Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The notion that 1939 was the greatest of all movie years has been around for so long that it's pretty much an accepted fact these days. A while ago, as I was roaming the blogosphere, I happened upon a post by Peter Bogdanovich on his Indiewire blog (appropriately called Blogdanovich) titled "The Greatest Year?"  I read on, having always respected what Mr. B has to say about films and filmmaking. He not only possesses an encyclopedic knowledge and intimate understanding of the subject, but has also made some classics of his own that I much admire - The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

With "The Greatest Year?" Bogdanovich looked back on one of his 1972 columns for Esquire magazine. In that article he'd selected and reviewed a great movie year of the past to illustrate his contention that films of the early '70s weren't measuring up. He zeroed in on 1939 in particular because in addition to the fact that it had been a banner year for movies, it was also the year he was born (as were Francis Coppola and William Friedkin, two other major filmmakers of the time). Not long after Bogdanovich's column appeared in Esquire, he recalled, a lengthier, more elaborate piece on the films of 1939 appeared in Life magazine written by film critic Richard Schickel. Schickel once and for all declared '39 to be the great year. The rest, as we know, is history.

Peter Bogdanovich admitted in his Blogdanovich post that he actually believes "the absolute high point" of American film (he prefers the term 'cinema') encompasses 1939, 1940 and 1941. He makes a good point.

1940's offerings included Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Letter, The Mortal Storm, Pride and Prejudice and The Westerner, just to name a few. 1941 was no less stellar, bringing Ball of Fire, Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, High Sierra, How Green Was My Valley, (ahem) The Lady Eve, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Sergeant York, Sullivan's Travels, Suspicion and more. Perhaps I'm less a purist or maybe just more democratic, but I'd extend Hollywood's high point back in time to 1937. That year introduced The Awful Truth (still my favorite screwball), Captains Courageous, Dead End, Lost Horizon and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I'd also add, on the other end, 1942, the moment just before World War II's impact was fully felt in Hollywood. 1942, after all, was the year of Casablanca, The Magnificent Ambersons, Now, Voyager, The Palm Beach Story, This Gun for Hire, To Be or Not to Be, Woman of the Year and Yankee Doodle Dandy. 1937 - 1942 were all vintage years in Hollywood.

Here's what Peter Bogdanovich originally wrote for Esquire in 1972, courtesy of critic/author Clive James's website: The Best American Films of 1939.

My top pick from 1939, John Ford's Stagecoach

It may seem ironic that Bogdanovich was disheartened by what he called "the meager pickings" of his own era, a time now viewed as another golden age.  "The New Hollywood" had arrived and international cinema was in full flower. 1972 alone saw the release of Fosse's Cabaret, Bergman's Cries and Whispers, Boorman's Deliverance, Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the film many consider the greatest of all, Francis Coppola's The Godfather - not to mention Bogdanovich's own very popular and award-winning What's Up, Doc?  

Parenthetically, 1972 would be the year Joseph Mankiewicz directed his last film. Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director. With this final effort, Mankiewicz became one of few filmmakers who enjoyed success in both the old Hollywood and the new. The second Oscar nomination of his career (he won four and was nominated for eight) had been a Best Picture nod for producing MGM's The Philadelphia Story in 1940.


  1. A very entertaining thesis, Eve. I'm not sure 1967 would rank with the greatest years, but it produced its share of important films and personal faves: BONNIE AND CLYDE, TO SIR WITH LOVE, BELLE DE JOUR, THE GRADUATE, POINT BLANK, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Of course, it also included VALLEY OF THE DOLLS :)

    1. Rick, I am one who sees 1967 as nothing less than a great vintage year, the year that essentially launched "The New Hollywood" thanks to "Bonnie and Clyde." I'm a fan of all the films you mentioned - except one. And on the subject of "Valley of the Dolls" (Yikes!!), I came upon this description of Karen Black's performance in "The Great Gatsby" (1974): "Black is terrible in that Patty Duke as Neely O’Hara way." An accurate and clever assessment by Ken Anderson at his blog Dreams are What le Cinema is for.

  2. Rick makes a good case for 1967, and I think it could be even stronger if we look at such titles as In the Heat of the Night, The Producers, Wait Until Dark, Cool Hand Luke, The Jungle Book and The Dirty Dozen. (Also, full disclosure: it was the year I began reviewing movies myself.)

