Watching 1939: Unheralded and underseen films of the year

I started Comet Over Hollywood 13 years ago in April 2009. Over the years, I’ve written about several topics, from actress beauty tips to movie musicals. And I’ve continued to be drawn to one particularly theme: the films of 1939.

Often heralded as the greatest year on film, I wanted to figure out what made it so special. What was the mystical, magical element that elevated it against other years? In 2011, I decided to try and see every film made in 1939, and in 2018, I started the “Watching 1939” series, where I watched and reviewed any and all films released in 1939 — from the A-list to the B, C and D budget films.

We all know about the greats of the years, from “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” to “Ninotchka.” But was there something special in these lesser known films?

For Comet Over Hollywood’s anniversary, I wanted to share some of the 1939 that I’ve discovered and enjoyed that may not receive the most accolades:

These Glamour Girls

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The cast of “These Glamour Girls” (1939): Tom Brown and Ann Rutherford, Richard Carlson and Jane Bryan, Lew Ayres and Lana Turner, Sumner Getchell and Anita Louise, Peter Lind Hayes and Marsha Hunt, Owen Davis Jr. and Mary Beth Hughes

On the surface, this is a B-budget MGM collegiate dramatic vehicle for starlet Lana Turner. But really, THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS is an interesting study of snobbery and cruelty of debutantes and college boys. It’s all about appearance. While Lana Turner and Lew Ayres are the stars of the films, this film has an outstanding ensemble cast. And it’s Marsha Hunt’s performance that you will be thinking about at the end of the film. Full review here.

The Rains Came

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Too much rain in “The Rains Came”

Whenever anyone tries to mock special effects in older films, I point them to this film. While this is a star-studded film, the main character is the rain. The rain, the earthquake and the rush of the water that follows. The intense special effects will have you biting your fingernails. Of all the big budget films of 1939, I feel this one is overlooked and undermentioned. The cast is led by Myrna Loy, Tryone Power and George Brent, with an equally impressive supporting cast (Maria Ouspenskaya, Joseph Schildkraut, Mary Nash, Jane Darwell, Marjorie Rambeau, Henry Travers, H.B. Warner). Full review here.

Beauty for Asking

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Lucille Ball and Inez Courtney working as beauticians at the start of “Beauty for the Asking” (1939).

Man, I love this film. Lucille Ball plays a jilted woman. Rather than sit at home and cry, she becomes a cosmetic magnet. Originally set to be an exposé of the beauty industry, the film picks fun at the extent customers will go to stay beautiful and look young — even if it’s all bologna (something that continues to ring true today). For example, Ball’s character tells a customer that she is going to use petroleum on her skin, which is luxurious. When she’s later asked what it is, she says it’s “another word for Vaseline.” This is really just a delicious film — and you get a makeover montage. What more could you ask for? Full review here.

Beau Geste

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Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Gary Cooper in “Beau Geste.”

Beau gest … a beautiful gesture. And a beautiful film. This is one of my favorite films of 1939. It opens with a stunning, eerie moment and then the film is told as a flashback as we learn what happens. Directed/produced by William Wellman and with cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl and Archie Stout, visually this is a gorgeous film. I also love Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston as a trio, however, Brian Donlevy steals the show. A must see. Full review here.

First Love

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Helen Parrish and Deanna Durbin

This updated Cinderella story leaves me feeling so happy that I could bust. Actress, singer Deanna Durbin started acting at age 14, and at age 18 in this film, is allowed to finally mature into a grownup role. She even gets her first on-screen kiss (from dreamy Robert Stack). This is just a sweet, fun movie that will leave you smiling. Full review here.

In Name Only

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Cary Grant, Carole Lombard and Kay Francis in “In Name Only”

Never will you want to smack Kay Francis like you do in this movie. But oh is she good — and so are her costars Cary Grant and Carole Lombard. IN NAME ONLY is a frustrating, delicious film involving a loveless marriage that leads to an affair. The film was also transformative for two of its leads: Carole Lombard had the opportunity to play a dramatic role after years of being cast as a screwball comedian. And it gave Kay Francis one of her best roles in years, after being one of Warner Bros. top stars in the 1930s. Full review here.

Here I Am a Stranger

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I went in to this film having never heard of it and knowing nothing about it, and it is now one of my favorite films of 1939. It’s the story of estranged father (Richard Dix) and son David (Richard Greene). When they reconnect, David’s now-society matron mother isn’t pleased. David’s father changes some of his snobbish views and opens his eyes to a new world. It’s sweet, funny but also sad. I also love Brenda Joyce’s off-beat, unladylike character, who we first meet throwing an apple core out the front door (and almost into the face of guests). Full review here.

Midnight

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What a charmer. Few films of 1939 glitter quite like MIDNIGHT does, starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore. This is a witty, attractive and even sexy screwball comedy. Colbert and Ameche are well-paired, Francis Lederer is unexpectedly hot, but it’s John Barrymore who steals the whole show. Full review here.

Nurse Edith Cavell

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Anna Neagal and Edna May Oliver in “Nurse Edith Cavell”

Not only did I like this movie, but I also learned about the real figure, Nurse Edith Cavell, who I wasn’t familiar with. Anna Neagel plays the title character, who was a nurse during World War I. She was a controversial figure at the time because she cared for both English and German patients. Neagle is flanked by Zasu Pitts, May Robson and Edna May Oliver. With this trio, you would expect comedy, but the three play dramatic roles and are in some quite tense scenes. Full review here.

Invitation to Happiness

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INVITATION TO HAPPINESS asks the difficult question: Can you strive to reach your goals and have a successful career … while maintaining a healthy relationship? Irene Dunne plays a society woman who marries boxing hopeful King Cole, played by Fred MacMurray. His ultimate goal is to be the champ, and “any day now” stretches out to 10 years. The couple are apart more than they are together, and King never gets to know his son. While the story is sad and thought provoking, this is still a lovely film. Full review here.

Just for Fun

That’s Right — You’re Wrong: Plain and simple, I love Kay Kyser and his band. This was Kyser’s first film as an actor, and it’s such a good time. It’s mixed with great music and movie audiences of today get a look at his radio program, The Musical Kollege of Knowledge.

The Under-Pup: Hard to find, but worth your time when you do. In Gloria Jean’s first film, she goes off to camp, has to deal with bratty little girls and sings. What more could you ask for?

Everybody’s Hobby: This is brisk, 60 minute movie about a family who all have distinct hobbies … except for dad (played by Henry O’Neill). The hobbies end up helping the family in the end. It’s a good time.

The Cat and the Canary: This creepy comedy starring Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope keeps you guessing about “whodunit” but also brings the laughs.

Honorable Mention

Back Door to Heaven
Four Girls in White
Dancing Co-Ed
Calling Dr. Kildare/The Secret of Dr. Kildare
Miracle on Main Street

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