What a year in movies!
Dozens of great films were released in that last year of the 1930s. Many of them have gone on to become the classics we revere today. And dozens of them grossed over $2 million. That was a fantastic sum, when many theatre tickets sold for 10 cents!
Westerns were big that year — two of John Ford’s three 1939 movies were Drums Along the Mohaw and Stagecoach — and one of the biggest was Dodge City. It cost a million to make (a big budget in those days) but it grossed over $6 million. And it proved that Errol Flynn (see above) was just as much of a draw as a cowboy as a swashbuckler.
Flynn was once again paired with the lovely and talented Olivia deHavilland, who with all her sophistication and charm also proved she could be at home in the old West. Dodge City, for all of its success, could be considered a 1939 afterthought. After all, look what else this incredible year provided:
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.
The studios, nine years before a federal consent decree forced them to divorce distribution activities from theater ownership, were flying high, flush to the point that creative fimmakers were allowed their creative heads. A wave of talented directors and script writers swept into Hollywood from Europe on the eve of World War II.
The year’s biggest 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 big.
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.)
1939 — The greatest single year in Hollywood history?