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The year of classic cinema

A survey put 1939 as the best year of Hollywood films, despite the war. They were based on solid stories and screenplays. They also had strong roles and brilliant depiction, writes V. GANGADHAR.

"Gone With the Wind" ... this dazzling film won nine Oscars.

WHILE PREPARING for competitive examinations in my formative years, I memorised important years and events. For instance, 480 B.C. — Battle of Marathon. 1215 A.D. — Signing of the Magna Carta, 1776, the American War of Independence and so on. And 1939? Of course that was the year when World War II began.

But for 2,000 American film buffs, 1939 was the best year in the history of Hollywood cinema. Their survey concluded that 1939 represented the golden age of the American film industry.

The unusual survey further stated that the war years (1941-1945) accounted for four of the 10 best films in history. These were "Citizen Kane" and "Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Casablanca" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). These were the years when the US was involved in the war.

Nineteen thirty-nine saw war clouds erupt over England and Europe. Hitler's Nazis began gobbling up smaller nations and the British government's peace efforts failed. As England mobilised, test cricket was played for the last time because the players had to go to war.

But across the Atlantic, Hollywood released some of the most dazzling films. Heading the list was "Gone With the Wind" which had British actress Vivien Leigh as the heroine Scarlett O'Hara and Hollywood `King', Clark Gable playing the hero Rhett Butler. "GWTW" went on to win nine Oscars including those for the Best film, best actress and best director and became one of the biggest box office hits. A surprise winner was "Wizard of Oz" which bagged the Oscars for the Best original music score and best song.

That was not the end of it. Nineteen thirty-nine was a vintage year for classic films.

Even as Britain plunged into the throes of the World War, its actors distinguished themselves in a series of memorable films, released during the year.

"Chinatown" was among films like "Godfather II" and "Great Gatsby" that the poll chose as the second best year (1974) for Hollywood releases.

Emily Bronte's brooding novel, `Wuthering Heights' was brought to the screen with British actor Laurence Olivier essaying the difficult role of Heathcliffe. Robert Donat starred as the eccentric but lovable schoolteacher in James Hilton's "Goodbye, Mr Chips". Not far behind was another British stalwart, Charles Laughton who played the lead in the film adaptation of "Hunchback of Notre Dame". Indeed, the British invasion of Hollywood was total! But don't underestimate the Yanks. In that year of great movies, young James Stewart played the role of an upright American Senator, in "Mr Smith Goes to Washington". It was not the Washington of the Nixons and the Bushes, but there was quite a bit of hanky-panky in the capital. If the film centred round political shootouts, there was plenty of the real thing in three outstanding Westerns.

The Westerns had contributed much to the development of Hollywood cinema. And 1939 was no exception. `The Duke', John Wayne, established himself as a big star in John Ford's "Stage Coach".

Handsome Tyrone Power played the legendary outlaw Jesse James in a movie with the same name and swashbuckling Errol Flynn starred in "Dodge City", a Warner Brothers big-budgeted Western.

For variety, 1939 also saw the release of the powerful social drama, based on John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men".

"Wizard of Oz" bagged the Oscars for the best original music score and best song.

Well, the 2,000 film buffs, who voted on the issue, really knew what they were doing. The Western, it must be admitted, did not have much appeal for non-Americans, but for them, it was the great saga of Man vs. Nature, Good vs. Evil, when cowboys and quick-drawing, fast shooting Marshals like Will Kane (Gary Cooper in "High Noon") were pitted against bank robbers, cattle rustlers and villains of different hues. Which was the second best year for Hollywood releases? The poll chose 1974, which saw the releases of "Godfather II", "Great Gatsby" and "Chinatown". Movie lovers will agree these films were not a patch on the great classics of 1939.

What did the poll indicate? The much-acclaimed directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, despite using better technical effects and all sorts of gadgetry could not compete with the earlier giants. They mustered less than one-third of the votes polled by 1939 movie makers who won 44 per cent of the votes polled.

The conclusion? Old is Gold. The films of 1939 were based on solid stories, screenplays and literary classics. The films had universal appeal, and they really entertained. Special effects mattered less than strong roles and brilliant depiction.

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