrone Power
At The Pantages Theater for the Gunga Din premiere are Cary Grant, Annabella, Phyllis Brooks and Tyrone Power

February 14

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Actress Joyce Matthews who appeared in 14 movies released in 1939
Actress Joyce Matthews appeared in 14 movies released in 1939

Also on this day – Victor Fleming replaces George Cukor as director of Gone With the Wind.

February 15

The premiere of John Ford’s, Stagecoach

Stagecoach would be John Wayne’s breakout role, and remains a beloved classic seventy-five years after its premiere.  However, it is only one of three John Ford films released in 1939.  The other two are Young Mr. Lincoln, which I note on this timeline and Drums Along the Mohawk.  Three stellar outings this year from one of our greatest directors.

As a special treat I am sharing this great piece of pop culture history – I am not familiar with the history of DC Comics at all so I wasn’t aware they had a series dedicated to motion pictures, but I found this wonderful comic adaptation from  DC Comics’ Movie Comics #2 (1939) immortalizing Stagecoach on the pages of a comic book.  I thought this a worthy tribute and mention to one of Ford’s masterpieces.


Worthy of note, just as John Wayne became a star with Stagecoach so did William Holden with another film released later in 1939 when he, at the insistence of Barbara Stanwyck played the title character in Rouben Mamoulian’s, Golden Boy.

February 23

The 11th Academy Awards (1939) honoring the nominees and winners for film achievement in 1938.

Official details and images of the 1939 Oscars ceremony are available here.

Best Picture of 1938
Best Picture of 1938
Best Actor Spencer Tracy (“Boys Town”) and Best Actress Bette Davis (“Jezebel”).

March 10

Walter Lang’s, The Little Princess premieres starring Hollywood’s biggest box office draw for several years running, Shirley Temple.

This is the star’s first Technicolor film.


March 16

Leo McCarey’s, Love Affair premieres in New York

A few years ago a friend of mine bought me a postcard dated March 18, 1939 in a museum.  Knowing how much I love not only films, but nostalgia he knew I’d fall in love with the message written by a man to his sister so long ago.  As he wrote he’d been to see the new picture, “Love Affair” and hurried to write her because he knew she’d love it.  He also mentioned how he’d been to see the marvel that was the George Washington Bridge and had attended the St. Patrick’s Day parade where he noticed what a handsome people the Irish are.

If the sister heeded her brother’s advice and saw Love Affair it’s very likely she fell in love with it, which would have concurred with both of the film’s stars.  This was the favorite film of both Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.


March 24

New York City sees Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson for the first time in the premiere of Sidney Lanfield’s, The Hound of the Baskervilles.


This would be the first of fourteen films based on Arthur Conan Doyle‘s fictional detective story and characters.  The second installment starring Rathbone and Bruce was also released in 1939, Alfred Werker’s, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which was the last Sherlock Holmes movie made at 20th Century Fox.


March 28

“Box-office poison,” Katharine Hepburn premieres on Broadway in “The Philadelphia Story.”

Alfred Eisenstaedt: Actress Katharine Hepburn, adjusting her hat in mirror while in costume on set of her Broadway play “The Philadelphia Story”
Alfred Eisenstaedt: Actress Katharine Hepburn, adjusting her hat in mirror while in costume on set of her Broadway play “The Philadelphia Story”

Hepburn would return to Hollywood a year later with the rights to “The Philadelphia Story” and power enough to choose where and for whom she wanted to work.  She chooses MGM.

March 29

The last Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film for 10 years, until The Barkleys of Broadway (1949).  It’s H. C. Potter’s, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle that was released on this day.


Garson Kanin’s, Bachelor Mother also starring Ginger Rogers with David Niven this time, was also released in 1939.  A worthy mention for a worthy picture.

March 30

The New York Times reports on the Gable/Lombard nuptials the previous day:


Worthy of note – Carole Lombard stars in two highly entertaining pictures released in 1939 both directed by John Cromwell.  Made for Each Other opposite James Stewart and In Name Only with Cary Grant.  As for Mr. Gable, he had two films released that year – Clarence Brown’s, Idiot’s Delight and a little ditty called Gone With the Wind.

April 13

William Wyler’s, Wuthering Heights premieres in New York

The New York Times reports it is “Goldwyn at his best, and better still, Emily Bronte at hers.”

Samuel Goldwyn later claimed that this was his favorite production.

Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier apparently detested each other. Legend has it that when William Wyler yelled “Cut!” after a particularly romantic scene, Oberon shouted back to her director about her co-star “Tell him to stop spitting at me!” (IMDB)


April 14

John Steinbeck’s, “The Grapes of Wrath” is published and a superb film adaptation follows in 1940.  The film, which was directed by John Ford and stars Henry Fonda would go on to receive seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, winning two – Best Director and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Jane Darwell.

Also worthy of note as far as film original sources go, 1939 also saw the publication of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” which introduced popular detective, Philip Marlowe.  Marlowe would be portrayed in the movies by both Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell.

April 20

Edmund Goulding’s, Dark Victory premieres

Variety called the film “intense drama” and “a nicely produced offering [with] Bette Davis in a powerful and impressive role.”


What is much more impressive, however, is the fact that Dark Victory was only one of the four films in which Bette Davis starred that were released in 1939.  The others:  Michael Curtiz’, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Edmund Goulding’s, The Old Maid and William Dieterle’s, Juarez.

April 22

Merrie Melodies’ “Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur” premieres

Produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions for Warner Bros. Pictures this cartoon is notable for being the first Daffy Duck cartoon directed by Chuck Jones.  Because I am a huge fan of Warner Bros. animated shorts I had to include at least one as part of the “happenings” of 1939.  This is as good an example as any released by the geniuses at Termite Terrace.

April 27

Warner Bros. releases a landmark film, Anatole Litvak’s, Confessions of a Nazi Spy

As a whole, I’d say the heads of the major Hollywood studios were pro-American involvement in WWII should what seemed an inevitability at this point, the war in Europe, begin.  However, true to form it was Warner Bros. who would make the gutsiest moves on the movie front to state their out-and-out objection to Nazi actions and Spy may be the best example.  Credited with being the first anti-Nazi movie made in Hollywood before the start of WWII, this movie features an all-star cast and was instrumental in Congress’ officially address early in 1940, which stated that the making of “such films” was not permitted.  That announcement is mentioned in the overview of the 1940s I posted, which you can read here if interested.


Worthy of note – another terrific film was released on April 27, 1939 – Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea.

April 30

New York World’s Fair Opens

President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the opening day address, which was not only broadcast over radio networks but was also televised.  The World’s Fair allowed visitors to look at “The world of tomorrow,” which included the General Motors exhibit titled Futurama.  Philo T. Farnsworth premiered some of the first televisions at the fair and AT&T presented its first Picture Phone.  The IBM Pavilion featured electric typewriters, and a fantastic machine called the electric calculator that used punched cards to enter the information for the computer to calculate the results.  Most exciting was the introduction made by RCA, the television, which included a brochure used by dealers to explain the new wonder. The opening ceremony and events at the fair were televised, and NBC began regularly scheduled broadcasts.

Television 1939 RCA Early Introduction to TV

April 1939

As if all that was introduced at the New York world’s Fair wasn’t enough, the “Movie Slot Machine, which Shows Pictures of Latest News Events” was also a promising contraption:

MOTION-PICTURE newsreels are on view for a nickel in a modern version of the old penny-arcade, animated-picture machine recently displayed at a Chicago, 111., convention of manufacturers. As shown at the right, the device has a motion-picture projector installed in the base of its cabinet. Film images are thrown on a small mirror that reflects them up to a ground-glass screen near the top of the cabinet, where they are viewed through an eyepiece by a customer. Designed for hotel lobbies, railroad stations, taverns, and other public places, the movie machine is entirely automatic, running through four separate scenes when a nickel is dropped into the slot, and rewinding for the next customer when the film ends. (Modern Mechanix)


May 1

The success of Superman in Action Comics prompted editors at the comic book division of National Publications (the future DC Comics) to request more superheroes for its titles. In response, Bob Kane created “the Bat-Man.”  The character first appeared in Detective Comics #27 on this day.  And the rest is media history.


May 15

Sam Wood’s, Goodbye, Mr. Chips premieres in New York.

This film was dedicated to the memory of producer Irving Thalberg who’d died on September 14, 1936.

34-year-old Robert Donat ages 63 years (1870-1933) over the course of the film.  He remarked: “As soon as I put the mustache on, I felt the part, even if I did look like a great Airedale come out of a puddle.”

Greer Garson was initially offered a contract for MGM in 1937, but refused all the minor parts she was offered until she got the role of Kathy Ellis in this film, making this her first starring role at MGM.