    The case for 1972 it even stronger, I think; that was the year I walked out of theaters with that oh-my-God-I've-just-seen-a-classic feeling a record five times: at Cabaret, The Godfather, Deliverance, Jan Troell's The Emigrants and Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity. No doubt in my mind, '72 has to take the crown for my own lifetime.

    When people ask me what's the biggest change I've seen over the last 47 years of reviewing movies, I tell them "Back then, even the bad movies were worth writing about; nowadays, even the good movies, there's not all that much to say about them."

    Regarding 1939, I always remember what my uncle once said about it. He remembers that year with fondness because it was the year he turned nine and was finally allowed to go to the movies by himself. Gone With the Wind never enters his 1939 equation because he didn't see it until 1941, but as for the others he said, "Can you imagine, Jim, what it was like to go to the movies week after week and see things like Gunga Din, The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Jesse James, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Beau Geste...Week after week! Is it any wonder I'm a film buff?"

    1. Jim, Isn't it interesting that Bogdanovich happened to pay tribute to what may have been old Hollywood's peak year - 1939 - in what might've been the greatest year of the new Hollywood - 1972? His description of early '70s films as "meager pickings" stopped me cold when I read it. In my own experience, the 1970s was one of the great movie decades - entirely different from the late '30s, early '40s but, no doubt about it, a pinnacle. My first oh-my-God-I've-just-seen-a-classic experience came with "Bonnie and Clyde" in early 1968. I continued to have that experience through most of the 1970s. Less often since then.

      Love your uncle's reminiscence - no, it's no wonder at all that he became a film buff..

  3. My favorite era for films was the 1940's, because.. the film noir genre was at its height.

    1. Dawn, Film noir is one genre that flourished through the war and the post-war era. And then came neo-noir - of which my favorite is "Chinatown," also one of the greatest and one of my very favorite films from "The New Hollywood" of the 1970s.

  4. Late at night with too much time on my hands I determined that 1944 contains most of what I would consider favourite movies.

    I think it is only correct to include the years surrounding 1939 when considering "the best". The clips and list of titles serve to remind us of the amazing amount of quality output.

    1. CW, The first movies that come to my mind from 1944 are "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Laura" - so it's not hard to see how it became your favorite year. What an undertaking, though, I'm not sure I could do it.

  5. Some years are better than others, right? When I wrote about Hugo and 2012 being a standout year, I pondered this question, too. I came up with my top 10 years for film: 1939, 1940, 1941, 1950, 1957, 1962, 1967, 1976, and 1994. Of course, most people can find at least one or two films from every year that they consider classic(s), but it is more difficult to pinpoint a whole year's worth of cinema. Intriguing post, Eve.

    1. Kim, I've really only considered the film years I favor in a general way - the late '30s - early '40s and late '60s - late-ish '70s are my pet eras. As you say, though, most years have a few good films to offer.

  6. Eve, I'm (almost) completely on board with you on this one, and I'm glad somebody has written such a persuasive post discussing this idea. I agree with most that 1939 is the greatest single year in American film, based on the number of great movies released that year. (And thank you for the background on how this view came about.) But I also think that 1939-41 is the greatest three-year run in American film. As you point out, 1940 and 1941 had nearly as many great films as 1939. I wouldn't include 1938 or even 1942 myself, but I can see throwing 1937 in too. So my favorite run would be 1937 and 1939-41.

    It's interesting to me that those years contain a large number of films showcasing actresses and an unusually large number of memorable performances by actresses. 1949-51 also strikes me as a good run, and of course 1970-75 too.

    1. R.D., I envision 1937 - 1942 as a sort of "mountain" of greatness, with '37 and '38 as the beginning of the heights (foothills?), 39 - 41 as the peak and '42 as the other side of the mountain, a tapering off into the war years. Not that there weren't great films made during WWII.

      The late '30s - early '40s does seem to have been a time when women's roles - strong women, at that - flourished. There could easily be another blog post on the subject of women's film roles pre- and post-WWII, I think.

  7. Eve, I agree with a lot of what you say here. You put up a good arguement. I also agree with Rick's thoughts on 1967. I would add 1959 into the mix. Consider the following...

    Anatomy of a Murder
    Some Like it Hot
    Rio Bravo
    Pillow Talk
    The 400 Blows
    North By Northwest
    Shadows (if for no other reason than its innovativeness)
    Hiroshima au Amour
    Room at The Top
    The Diary of Anne Frank
    Odds Against Tomorrow
    Jazz on a Summer's Day (great doc. on the 1958 Newport Film Festival)

    1. John, One hope I had in posting on this subject was that others would share their opinions on the great year/years of film. Happily, that's happened. I'm starting to think the subject might make for a good blogathon, with each participant reviewing the great films of a particular year. '59 might be the year for you if such a blogathon takes place...

