It is a really good question.
Unfortunately, to my chagrin and annoyance,
When I turned to some hoped-for illumination,
I received no appreciable answer.
Wasting my valuable time.
(And that’s my job.)
Here’s the thing.
For some reason, addressed – no, “addressed” accords them unearned credit – alluded to – that’ll teach em! – in the TCM documentary Hollywood’s Golden Year, the year 1939 produced a greater number of memorable movies than any year in the industry’s history. Before or since.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know why?
I thought so.
So I turned TCM’s hour-long documentary on the subject to find out.
You know what I learned?
They had no idea why.
They didn’t say so out loud.
They just didn’t say anything.
That’s “No clue”,
But without the honesty.
They showed numerous “film clips.” Wove in ”Talking Head” pontification. There was archival interview footage of “Giants in the Business”, including the Rushmorian Frank Capra.
But there was no detectable rationale for why 1939 was the best movie year ever.
(There is the possibility it was a fluke. But who watches an hour to hear that?)
It is normally a risky proposition to rate movies, because everyone has their personal “Favorites.” (And a harbored disdain for the personal “Favorites” of others. (Friendships have been destroyed by far less than “Your movie taste sucks.”)
Still, Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington? Most people would consider them indisputably “Top-of-the-Line.”
All of them came out in 1939.
As did The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ninotckka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Beau Geste, Drums Along the Mohawk, Gunga Din and Destry Rides Again.
To name just eleven.
Name another year, yielding eleven noteworthy movies.
And I picked them from a much longer list. (Excluding “Weepy Romances”, which, even if great, I would never go near.)
There are actually even more standout movies I could have included. (Dodge City, The Little Princess, Juarez.)
That’s fourteen really good movies.
All of them from 1939!
It would be interesting to know how that happened. And reasonable to solicit the knowledgeable Turner Classic Movies to find out.
Sorry. No answer.
The Golden Year settles for providing the story of studios, simultaneously delivering the best movies each had ever produced. The closest approximation of a suggested rationale was some anointed “Talking Head” proclaiming, “They all stepped up their game.” Suggesting this outpouring of unparalleled excellence hinged on the intense competition.
But were those studios not also intensely competing in 1937?
And every other year they were collectively in business?
So what the heck was he talking about?
There was a persuasive explanation for why things changed after 1939.
Following World War II (1939-45), movies became murkily uncertain in their intentions, exchanging “narrative clarity” for buffeting “Post-War” confusion. Simultaneously, or close to it, studios were required to sell off their movie theaters, reducing revenues for future production. Television (with its free programming) loomed on the competitive horizon. And actors, abandoning contractual servitude, became “free agents”, weakening the studios’ access to stars, the combined cluster of factors leading to the creaky “Studio System’s” ultimate demise.
Watching The Golden Year, I got why they don’t make as many great movies in a single year anymore. But I was no closer to understanding their success that year than when I originally tuned in.
Maybe I should watch the documentary again. Sometimes, eager to make my point, I miss the point undercutting my point.
(It happens. Because I really like to be right.)
But if my point about this documentary is actually correct,
I’ll have a new point:
I did a better job than they did.