Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Great films of 1939, part 1

Take away "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and 1939 is still the greatest year in movie history. We complain today about having 10 Oscar nominees for best picture, but all 10 of the titles nominated that year remain classics 75 years later. (The other six are "Dark Victory," "Love Affair," "Ninotchka," "Of Mice and Men," "Stagecoach" and "Wuthering Heights.")

I presume you don't need an introduction to "Wind," "Oz," "Mr. Chips" and "Mr. Smith." If you do, immediately put all four in your Netflix queue. But I'm going to spend the rest of the year, once each month, blogging about titles that make 1939 the apex of American movie production. (I'll throw in a couple of foreign titles, too.) If there's a Greatest Generation for Hollywood, this is the heart of it.

You have just finished watching a bit of Charles Laughton in the title role of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Incredibly, he wasn't nominated for best actor; his presumed spot went to Mickey Rooney for playing the lead in "Babes in Arms." (Or simply for playing Mickey Rooney, as he did into the late 1940s.)

For once, a grand Hollywood adaptation of a sprawling novel captured not only the details of it -- Paris in all its riotous, mad and exhilarating life -- but the themes of corruption, sacrifice and redemption. If the ending veers off from Victor Hugo's book, the picture justifies it. Though it was shot (as virtually all films were then) on studio sets, it feels authentically French, partly because the designers studied the great cathedral carefully before recreating it.

The film made a star of 19-year-old Maureen O'Hara, who played the gypsy girl Esmeralda. (She also appeared opposite Laughton that year in "Jamaica Inn," Alfred Hitchcock's thriller about smugglers on the Cornish coast.) It was a high point for character actor Thomas Mitchell, who played Clopin, roguish King of the Beggars. In fact, he had the greatest one-year streak of any actor in world cinema history, appearing in three movies nominated for best picture ("Wind," "Stagecoach" and "Mr. Smith") and two others that could have been, "Hunchback" and "Only Angels Have Wings."

To top things off, "Hunchback" has one of the greatest closing lines of all time. And here it is: