Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 by Mark A. Vieira; Running Press, 223 pages ($22.95 paper). Among the other cultural anniversaries that have been crowding us thick and furious for some years now, we are reminded by a few books that this is the 75th anniversary of what is often taken to be the annus mirabilis of American Film – 1939. To be published soon after this one is another 1939 anniversary paperback – “1939: The Making of Six Great Films from Hollywood’s Greatest Year” by Charles F. Adams (Graven Street, 254 pages, $16.95)
This one, by a film historian, photographer and curator, is a lushly illustrated, luxurious paperback about what Mark Vieira calls a “watershed year” that yielded “cinematic masterpieces” like no other: “Gunga Din,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Only Angels Have Wings,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Beau Geste,” “Son of Frankenstein,” “The Women,” “Drums Along the Mohawk,” “Union Pacific,” “The Wizard of Oz,” Stagecoach,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men” and “Gone With the Wind.”
He tells his story chronologically by date of release, from “Son of Frankenstein” in January to “Gone With the Wind” for Christmas. No less than “fifty classics” find their way into Vieira’s celebratory text.
Time hasn’t necessarily been as kind as it could be to the movies Vieira is so eager to celebrate. To 21st century eyes (and many of us back in the 20th too), “Gone With the Wind,” for instance, was a beautifully filmed racist horror distinguished by Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, cinematographer Lee Garmes and apologies for a supposedly “genteel” South which strikes modern sensibilities as a good reason American film history almost DEMANDS a reparative Best Picture Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” in March.
This book, typically, contents itself with telling us, for instance, that among those of its contemporary “critics,” syndicated milliner’s model Hedda Hopper observed, “Leigh doesn’t play Scarlett, she is Scarlett,” the sort of encomium that is instantly meaningless and pointless to posterity. See the movie now and the movie looks every bit as much like Gable’s movie in retrospect as Leigh’s. Expect no fresh thinking here.
– Jeff Simon