It Was a Very Good Year
Film aficionados have long debated the best year for American movies, and the two years most often promoted are 1939 and 1941. Both have a valid and impressive claim to the title. From each of those stellar years, we have been bequeathed over 75 films that justifiably receive high marks in every reliable film guide and from every reputable critic.
The case for 1941? Easy to make. What would the history of American cinema suffer if we lost Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan’s Travels, Sergeant York, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, and so many more?
But before offering a like number of classics for the other year in question, let me proffer a point often overlooked in the discussion. While both years offer about the same total number of fine films, and while both feature approximately the same number of timeless classics, 1939 has bestowed a special bonus: it has left to us an array of indisputable best-of-its-class films, movies that simply cannot be matched or topped in their genre. Also, any attempt at remake of any of these would be quite misguided as well as downright foolhardy.
The best period epic? Gone with the Wind. The best pure entertainment film? The Wizard of Oz. The best western? Stagecoach. The best action-adventure? Gunga Din and Beau Geste each have a claim. The best tearjerker? Dark Victory. The best fantasy-romance? Wuthering Heights.
(We are here speaking only of American movies, but it should not slip by without notice that the United Kingdom in 1939 gave us Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the best film that will ever be made about a teacher, and The Four Feathers, arguably the best period adventure film of all time. Was something happening worldwide that year in the spirit of cinematic excellence?)
I submit that this factor swings the pendulum toward ’39. I most readily admit that the best-year controversy will never really conclude—but with an election year fast approaching here in the U.S.A., please note that I have cast my vote, and even before any of the primaries have been held.
And let’s never mind kissing any babies. I suggest a bag of popcorn (with good movies).