Hollywood's Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939

May 30

John Ford’s, Young Mr. Lincoln has its world premiere in Springfield, Illinois.

Of the film The New York Times film critic stated, “Henry Fonda’s characterization (of Lincoln) is one of those one-in-a-blue-moon things: a crossroads meeting of nature, art and a smart casting director.”

World premiere in Springfield, Illinois
World premiere in Springfield, Illinois

As it turns out both Mr. Fonda and his good friend, Mr. Stewart would have breakout years in 1939.  Mr. Stewart in a Frank Capra release in October wherein a young Senator goes to D.C.  More on that later.

June 16

The day Richard Thorpe’s, Tarzan Finds a Son! finds its way into theaters.

The film’s premise that Tarzan “find” a son resulted from the fact the censors would not allow Jane to become pregnant because she and Tarzan were not legally married.  I’m not sure what the censors thought Tarzan and Jane were doing since swimming sans clothing in African rivers since they’d first met.

Jane and Tarzan and the little bundle of joy they found when they weren't playing jungle checkers
Jane and Tarzan and the little bundle of joy they found when they weren’t playing jungle checkers

July 13

Frank Sinatra, a native of Hoboken, NJ, makes his recording debut with the Harry James Band.



The March of Time – Hollywood History Marches On! 

August 2

From the ‘Fidler in Hollywood’ syndicated column:

As the wind blows item:  International politics took hold in Hollywood on Saturday, when Broderick Crawford’s Chinese Cook and Japanese gardener locked horns.  Brod, as mediator, was the only casualty, suffering skinned knuckles and a torn shirt.  He stopped the war by firing the gardener.

August 15

Victor Fleming’s, The Wizard of Oz premieres at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood

Walter Winchell wrote: “Outstanding among the week’s films was “The Wizard of Oz,” notable for its luxury of comics, including Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley, each hefty enough to lug his own B’way show.  This is the old Montgomery & Stone forget-me-not, brightened up with color and nifties and looking very audience-catching. ”  Really?  No mention of Judy Garland, Winchell?  Over the Rainbow is still a miracle.


Let’s take a break to actually step back in time to the week of the Oz premiere and try to imagine what it would have been like to be a movie buff.  Also in theaters that week –  Gunga Din with Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon; Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Robert Donat; Dark Victory with Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and the dashing newcomer Ronald Reagan; Only Angels Have Wings, with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur; Love Affair, a smash box office hit starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer; The Little Princess, with Shirley Temple in one of only eight Technicolor films on the year’s release schedule; Juarez, a biographical drama starring Paul Muni and Bette Davis and written by young John Huston; The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and Stanley and Livingstone, with Spencer Tracy.  Don Ameche had three movies in theaters that week: the comedy Midnight (co-written by the promising Billy Wilder), the critically acclaimed biopic The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and Hollywood Cavalcade, which traced the history of Hollywood right up to 1939. (Jack Matthews, January 1, 1989)

August 22

From Walter Winchell’s syndicated Column:

The Headliners:  Said Jeanette MacDonald:  “My impatience drives me mad!” . . . Then imagine what it does to the people around you! . . . Intoned Jimmy Stewart:  “I’m forgetful, I even forget dates.” . . . Gwan!  I hear you have so many dates your lap is outta breath . . . Jimmy Cagney’s message of the week:  “I don’t want to re-make the world.” . . . Oh, so you’re the one! . . . Binnie Barnes’ remarkable remark:  “I girl’s figure does count.” . . . Lady, a figger to a girl is what ham is to eggs.

August 25

From the “Fidler in Hollywood,” syndicated column:

. . . A new edict posted at Warner Brothers forbids stars to ride bicycles on the lot—it’s the result of an accident in which Jimmie Cagney biked into a peanut stand and had to take time off for epidermal repairs.

From Walter Winchell’s syndicated column:

“Bachelor Mother,” in case you aren’t a radio tuner-inner, was one of RKO’s biggest hits.  It’s Number One flick . . .  Now go on with the oddity:  Norman Krasna, who wrote it, didn’t have his option renewed.  Buddy De Sylva, who produced it, hasn’t been asked to do another film as per contract.  Pandro Berman, its executive producer, who directed it so brilliantly, was suspended because he refused to do a “B” film—meaning bad picture . . .  Could RKO’s president be allergic to black ink?

