A recent question on Jeopardy reminded me 1939 was a banner year for the release of the greatest number of quality films ever in a single year. Most were the product of the studio system.
I will briefly discuss some of my favorites, starting with my favorite film genre, the Western.
Jesse James ( “He was one of the doggonedest, gawl-dingedest, dad-blamedest buckaroos that ever rode across these United States of America!”) is a wonderful example of Western Mythology (topped only by Shane as few years later. No lesser authority on the Western than A.B. Guthrie (The Big Sky, The Way West) stated he did not know if the novel was the best Western he ever read, or the best parody of a Western. Shane, that is)
A wonderful cast led by the underrated Tyrone Power, Jr, stars Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly , (and one of my favorite character actors) Henry Hull, John Carradine, Brian Donlevy, Jane Darwell and Lon Chaney, Jr.
Hull, as newspaper editor Major Rufus Cobb, gives us this:
Major Rufus Cobb : [he goes out into the newspaper office] Roy!
Roy : Yes, sir?
Major Rufus Cobb : Take an editorial on lawyers.
Roy : Liars?
Major Rufus Cobb : That’ll do. We’ll begin easy.
[he begins to dictate]
Major Rufus Cobb : Paragraph: If we are ever to have law and order in the West, the first thing we gotta do is take out all the lawyers and shoot ’em down like dogs.
Directed by Henry King from a screenplay by the great Nunnally Johnson.
In truth, Jesse James was far more interesting and more of a criminal and murderer that we have seen in any film version of his life.
Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Errol Flynn, (as a English born cattleman who reluctantly puts on the badge to clean-up the town), also starring, frequent costar Olivia de Havilland, and Ann Sheridan. With another favorite character actor, Ward Bond.
There is a line explaining why Flynn, an “Englishman” is a cattleman in America, but it is unnecessary.
The Irish and English, along with other Europeans, were not uncommon in the West. The Texan/Montana cowboy Teddy “Blue” Abbott (We Pointed Them North) was born in England. The antagonists in the Lincoln County War were; the English John Tunstall, (organizer of the Regulators, including Billy the Kid), and Lawrence Murphy, a criminal Irish thug and murder.
Then there were the remittance men. Second sons of the aristocrats in Britain who could not inherit and rejected the army or the pulpit as careers.
Stagecoach, John Ford’s Masterpiece. Orson Welles watched it dozens of times before he directed Citizen Kane (when asked his favorite directors, Welles said, “I like the old masters … by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” )
The film made a star out of John Wayne (Paul Fix, Wayne’s acting coach told me, “Duke was scared shitless of John Ford” on the night before his first day of shooting).
An assortment of characters board a stagecoach for Lordsburg Arizona: a disillusioned ex-Confederate officer turned gambler, looking for some of the honor and elegance that was his antebellum life, played by John Caradine; A hooker with a heart of gold expelled from town by the local church ladies, Claire Trever (Dallas, Duke’s love interest): An alcoholic doctor, Thomas Mitchell (Oscar for supporting actor); the doctor’s dream come through with a fellow passenger, a whiskey drummer (Samuel Peacock ) with his sample case. A banker who made an unexpected withdrawal of the banks assets. The very pregnant wife of an army officer on her way to meet her husband.
Along the way they pick-up the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) and his Winchester. They’ll need his gun to help fight off the Apaches. As Louis L’Amour. once said of the Duke, “He handled that Winchester like it was part of his arm.”
In the years since his first appearance on screen in The Big Trail, Marion Morrison had transformed himself from so-so actor, into John Wayne. He learned to move, to deliver a line with his own unique style. It’s like what Peter O’Toole as Alan Swann said in My Favorite Year, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”.
Destry Rides Again! Newley hired Deputy sheriff Tom Destry, Jr (James Stewart) arrives in Bottleneck to clean the town up, just as his father did years ago. He don’t go heeled so is awarded a mop and bucket by the criminal element, the saloon owner Kent played by Brian Donlevy, and Marlene Dietrich as Frenchy, a saloon singer and Kent’s girl (lucky Kent).
Destry’s civility and easy going manner, he likes to disarm a situation with a story, conceal his expertise with six shooters, which is soon demonstrated.
Finally, accounts with Kent are settled, and Frenchy’s soul is redeemed. Destry’s tells story.
In Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda plays the titular character who defends a man wrongly accused of murder, played the luckless Edward Quillan (he was a farmer evicted from his land by a heartless bankers in The Grapes of Wrath, and a condemned mutineer in Mutiny on the Bounty).
Donald Meek is at his oily best as the prosecutor, and the John Ford stock player Ward Bond is the eyewitness, J. Palmer Cass.
Abe Lincoln: [cross-examining Cass] J. Palmer Cass.
John Palmer Cass: Yes, sir.
Abe Lincoln: What’s the “J” stand for?
John Palmer Cass: John.
Abe Lincoln: Anyone ever call you Jack?
John Palmer Cass: Yeah, but…
Abe Lincoln: Why “J. Palmer Cass?” Why not “John P. Cass?”
John Palmer Cass: Well, I…
Abe Lincoln: Does “J. Palmer Cass” have something to hide?
John Palmer Cass: No.
Abe Lincoln: Then what do you part your name in the middle for?
John Palmer Cass: I got a right to call myself anything I want as long as it’s my own name!
Abe Lincoln: Well then if it’s all the same to you, I’ll call you Jack Cass.
Stephen Douglas (in the person of Milburn Stone, later Doc Adams of Gunsmoke) makes an appearance.
The story is based on Lincoln’s defense in the Almanac Trial. In that trial and the film, the eyewitness to the crime claimed he could clearly see the murder, although it happened in the dark of night, because it was “moon bright”. Using the almanac, Lincoln proved the moon had set some time before the killing, and would not have been visible.
Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmunds was a huge best seller in the 1930s, behind only Gone With the Wind in popularity. In John Ford’s Technicolor film adaptation (screenplay by Lamar Trotti, who also wrote Young Mr. Lincoln.) it is 1776 in Albany, New York. Against her wealthy family’s wishes, Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert) marries farmer Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) and follows him to his new farm in the Mohawk Valley. Not really a farm until Gil clears the land and builds a cabin. The newlyweds are befriended by Ford stock company player, Ward Bond, and a humorous but kindly wealthy widow played by the wonderful Edna May Oliver.
The story moves to the war with the Tories and their Indian allies.
The is a microcosmic for the greater conflict of the War of Independence. It is one of my favorite movies. It demonstrates a optimism for the future common in movies made before World War II.
It is the only film I have seen showing the flash in the pan that ignites the powder charge in a flintlock rifle. In 2015’s The Revenant, a flintlock rifle fires, although the powder pan was exposed and the frizzen in the forward position. A impossibility, proving the rifle was converted to accept a metallic cartridge.
Both Henry Fonda and John Wayne went on to make several Westerns over the following years. Many for John Ford, including one film together, the first in Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Ft. Apache (1948), produced by Merian C. Cooper, the creator of King Kong.
James Steward would not make another Western until 1950, with Winchester ’73, for Anthony Mann.