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Motion picture and film historians often rate 1939 as “the greatest year in the history of Hollywood.” Hollywood movies produced in Southern California are at the height of their Golden Age and during 1939 there are the premieres of an outstandingly large number of exceptional motion pictures, many of which become honored as all-time classic films.

  • March 31 – Release of the 20th Century Fox film version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, first of a Sherlock Holmes film series starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.
  • June 10 – MGM’s first successful animated character, Barney Bear, makes his debut in The Bear That Couldn’t Sleep. 
  • August 15 – The Wizard of Oz premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
  • October 17 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered in Washington, D.C.
  • December 15 – Gone with the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, with a three-day-long festival.

This was one of the only years in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated ten films for Best Picture. These films came from a wide variety of film genres and sources for their stories and settings, including: historical fiction (Gone with the Wind), contemporary affairs (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Of Mice and Men), love stories, classic novels (Wuthering Heights), fantasies/musicals, (The Wizard of Oz), tragic plays (Dark Victory), westerns (Stagecoach), and comedies (Ninotchka).

Each of the five nominees for Best Director of 1939 went on to become a legendary film director with multiple acclaimed films to his credit: Frank Capra, Victor Fleming, John Ford, Sam Wood, and William Wyler.

The 12th Academy Awards ceremony, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), honored the best in film for 1939. The ceremony was held on February 29, 1940, at a banquet in the Coconut Grove at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Prior to the announcement of nominations, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind were the two films most widely tipped to receive a significant number of nominations. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered in Washington with a premier party hosted by the National Press Club who found themselves portrayed unfavorably in the film; the film’s theme of political corruption was condemned and the film was denounced in the U.S. Senate. Joseph P. Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Britain urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the studio head Harry Cohn to cease showing the film overseas because “it will cause our allies to view us in an unfavorable light”. Among those who campaigned in favor of the film were Hedda Hopper who declared it “as great as Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech”, while Sheilah Graham called it the “best talking picture ever made”. Screen Book magazine stated that it “should win every Academy Award”. Frank Capra, the director, and James Stewart, the film’s star were considered front runners to win awards.

When Gone with the Wind premiered in December, a Gallup poll taken shortly before its release concluding that 56.5 million people intended to see the film. The New York Film Critics Award was given to Wuthering Heights after thirteen rounds of balloting had left the voters deadlocked between Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind. The press were divided in their support for the nominated actors. Time magazine favored Vivien Leigh and used her portrait for their Christmas 1939 edition, and The Hollywood Reporter predicted a possible win by Leigh and Laurence Olivier with the comment that they “are, for the moment, just about the most sacred of all Hollywood’s sacred cows”. West Coast newspapers, particularly in Los Angeles, predicted Bette Davis would win for Dark Victory. Observing that Davis had achieved four box office successes during the year, one paper wrote, “Hollywood will stick by its favorite home-town girl, Bette Davis“.

Capra was the incumbent President of the Academy, and in a first for Academy Awards ceremonies, sold the rights for the event to be filmed. Warner Bros. obtained the rights, for $30,000 to film the banquet and the presentation of the awards, to use as a short, and it was shot by the cinematographer Charles Rosher. Variety noted the stars in attendance were conscious of being filmed at the event for the first time and the event was marked by glamour with fashion-conscious actresses wearing the best of gowns, furs and jewellery.

The Los Angeles Times printed a substantially accurate list of winners, despite a promise to withhold the results of the voting, so many of the nominees learned before arriving at the ceremony who had won. Among these were Clark Gable and Bette Davis.

Following the banquet, Capra opened proceedings at 11pm with a short speech before introducing Bob Hope who made his first appearance as host of the awards (first of nineteen turns as host). Looking at a table laden with awards awaiting presentation, he quipped, “I feel like I’m in Bette Davis‘ living room”. Mickey Rooney presented an Academy Juvenile Award to Judy Garland, who then performed Over the Rainbow, a “Best Song” nominee from The Wizard of Oz.

Image from the movie "Gone with the Wind"

© 1939 Selznick International Pictures − All right reserved.