    2. Sounds like a good deal. I would be in on that!

    3. I might just do it later this year.

  8. Thanks for calling attention to Bogdanovich's thoughtful piece and especially bringing to light his "lack of perspective" stance on the films of 1972. It's fascinating to ruminate on what goes on economically and sociologically to produce specific eras in which film seems to rise to its potential, but I always think that time ultimately has the last word on all the boxoffice, hype, and award-show smokescreens. Time turns former flops into enduring classics and renders forgotten films that were once inescapable. Thanks for a thoughtful piece that broadens the term "classic" to include contributions as historically close as the 70s. It's still my absolute favorite cinema decade.

    1. Ken, I haven't read anything Bogdanovich has written about his own era and would be interested in his take on it now. He didn't have an easy time of it after "Paper Moon," but from 1971 - 73 he had an admirable run (Best Picture nom for "Picture Show," etc.). And his films stand the test of time (which does, indeed, determine what is truly classic and what is not) - though the last lines of "What's Up, Doc?" might mystify anyone who hasn't seen "Love Story."

  9. It's interesting that Bogdanovich contrasted the supposedly slight offerings of 1972 to the treasures of 1939 - as you stated, Eve, 1972 was also a banner year for films. Of course, a lot of what we consider to be "great" is developed over time and is determined in retrospect. I also feel that what we call great is often based in what style of film, or any other art form, we favor. In painting there are various styles and eras, whether it be classical, impressionist or abstract expressionist, and often we may limit greatness to the style that we favor most, so someone who judges Monet to be great might dismiss Pollack. When it comes to the classic era of american film I agree with the five year span that you put forth - those are wonderful years for film that capture the spirit of where america was at the time. I feel, though, that most great films reflect in some way or another what's in the air at the time they're produced, the dynamic of the era, even if it's a period film (there are many examples that demonstrate this). This would be a very interesting area to go into in-depth because it not only brings into focus great films of the past but our current perspective and values as the audience.

    1. MCB, As I recall the late '60s - late '70s, it seemed there was general knowledge that we were in a great movie era. Emerging directors became household names (only Hitchcock had such cachet previously). Film criticism became prominent and certain critics (Kael, Kauffman, Sarris, etc.) became celebrated. Of course, that's not to say that every film or director or style touted then (with hype and/or awards) stood the test of time.

      I agree that all forms of art - from painting and literature to music and film - will reflect the spirit of their time and place. The really great works will also have an element of the timeless. These are the classics.

  10. Lady Eve, I very much appreciate your contemplation and historical review of the "greatest films" theme. When CMBA had the "Greatest Films of 1939" blogathon I had thought of doing a subsequent "Greatest Films of 1935" blog post, or picking another year in the 30s. One can make a good case for several years, including of course the ones you bring up. I think in regards to Bogdanovich that when you experience the year as it develops (say 1972), then you see all the bad movies that are also playing. So for 1972, one can throw in less than great movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Valachi Papers, Fritz the Cat, Blacula, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Frenzy, 1776, Chato's Land, Super Fly, Joe Kidd, The Last House on the Left, and The Last Tango in Paris, among others. Thanks for this provocative subject.

    1. Christian, I'm not sure if Bogdanovich's view of '70s films has changed very much. His career as a successful filmmaker ended in three short years and I have to wonder if that had an impact on his view of the era as a whole. His blog post "The Greatest Year" was published in 2011 and though he clarified why he selected 1939 for the original Esquire article, he made no reference to the opinions he expressed in it related to the movies of the early '70s. In any case, his great interest seems to be the golden era classics.

      I mentioned in reply to a comment above that the reponses to this post have given me the idea to host a blogathon in which participants select a specific year and post on its best films. Maybe that would be a chance for you to to cover the greatest films of 1935 (or other).

  11. Lady E.,
    Another interesting article. I really enjoyed your insight, picks for 'Best Year In Cinema" and the reasons why.

    As you've pointed out here, 1939 seems to be written in stone as the 'best'. Thanks to MGM and their talent for churning out blockbusters, classics that stand the test of time.

    With that said, I wanted to touch on Bogdanovich's article and opinions on the subject. (For the record, I'm quite fond of his work.)

