Is 1939 the Greatest Year Ever for Films?

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In 1939, Americans bought an incrediblel 80 million movie tickets per week. There were 365 films released by the major studios in the United States during 1939. That’s an average of one film each a day.  If you went to the theater every day, you’d never have to see the same movie twice. And the best part is that most of them were good.

The American Film Institute, along with such critics as Pauline Kael, Siskle & Ebert, Leonard Maltin and others have dubbed 1939 as the cinema’s best single year ever. Looking back, its hard to argue with that opinion.

To quote the director of the Film Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “There was an embarrassment of riches in 1939, that’s for sure. When you look at the number of great films released, there just isn’t another year that comes close to it.” This is true. If you look at the amazing number of classic, critically lauded, successful movies, no other single year can compete.

Among the list of amazing movies to come out in 1939 are…Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Destry Rides Again, Of Mice & Men, Young Mr. Lincoln, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Goodbye Mr. Chips,  the Roaring Twenties, Dark Victory, the Women, the Four Feathers, Dodge City, the Son of Frankenstein, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Flying Deuces, The Man in the Iron Mask, They Made Me a Criminal, Beau Geste, Love Affair, Babes in Arms, Another Thin Man, At the Circus, Bachelor Mother, Drums Along the Mohawk, Gulliver’s Travels and the Three Musketeers, among many others.

1939 came at a perfect point in time, sandwiched between the end of the Great Depression in 1938, and the beginning of American’s involvement in WW2 in 1941. The industry had finally found its footing in the decade since the Sound Era began, but it would soon lose many of its greatest actors, writers and directors when they went to war. 

Directors and writers had unionized at the end of the 1930s, giving them clout in dealing with studios regarding creative freedom. At that point, since business was so good, studios were more inclined to allow directors/writers to experiment with newer, more creative material than before. After they returned from the war, these creative minds started to desert the film industry for the new medium of television.

Also at the end of 1939, Congress passed a law that prohibited “Block Booking”. This was a practice utilized by the major studios to sell multiple movies to theaters, making them present Double Features of films from the studio.  This slowed down the production and release of films in the 40s, which was later worsened by the arrival of television.

1939 was a one-of-a-kind point in time when a perfect storm of innovative, imaginative minds and original ideas came together in a zone of creative artistic freedom. There has never been a single year where the output of the industry was so consistently excellent.

Which year do you think was the best single year for movies?