As the evening progressed, Gone with the Wind won the majority of awards, and Bob Hope remarked to David O. Selznick, “David, you should have brought roller skates”. Making a speech, Selznick paused to extend praise and gratitude to Olivia de Havilland, a “Best Supporting Actress” nominee, and made it clear in his speech he knew she had not won. Fay Bainter presented the awards for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, prefacing her presentation of the latter award with the knowing comment, “It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color”. Hattie McDaniel became the first black performer to win an Academy Award and in expressing her gratitude promised to be “a credit to my race” before bursting into tears. De Havilland was among those to make their way to McDaniel’s table to offer congratulations, though it was reported de Havilland then fled to the kitchen, where she burst into tears. The press reported an irritated Irene Mayer Selznick followed her, and told her to return to their table and stop making a fool of herself.

Robert Donat, the winner for “Best Actor”, was one of three nominated actors not present (the others were Irene Dunne and Greta Garbo). Accepting the award for Donat, Spencer Tracy said he was sure Donat’s win was welcomed by “the entire motion-picture industry” before presenting the “Best Actress” award to Vivien Leigh. The press noted Bette Davis was among those waiting to congratulate Leigh as she returned to her table.

This was the first year in which an Academy Award was awarded in the category of special effects. (Previously, however, “special achievement” awards for effects had occasionally been conferred.) This was also the first time that two awards for cinematography were presented (one for a color film and another for a black-and-white film).

Further controversy erupted following the ceremony, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that Leigh had won over Davis by the smallest of margins and that Donat had likewise won over James Stewart by a small number of votes. This led Academy officials to examine ways that the voting process, and more importantly, the results, would remain secret in future years. They considered the Los Angeles Times publication of such details as a breach of faith.

Hattie McDaniel received considerable attention from the press with Daily Variety writing, “Not only was she the first of her race to receive an Award, but she was also the first Negro ever to sit at an Academy banquet”.

 

Nominees and Winners (Bold indicates winners)

ACTOR

Robert DonatGoodbye, Mr. Chips {“Mr. Chips”}

Clark GableGone with the Wind {“Rhett Butler”}

Laurence OlivierWuthering Heights {“Heathcliff”}

Mickey Rooney — Babes in Arms {“Mickey Moran”}

James StewartMr. Smith Goes to Washington {“Jefferson Smith”}

 

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Brian Aherne – Juarez {“Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg”}

Harry Carey — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington {“President of the Senate”}

Brian Donlevy — Beau Geste {“Sergeant Markoff”}

Thomas Mitchell – Stagecoach {“Dr. Josiah Boone”}

Claude RainsMr. Smith Goes to Washington {“Senator Joseph Paine”}

 

ACTRESS

Bette DavisDark Victory {“Judith Traherne”}

Irene DunneLove Affair {“Terry McKay”}

Greta GarboNinotchka {“Lena Yakushova (Ninotchka)”}

Greer GarsonGoodbye, Mr. Chips {“Katherine Chipping”}

Vivien LeighGone with the Wind {“Scarlett O’Hara”}

 

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Olivia de HavillandGone with the Wind {“Melanie Hamilton”}

Geraldine Fitzgerald — Wuthering Heights {“Isabella”}

Hattie McDanielGone with the Wind {“Mammy”}

Edna May Oliver — Drums along the Mohawk {“Sarah McKlennar”}

Maria Ouspenskaya — Love Affair {“Grandmother, Mme. Marnay”}

 

ART DIRECTION

Beau Geste — Hans Dreier, Robert Odell

Captain Fury — Charles D. Hall

First Love — Jack Otterson, Martin Obzina

Gone with the Wind — Lyle Wheeler

Love Affair — Van Nest Polglase, Al Herman

Man of Conquest — John Victor Mackay

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Lionel Banks

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — Anton Grot

The Rains Came — William Darling, George Dudley

Stagecoach — Alexander Toluboff

The Wizard of Oz — Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning

Wuthering Heights — James Basevi

 

Wuthering Heights

CINEMATOGRAPHY (Black-and-White)

First Love — Joseph Valentine

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

The Great Victor Herbert — Victor Milner

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Gunga Din — Joseph H. August

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Intermezzo — Gregg Toland

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Juarez — Tony Gaudio

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Lady of the Tropics — George Folsey

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Of Mice and Men — Norbert Brodine

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Only Angels Have Wings — Joseph Walker

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

The Rains Came — Arthur Miller

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights) would be selected.]

