Project 1939 – watching the 10 nominees for Best Picture Oscar from 1939

When one looks back at Oscar winners of the past, there are some years – particularly in ‘40s and ‘50s – when every film in the list is a classic.

1939 is one such year, and is generally considered to be Oscar’s greatest year ever.

On the night of February 29th 1940, David O. Selznick’s magnum opus Gone with the Wind produced for MGM, fought off studio stablemates The Wizard of Oz and Ninotchka to win the gold statuette. The other 7 films in the mix were Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair and Dark Victory.

I just finished watching Ninotchka this morning, without realizing it was a member of this exalted group. It was only when I was updating my movie database that I noticed the other legendary pictures under the year 1939, and realized that I had watched 8 out of the 10 nominees from that golden year.

Interestingly, the first movie I watched from this list was only about 10-12 years ago and it wasn’t Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, the 2 films most likely to have been seen by any movie buff early in their ‘movie-watching career’. In fact, I watched both those films only in 2008-09! Instead, that status goes to John Ford’s Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne a household name and led to a string of roles in memorable Westerns, many of them directed by John Ford as well.  Ford had a tough time getting a studio to finance this film, because he insisted on casting then-unknown John Wayne as The Ringo Kid. John Wayne was just a B-movie actor at the time and the big studios wanted big names Eventually, the film was picked up by independent producer Walter Wanger and the rest as they say, is history. Westerns were always a big staple on Turner Classic Movies but I had a healthy dislike for them, for some reason. I watched this movie only as an ‘obligation’, as it was so highly regarded, but it kicked off my love affair with the Western genre, John Wayne and John Ford. I can never forget the thrill of watching the scene where The Ringo Kid is introduced to the audience…we hear a gunshot, the stagecoach staggers to a halt, cut to John Wayne with the sun and the Monument Valley landscape behind him; he flips his shotgun full circle (Schwarzenegger did the same thing in Terminator 2) as he shouts out “Hold it!”. The camera zooms into him so quickly that it actually loses focus for a few seconds before settling on his look of surprise as he recognizes the riders on the coach. Even now, I frequently go to Youtube and replay this clip.

My other sentimental favorites from this list are Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Love Affair has been remade twice, once by the same director Leo McCarey as An Affair to Remember in 1957 with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and then disastrously in 1994 as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.  I love both the 1939 and 1957 versions equally, with Charles Boyer every bit as charming a leading man in Love Affair as Cary Grant was in An Affair to Remember. My favorite scenes are the ones with Grandmother Janou and of course, the final scene in Terry McKay’s apartment.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably the 2nd James Stewart film I have ever watched, after It’s a Wonderful Life, which was made much later in 1946 by the same director Frank Capra. Mr. Smith features James Stewart as an idealistic young man thrust into the unforgiving world of Washington politics. The naïve and earnest Mr. Smith is set off well against the suave and crooked Senator Paine (played by the always reliable and watchable Claude Rains, who received an Oscar nomination for the role). The filibuster scene is one of my favorites, of course.

Wuthering Heights and Goodbye, Mr. Chips are the two films from the list that I admired and enjoyed while watching, but are probably a bit too ‘heavy’ to be watched again and again.

It was in Wuthering Heights that I first saw Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon on film; as a kid I had read an article about how she went to great lengths to hide her Asian origins from the public, employing extensive use of cosmetics and drugs which ultimately damaged her skin. A few years later, she was involved in a car accident which caused further facial scarring. During this time, she was married to cinematographer Lucien Ballard who then designed a lighting system – called the ‘obie’ – which would make the scarring disappear on film. The obie is widely used even today! I’m not sure if I was imagining it, but while watching Wuthering Heights, I thought was able to detect the occasional Indian tone in her accent. The film itself is one of William Wyler’s early masterpieces, well before he went on to make Best Picture winners like Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of our Lives and Ben-Hur.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a biographical film, describing the life and times of a school teacher Mr. Chipping (played by Robert Donat) from the start of his career as a Latin teacher at a boys’ school till his retirement as headmaster and subsequent death. It is a warm, sentimental film and provided the role-of-a-lifetime for Robert Donat who had to age 63 years over the course of the film. He beat Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights) and James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to win the Best Actor Oscar.

Getting back to Ninotchka which started this entire train of thought, it’s actually my first ever Greta Garbo film. Having only seen stills of her from her silent era, I initially didn’t recognize her when she appeared on the railway platform as Russian envoy Nina ‘Ninotchka’ Yakushova. I love Ernst Lubitsch comedies (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be) as they are filled with sharp, intelligent dialogue and memorable supporting characters. I have to admit though, that I was a bit creeped out the first time Great Garbo laughed, having got so used to her stern ‘comrade’ persona up to that point in the movie.

So, I’ve decided to retrospectively call this 10 year unfinished journey Project 1939. I have 2 more films left on this list. The first is Of Mice and Men, which stars Lon Chaney Jr., who took a sharp career turn after this film and went on to play the full suite of Universal Studios’ horror characters in films like The Wolfman, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula. The second film is Dark Victory, which has Bette Davis in the lead role of a socialite dealing with terminal cancer and Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. Both are rather grim films and it’s no surprise that I haven’t watched either yet. Hopefully, I will get hold of the two films and be able to report the completion of Project 1939 in the near future!

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