Category Archives: 1939

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (Best Actress of 1939)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Arletty (Le jour se lève), Ingrid Bergman (Intermezzo), Claudette Colbert (Midnight), Bette Davis (The Old Maid), Bette Davis (The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex), Irene Dunne (Love Affair), Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz), Greer Garson (Goodbye Mr. Chips), Nora Gregor (La régle du jeu), Kakuko Mori (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Ginger Rogers (Bachelor Mother), Barbara Stanwyck (Golden Boy)

Is this choice anything close to a surprise? Of any category of any year, this one is practically a given, not because Vivien Leigh’s performance in Gone with the Wind has become cultishly unassailable, but because, quite simply, a great actress gave a great performance – possibly the best ever committed to film. It says something that Leigh is almost universally acknowledged as the best actress of 1939. There were several other magnificent turns by leading women that year, any one of whom could have taken the top spot any other year without Leigh in the running. Bette Davis gave two award worthy performances, first as a frustrated woman pining for the love of her daughter in The Old Maid, then as the Virgin Queen torn between duty and desire in The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex. Ginger Rogers is equally deserving as a woman who, through completely innocent circumstances, finds herself saddled with a baby in the great comedy Bachelor Mother. Greer Garson is utterly charming in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Greta Garbo shows she could play comedy in Ninotchka, and, of course, Judy Garland lit up the screen in The Wizard of Oz.

No matter how much I admire any of these performances Vivien Leigh still overshadows them, a bit like a Mikhail Baryshnikov competing against a class of beginners. Leigh’s interpretation of Scarlett O’Hara is perfect – she never hits a false note. We never see acting, we only see the character, as close to a real, living person to any actor could ever create for the screen.

Leigh mixes Scarlett’s selfishness with her flirty charm creating a character accustomed to getting what she wants based on her looks, her coquettishness, her family name. She’s never been challenged in any way, but the Civil War changes that, forcing her to dig deep and discover the resiliency and resourcefulness she never knew she had in her. But her arc isn’t particularly revelatory; through all her trials she still emerges on the other side as essentially the same woman, just a heck of a lot stronger. Despite this, we still find ourselves connecting to and caring for the designing woman.

That is the genius of Leigh’s performance. She plays Scarlett unsympathetically, but the charm she uses to butter up Ashley and Rhett spills over into the audience. We know she is manipulating these men but, in spite of this knowledge, she manipulates us as well. And she never learns to do without manipulation. Often writers and directors believe that a character arc means that their subject needs some kind of grand revelation, some major shift in her consciousness or perspective, some major lesson learned. Scarlett doesn’t learn any lessons, she just learns new ways to get others to give her what she wants.

With the possible exception of Paulette Goddard, the other leading contenders for the part would have had difficulty articulating Scarlett’s subtle shift from frivolous and vain to resilient and vain. With Joan Bennett or Tallulah Bankhead I have a feeling Scarlett would have gotten more and more unpleasant, her flirting grating and desperate and her toughness overshadowing her vulnerability, as we follow her through a large chunk of her life over four hours. Vivien Leigh found a way to retain a connection with the audience and make us care about her while recognizing her flaws.

I have never been a fan of Gone with the Wind as a movie. The second half is especially unfocused, both visually and narratively. But no one can fault Vivien Leigh for the shortcomings of the film. She understood Scarlett completely and, through every line reading and subtle gesture, translated her onto the screen flawlessly. This isn’t just the best performance of 1939 (of any category), but one of, if not the, best of all time for which she richly deserved the Oscar.

 

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James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Best Actor of 1939)

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (The Roaring Twenties), John Clements (The Four Feathers), W.C. Fields (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man), Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln), Jean Gabin (Le jour se lève), Cary Grant (Only Angels Have Wings), Shotaro Hanayagi (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Burgess Meredith (Of Mice and Men), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein), Michael Redgrave (The Stars Look Down), Maurice Schwartz (Tevye), Roland Toutain (La règle du jeu)

Robert Donat’s performance in Goodbye Mr. Chips is generally regarded as the best of 1939. He took home the Oscar and retrospectives often back up the choice, but I’ve never understood the almost religious reverence for Donat in this film. While I enjoy much of what he did as the young, introverted schoolmaster, his characterization of the elderly man is some of the worst playacting that ever won an Oscar. It is sentimental teetering on parody, unworthy of an actor as good as Donat. There are many other male leads I would choose over Donat, but only James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands above the rest.

Frank Capra originally intended Mr. Smith as a sequel to his 1936 hit Mr. Deeds Goes to Town but, unable to secure the services of Gary Cooper, Capra shifted to plan B and cast another all-American, aw-shucks kind of guy, Jimmy Stewart.

