Culture Maven: What's So Great About Hollywood's Greatest Year | WGLT

Culture Maven: What's So Great About Hollywood's Greatest Year

Mar 26, 2019

Back during the Golden Era of Hollywood, one year flashed with a brilliance that earned it the title, "The Greatest Year in Hollywood History."

It was 1939, the year that gave us “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With The Wind,” “Stagecoach,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Dark Victory” and many more films that have long been admired for their storytelling, technical achievements, and their cultural impact.  The films form a must-see list for any film fan.  

But eight decades have passed since their original release. Can these films live up to the hype? 

In most cases, yes, said Shari Zeck. She’s the interim dean of Milner Library at Illinois State University and GLT’s Culture Maven. While the years may have dimmed the luster of a few of the revered films, there are several that have weathered the years and continue to impress. 

“Anyone who has seen a movie made before 1997 is going to think of 'The Wizard of Oz' or 'Gone With The Wind' as great examples of classic American cinema. Those two films in particular have stood the test of time.  They’re the films that the average person on the street has heard of and probably seen. Those two films in particular are carrying the year in some way.” 

It was the long-gone studio system that helped to make 1939 so special. 

“The studio system was at its peak. There were incredible talents at work, like John Ford making “Stagecoach.” Westerns, until then, were sort of ‘B’ grade films, something toward the bottom of the bill. But with “Stagecoach,” the Western became an ‘A’ Feature. And it’s just a brilliant movie.” 

There were quality directors working, said Zeck, and actors who have stood the test of time working. (Take a bow, Bette Davis.) “All of these things came together in 1939 to produce films that continue to entertain.” 

“What the studios did, particularly with “Gone With The Wind,” is pull out all the stops in making a truly grand, epic film, the likes of which we don’t see for a while after that. “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” stand out because they weren’t just a star vehicle that was ground out in a month and set out into the world. They were really set up to be historic films.” 

“The year before, 1938, gave us “It Happened One Night,” a classic studio picture with a couple of stars and a fun script. And it did well. But if you walked into a classroom now, you'd be hard pressed to find an 18 to 20-year-old who has heard of the film. That was just a year earlier. And at the time, that was considered the epitome of what the studios could offer. And then the next year, we have these true blockbusters that were blockbusters year after year after year. The have really pressed through the ensuing decades and make us look back and go, wow! ‘39 - quite a year!” 

At least that’s what adults might say. The next generation might not be so easy to convince, said Zeck. Take “The Wizard of Oz” for example. 

“I’m not sure if you took a 7-year-old to see 'The Wizard of Oz' that they would be as awestruck as I was at 7. Because by the age of 7 now they have seen so much in the way of special effects, so much in the way of every fantasy possible.” 

Flying monkeys may not impress after the wonders of Marvel movies. 

“For those who have a little more maturity and can cut some slack while watching the film while watching the film with nostalgia, this sense of becoming a child to embrace the wonder of Oz, I think it does hold up.” 

The songs are great, said Zeck, and the performances are transcendent. “There are extraordinary things about that film that stand the test of time, but I think more for people who are slightly older.”  

Zeck said that although “the Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind” have, so far, withstood the test of time, they’re slowly fading from the pop culture landscape and while film buffs will keep these films close to their heart, but the general public will likely forget them. 

“There is such a low tolerance for different styles of acting, and for special effects that really aren’t that special. The demands of audiences since the ’90s is such that it already takes a special person to be looking back to see anything that is made before “Star Wars” as being great.” 

But in the 80th anniversary for Hollywood’s Greatest Year, classic film fans still celebrate what these films brought to popular culture. 

“Great actors, great directors, great material. In 1939, some of the greatest movies became films that had a long life span. That’s what really makes the difference.” 

You can revel in the nostalgia of "The Wizard of Oz" as it returns to the big screen in its 80th anniversary year. The Normal Theater is running the 1939 classic film March 29-31.

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