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10 Great Movies of 1939

The Finest Year of the Golden Age

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There must have been something in the water in Hollywood that year. The great movies of 1939 are among the most enduring classics in film history, and many of the lesser-known titles will knock your socks off, too. Here‘s just a few of the fabulous classic films of 1939, the greatest year in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

1. ‘Gone With the Wind’

Gone With the Wind
MGM
The sweeping Civic War classic set the standard for what an epic film ought to be. Gone With Wind burnt its scenes of southern gentility and the ravages of war into the collective consciousness, along with unforgettable characters and oft-quoted lines. With Clark Gable as the rakish hero and lovely Vivien Leigh as the strong-willed heroine, directed by Victor Fleming.

2. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Columbia
Incorruptible young Senator Jeff Smith is almost brought low by the powers that be in the crooked capital city, in the only movie ever made with a filibuster at its dramatic core. With Jimmy Stewart as the irresistible naif, Jean Arthur as his wise-cracking secretary and Claude Rains as the political hero gone rotten. Frank Capra serves up a patriotic dish of Capra-corn, a love letter to democracy that makes you wish politics and political movies could all be this way.
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3. ‘The Wizard of Oz’

The Wizard of Oz
MGM

A work of wild imagination and tremendous creativity, sweet and scary, The Wizard of Oz is one of the finest children’s movies ever made. With lovely music, trippy sets, and the indelible characters drawn from Frank Baum’s novels. Judy Garland charms as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton terrifies as the Wicked Witch, with her hideous flying monkeys. Plus munchkins! Directed by Victor Fleming, perhaps the only director to produce two undisputed classic movie masterpieces in the same year. (The other was Gone With the Wind.)

4. ‘Stagecoach’

Stagecoach
United Artists

A classic American western with young John Wayne as the falsely accused Ringo Kid, Claire Trevor as a lady of the evening, and a sterling cast of misfits riding the stage through dangerous Apache territory. Nonstop action with a strong story, it was the first film that director John Ford shot in Utah’s Monument Valley, the awe-inspiring rocky landscape that still resonates as a symbol of the American West the world over.

5. ‘Ninotchka’

Ninotchka
MGM

Ernst Lubitsch’s witty, sophisticated take on a capitalist guy romancing a communist gal in Paris. Legend Greta Garbo is gorgeous and delightfully funny as the chilly, tough-minded Russian seduced by the suave Melvyn Douglas with pre-code double entendre.  Both of them get great wardrobes in this sharp political satire wrapped in a charming romantic comedy - a Lubitsch specialty.

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6. ‘Destry Rides Again’

Destry Rides Again
Universal
Stagecoach might be the most famous western of this magical year, but I like Destry even better. James Stewart is the reluctant sheriff of a violent frontier town who doesn’t really like to shoot people. Marlene Dietrich is the sultry, sexy saloon singer, despised by the local “nice girls,” who knows there can never be a real romance with the straight-shooting sheriff. Funny, sad, witty and entertaining.
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7. ‘Wuthering Heights’

Wuthering Heights
United Artists
Usually deemed the finest film version of Emily Bronte’s darkly passionate novel of star-crossed love, Wuthering Heights brought Sir Laurence Olivier to international prominence as Heathcliff, with Merle Oberon as his doomed love Cathy. William Wyler directed the classic romance movie set on the windswept English moors.
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8. ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
RKO Radio Pictures
Often cited as the finest film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, despite the pasted-on, somewhat happier ending. Charles Laughton is heart-breaking as the deformed, grotesque bell ringer Quasimodo, with Maureen O’Hara as the spellbinding gypsy Esmerelda, falsely accused of murder by a corrupt official who lusts after her. Beautiful cinematography, richly evocative.
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9. ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’

Goodbye, Mr. Chips
mGM

The sweetly sentimental story of a shy teacher at a British boarding school who overcomes early difficulties to become a beloved institution. Robert Donat is the charming teacher, and Greer Garson the young, vivacious wife who helps draw out his sterling qualities. Donat’s performance surprisingly beat out Stewart’s Mr. Smith, Gable’s Rhett Butler and Olivier’s Heathcliff for the Best Actor Oscar award for 1939.

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10. ‘Dark Victory’

Dark Victory
Warner Brothers
A terrific vehicle for Bette Davis as a society woman diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor who falls in love with her doctor. An engaging tear-jerker with great performances all around, except for Humphrey Bogart strangely cast as an Irish stableman. A sudsy melodrama, but if you like your divas triumphantly, tragically over the top, not to be missed.
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