Kirk Douglas in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, one of the best films from 1957

A little note before my article: I have a new article appearing on on Tuesday. It’s a response to a New York Times article about the lack of decent women’s roles in summer movies.

The Myth of 1939

We are so fond of anniversaries. Just look at everything we celebrated last year. The 80th anniversary of the Academy Awards. The 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love and Sgt Pepper’s. The 30th anniversary of Star Wars and the Summer of Sam. But did we forget the best anniversary from last year? Isn’t the big number supposed to be 50 (“not to fifty” Christopher Guest shouts as that classic turned 20)? Shouldn’t we have been looking back to 1957? For movies, after all, it might have been the peak of artistic creation, both on the national and international front.
But before we get too in depth with 57, let’s look at the other contenders and let’s pop the bubble, blow up the myth, stop the lie.


1939: a good year for film, but not the best year

1939 is not the greatest year in the history of movies and people need to stop saying it is. It’s a very good year. After all, it gave us The Wizard of Oz, one of the great films of alltime. It also gave us Mr Smith Goes to Washington, a timeless classic. After that, things tend to get a bit more sketchy. Wuthering Heights? Well deserving of its status as a classic. Stagecoach? The first of many John Ford / John Wayne collaborations to have a better reputation than it deserves. Drums Along the Mohawk? A good movie, enjoyable, but not a classic. Dark Victory? One of Bette Davis’ weaker performances when you look at her peak years from 38 to 43. Goodbye Mr Chips? Maudlin and weepy melodrama with a majorly undeserved Oscar for Donat. Ninotchka? Enjoyable, but not nearly as good as Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife from the year before or Shop Around the Corner from the next. Which brings us to Gone with the Wind. It is well directed. The acting from the leads is top notch (though Leslie Howard was badly miscast). The technical aspects, from the cinematography to the timeless score to the costumes is fantastic. Which leaves the script. Which is dreadful. Melodramatic cliches over an unworthy cause involving two irritating characters which goes on well too long. Don’t get me wrong. I think Gone with the Wind is a good film. But I don’t think it’s a great film. Just like 1939 was a good year. But not a great year.
1940, on the other hand, was a great year. Jimmy Stewart won the Oscar he deserved the year before. Screwball comedies, the most enjoyable genre ever devised was at its peak (Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Great McGinty). Charlie Chaplin made his first talking film and combined humor with desperation in the Great Dictator. Henry Fonda gave one of the greatest speeches in film history to conclude Grapes of Wrath. Pinnochio and Fantasia, two of the greatest animated films ever were released. And Hitchock won his Best Picture for Rebecca. It’s one of the best years in film history and it never gets its due because of 1939.
The next truly great year for film is 1946. On my list there is a considerable drop off after the top 7, but those top 7 are as good any other group of films in any year. It also shows the weird way in which the Academy rates films. My top 7 includes the best picture winner (The Best Years of Our Lives), two more nominees (It’s a Wonderful Life and Olivier’s Henry V), a film that was nominated for Best Director, but not Best Picture (David Lean’s Brief Encounter), two films that received Screenplay nominations (Notorious and Children of Paradise) and one film that somehow didn’t get any nominations in spite of Bogart, Bacall and Faulkner (The Big Sleep).
The first time I ever read an article about 1939 being the great year for film was back in 1989 and even then I didn’t buy into it. At the time I said 1989 was a better year for film. It was a bold thought, with no time to genuflect on the films of the year, but now it’s been almost twenty years and I still stand by that statement. Outside of Wizard and Smith, 1939 doesn’t live up to its reputation. The list of great films from 1989 really is as long as the one people use for 1939: Glory, Henry V, Field of Dreams, Born on the Fourth of July, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Say Anything, When Harry Met Sally, The Little Mermaid, Do the Right Thing, My Left Foot, Heathers, Sex, Lies and Videotape. It covers the entire breadth of film: romantic comedies, cynical comedies, dramatic biopic, social drama, war, both history and recent, Shakespeare, Disney animation.
1996 makes the list simply on the strength of its top 5 films: Lone Star, Trainspotting (1995, but released in the U.S. in 96), the English Patient, Fargo and Hamlet. They are as good a collection of five films as any single year has produced. Any one of them would be a worthy winner of Best Picture in most other years and they all make my top 100 list.
The final contender is 2002. Though it’s hard to get enough persepective on such a recent batch of films, there are so many great films that I find that ones that finish outside my top 20 for the year would still be a top 5 finisher in other years. Most of all it was a brilliant year for Foreign films. Any year that has a top 10 of The Two Towers, Gangs of New York, Spirited Away, The Pianist, Minority Report, the Hours, Talk to Her, Chicago, Solaris and Adaptation is a contender. That doesn’t include such great films as 8 Women, The Quiet American, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Road to Perdition.
But the winner, the granddaddy of them all, the best year for film is 1957. It is the year in which international film proved that it as good and better than Hollywood in producing thoughtful, brilliant films that will continue to be watched.
The first batch of films are those Foreign films from 1957 which weren’t released in the U.S. until later. These films would have been eligible for the Foreign Film Oscar, though nothing else. Among the countries we find here are India (Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the second in his brilliant Apu trilogy), Italy (Luchino Visconti’s beautiful version of Doestoevsky’s White Nights), Russia (Cranes are Flying, a bleak, wrenching film about the desperation of a woman left behind by her lover who has gone to fight in World War II), Japan (Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s masterful version of Macbeth) and Sweden (two of Bergman’s best: Wild Strawberries and the Seventh Seal).
That brings us to the actual Oscar eligible films of 1957. For pure entertainment value we have The Curse of Frankenstein, the first of the Hammer Horror films to bring together the remarkable team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. For entertainment and quality we have Tin Star, one of the best of the 50’s serious westerns. For dark, deep and depressing we have Dreyer’s Ordet. For underrated in its time we have Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. We have one of the best husband-wife teams on film with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution. We also have, from Italy, Fellini’s best film, Nights of Cabiria (more polished than La Strada, less decadant than La Dolce Vita, less self-indulgent than 8 ½). Those are all from 1957 and we haven’t yet broken into the top 5.
Not only did 1957 introduce Hammer Horror, it also gave us the first feature film from Sidney Lumet, one of the best directors in film history (still going strong with one of 2007’s best films Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Lumet is one of the rare directors to hit the jackpot on his first time out as he gave us 12 Angry Men. Then we have Sweet Smell of Success, a dark and cynical look at the enterainment industry with, easily, the best performance ever given by Tony Curtis. Aside from his two films that weren’t eligible in 1957, we also have Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, one of the alltime great romantic comedies (and inspiration for A Little Night Music, one of the alltime great Broadway musicals). That leaves the top two films of the year, what could be the top two films in almost any year: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Two very different films dealing with two very different wars, but both obsessed with the concept of honor in warfare and what that does to the human psyche.
There are certain long held beliefs among film critics that I agree with (the brilliance of Citizen Kane, the auteur theory) and there are those that I bring argument with every time (Vertigo being Hitchcock’s best film, that Godard made a number of great films). I firmly place the belief that 1939 is the best year in film history in the latter category and let’s hope I’ve helped other people to move past that belief.