And then there was this one during the prosperous run of the show, “Anything Goes” at the Alvin . . .  The box office was held up and cleaned out of all cash, a goodly sum . . .  The Journal reported:  “Yesterday, at the box office of ‘Anything Goes,’ everything went.”

September 1

Amidst turmoil in Europe, the Cannes Film Festival is scheduled to open on this day.

The first Cannes Film Festival was supposed to be held from September 1 to September 20 in an auditorium at the Municipal Casino.  Festival-goers arrived in August and took part in numerous parties preceding the event.  But as the threats of war deepened, the partygoers fled.  The festival was postponed for ten days in hopes of easing tensions.  But the situation only worsened.  War was declared on September 3rd, making it impossible for the festival to go on.  A single screening was organized – privately – of the American film Quasimodo directed by William Dieterle. (

Also on that day – George Cukor’s The Women premieres.

Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo were the only top-tier female stars at MGM who did not star in this all-female film.  The cast as it stands, however, has gone down in history as one of the best, distinctive as much for the outstanding talent of the players as for the fact they are all women, including every animal that was used in the film (the many dogs and horses).


Other trivia tidbits that would go on to affect the history of film in 1939:  George Cukor was fired as director of Gone with the Wind only a month before The Women was scheduled to begin filming.  And – The Women was the film debut of Butterfly McQueen, an important part of the magic that would be Gone With the Wind as the world would see three and a half months later.

I found this fun little gossip tidbit that appeared in a paper prior to the release of The Women.


September 9

Clarence Brown’s, The Rains Came premieres in New York.

This is significant because The Rains Came would go on to win the first-ever Academy Award for Visual Effects, defeating the mammoth Gone with the Wind in one of the few categories it didn’t take.  Of course, it also beat out the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.

Visually impressive from the opening credits as the film's title is washed away
Visually impressive from the opening credits as the film’s title is washed away

Of note, if just for fun, the first ever Harvard Lampoon Worst Actor Award went to Tyrone Power for his work in The Rains Came in which he stars opposite Myrna Loy.

September 15

Busby Berkeley’s, Babes in Arms premieres in Huston, Texas.

Two of MGM’s biggest stars, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland star in the studio’s biggest money-maker of the year.


Let’s spend more time with Mickey and Judy and this 1939 MGM newsreel:

September 15

Hollywood gossip from “Screen and Radio Weekly”

In In Name Only Carole Lombard shows that she could give Bette Davis some rather stern competition as a dramatic actress if she put her mind to it.  The girl who has been playing ga-ga comedy roles with such zest ever since the public acclaimed her as a comedienne in My Man Godfrey (1936) has turned in a bit of acting that makes her a promising candidate for one of those Academy statuettes, next time they’re awarded.

Don Ameche is buying liniment as the result of a freak golfing accident.  Seems he played a brassie show from the rough.  The ball hit a nearby tree dead center, rebounding and hit Don—also dead-center.  He was out for 15 minutes and still winces if prodded in the wrong place.

George Brent is still incommunicado in that San Bernardino rest home.

Helen Hayes uses her “Oscar” (Motion Picture Academy Award) as a doorstop in her Nyack, N.Y. home!

New York, Sept. 15—Col. Charles A. Lindbergh will discuss “America and the European War” tonight at 8:45.  National, Columbia and Mutual chains will carry the speech.  Lindbergh speaking from WOL, Washington, D. C.

September 24

Film pioneer, Carl Laemmle dies of a heart attack in Los Angeles.

Laemmle made a mark from the earliest days of motion pictures, which led him to found Universal Film Manufacturing Company, which later became Universal Studios.

Later, on December 12, Hollywood would lose another major player, a pioneer both in front of and behind the camera in the person of Douglas Fairbanks.

October 6

Ernst Lubitsch’, Ninotchka premieres in Los Angeles and the world sees Garbo laugh!

Also on October 6 – Ingrid Bergman makes her American film debut with the release of Gregory Ratoff’s, Intermezzo: A Love Story

Which means, by the way, that in 1939 producer David O. Selznick managed to discover both Ingrid Bergman and Vivien Leigh.  Not too shabby.  And an interesting bit of trivia from IMDB, Selznick bribed Leslie Howard into accepting the role of Ashley in Gone with the Wind by giving him the right to co-produce this film.


October 11

Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie made in the UK, Jamaica Inn makes its U.S. debut in New York City

This film was profitable, but (I was surprised to see) is listed on many “worst” lists of the year.  Of course, given the extraordinary number of great films it may be affected by its terrible timing.  Hitchcock would follow Jamaica Inn with his first Hollywood production in 1940, Rebecca, his only Best Picture Academy Award winning film.


