What Should Have Won the 1939 Best Picture Oscar?

Welcome to Year Twelve of the Best Picture discussion, concerning movies released in 1939!

As I described it in v. 1 of my book: “1939 is commonly thought of as the greatest year in Hollywood’s history; at the very least, 1939 brought the studio system to its very heights. As film historian Larry Swindell has put it, “Taken all together, the films of 1939 are the best argument for the studio system.”  We have an embarrassment of riches in this annus mirabilis, and the difficulties of nomination and awards radically increase when there are so many losing films that in other years would have swept the Oscars. Want to know how great 1939 is?  Here is a partial list of the films that were NOT nominated for Best Picture: Beau Geste, Destry Rides Again, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Four Feathers, Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Only Angels Have Wings, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Roaring Twenties, The Women, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, and Young Mr. Lincoln. The 800 pound gorilla of 1939, of course, is Gone with the Wind, a problematic, sweeping, inescapable film masterpiece that has never ceased both to infuriate and fascinate viewers since it was first taken up by David O. Selznick as a film project. But other films, in their way, are just as influential (or even more so), including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the quintessential film about American politics and ideals), Stagecoach (the first modern Western), The Wizard of Oz (the best fantasy musical ever made), Ninotchka (a model for romantic comedy), and Gunga Din (a mold for the comic adventure tale). By any reckoning, however, Gone with the Wind remains the bedrock of the argument that 1939 is the greatest year ever, as the epic by which all other epics get judged. Truly a magnificent year – and one that caused me to tear out what little hair I have left trying to navigate safely through its many attractions.”

Deciding this year’s Best Picture is excruciatingly difficult — or should be — because of the large number of genuine classics which truly deserve to be recognized as such. Have fun deciding which of your favorites should have won!

Of course, in the Academy’s historical decision, they chose Gone with the Wind. Despite the implicit racism of much of the film, it’s hard not to agree that Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, and Hattie McDaniel served George Cukor, Victor Fleming, and David O. Selznick well in this epic Civil War film.

The other original nominees were Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in Dark Victory; Robert Donat and Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Greta Garbo in her greatest movie, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr., in Of Mice and Men, John Wayne’s star-making turn in John Ford’s  Stagecoach, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz,  and Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights.

But as I pointed out above, a huge number of other films may deserve notice as well (for fairness’ sake, I include many which aren’t my cup of tea, but may be yours): Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms; Bette Davis as the mad empress in Juarez; Gary Cooper in Beau Geste; Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in John Ford’s first color film, Drums Along the Mohawk; Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in George Stevens’ Gunga Din; Tyrone Power’s The Rains Came; Ingrid Bergman, Intermezzo; Deanna Durbin, First Love; Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings; the best adaptation of The Four Feathers; Errol Flynn and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; the first filmed version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado; Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother; Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln; Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the Fleischer’s animated classic, Gulliver’s Travels; Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific; the manless The Women; William Powell and Myrna Loy in Another Thin Man; Mickey Rooney in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again; Errol Flynn in Dodge City; Jimmy Cagney in Each Dawn I Die; William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck in Golden Boy; Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles; Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda in Jesse James; the swashbuckler The Man in the Iron Mask; Claudette Colbert in Midnight; Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone in Tower of London; W.C. Fields in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man; Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky; Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart The Roaring Twenties; Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, The Old Maid; Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and Bela Lugosi, Son of Frankenstein; and Shirley Temple, The Little Princess.

No, I haven’t forgotten Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game; it wasn’t released here in the US this year. Great movie — don’t miss it!

As always, I have much more to say in my book: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OPEELH0

Have fun voting!


  1. Wow! amazing amount of truly amazing films. do think that through the years the films gained more “fame” or interest for their performances rather than when they were made?

  2. Of course “Gone with the Wind” but as runner up…Maybe Mr.Chips, maybe Love Affair, maybe Wuthering Heights, maybe Ninotchka. Heck of a great year.

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