It had a big budget, over a million and three hundred thousand dollars, and the studio worried that it wouldn’t make back its investment. But Stanley and Livingstone turned out to be one of the highest grossing pictures of 1939, that stellar year in Hollywood history.
With rentals of more than $8 million, it was surpassed only by The Rains Came as 20th Century Fox’s biggest hit that year.
It’s not hard to understand Stanley and Livingston’s appeal. It has an intriguing story set in exotic locales and Spencer Tracy.
It features such fine supporting players as Charles Coburn and Walter Brennan. It also bears the responsibility of introducing — Dr. Livingston, I Presume. — into the American movie lexicon.
The movie has Tracy as 19th century newspaperman Henry Stanley tracking elusive Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingston (Cedric Hardwicke) — previously believed to be dead — in the African wilds. He encounters the beautiful Eve Kingsley (Nancy Kelly, pictured above with Tracy), and falls in love.
After a year-long, hazardous hunt, Stanley finally comes upon Livingston alive and well, imparting medicine and spirituality to the locals. The plot hurdle — his report about Livingston’s activities and whereabouts is greeted with widespread disbelief. Cut to the chase: Stanley returns to Africa to ….. (see the movie).
Stanley and Livingston joined plenty of good company in 1939. Here’s a look at what else was happening:
Aug. 15 — The Wizard of Oz opened at Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
Jan. 27 — Gunga Din costarring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. opens.
April 20 — William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merele Oberon has its premier.
June 3 — Ford’s third film of 1939, Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda, opens.
Nov. 10 — Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, featuring Greta Garbo in a jovial mood, makes it commercial bow.
— Judy Garland not only starred in The Wizard of Oz but costarred with MickeyRooney in Babes in Arms. Marlene Dietrich did herself a lot of good in Destry Rides Again.
— A busy David Selznick introduced Ingrid Bergman, and made her a star in Intermezzo. (He also introduced Vivien Leigh; see below.)
— The Marx Brothers appeared in At The Circus, Laurel and Hardy showcased The Flying Dueces, William Powell returned from an illness to make Another Thin Man with Myrna Loy, Boris Karloff played his final monster in The Son of Frankenstein and 1939 was the year of W.C. Fields in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.
In all, according to an informative article in the Los Angeles Times by Jack Mathews, 365 movies were released in the U.S. in 1939, an average of one a day. (By the way, the six major Hollywood studios released only 139 movies in 2016, down 5% from 2015.)
Moviegoers bought tickets at the rate of 80 million per week.
A big box office hit was Henry King’s Jesse James, costarring Tyrone Power and Fonda. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were also successful.
Finally, the elephant in the room — 1939’s Gone With The Wind.
After an extensive publicity buildup managed by producer Selznick, the Civil War epic opened on Dec. 20. It surprised critics by how good it was, and dazzled audiences from the start. But it’s phenomenal boxoffice journey began in earnest in 1940. (GWTW remains, adjusting for inflation, the biggest box office hit ever.)