My Top 10:

The best film of the decade and maybe the century: The Wizard of Oz

  1. The Wizard of Oz
  2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  3. Wuthering Heights
  4. Stagecoach
  5. The Lady Vanishes
  6. Alexander Nevsky
  7. Gone with the Wind
  8. Of Mice and Men
  9. Gunga Din
  10. Port of Shadows

Academy Awards:

  • Best Picture:  Gone with the Wind
  • Best Director:  Victor Fleming  (Gone with the Wind)
  • Best Actor:  Robert Donat  (Goodbye Mr. Chips)
  • Best Actress:  Vivien Leigh  (Gone with the Wind)
  • Best Supporting Actor:  Thomas Mitchell  (Stagecoach)
  • Best Supporting Actress:  Hattie McDaniel  (Gone with the Wind)
  • Best Screenplay:  Gone with the Wind (from the novel by Margaret Mitchell)
  • Best Original Story:  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Consensus Awards:

  • Best Picture:  Wuthering Heights
  • Best Director:  John Ford  (Stagecoach)
  • Best Actor:  Jimmy Stewart  (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
  • Best Actress:  Vivien Leigh  (Gone with the Wind)

Top 5 Films  (Top 1000):

  • Gone with the Wind – #60
  • The Wizard of Oz – #62
  • Stagecoach – #83
  • Alexander Nevsky – #217
  • Only Angels Have Wings – #218

Top 5 Awards Points:

  1. Gone with the Wind – 740
  2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – 480
  3. Wuthering Heights – 405
  4. Stagecoach – 365
  5. Goodbye Mr. Chips – 295

AFI Top 100 Films:

  • Gone with the Wind – #4  (1998) / #6  (2007)
  • The Wizard of Oz – #6  (1998) / #10  (2007)
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – #29  (1998) / #26  (2007)
  • Stagecoach – #63  (1998)
  • Wuthering Heights – #73  (1998)

Nighthawk Awards:

A very deserving Oscar and Nighthawk winner (Vivien Leigh), an Oscar nominee and Nighthawk winner (Olivia de Havilland) and a badly miscast Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind

  • Best Picture:  The Wizard of Oz
  • Best Director:  Victor Fleming  (The Wizard of Oz)
  • Best Actor:  Jimmy Stewart  (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
  • Best Actress:  Vivien Leigh  (Gone with the Wind)
  • Best Supporting Actor:  Claude Rains  (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
  • Best Supporting Actress:  Olivia de Havilland  (Gone with the Wind)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay:  The Wizard of Oz (from the novel by L. Frank Baum)
  • Best Original Screenplay:  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Best Foreign Film:  Rules of the Game

Nighthawk Notables:

  • Best Film to Watch Over and Over:  The Wizard of Oz
  • Best Scene:  the change from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz
  • Best Line:  “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”  (in spite of not being a Gone with the Wind fan it really is the best line of the year)
  • Best Ending:  The Wizard of Oz

Ebert Great Films:

  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Gone with the Wind

It is NOT the best year in film history.  I have already dealt with that idea in a different post here.  But it is the year that is most talked about.  Of course we’re here in 2009, 70 years on, so it’s gotten quite a bit of press this year and will again in 5 years, much like it did back in 1989.  Even other people must be backing away from the idea somewhat as both Wuthering Heights and Stagecoach fell off the AFI list on the second go around.  But it the first year that really proved what Hollywood was capable of.  It is the first year where every Best Picture nominee gets at least *** from me.  Even the weakest nominee (Love Affair) isn’t an embarrassment.

Film History: Gone with the Wind changes the course of film records with new marks at the Oscars and the box office.  Its box office record would stand until 1966 but adjusted for inflation, it is still the highest grossing film in history.  Stagecoach is released, pushing Westerns back into the A picture and making a star out of John Wayne.  Ninotchka is released with the tag: “Garbo Laughs!”  Carl Vincent publishes The History of the Cinematic Art, one of the first books on the history of film.  Basil Rathbone appears as Sherlock Holmes for the first time.  The powers of the Silent Era are dimmed with the deaths of Douglas Fairbanks and Carl Laemmle.