    I am such a fan of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon that just reading the titles here make me want to see them again for the 30th time. Any time anyone lets me know that they've never seen TLPS I'm quite surprised but then I do everything in my power to convince them that they must see it ASAP. I also add that they need to watch "Texasville" 1990, the sequel to it, also directed by Bogdanovich. While it didn't get a very warm reception upon it's release, the film is very funny and I admire P.B. for giving us a glimpse into the characters lives so many years later. Always a bold move when the original film was such a critical success.

    You highlight "Stagecoach", it's your pick for that year and I must say that after doing so much reading as of late on how films were made, I've come to respect the film, look at it with fresh eyes and admiration for what Ford with the studios blessing, achieved.

    Well, as usual, I've written a book but this really is such an interesting topic and one that's fun to debate.

    If you're a fan of The Last Picture Show, give Texasville a chance, everyone! ha ha


    1. Page, Having seen "The Last Picture Show," "What's Up, Doc?" and "Paper Moon" when they were in release - and been astonished by all three - I was surprised when Bogdanovich's career all but evaporated for 10 yrs. following "At Long Last Love" (1975). Francis Coppola made it through the '70s before he hit a very rough patch, but he diversified - owns a winery and resorts, etc. Then there's Michael Cimino...

      I saw "Texasville" when it was out but it might be interesting to watch back-to-back with "Picture Show" (such a beautiful film in so many ways).

  12. I never thought about 1972 being a big year for influential movies, but clearly it was. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    1. R.A., The late '60s to the mid- to late '70s probably deserves a post all its own in terms of "vintage years" of film. I hadn't thought of the era in quite that way 'til I started to work on this post.

  13. I will agree about 1967, but it was a transition year from old Hollywood to new Hollywood. I have always thought that 1940 was another golden year, a continuation of 1939 with great films made before the shadow of WWII fell over Hollywood. Still, I think 1944 ended up with a fantastic number of films released in that year. I always thought of the early 1970s as an era unto its own, and I'd love to read your take on that period.

    1. CFB, To contemplate the 1970s as a film era would be an interesting experience for me. At the time, I was constantly "at the movies" (as was everyone I knew), seeing new American films and becoming familiar with foreign films, old and new. It was in then that I saw Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" (which left me speechless), Carne's "Children of Paradise" and P&P's "The Red Shoes" for the first time. Also, in revival, American classics I'd seen only on TV or not at all. But the period itself - from the late '60's "Bonnie and Clyde" to maybe "Raging Bull" (1980) would be fascinating to look back on.

  14. Great discussion here on some fabulous movie years. I have a soft spot for 1933 and there's a series going on in New York that is emphasizing that year. I wish I could be there. But some of the greatest comedies, musicals and horror movies ever made came out in 1933, as well as some undisputed classics. Here's a list of some of my favorite 1933 releases. There's a lot of vitality and electricity to many of these films that are still evident today.

    42nd Street
    Baby Face
    The Bitter Tea of General Yen
    Design for Living
    The Devil's Brother (Fra Diavolo)
    Dinner at Eight
    Duck Soup
    Employees' Entrance
    Flying Down to Rio
    Footlight Parade
    Gabriel Over the White House
    Gold Diggers of 1933
    Hallelujah I'm a Bum
    Hard to Handle
    Heroes for Sale
    I'm No Angel
    International House
    The Invisible Man
    King Kong
    Lady for a Day
    Lady Killer
    Little Women
    A Man's Castle
    Morning Glory
    Mystery of the Wax Museum
    Picture Snatcher
    The Power and the Glory
    Queen Christina
    Roman Scandals
    She Done Him Wrong
    Sons of the Desert
    Wild Boys of the Road

    1. Kevin, That is a very long list! If I do host a "vintage years" blogathon, 1933 will be reserved for you. The only problem with films of the early '30s is that they often aren't as technically polished as those that came later. That said, I love many from the early sound years (and in '33, particularly "General Yen," "Dinner at Eight" and "Sons of the Desert"). Of course, among my favorite movies of all time is the string of stunning films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made for Paramount from 1930 - 35.

  15. Dear Lady Eve...I concur with your extension of the great years to be from '37-42...I was surprised, however, to note that you omitted from 1942 "Mrs. Miniver" which I believe definitely belongs on the 1942 list.

    1. Leslie - "Mrs. Miniver" is a great addition to the list of memorable films from 1942 - thanks for the reminder!