October 16

The Broadway production of Kaufman and Hart’s, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” opened at the Music Box Theater to huge success.  The production would go on to enjoy a total run of 739 performances ending in 1941.


The Man Who Came to Dinner would be made into a motion picture released in 1942, a film Bette Davis would want to star in since she’d seen the Broadway production and intended to play opposite John Barrymore in the role of Sheridan Whiteside.  At her insistence, Warner Bros. tested Barrymore for the role but his failing health and inability to remember his lines cost him the job.

Barrymore’s ill-health aside, it was lucky that the role ended up being portrayed by Monty Wooley who’d originated it on Broadway.  Wooley is fabulous in the film and Whiteside would become the role he’d most be associated with.

October 17

Frank Capra’s, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premieres in Washington, D.C.

Who doesn’t love this movie?  I love this piece of trivia noted in IMDB: In 1942, when a ban on American films was imposed in German-occupied France, the title theaters chose Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for their last movie before the ban went into effect. One Paris theater reportedly screened the film nonstop for thirty days prior to the ban.

“Mr. Smith” is one of the best shows of the year. More fun, even, than the Senate itself.” – Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times

October 23

The day when audiences were taken back to Prohibitionist America with the release of Raoul Walsh’, The Roaring Twenties

This marked the end of James Cagney‘s cycle of gangster films for Warner Bros. Cagney wanted to diversify his roles and would not play a gangster again until White Heat (1949), ten years later.  The Roaring Twenties also stars Priscilla Lane and Humphrey Bogart.

Here is a fantastic trailer for the movie featuring columnist Mark Hellinger:

November 11

On this day Kate Smith first sings Irving Berlin’s, “God Bless America”

December 15

Victor Fleming’s, Gone With the Wind celebrates its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia

Franz Hoellering, film critic of “The Nation” reports the film is “A major event in the history of the industry, but only a minor achievement in motion picture art.”

The much-hyped, non-artful movie would exceed very high expectations and change motion picture history.  Here is the premiere:

December 24

Lewis Milestone’s, Of Mice and Men sees its New York City premiere

This is the first screen adaptation of a John Steinbeck novel.


December 25

Merry Christmas!

Relative Hollywood newcomer, Mary Martin in a studio-inspired pose wishing everyone the merriest of days
Relative Hollywood newcomer, Mary Martin in a studio-inspired pose wishing everyone the merriest of days in 1939

December 26

‘Hollywood Shots’ by Jimmie Fidler of “Fidler on Hollywood”

Now that Gone With the Wind has been released, it’s time to tell about the tempest in a tea-pot which reigned in Hollywood over Rhett Butler’s final speech – “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

When Hays office purists saw that naughty, naughty word in the script they were aghast.  What would women’s clubs think?  What would censors think?  What would parents do when they saw the morals of their children toppling over the “damn”?

Joseph Breen, chief censor of the Hays organization and probably the only Irishman in history to be appalled by so mild an expletive, rushed here from New York to strike the offending word from the scenario.  But David O. Selznick girded his loins for the fray and finally threatened to withdraw from the Producers Association if Rhett couldn’t have his say.  Selznick eventually won the attacks and counter attacks but conscientious objectors remain unconvinced.

Frankly, I think the Hays office has gone too far.  Without that typical speech – taken directly from the book – the character of Rhett Butler would have been incomplete.  It is the perfect ending, the exclamation point needed to round out a great, true-to-life story.  The motion picture industry has long since outgrown infancy.  It’s too old now to have its mouth washed out with soap.  Let our adult movies be their age!

December 29

William Dieterle’s, The Hunchback of Notre Dame celebrates its U.S. premiere.

The ad announcing the film's New York premiere at Radio City Music Hall as it appeared in The New York Times, page 11
The ad announcing the film’s New York premiere at Radio City Music Hall as it appeared in The New York Times, page 11


The twelfth Academy Awards ceremony was held on Thursday, February 29, 1940 at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel. Bob Hope hosted the event. That day records were set and history made as a result of several of the happenings noted in this post.  You can take a look at the complete list of winners and nominees at the AMPAS site here.