Everything about Stewart gelled perfectly for his role as the naïve young senator: his artless face and straight-forward way of speaking sparked an instant connection with audiences. But Stewart brought a gravity to the role that Cooper, frankly, probably would not have been able to muster. When the political machine appointed the hapless Smith, they expected him to be a dupe, to sit back and take orders without too many questions, but Smith takes the opportunity to peel back the shiny veneer of government and see the rot of corruption underneath. He pushes back, threatening to expose them of corruption, but the machine strikes first. They frame him for using his office for his own profit and in a dramatic Senate floor trial, Stewart cycles through so many dark emotions that his earlier optimism and faith in the government already feels antiquated. From disappointment in the institutions and people he once revered to frustration that an honest man like himself can be smeared (and the public will believe the lies) to resignation to anger to a stubborn refusal to give up.

Stewart in the dramatic filibuster scene as Jefferson Smith is on the verge of despair

His Senate filibuster scene is almost painful to watch. We feel that Stewart’s exhaustion and pain aren’t entirely put on; he’s reaching down someplace deep to revive emotional memories most of us would rather forget. This is the core of great acting and though Stewart is often criticized for playing the same part over and over, he proved in Mr. Smith (and later It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo) that he understands the commitment to recalling and replaying those disquieting emotional episodes his characters demand. Because he is so convincing as the likeable wide-eyed optimist and as the disillusioned man fighting to regain his reputation, his futile one man struggle against public opinion becomes all the more poignant. I love Gary Cooper, but he wasn’t a good enough actor to pull off what Stewart was able to do.

Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is the embodiment of the American ideal: honest and hardworking, but also a tad green when it comes to the shady worlds of government and corruption. Capra explores what happens when the ideal (Smith) meets reality (D.C.). They will surely clash and without an actor who could take even more cynical modern viewers on the journey from the wide-eyed idealist who treats his Constitution and myths of the Founding Fathers as articles of faith to painful disillusionment, we could never believe that Smith would stand and fight as hard as he does; and we wouldn’t care all that much whether he wins or loses. Luckily Stewart rose to the challenge and helped deliver an American classic.

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Robert Preston (Union Pacific) – Best Supporting Actor of 1939

Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston in a publicity picture for "Union Pacific"

Other Noteworthy Performances: John Barrymore (Midnight), Richard Barthelmess (Only Angels Have Wings), Humphrey Bogart (The Roaring Twenties), Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste), Sydney Granville (The Mikado), Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Thomas Mitchell (Only Angels Have Wings), Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach), Claude Rains (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Ralph Richardson (The Four Feathers), Bob Steele (Of Mice and Men), George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

When scholars and movie lovers look back on the best performances of 1939, young Robert Preston is rarely acknowledged. The greatest of the supporting actors of the studio era, Thomas Mitchell, delivered two fine performances in Only Angels Have Wings and Stagecoach (which makes me feel a little guilty for passing him over again). Claude Rains masterfully played a conflicted corrupt senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And John Barrymore turned in his last great performance in Midnight. While there would be good arguments for any of these and several other less well known performances, I decided to stick with my original instinct and go with the underrated Robert Preston as Dick Allen in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific. Preston deserved recognition for his skillful ability to capture the worst instincts of the American character in the nineteenth century counterbalanced by Joel McCrea’s character who embodies our best instincts.

Preston’s Dick Allen is a gambler and a shark, looking out for himself no matter the cost to others. His philosophy of greed is a perversion of U.S. freedom and pursuit of happiness. He is willing to undermine the community and country for his own immediate gain, subverting what Alexis de Tocqueville once admired about American society when he toured the U.S. in the early 1830s. Merchants, farmers, politicians, and other groups promoted “self-interest, properly understood.” By that he meant everyone was looking out for their own welfare, but understood that an unstable, insecure society for others meant their own welfare would eventually be threatened. Looking out for the best interests of one’s community then would ensure (or at least allow) greater personal enrichment in the future, even if it meant an immediate sacrifice in wealth, a lesson many of today’s top one percent would be wise to reexamine as they drive this country further down the path to third world-dom. DeMille uses Allen against McCrea’s hero Jeff Butler as symbols of the competing instincts of the American character. Of course in the movie, Butler beats back the forces of greed and destruction, but the actual outcome of their battle has never truly been resolved (and Butler would be losing today).

In the movie Allen works for Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy, always a reliable snake in the movies) who has been engaged by a powerful eastern banker to slow the Union Pacific’s eastbound construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s by any means necessary. Campeau and his right hand Allen follow the line across Nebraska and Wyoming setting up makeshift towns to serve – and inflame – the vices of the railway workers, thereby weakening their commitment and thinning their numbers.

