Eighty years ago, Hollywood had what is often called its Golden Year. It was the height of the studio system of production - with most actors and offscreen talents under contract and working on multiple movies each year, sometimes for their own studio, sometimes on loan to others. In 1939, 365 Hollywood movies were released.
Many were mediocre or worse, of course, potboilers to fill double bills or make use of talent. A lot don't represent the best work of their makers or stars: for example, At the Circus, starring the Marx Brothers, is far from their worst but is best remembered today for the song Lydia the Tattooed Lady. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's studio head wasn't interested in them and after the death of their champion, production head Irving Thalberg, their films began deteriorating (though arguably the problems set in when they moved over from Paramount: it provided less gloss, but more laughs).
A substantial number of the films of 1939, however, ranged from well above average to classics that are still remembered, watched, and quoted - many not just by hardcore movie buffs but by a wider audience. There were other years where many high-quality pictures were released, of course, but somehow this one has attained almost mythic status.
There were other years where many high-quality pictures were released, of course, but somehow this one has attained almost mythic status.
One of the reasons would be the impact of what are now the two best-remembered releases of 1939.
Arguably the top title - in terms of familiarity and influence - is The Wizard of Oz. It was a difficult, troubled production and the film's high cost meant it didn't make a profit until a 1949 reissue, but in part because of frequent TV screenings, especially in the predigital area, it's embedded itself in the collective consciousness like no other movie.
Innumerable references and allusions to and quotes from this film ("Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more"; "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"; "There's no place like home!") in all media have been made since it was released. Just to name three: the films The Philadelphia Story (1940), the original Star Wars (1977) and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Australian soldiers sang We're Off to See the Wizard as a marching song in World War II. And a persistent story says that if you listen to Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon in sync with the movie from the beginning, there are a lot of parallels in the lyrics to what's happening on screen.
The only real 1939 rival to Oz as a cinema icon is Gone With the Wind (1939) - the two films were among the relatively few that year filmed in expensive Technicolor rather than black and white, signalling the ambitions and expectations for them.
The Civil War romantic drama, based on Margaret Mitchell's popular novel, is still the highest grossing movie ever, adjusted for inflation. It benefited from multiple reissues, but its success still seems in some ways a surprise, at least by modern blockbuster standards. It's a four-hour historical drama with very little in the way of action about Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a spirited, self-centred Southern belle who doesn't realise who her true love is - the roguish, dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) - until it's too late. Instead, she's mooned over Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who's unattainable, weak and dull. Apologies to Howard fans but Ashley is a pill, and Howard is too old for the role. It's hard to see what Ashley had that Clark Gable's far more charismatic Rhett Butler didn't. The film won many Oscars including best picture and Hattie McDaniel as Mammy was honoured as best supporting actress, the first African-American to receive an Academy Award.
This was the era where the studios ruled, not the directors. Both Oz and GWTW were mostly directed by the same man, Victor Fleming. He left the former to take over the latter, another troubled production. King Victor directed the Kansas scenes in Oz and other GWTW directors included Sam Wood and George Cukor: the latter had been the first choice but after a few weeks of filming was fired by producer David Selznick.
Various stories attribute this to frequent disagreements with producer David Selznick over matters such as pacing and star Clark Gable's discomfort in having a gay director who favoured the female stars and/or who knew of Gable's alleged past as a hustler. Take your pick.
Cukor went on to The Women, directing an all female-cast including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. It's quite fondly remembered but no Gone With the Wind.
Like Fleming, William Wyler was an accomplished director who doesn't get mentioned by the auteurists who insist some directors are the "authors" of their films (a dubious assertion in so collaborative a medium) for lacking a distinctive "signature".
Wyler directed Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Emily Bronte's stormy lovers Heathcliff and Catherine. Even though it only covers the first half of the book and lacks something of its wild strangeness, it's a striking film. Stage star Olivier credited Wyler - notorious for demanding many takes with little comment until he was satisfied - with teaching him how to act on film.
Of Mice and Men is another high-quality literary adapation, this time of John Steinbeck. Lon Chaney Jr starred as the mentally challenged itinerant ranch worker Lennie whose friend George (Burgess Meredith) looks after him. It's another film much referenced in cartoons and is also notable for having a scene before the opening titles, uncommon at the time. And the beautifully sentimental Goodbye, Mr Chips, adapted from James Hilton's novella about a long-serving schoolmaster and directed by Sam Wood, features Robert Donat in the role that won him an Oscar as best actor.
A favourite of the auteurists is John Ford, who directed the classic Western Stagecoach that made a star of John Wayne. In the same year, albeit on a slightly less exalted level, he directed the Revolutionary War drama Drums Along the Mohawk and the biopic Young Mr Lincoln. Henry Fonda starred in both: the latter gave him one of his signature roles as the future president.
James Stewart also had a good year - among some flops and obscurities, he's in the quintessential pre-war "Jimmy Stewart" role in Mr Smith Goes to Washington. He plays an idealistic senator, a typical Frank Capra underdog hero who triumphs against wrongdoing, this time in Washington, DC.
Stewart also stars with Margaret Sullavan in the romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, about two feuding coworkers who don't know they're anonymous lonelyhearts pen pals.
The latter - more recently updated as You've Got Mail - was directed by comedy master Ernst Lubitsch, who in the same year made the satirical Communism-meets-capitalism Ninotchka, starrting screen legend Greta Garbo. It was billed as the film in which "Garbo Laughs!"
And Midnight, written by the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder who would go on to make an impressive string of films with Brackett as producer and Wilder as director, is a lovely screwball comedy starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore.
Like Gone With the Wind with its depiction of African-Americans, the comedy-drama-adventure movie Gunga Din, adapted from Rudyard Kipling's poem and directed by George Stevens, is a little more controversial today.
The title character, an Indian waterbearer for British soldiers who becomes a hero, is played by a heavily made-up white man (Sam Jaffee). Still, it's fun if you can enjoy the hijinks of Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Victor McLaglen and accept that things were different then.
Another old-fashioned adventure, far-fetched but fun, is Beau Geste, based on P.C Wren's novel, in which Gary Cooper is cast as the title character, an Englishman (!) who joins the French Foreign Legion after a family heirloom disappears and is joined by his brothers (played by Ray Milland and Robert Preston).
Only Angels Have Wings, directed by Howard Hawks, is another highly enjoyable tale, a contemporary adventure starring Cary Grant about pilots who take cargo in dangerous flights over the Andes.
Mystery fans have Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, striking as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson respectively in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first two entries in a series based on Arthur Conan Doyle's detective and his faithful sidekick.
And Charles Laughton makes for a deeply sympathetic Quasimodo, the misshapen bellringer in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from Victor Hugo's novel.
Dark Victory has Bette Davis as a socialite dying from a brain tumour who falls in love with her doctor (George Brent). The tragic romance became a Hollywood staple - Love Story, Moulin Rouge! and many more.
Another slightly less well known but influential romance is Love Affair, in which Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne meet and fall for each other on a ship. They agree to meet in six months on top of the Empire State Building but fate intervenes.
The film was remade by its original director, Leo McCarey nearly 20 years later as An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. It was an inspiration for the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie Sleepless in Seattle and was remade again as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening as well as Katharine Hepburn in her last big-screen role.
Other years have produced significant numbers of well-remembered movies - for example, 1962's crop included Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill A Mockingbird and The Manchurian Candidate, just to name a few.
And more recently, in 1994, among the films released were The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, The Lion King and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
But the celebratory side of Hollywood and its chroniclers insists 1939 was The Golden Year. And with such a rich array, it's hard to argue.