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How 1939 earned and kept the moniker of ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Year’

December 22, 2019 at 12:00 PM EST

80 years later, we’re still talking about 1939.

And it’s not hard to see why — it’s the year that gave us The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Women, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, and so many more. Just one of those films would make it a standout, but the sheer number of absolute classics that premiered in 1939 make it a banner year of epic proportions.

Yes, there’s plenty of other years that could be in the running for “greatest year” in Hollywood history. Just this year, we’ve seen plenty of enthusiastic arguments making the case for a more recent cinematic annus mirabilis, 1999. The debates could (and have and will) rage until the end of time, but, for so many, 1939 holds steady as the greatest year in Hollywood history. Not only because of the incredible movies that came out of it, but because of what they stand for in their sum – the myth of Hollywood and a unique moment in American mass culture.

“It represents Old Hollywood at its best – the studio system, the star system, the way they made movies,” says Thomas S. Hischak, author of 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year. “Whatever you liked about movies, it was there. 1939 did it all and did it well.”

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From larger-than-life stars to top tier directors to access to top artisans in every field, the studio system crystallized filmmaking into a collaborative art form capable of producing veritable magic. The fantastical or spectacular elements of iconic projects like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz helped infuse that sense of myth-making.

“It’s the roots or seeds of cinema as fantastic, all-encompassing spectacle,” notes Bernardo Rondeau, Associate Curator of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. “It’s really an era where you can have a notion, that still carries today, of filmmaking as this collaborative art of everyone working at the top of their game to make these incredible theatrical experiences.”

1939 is, of course, an essential part of the history that will be on display when the Museum opens in 2020. “You can’t talk about film history and not touch upon this peak year,” says Rondeau. But it’s mythic status isn’t entirely a happy accident.

According to Mark Vieira’s Majestic Hollywood: The Films of 1939, the push to create a landmark year in cinema was intentional. Studios were just beginning to recover from the Depression, while also facing threats to their income with the looming antitrust lawsuit that was filed with the Justice Department in 1938. Just as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of 1939 now, 1939 itself was considered a major cinematic anniversary, marking the 50th anniversary of the first projection of moving pictures and the 25th anniversary of the American industry’s move to Hollywood from its East Coast roots.

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All of this accounts for the breadth of big-budget projects across genres, a filmography so varied that many of the films now stand as the gold standard for their respective genres. Few adventure films stand as tall as Gunga Din; Stagecoach elevated the Western’s status; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington introduced a model for political drama still resonant today; The Women laid the groundwork for the perfect female ensemble film (with no male actors in sight); and there’s no historical epic or fantasy blockbuster more referenced than Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

The iconography, famous quotes, and sequences of the films of 1939 are so imprinted on the pop-cultural consciousness that many of them are familiar to us without even having seen the films. “1939 encapsulates a certain moment of a certain type of Hollywood film,” elaborates Rondeau. “It’s so entrenched in the culture that people may not be making conscious reference to it, but it’s become such a part of the fabric of this industry. I’m not alone among the people reciting lines of dialogue from Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz before I ever laid eyes on the film.”

Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart reiterates that gold standard summation, while also urging us to dig deeper into the dark side of such mythologizing. On the one hand, you have The Wizard of Oz tapping into universal hopes and anxieties with a Technicolor coming-of-age story. On the other, Gone With the Wind delivers a relatable tale of survival in the face of utmost adversity, while also propping up dangerous romantic notions about a particular historical moment. “Hollywood played a huge role in creating this mythology of what life was like in the antebellum South and Gone With the Wind is the centerpiece of that,” points out Stewart. “That’s a film that demonstrates our cultural amnesia.”

But she also stresses that those complex conversations are also a huge part of why 1939 has maintained the “greatest year” moniker – precisely because the films inspire such passionate, complex conversation. Stewart notes that it’s their ongoing role in American culture, and the films of this year’s ability to tap into the power of mass culture that propelled them to a standing they’ve maintained ever since.

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“They represent the apex in the history of the classical Hollywood cinema. You just have an industry operating in a masterful way, bringing the best talent in the field together to create these works that could reach mass audiences and market themselves to mass audiences,” she explains. “It’s a moment when the movies really are the primary place where people are going to consume entertainment. There’s a huge, rapt audience coming together with an industry that is [beyond] proficient and knows how to engage these audiences.””

In a world where we have infinite content at our fingertips thanks to streaming platforms, our phones, and social media, it’s difficult to express the all-consuming power of the movies in 1939. Our culture is increasingly splintered and fractured, even juggernauts like Star Wars and Marvel prove divisive. But in 1939, Hollywood was selling a version of American mass culture to the widest possible group. In a sense, they had no choice but to strive for big-budget projects with seeming universal appeal. There are more mystical factors – even with great source material, you can’t predict ending up with films of this caliber. But a united, engaged audience provided a useful starting point for any artist or studio mogul.

It also forces us to consider who might be left out of the narrative or poorly served by what is defined as mass culture. “It’s a moment when we weren’t paying attention to a lot of important differences and calling upon each other to have some of those difficult conversations about inequities in our society based on race, gender, location, and class,” Stewart reflects. “When we’re watching these films, we can appreciate the artistry that goes into making them, and begin to think more deeply about what voices get included in the making and the reception of these films.”

It’s particularly crucial when you consider the role the films of this year have played in shaping the perception of American cinema around the world. The myth of Hollywood as a dream factory is inextricably bound to images like Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) ruby slippers, Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) delivering a 24-hour filibuster, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) spinning a rifle atop a horse, and Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) standing in silhouette overlooking Tara. These brief moments become stand-ins for the myths we construct about Hollywood, and by extension, American culture at large.

“That moment of filmmaking is not just about filmmaking,” notes Stewart. “It’s about reflecting on a moment in America’s cultural and political history – that allows for audiences to understand themselves to be part of a mass culture. It calls upon us to think about what are the cultural products that bring us together.”

One thing is certain, whether we think about it today, or tomorrow (because tomorrow is another day), the impact and legendary status of the films of 1939 are frankly, my dear, something worth giving a damn about.

For more on 1939 and Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27, or you can order a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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