Here are the chosen films:

  • Gone With the Wind – fourteen nominations, eight competitive wins and one honorary Oscar for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”
  • Dark Victory – (with three nominations and no wins)
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips – seven nominations and one win – Best Actor
  • Love Affair – five nominations and no wins
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – eleven nominations and one win – Best Original story
  • Ninotchka – four nominations and no wins
  • Of Mice and Men – five nominations and no wins
  • Stagecoach – seven nominations and two wins – Best Supporting Actor and Best Score
  • The Wizard of Oz – six nominations and two wins – Best Song “Over the Rainbow” and Best Original Score
  • Wuthering Heights – eight nominations and one win – Best Black and White Cinematography

And I’ll end with a fantastic clip showing the stars arriving at the 1940 ceremony:

If that doesn’t beat all!  The farther away we roam the shinier the gold of the Golden Year.

Here’s to you, 1939!


This post is my entry to the Classic Movie History Project, an event I am proud to be co-hosting on Once Upon a Screen with Movies, Silently and Silver Screenings.  We are each hosting an era of the thirty-five years the event covers:

At Movies, Silently – The Silent Era

At Silver Screenings – An Uncertain world

At Once Upon a Screen – The War Years, which begins with this post dedicated to 1939.

Please be sure to visit all the host sites to gather the full scope of the history of Hollywood from the many posts dedicated to the films and players that made a difference in the span of thirty-five years the event is covering.


39 thoughts

  1. Wow! What a terrific overview of 1939. I wish you could turn it into a book. I’ve still to go through it again and look at the all the film clips.
    What a mountain of research you must have done,Aurora.
    My post on 1950 is now on my blog.

    1. Got it, Vienna and thanks so much for your lovely comments. As long as this is I had a hell of a time scaling it back.

      Will start reading and sharing posts in a bit! 🙂


  2. Wonderful post! Due to all your research, I feel like you’ve given us a virtual vacation in the year 1939. 🙂

    I agree with Vienna – I think you have the makings of a book here, Aurora.

  3. All that hoopla for “Gone With the Wind”! Now that’s what I call confidence. What if folks hadn’t liked it? What if it didn’t live up to the hype?

    I saw “Jesse James” on the big screen in ’79. It ran as a double bill with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”. I don’t know why, but there they were on a big screen in glorious Technicolor, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott! The best part of the evening. I still have the ad from the newspaper in an old scrapbook.

    It’s funny, that although we weren’t even born yet, a stroll through 1939 is a stroll down our own memory lane.

    1. What a wonderfully weird double bill!! I’ve yet to see “Jesse James” but it is on my list, which grows by the day.

      I often wonder about that GWTW WHAT IF!! I noted the effect it had on box-office receipts in 1940 in the overview post I did. Over half of the totals were due to that one film, which is incredible. I purposefully didn’t want to focus on that one much in this post but it remains a wonder in all manner of ways. And I agree, looking back at these years is in many ways revisiting family members. 🙂


  4. very cool and thorough calendar and tour of events and movies! Even though we hear so often of this year you still had many things I never knew about, like The Rains Came winning for effects (thanks for more than one Ty photo also!!) and I enjoy the gossip and excerpts from the columns. excellent job!

  5. So.Many.Films. And what a wonderful tribute to them! Its testament to the quality of filmmaking that we are still talking about so many of them today. Perhaps (one day) I’ll make it a project to watch a 1939 film a day for an entire year… 😉

    1. Oh! How great would that be!!

      Thanks so much – I’m glad you liked this. I found it a difficult post to focus on but once I found my focus I could hardly stop!


  6. That ‘Stagecoach’ comic book is quite a find. You’d almost think DC knew how important that movie would become.

  7. Aurora,
    This is a fun little Blogathon. I’ve really enjoyed these trips through history. But, did you cheat or what? How did you get 1939? Was there a drawing, rock, paper, scissors? ha ha

    What can be said about the films of this year that hasn’t been written about 1,000 times already?
    With that said, I really did enjoy your look back at such a memorable year in cinema and the newspaper clips, videos and fab photos were icing.

    Well done!

    1. Haha!! I got early dibs since I co-hosted. Jumped at 1939. Didn’t think about it for a while but when I sat to post SOMETHING it hit me – what the hell can I possibly say? Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But, forged forward and had fun.

      Thanks for the visit! 😀


  8. Wow – you really knocked it out of the park with this one, my dear (of course, having 1939 as your year doesn’t hurt!). – seriously, you did just an epic job. It’s clear that you loved writing this one. Thanks so very much for this fabulous post – and even more for co-hosting a really great event.

