Monday, August 24, 2009
Movie Year Showdown: 1938 vs. 1939
The year 1939 is generally regarded as the greatest year in film history. But 1938, the year of this week's Metro Classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood, was a pretty great year for film as well. Let's see how these two great years matchup in our inaugural Movie Year Showdown (A top o' the hat to Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, for the format, by the way):
Best Picture Winner: Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You won the award in 1938, an amiable, sprawling comedy with James Stewart as a stuffy capitalist's son who wants to marry Jean Arthur, the daughter of an eccentric bohemian family. The resulting culture clash teaches everyone valuable lessons about life. In 1939, the award went to Gone With The Wind, one of the most enduringly-popular films of all-time, a classic melodrama about a headstrong and spoiled woman who manipulates and exploits everyone and everything around her in a single-minded quest for material comfort and the mustachioed man she can't ever really admit to loving until it's too late. The Capra film isn't as good as some of his other work in the period, and while Gone With the Wind is a bit overrated, it's use of Technicolor was revolutionary and the crane shot over the bodies littering the streets of Atlanta in the wake of Sherman's attack is far better than any image in You Can't Take It With You. EDGE: Frankly my dear, the Oscars got both these years wrong. 1939.
Swashbuckling-Adventure Films: 1938 features, of course, Michael Curtiz's The Adventures Of Robin Hood, wherein Errol Flynn leads a band of the poor, oppressed ethnic Anglo-Saxons against the villainous, foreign power Norman aristocracy. There is also Sergei Eisenstein's epic Alexander Nevsky, about the medieval Russian ruler who unites his country to oppose the invading Teutonic Knights in a none-too subtle foreshadowing of the WW2 fight between the USSR and Nazi Germany. 1939 has a trio of pro-imperialist adventures: Gunga Din and The Four Feathers (celebrating the British military's expeditions in India and The Sudan, respectively) and Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper as a British ex-patriate in the French Foreign Legion during their wars in North Africa. EDGE: Fight The Power with 1938.
Anarchic Screwball Comedies: Bringing Up Baby heads the list for 1938, with Katherine Hepburn as the lunatic socialite driving Cary Grant's mild-mannered paleontologist totally insane, and there are leopards. Howard Hawks's film is one of the greatest (and certainly zaniest) comedies of all-time. 1938 also features You Can't Take It With You, which is less crazy and gets a bit bogged down by it's self-important social message. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper and directed by Ernst Lubitsch is also a fine film. 1939 features Lubitsch's great Ninotchka, with Greta Garbo as a Soviet bureaucrat who melts and falls in love under the influence of decadent Paris and Melvyn Douglas. Claudette Colbert also stars in Midnight, directed by Mitchell Leisen, which is one of the finest and least well-known comedies of the era. EDGE: "I can't give you anything but love, Baby." 1938.
Foreign-Language Films: 1938 features the above-mentioned Alexander Nevsky, arguably Eisenstein's greatest sound film which features a rousing score by Sergei Prokofiev and a ground-breaking battle sequence on an imploding ice floe. There are also a number of highly regarded French films I haven't had a chance to see yet: Jean Renoir's La bête humaine and La marseillaise and Marcel Carné's Le quai des brumes (Port Of Shadows) and Hôtel du Nord; along with Leni Reifenstahl's Nazi-epic Olympia. 1939, though, has Renoir's The Rules Of The Game, one of my all-time favorite films, Carné's bittersweet proto-noir Le jour se lève with Jean Gabin and one of Kenji Mizoguchi's finest films, The Story Of The Late Chrysanthemums. EDGE: "The terrible thing is: everyone has his reasons." 1939.
British Spy Films: Alfred Hitchcock's last, and arguably best, British film was released in 1938, the spy comedy The Lady Vanishes, about, well, a lady who vanishes on a train and the one girl who remembers her and wonders where she disappeared to. 1939 features the first collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the greatest filmmaking teams of all-time with The Spy In Black, a film I, unfortunately, haven't seen yet. EDGE: "I don't see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people." 1938.
Gangster Films: 1938 features the apotheosis of the Warner Bros. gangster genre with James Cagney (giving one of his finest performances), Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids in Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces. 1939 tried to repeat the same formula, absent the kids, but with a larger historical scope and more romance in Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties and failed to top it. EDGE: "Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!" 1938.
Tearjerkers: 1938 has Bette Davis sacrificing herself to take care of Henry Fonda on a yellow fever quarantine island to make up for her unforgivable sin of wearing a red dress to a ball in Jezebel, Margaret Sullavan valiantly killing herself after all her friends sold all their worldly possessions to pay for her life-saving operation in Frank Borzage's Three Comrades and Cagney giving up his dignity on the way to the electric chair for the sake of the Dead End Kids in Angels With Dirty Faces. 1939 has Irenne Dunne not quite making it to the Empire State Building to meet Charles Boyer in Leo McCarey's Love Affair, Thomas Mitchell, Cary Grant and Richard Barthelmess risking life and limb to deliver the mail in Only Angels Have Wings, Charles Laughton made-up as the Ugliest Man Of All-Time rescuing Maureen O'Hara's Prettiest Girl Of All-Time from a Parisian mob in The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame, Jean Renoir and Jean Gabin's lifetimes of regrets in The Rules Of The Game and Le jour se lève, respectively, Robert Donat's brilliant performance as a schoolteacher who cares in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Laurence Olivier trying desperately to rise above his class in Wuthering Heights and Bette Davis sacrificing herself in Dark Victory and the love of her daughter in The Old Maid. 1939 also boasts two films the endings of which never fail to make me cry: the "You're a better man than I am" reading from Gunga Din and James Stewart's Lost Causes speech from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, my pick for the greatest film speech of all-time and greatest performance of all-time. EDGE: Our tear ducts will never go hungry again. 1939.
Overworked Actors: Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn team-up twice in 1938 (Bringing Up Baby and Holiday). Claude Rains stars in four films from 1938 and five in 1939. Bette Davis stars in four 1939 films. Errol Flynn stars in four in 1938. Henry Fonda stars in five films each year. John Wayne is in four films in 1938 and six in 1939. James Stewart has four films from 1938 and five from 1939. EDGE: 1939 might be the busiest movie year ever.
Overworked Directors: Jean Renoir has two 1938 films, Marcel Carné two in 1939. Michael Curtiz has five in 1938 with six in 1939. John Ford directed three films each year, but his 1939 output is as good a year as any director has ever had: Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach and Drums Along The Mohawk. EDGE: Always take Ford over Curtiz. 1939.
Musicals: 1938 features one of the last Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, the bizarre psychaitry comedy Carefree, which is their film with the fewest musical sequences. 1939 features a pair of great Judy Garland films: former Metro Classic The Wizard Of Oz and one of her best films with Mickey Rooney, Busby Berkeley's Babes In Arms. EDGE: it's almost unfair: 1939.
Westerns: In 1938, the genre was firmly entrenched in the B movie and cheap serial world. With Ford's 1939 Stagecoach, it became one of the premiere American genres for the next 30 years and John Wayne became one of the two or three most iconic movie stars in film history. Add to the fact that 1939 also features the great James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich Zen Western Destry Rides Again, and the EDGE: is unquestionably 1939.
Final Verdict: 1938 gave it a good shot, but 1939 pulled away at the end to win 7-4. Maybe next year!