Academy Awards: Gone with the Wind sets records for nominations, wins and points.  It will take until 1950 to be surpassed for nominations, 1953 for points and 1958 for wins and even today stands tied for 3rd in nominations, tied for 8th in wins and 2nd in points.  Had Costume Design existed as a category in 1939, it certainly would have been the first to 14 nominations and 9 wins.  While I disagree with its Oscar for Best Picture and find its Oscars for Screenplay and Editing to be absurd, the others are all worthy winners and I even completely agree with its win for Best Actress.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington begins the trend of classic films with plenty of nominations but only 1 win – for its Story (other films to follow this trend are Citizen Kane, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Gosford Park, Lost in Translation and Sideways).  In a year with classic performances that are remembered decades later by Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier, it is Robert Donat who somehow manages to win Best Actor.  Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Oscar.  The Academy adds the new category of Special Effects and divides Cinematography into separate categories for Black and White and Color.  According to Tom O’Neill, Gable finished third behind Donat and Stewart and Vivien Leigh almost lost to Bette Davis.

  • Worst Oscar:  Best Screenplay for Gone with the Wind
  • Worst Oscar Nomination:  Best Editing for The Rains Came
  • Worst Oscar Omission:  Best Editing for The Wizard of Oz
  • Worst Oscar-nominated Film:  Gulliver’s Travels
  • Worst Oscar Category:  Best Editing
  • Best Oscar Category:  Best Cinematography – two deserving winners and a host of deserving nominees

Awards: The awards groups weren’t much help in coming to a consensus.  The National Board of Review voted before Gone with the Wind was even released (later placing it in their top 10 for 1940) and gave Best Picture to Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a film hard to find today.  They went with Port of Shadows for Best Foreign Film, but did manage to include 5 of the Academy’s 10 nominees in their Top 10 list, though Thomas Mitchell was the only Oscar winner to make their Best Acting list.  At the New York Film Critics, they deadlocked on Wind and Mr. Smith for 13 ballots before compromising on Wuthering Heights.  The compromise was extended with a Best Actor for Jimmy Stewart and a Best Actress for Vivien Leigh while giving Best Director to John Ford and Best Foreign Film to Harvest.

The luminous Judy Garland in her greatest role: as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz

#1 film of 1939:

The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming among others)

I can’t write about an overlooked or under-appreciated film for 1939 because there aren’t any.  The year has just been over-analyzed to death, especially this year because of the 70th anniversary of all the films (it’ll happen again in 5 years).  But I can write about The Wizard of Oz for a variety of reasons.

First, the more I watch it, the more it grows on me, if such a thing is even possible.  And it’s not like I see it every several years.  I own it on DVD and I watch it with my son.  I watch it on my own.  I watch it when it comes on television.  I’ve even seen it several times in the theater.

Second, it heads the list of so many genres and seems to transcend them all.  I listed it as a Kids movie when I divided the genres and certainly it is far and away the best Kids movie ever made, animated or not.  Then, of course, it is a Musical, one with some of the greatest, most memorable songs ever put the music.  Is there anyone who doesn’t know “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” even if they’ve never seen it (is there anyone other than my friend Amanda who hasn’t seen it and she’s only missing out because her mother was afraid of the winged monkeys and never let her watch it as a kid).  It is also a Fantasy film, topping even any of the Lord of the Rings films.  It’s dramatic and comedic all at once, an amazing epic that moves across all the different kinds of film.

Third, it might just be the single greatest film ever made.  I still hold on to Sunset Blvd. at the top of the list, but there are a few films which could legitimately compete for the title (Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, Rashomon, The Godfather, Chinatown).  But while there are satiric elements to Sunset, this is the only one of those that could even conceivably called a Comedy.  It retains a sense of joy that isn’t to be found in the other contenders.