Stagecoach — Bert Glennon

Wuthering Heights — Gregg Toland

 

CINEMATOGRAPHY (Color)

Drums along the Mohawk — Ray Rennahan, Bert Glennon

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Gone with the Wind and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) would be selected.]

Four Feathers — Georges Perinal, Osmond Borradaile

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Gone with the Wind and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) would be selected.]

Gone with the Wind — Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan

The Mikado — William V. Skall, Bernard Knowles

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Gone with the Wind and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) would be selected.]

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — Sol Polito, W. Howard Greene

The Wizard of Oz — Hal Rosson

[NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN OFFICIAL NOMINATION. Title was on a preliminary list of submissions/nominees from the studios from which the two official nominees (Gone with the Wind and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) would be selected.]

 

DIRECTING

Gone with the Wind — Victor Fleming

Goodbye, Mr. Chips — Sam Wood

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Frank Capra

Stagecoach — John Ford

Wuthering Heights — William Wyler

 

FILM EDITING

Gone with the Wind — Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom

Goodbye, Mr. Chips — Charles Frend

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Gene Havlick, Al Clark

The Rains Came — Barbara McLean

Stagecoach — Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer

 

MUSIC (Original Score)

Dark Victory — Max Steiner

Eternally Yours — Werner Janssen

Golden Boy — Victor Young

Gone with the Wind — Max Steiner

Gulliver’s Travels — Victor Young

The Man in the Iron Mask — Lud Gluskin, Lucien Moraweck

Man of Conquest — Victor Young

Nurse Edith Cavell — Anthony Collins

Of Mice and Men — Aaron Copland

The Rains Came — Alfred Newman

The Wizard of Oz — Herbert Stothart

Wuthering Heights — Alfred Newman

 

MUSIC (Scoring)

Babes in Arms — George E. Stoll, Roger Edens

First Love — Charles Previn

The Great Victor Herbert — Phil Boutelje, Arthur Lange

The Hunchback of Notre Dame — Alfred Newman

Intermezzo — Lou Forbes

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Dimitri Tiomkin

Of Mice and Men — Aaron Copland

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — Erich Wolfgang Korngold

She Married a Cop — Cy Feuer

Stagecoach — Richard Hageman, Frank Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken

Swanee River — Louis Silvers

They Shall Have Music — Alfred Newman

Way Down South — Victor Young

 

MUSIC (Song)

“Faithful Forever” from Gulliver’s Travels — Music by Ralph Rainger; Lyrics by Leo Robin

“I Poured My Heart Into A Song” from Second Fiddle — Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin

“Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz — Music by Harold Arlen; Lyrics by E. Y. Harburg

“Wishing” from Love Affair — Music and Lyrics by Buddy de Sylva

 

 

OUTSTANDING PRODUCTION

Dark Victory — Warner Bros.-First National

Gone with the Wind — Selznick International Pictures

Goodbye, Mr. Chips — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Love Affair — RKO Radio

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Columbia

Ninotchka — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Of Mice and Men — Hal Roach (production company)

Stagecoach — Walter Wanger (production company)

The Wizard of Oz — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Wuthering Heights — Samuel Goldwyn Productions

 

SHORT SUBJECT (Cartoon)

Detouring America — Warner Bros.

Peace on Earth — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The Pointer — Walt Disney, Producer

The Ugly Duckling — Walt Disney, Producer

 

SHORT SUBJECT (One-reel)

Busy Little Bears — Paramount

Information Please — RKO Radio

Prophet without Honor — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Sword Fishing — Warner Bros.

 

SHORT SUBJECT (Two-reel)

Drunk Driving — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Five Times Five — RKO Radio

Sons of Liberty — Warner Bros.