    1. Well, aren’t you the bomb diggity! So glad you liked this. I had a hell of a time trying to find something remotely original for this most popular year, but had a fun time once I figured it out.


  9. Oooh, Aurora! **1939** What a fabulous year to critique and review! You’ve done an amazing job! My goodness! 🙂

    Great to read about the iconic flicks like “Gone With The Wind”, “Stagecoach” and **”Wuthering Heights”** as well as other gems from that seminal year like “Jessie James”, “Dark Victory” and “Intermezzo”.

    So happy you mentioned Merle!! 🙂 It’s a shame that the “Wuthering Heights” shoot was not one of her happiest experiences. I think she makes a lovely Cathy, perfectly encapsulating the strong-willed, childish and mischievous qualities of Bronte’s infamous heroine. She is equally compassionate, sensitive and vulnerable when it is required of her. Under the guidance of Billy Wilder she is compelling!

    I’ve found that Merle excelled in some films more than others as an actress – in particular, comedy was never her strong forte – but “Wuthering Heights” is definitely one of her best performances! 😎

    Aside from Merle, I loved reading about Ty Power and Jimmy Stewart, and of course, the wonderful Jimmy Cagney. The inclusion of the Academy Awards ceremony in Feb 1940 was a real highlight!!!

    Many thanks for co-hosting this exciting Blogathon!

  10. Oooh, Aurora! **1939** What a fabulous year to critique! You’ve done an amazing job! My goodness! 🙂

    I loved reading about iconic flicks like “Gone With the Wind”, “Stagecoach” and **”Wuthering Heights”** as well as other gems from that seminal year like “Jessie James”, “Dark Victory” and “Intermezzo”.

    I’m so happy you mentioned Merle! It’s a shame that the “Wuthering Heights” shoot was not one of her best experiences. I think she makes a lovely Cathy, perfectly encapsulating the strong-willed, childish and mischievous qualities of Bronte’s infamous heroine. She is equally compassioante, sensitive and vulnerable when it is required of her. Under the guidence of Billy Wilder she is compelling!

    I’ve found that Merle excelled in some films more than others as an actress. In particular, comedy was never a strong forte of hers. But “Wuthering Heights” is definately one of her best moments on screen! 🙂

    Aside from Merle, the inclusion of the Academy Awards ceremony in February 1940 was a real highlight!

    Many thanks for co-hosting this exciting Blogathon! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Catherine! I really can’t say I know much about Merle and must take time to watch her films. However, she’s by far my favorite thing about Wuthering Heights. I’m not a fan of the film otherwise, actually, because of the ending. Just spoils the entire film for me. But she’s great in it!!


  11. Thank you, Aurora, for a journey through a busy year And I can’t stand Jamaica Inn. I try to watch it now and then, but I can’t stand it. Thanks for the well-researched trip through 1939.

    1. So glad you enjoyed this, Joe. I have to admit it’s been years since I watch Jamaica Inn, but I don’t remember it being that bad. I must revisit it soon and form a new opinion.


  12. My first experience of Jamaica Inn was a wonderful radio broadcast. Then I saw the film and didn’t like it at all. I thought Charles Laughton over acted terribly.
    Would love to see The Rains Came again. I thought it had a great part for Myrna Loy.

  13. Have just read your post again – so much to enjoy. I liked the Daffy Duck cartoon, and that new-to-me poster from Dark Victory.
    I’m wondering who was in the Playbill picture with Monty Wooley. Will check on that.
    I’m also wondering what was wrong with poor George Brent ( in a rest home).
    The 1939 Oscars broadcast was a nice finale, especially seeing Hattie McDaniels’ speech.

  14. Whew! What a year! Loved the calendar format and all the little tidbits. Poor Mr.Hitchcock! Worst film lists indeed! Oh well, I guess he showed them later. And Batman and Sinatra making their debuts the same year? Whoda thunk? I was particularly amused by how short everyone’s memory was. The “motion picture slot machine” was called a kinetoscope in the 1890s (still a nickel) and Joan Crawford’s hair was a throwback to her flapper-days length.

    Oh, and on an unrelated note, thanks for being a fab hostess!

  15. 1939 was much more than the films we usually remember. There are hidden gems as well, such as Jesse James (I always laugh out loud with the newspaper editor). and many stories that would becaome wonderful films appeared in this year as well. And the Oscar footage! Oh, my! I have to confess I teared up a bit.
    Thanks for this glorious event!

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