Fourth, it contains one of those rare performances that make you fall in love.  And I don’t mean you find the actress gorgeous or some sort of physical desire.  I mean you fall in love, in much the same way you could fall in love with Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls or Audrey Tatou in Amelie or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.  Judy Garland is so wonderfully luminous in the film, such a winning presence that Dorothy Gale becomes not just the little girl of the novel who manages to prefer the drabs grays of Kansas over the amazing color of Oz, but a beautiful young woman who more than anything just wants to find herself at home again.  Is there any question as leans back against the haystack and begins to sing about what she might find far away that “Over the Rainbow” is THE Oscar winning song of all-time?

There is no question that the book is considered a classic and has been re-interpreted in many ways over the years.  The original book is a great children’s book, but lacks the magic that the screen brings to the tale, the way it brings to life the Wicked Witch, the Yellow Brick Road and the Ruby Slippers (which were not Ruby in the book).  And while people can find their Oz fix in Wicked (the book or the musical), The Wiz or Tin Man, this is the true classic version.

It’s not just me as a champion of the film.  While BFI has covered over 70 different films in their BFI Film Classics Series, many of them by big name film writers, the only one written by a seriously brilliant writer is the one on The Wizard of Oz written by Salman Rushdie: “But Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ did something extraordinary: in that moment she gave the film its heart, and the force of her rendition is strong and sweet and deep enough to carry us through all the tomfoolery that follows, even to bestow upon it a touching quality, a vulnerable charm, that is increased only by Bert Lahr’s equally extraordinary creation of the role of the Cowardly Lion.”

Rushdie also seems to sum up the film with his concluding paragraph:

“So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home’, but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from where we began.”

The Wizard of Oz was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, winning 2.  It receives 21 Nighthawk nominations and wins 13.  The nominations is the highest of any of the over 6500 films I have seen and the wins are tied for second, only behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  So what accounts for such a large difference between my estimation of the film and the Academy’s?  The first is that I use the entire scale of awards, not just what what existed at the time, so 3 of my awards are in categories that didn’t exist in 1939: Best Sound Editing, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup.  There are the three categories that it was nominated in and lost to Gone with the Wind, all of which it wins from me: Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Color from the Academy though I make no distinction) and Best Interior Decoration (now known as Art Direction).  Wind was a worthy winner of the last two, but I give the nod to Wizard.  To me, there is no question on Best Picture.  There are the two Oscars it actually won and richly deserved: Best Original Score and Best Song.  Then there is the category it lost (ridiculously) to The Rains Came: Best Special Effects.  That brings the total to 9 wins.  There are Best Editing and Best Sound, which it was unaccountably not nominated for.  There is Best Adapted Screenplay which it was passed over for a badly written script full of absurd cliches.  There is Best Director, which it was not technically eligible for because Victor Fleming was nominated for Wind and the rules didn’t allow for double nominations.  That covers the 13 wins.  What about the other 8 nominations?  Well, four of them are easy: 4 more of the songs.  All of the songs, so memorable, so wonderful, were eligible and I have no problem nominating “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “If I Only Had a Heart,” and “If Only Had the Nerve” over any other eligible songs.

That just leaves the least appreciated part of the film: the performances.  The technical aspects were well appreciated at the time (only Wind and The Rains came had more technical nominations) and the songs have been greatly treasured for decades.  But what about the performances.  While Thomas Mitchell might have won the Oscar and Claude Rains deserved it, there is no question that Ray Bolger as the sly and subtle Scarecrow and Frank Morgan as a plethora of roles, including the Wizard were deserving of Supporting Actor nominations.  And what would the film be without the performance of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West.  I definitely rate her higher than Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and there are days when I consider that she should actually win.

Which one again brings us back to Judy Garland.  Do we even need to think about the rest of her career, the sad sinking towards despair and destruction?  Does this have to be the high point of one of the biggest Hollywood stars?  Or can we just think about such an amazing presence on film, so believable as the girl who wants to escape and then just as believable as the one who just wants to go home?  Just keep your eye on her, because she takes the musical to its very heart and soul with her performance of “Over the Rainbow” and that’s before she emerges out of sepia into color and seals her presence as one of the most charming performances in screen history.

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