The Union Pacific, anxious to fulfill Lincoln’s promise to finally join the east and west coast by rail, hires Capt. Jeff Butler (McCrea) clean out the bad elements following their work and to maintain order. Allen is sure he can handle to tin-star lawman, until he recognizes his soon-to-be enemy as a friend with whom he served in the Civil War. There is a moment when both men believe their friendship will be enough to overcome their differences, inserting a bit of level-headedness into the explosive situation. Their missions, however, are contrary to the maintenance of amity. Butler wants to ensure peace and, by extension, more economic and social opportunity for all. Allen only sees what he can get out of a situation, willing to sacrifice the greater good to fill his wallet. Both grapple with doing their jobs, fulfilling their own interpretations of what it means to be an American, with maintaining fidelity to their friendship forged during the war.

Old friends Robert Preston and Joel McCrea stand together, but are on opposite sides of the fight.

If being on opposite sides would not have been enough to force a rupture in their relationship both men fall in love with Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the operator of the railway’s post office and daughter of an engineer. Competition over Mollie pushes both Butler and Allen to consider just how far they would go to get what they want.

The reason I am choosing Robert Preston over some other fine performances is because Preston creates a genuinely likeable villain while grounding him in reality. He understands that Allen isn’t a villain because he’s just a bad man. On the contrary, he is a genuinely fine person, but has bought into the rhetoric of greed that would come to define the coming Gilded Age. Intellectually he justifies everything he is doing by the promise of economic advancement without moral or ethical restrictions. At the same time, Preston plays him as a completely charming man, a man who we believe can still be friends with the morally upright Jeff Butler. Their past relationship only makes sense if we are able to reconcile Allen’s actions in Wyoming with his wartime friendship. Preston ably balances these demands. We see why Butler admires him and, later in the film, we are chilled by some of the actions he takes, especially when he blackmails Mollie into breaking Butler’s heart and hide a bag of money he stole. In return he vows not to kill his old friend. With the three in the room, each trying to outguess the others and read minds, the scene is tense and only works because we believe Allen will kill Butler if Mollie doesn’t do as he says. That Preston is able to alternately inspire admiration and hate in the audience speaks to his skillful interpretation of this complex villain. In lesser hands we would have only seen the superficial cardsharp, but Preston took the character as written and added emotional layers that others would have missed.

Robert Preston is a sadly underrated – or at least underappreciated – actor. Today most remember him either as Prof. Henry Hill in The Music Man or as Toddy in Victor Victoria, (both fine performances) but he had a rich career both on the stage and screen that is overlooked by the casual movie watcher. Though he never really broke through as a leading man in his younger years, he delivered many fine supporting performances. It’s a shame he didn’t receive more attention for his acting prowess early on because he could have easily taken challenging leading roles. It’s easy to forget just how good he really was, but watching him work in Union Pacific and we see a naturally gifted actor at the beginning of his promising career.

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Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) – Best Supporting Actress of 1939

Other Noteworthy Performances: Arletty (Le jour se lève), Edna Best (Intermezzo), Alice Brady (Young Mr. Lincoln), Joan Crawford (The Women), Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Dark Victory), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights), Gladys George (The Roaring Twenties), Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz), Miriam Hopkins (The Old Maid), Edna May Oliver (Drums along the Mohawk), Maria Ouspenskaya (The Rains Came), Nancy Price (The Stars Look Down), Miriam Riselle (Tevye), Flora Robson (Wuthering Heights), Rosalind Russell (The Women), Claire Trevor (Stagecoach)

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy

This is one category that the Academy got right when they handed the Oscar for best supporting actress to Hattie McDaniel for her layered and subversive performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel took an offensively written character in a vile, racist movie and transformed her into an emotionally complex human being.

David O. Selznick had been working for years to bring Margaret Mitchell’s love letter to the antebellum South to the screen. The novel was a massive best seller so interest in the project was unusually high. Selznick’s turbulent search for Scarlett O’Hara is well known – so well known that the process was turned into a movie in 1980, Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War, with Tony Curtis as Selznick. Imagine how different the movie would have been with Paulette Goddard, Joan Bennett, or (gulp) Jean Arthur. (If you haven’t seen them, it’s worth taking a look at some of the screen tests.)

What we remember less well is the intense battle with black groups and newspapers over the explicit racism of the novel, including a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan as protectors of white womanhood against newly free and uncontrollable black men. Selznick did not want to make a movie that would make African Americans cringe the way Birth of a Nation did in 1915. He promised to tone down the racism of the book and scrambled to excise the most offensive parts, like changing Scarlett’s attackers to an interracial group and turning the Klan into an average everyday posse. Selznick also promised to edit out the word “nigger” which was enough to pacify most of the groups. Despite these changes he retained Mitchell’s idealized vision of slavery. “Good” slaves prospered under the watchful eye of their paternalistic masters, and this was embodied by characters like Pork (Oscar Polk), Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), and Mammy. They are portrayed as innocent, simple-minded souls who were content as chattel. Not only did they require the white man’s guidance and supervision, but they thrived under it.

