Few years in movie history are quite as beloved as 1939. Of course, there are great movies released every year, and highlighting 1939 isn’t to say that the rest of the 1930s was terrible when it came to cinema, by any means. But 1939 is a legendary year, particularly when it comes to the American film industry, as it saw the release of numerous films that have gone on to become classics that hold up over 80 years later.
It was a great year for numerous genres, too, and also saw the release of some essential international films outside Hollywood. It’s a daunting task to narrow down all the classics from 1939 into a single ranking, but what follows are some of the biggest and best titles released in 1939, ranked below in order from great to greatest.
10 ‘The Roaring Twenties’
The Prohibition era has been well explored throughout gangster movies, and few have proved to be as engaging as The Roaring Twenties. It follows three friends who all get involved with distributing bootleg liquor shortly after the end of the First World War, and though they’re a tight-knit group at first, things eventually become complicated… to the point where violent conflict inevitably erupts.
It’s fairly easy to know ahead of time that a crime movie from this point in history is going to end in tears (and probably blood-shedding, too), but it’s not where the plot ends up that’s the interesting part: it’s how and why it gets there. And The Roaring Twenties is a very engaging watch throughout, benefiting greatly from featuring both James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in lead roles.
The Western was a very popular genre in American cinema, and even if it arguably didn’t peak as a genre until the 1950s or 1960s, there were still some great offerings before then. And Stagecoach is easily one of the best and most iconic of the pre-1950s Westerns, following a group of stagecoach passengers who all bond and/or clash with each other during their perilous ride.
It’s the movie that arguably made John Wayne a star, and he ultimately followed it up by starring in a string of very popular American Westerns throughout the rest of his career. Stagecoach’s unique premise makes it feel more engaging and alive than many similarly old Westerns, and it’s enough of a classic that it can probably even be recommended to those who aren’t usually fans of the genre.
8 ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’
Frank Capra was an American filmmaker who made some of the most beloved movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington might well be his best-known that isn’t related to Christmas. It follows the titular Mr. Smith after he’s appointed to the United States Senate, and clashes with the other politicians there.
Smith’s younger and more idealistic, whereas those who have been in Washington longer than him are inevitably more cynical. It uses this premise to craft a compelling dramedy, and it might be either shocking or hilarious (depending on your worldview) to see how little the world of politics has changed in 80+ years.
7 ‘Gone with the Wind’
Gone with the Wind is a film with an impressive legacy, though some deeply troubling aspects make it harder to enjoy today. It can be recognized as a huge technical achievement for its time – as far as positives go – with an undeniably epic story and unparalleled scope that’s made it endure as one of the best-known romance movies of all time.
Its depiction of the South during the Civil War (and the way certain things are romanticized) will certainly rub some viewers the wrong way, and it goes a little further when it comes to badly aged content than most older movies. There’s a good deal to be impressed by, and a good deal to criticize, but as one of the biggest and most successful movies of all time, it is at least worth mentioning.
6 ‘The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum’
Kenji Mizoguchi is one of the most acclaimed Japanese filmmakers of all time, with The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum being one of his most important films. It’s a slow-paced and emotional film, unfolding slowly over almost 2.5 hours while telling the story of a performer from a well-known acting family who falls in love with a young woman who works for his family, which then ostracizes him from many of the privileges he previously took for granted.
It’s a challenging movie, but is likely to reward a viewer’s patience. It’s also notable for how amazing it looks – from a technical perspective – for a movie made way back in the late 1930s, as it could easily pass for one that was made 20 to 25 years later.
A charming romantic-comedy, and one of many classics directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Ninotchka endures as a very charming romantic-comedy. It stars Greta Garbo as the title character, a very serious Russian woman who travels to Paris and finds herself maddened by a man she meets there, given their personalities are so different.
Yet as is so often the case with romantic-comedies, they start to develop feelings for each other, with Ninotchka’s often cold exterior fading in the process. It’s a defining movie for the romantic-comedy genre, and though it may seem familiar to modern-day viewers, it can surely be cut a little slack because of its age.
4 ‘Destry Rides Again’
Standing in contrast to the more serious Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again is an example of how to blend the Western and comedy genres to great effect. It’s about a particularly rowdy town in the Old West, and the attempts of a very young sheriff (played by James Stewart) to get its population under control.
It’s also well-known for featuring one of Marlene Dietrich’s most well-known performances, and for just generally being an entertaining and fast-moving watch. It’s one of the first great movies to realize that there’s a great deal of humor to be found within the Western genre, and stands as one of 1939’s best for that alone.
3 ‘Only Angels Have Wings’
Few directors were as prolific and consistent as Howard Hawks was during the 1930s, and he ended the decade on a high note by directing Only Angels Have Wings. It’s a film that combines drama, romance, and action/adventure, focusing on the loves and lives of various air freight workers who find themselves undertaking many dangerous deliveries by air.
The big sequences in Only Angels Have Wings hold up well, and it’s easy to see how it would have been a true spectacle for audiences to behold way back in the late 1930s. It’s also worth watching to see one of Cary Grant’s best non-comedy roles, and co-stars Jean Arthur and (a very young) Rita Hayworth also give strong performances.
2 ‘The Rules of the Game’
The Rules of the Game is a movie that’s aged brilliantly, and easily ranks among the greatest French films of all time. It’s a darkly comedic satire about class warfare and inequality, centering on one weekend at a fancy country estate where various wealthy individuals go to socialize, only for things to very gradually spiral out of control.
Satirical movies making fun of the rich or highlighting the inherent unfairness of a ruling class have been in fashion lately (with it being hopefully easy to understand why). The Rules of the Game was a formative film for this now popular sub-genre, highlighting and satirizing various issues with the world way back in 1939 that persist – in many ways – to this day, while also being very entertaining and easy to watch in the process.
1 ‘The Wizard of Oz’
Even broadening the scope beyond 1939 to look at the best movies of the entire 1930s, you’d have to expect The Wizard of Oz to rank high. It was a bold and technically masterful film for the time it came out, expertly utilizing both black-and-white and color to tell its timeless story about a young girl stuck in a strange fantasy land, determined to return home to Kansas.
It’s a movie that almost everyone’s seen, and one most people probably have memories of watching when they were younger. That speaks to how well it’s aged, and how much it’s endured, easily earning its spot among 1939’s best movies (and even more impressively, it was directed by Victor Fleming, who also directed Gone with the Wind the same year).
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