1939 – The Best Vintage for Movies?

The Glasgow Film Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, along with the 70th anniversary of the  picture house that its building originally housed – the Cosmo. To mark the two birthdays, the GFT is devoting Sunday, May 10 to special celebratory events, including the screening of two films voted for by the public – one from 1939 and one from 1974.

Now, much as I love 1970s cinema, I can’t get excited about the choice of films for 1974. Okay, Woody Allen hadn’t yet settled into his film-a-year routine, so that partly explains the absence of a comedy… But then this was the year of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein – and it would have been a popular choice. It was also the year of  the about-to-be-remade Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, the brilliantly suspenseful thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train, and The Godfather. So clearly 1974 was, as Frank Sinatra would have said, ” a very good year”.

The films in the running for Glasgow’s viewing public to see on May 10 are, I think, a bit of a mixed bag, though, with one title streets ahead of all the others. They are: Lenny, Chinatown (in a superior class all of its own), Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Man With the Golden Gun and A Woman Under the Influence.

Much more appealing (to me anyway) are the 1939 nominations. Mind you, 1939 is regarded by many as the greatest year in Hollywood history. It seems as if every second film was a future classic during that 12-month period – after all, this was the year of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Great movies emerged from every genre. Westerns-wise, there was John Ford’s lyrical Stagecoach (with John Wayne), arguably the first classic western; in the comedy category there were such gems as George Cukor’s witty, all-star (and all-female) bitch fest The Women, the western spoof Destry Rides Again (with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich) and the sparkling Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedy Ninotchka (which had cool beauty Greta Garbo not only laughing but also sending up her own frosty image). Bette Davis triggered more than a few tears that year with two particularly classy melodramas – The Old Maid and Dark Victory. And Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra caused hearts to be uplifted with their first collaboration, the idealistic and often very funny political drama Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Since several of these titles feature on the 1939 list of films to vote for, I’m in a bit of a quandary. Although I suspect it will be The Wizard of Oz that wins the popular vote, and justly so, it would be wonderful to have the chance to see the other films on the big screen. It’s not as if any of them are shown anything like as often as Oz on TV. Ninotchka isn’t even available on Region 2 DVD – unless you fork out £50 for a Garbo box set!

So, the 1939 list of choices is: Stagecoach, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz and Jean Renoir’s masterly (and eerily premonitary) La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game).

Votes must be cast by 4pm, Friday May 1st – visit http://tinyurl.com/gftbirthday to have your say….

UPDATE – WEDNESDAY, MAY 6th

Well, no surprises: The Wizard of Oz did indeed win the public’s vote for 1939 while Chinatown was the choice for 1974. Here’s how the voting went:

1939
The Wizard of Oz – 34%
Mr Smith Goes to Washington – 27%
La Regle du Jeu – 21%
Ninotchka – 11%
Stagecoach – 8%

1974

Chinatown – 48%
A Woman Under the Influence – 16%
The Man with the Golden Gun – 14%
Celine and Julie go Boating – 12%
Lenny – 10%

Watch out for the Sunday Herald’s spread on the GFT’s twin birthday celebrations, including the case for 1939 as Hollywood’s best-ever year (by me), and Herald group arts editor Alan Morrison’s views on why 1974 was a bumper one for cinema.

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