Gone with the Wind was a smash hit and is the highest profile example of a series of Hollywood movies that chided the North for forcing the Civil War with their rabid abolitionist demands and eulogized the South for their level-headed, chivalrous way of life. Slavery is portrayed as an evil in these films, but Northerners ought to have left the South to deal with “their” problem, which would have eventually resolved itself. In other words the Civil War was an unnecessary waste only precipitated by fanatical Northern fiends who didn’t understand the complexities of Southern life. And this is further confirmed by the depiction of characters from each section. Northern characters are dirty and vicious while Southerners are honorable (see John Ford’s Prisoner of Shark Island or Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific). The only movie I can think of from this period in which Northerners are heroes is Virginia City, but even then the Southerners are not villains – they have to add Mexican bandits for everyone to fight against.

The sympathies of Hollywood rested with the South. This was most clearly articulated in the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland adventure The Santa Fe Trail in 1940. The movie recounts the violence in Kansas during the tumultuous year 1854, when hordes of people from both sides of the slavery debate flooded the state to ensure their side won the coming election that would determine the legality of slavery there. The movie casts John Brown, the fervent anti-slavery guerilla fighter, as the only man standing between peace and violence, as though pro-slavery fanatics weren’t rigging elections and perpetuating their own horrors. Largely, the characters of the movie are the honorable members of a West Point class. They are mostly Southerners (including Flynn) and Northerners who might be against slavery personally but prefer to stay out of it. The villains are ardent abolitionists like Van Heflin (who specialized in playing snakes) and Raymond Massey as the monomaniacal John Brown.

The message of these movies is clear: we should do right by African Americans, but let’s not make the same mistakes we made in the 1850s. Let’s not stick our well-meaning noses into a situation only white Southerners could understand. Let’s not agitate against segregation or lynch law. It might not be ideal, but it works for them. Like slavery, any race problems will work themselves out. Let’s pay heed to the lessons of these movies and not stir up trouble when we don’t understand blacks the way white Southerners do. And we certainly don’t want to provoke another Civil War, especially as the United States hovers dangerously close to war with Japan and Germany.

Mammy coyly exerts power over Scarlett

At first glance Hattie McDaniel’s performance seems to confirm this loopy meta-narrative, but she is able to rescue Mammy from the script’s insidious racism. Her position in the O’Hara family is that of nurturer and protector of the children. She might derive her sense of self-worth from her position in the family she serves, but she subtly wields power within it. There’s a wonderful moment in her first scene where she is trying to get Scarlett to eat before going to a barbeque so as not to be too hungry and make a pig of herself in public. When Scarlett refuses and says Ashley Wilkes told her he likes a woman with an appetite, Mammy almost off-handedly remarks that she hasn’t noticed Ashley offering to marry her. Scarlett stops, looks back, and Mammy demurely smiles and looks away, knowing her comment cut to the bone. Scarlett desperately wants to marry Ashley (though Lord only knows why) and Mammy uses her knowledge to manipulate someone who, on paper, exerts much more power over her. (See the scene below.)

What McDaniel manages to do in this scene is show how some slaves could negotiate the limits on their freedom for whatever scraps of power they could manage. Her relationship with Scarlett is never equal, but McDaniel contributed a level of subversive power that suggested characters like Mammy were never the content simpletons Margaret Mitchell wanted us to believe slavery had shielded the country from.

McDaniel is able to show off her true range as an actress, most notably the heartbreaking scene where she describes the death of Rhett and Scarlett’s child to Melanie in that long shot that follows them up the sweeping staircase. Her pain is palpable and we forget – we suspect she does as well – that she isn’t really a part of this family. She is mourning . Her performance suggests how slavery could blur the lines between master and slave and give the illusion that they could live as though they were part of the same family. But Mammy would always be aware that she was property and no matter how close she was to them, they could sell her whenever they wanted.

Like Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel took a lot of flack for playing roles that seemed to confirm black stereotypes for white audiences, but as an actress what was she supposed to do? She is famous for saying something along the lines of she would rather play a maid for $700 a week rather than actually be a maid for $7 a week – and good for her. I’m sure she would have rather played less racially charged parts, but she took what she could and added a humanity to her characters that either the screenwriter, director, or both neglected. She thought about Mammy in her historical context and humanized her in a way that has taken several generations for people to truly appreciate. When she won the Oscar in 1939 it was probably for being a “good Negro,” but today we can look back and appreciate the nuance of what she did in Gone with the Wind and confirm that she was a fine African American actress.

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