 

SOUND RECORDING

Balalaika — Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio Sound Department, Douglas Shearer, Sound Director

Gone with the Wind — Samuel Goldwyn Studio Sound Department, Thomas T. Moulton, Sound Director

Goodbye, Mr. Chips — Denham Studio Sound Department, A. W. Watkins, Sound Director

The Great Victor Herbert — Paramount Studio Sound Department, Loren L. Ryder, Sound Director

The Hunchback of Notre Dame — RKO Radio Studio Sound Department, John Aalberg, Sound Director

Man of Conquest — Republic Studio Sound Department, Charles L. Lootens, Sound Director

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Columbia Studio Sound Department, John Livadary, Sound Director

Of Mice and Men — Hal Roach Studio Sound Department, Elmer A. Raguse, Sound Director

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — Warner Bros. Studio Sound Department, Nathan Levinson, Sound Director

The Rains Came — 20th Century-Fox Studio Sound Department, E. H. Hansen, Sound Director

When Tomorrow Comes — Universal Studio Sound Department, Bernard B. Brown, Sound Director

 

SPECIAL EFFECTS

Gone with the Wind — John R. Cosgrove, Fred Albin, Arthur Johns

Only Angels Have Wings — Roy Davidson, Edwin C. Hahn

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex — Byron Haskin, Nathan Levinson

The Rains Came — Fred Sersen, E. H. Hansen

Topper Takes a Trip — Roy Seawright

Union Pacific — Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, Loren Ryder

The Wizard of Oz — A. Arnold Gillespie, Douglas Shearer

 

WRITING (Original Story)

Bachelor Mother — Felix Jackson

Love Affair — Mildred Cram, Leo McCarey

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Lewis R. Foster

Ninotchka — Melchior Lengyel

Young Mr. Lincoln — Lamar Trotti

 

WRITING (Screenplay)

Gone with the Wind — Sidney Howard

Goodbye, Mr. Chips — R. C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Sidney Buchman

Ninotchka — Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch

Wuthering Heights — Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht

 

SPECIAL AWARD

To Douglas Fairbanks (Commemorative Award) – recognizing the unique and outstanding contribution of Douglas Fairbanks, first President of the Academy, to the international development of the motion picture.

To The Motion Picture Relief Fund – acknowledging the outstanding services to the industry during the past year of the Motion Picture Relief Fund and its progressive leadership. Presented to Jean Hersholt, President; Ralph Morgan, Chairman of the Executive Committee; Ralph Block, First Vice-President; and Conrad Nagel.

To Judy Garland for her outstanding performance as a screen juvenile during the past year.

To William Cameron Menzies for outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind.

To the Technicolor Company for its contributions in successfully bringing three-color feature production to the screen.

 

IRVING G. THALBERG MEMORIAL AWARD

David O. Selznick

 

The number of great films that were released in 1939 still amazes me and is most certainly still the best year for Hollywood.

See all the Academy Award Nominees and Winners 1929 - 1987 here.

 

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1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

Author:
Genres: History & Criticism, Movies
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Publication Year: 2017

What do Babes in Arms, Beau Geste, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Only Angels Have Wings, and Young Mr. Lincoln all have in common? They are all classic films released in the same year, but none of them received Academy Award nominations for best picture. Why? In that same year, Hollywood p...

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About the Book

What do Babes in Arms, Beau Geste, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Only Angels Have Wings, and Young Mr. Lincoln all have in common? They are all classic films released in the same year, but none of them received Academy Award nominations for best picture. Why? In that same year, Hollywood produced Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ninotchka, as well as two of the most beloved films of all time, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. In 1939 Hollywood created an unprecedented number of great films, a year that has yet to be surpassed in cinematic achievement.

In 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year, Thomas S. Hischak looks at the most remarkable 365 days in film history. Arranged chronologically from January 1 to December 31, 1939, each entry covers one day and features major news events (national and international) as well as minor curiosities or news items that would prove to be more important in the future. The activities on Broadway, radio, the music business, literature, and other arts are included, as are noteworthy sporting events. Most significantly, this book provides a full description and commentary on the Hollywood movies that were released on that day.

All 510 feature films from all the Hollywood studios are included in the book, along with notable shorts, cartoons, newsreels, and foreign releases. While others have looked at the movie highlights of this momentous year, Hischak evaluates Hollywood’s entire screen output of 1939, from B pictures and serial installments to the international blockbusters—and every film in between. 1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year is a captivating look at this phenomenon and will fascinate any film aficionado.

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