Top Ten 1939

1. Only Angels Have Wings
2. Gone With the Wind
3. The Wizard Of Oz
4. Midnight
5. Young Mr. Lincoln
6. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
7. The Private Lives of Elizabeth And Essex
8. Le Jour Se Leve
9. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
10. Ninotchka


James Stewart won the Academy Award in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story, and it has been considered his consolation prize for not having won it for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. It’s easy to see why; his charmingly loveable persona hits the maximum of dramatic effort when he spends the centrepiece of the film enacting the mother of all filibusters. I’d also include in this selection for this category his performance in one of the greatest westerns ever made, Destry Rides Again, in which he lays the groundwork for characters he would often play in the future, moral gunmen who never pulled a trigger without thinking about it very carefully first.

Honour Roll: Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Jean Gabin, Le Jour Se Leve; Clark Gable, Gone With the Wind; Charles Laughton, The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Burgess Meredith, Of Mice and Men


No argument with the popular consensus here: Vivien Leigh‘s performance as Scarlett O’Hara was worth the years-long wait of finding the right actress for the part. Seventy years on, Gone With The Wind still has plenty of gusto thanks to her quick turns from kittenish to vicious, and moments of depth and generosity amid flurries of selfish indulgence, the whole time never alienating her audience thanks to her ineffable charm. It’s one of the cinema’s greatest performances, and sadly one that, despite a second Oscar, she would never fully repeat.

Honour Roll: Jean Arthur, Only Angels Have Wings; Bette Davis, Dark Victory/The Private Lives of Elizabeth And Essex; Irene Dunne, Love Affair; Judy Garland, The Wizard Of Oz


You might laugh at the choice, but would The Wizard Of Oz be so touching without the magnificence of Ray Bolger?  The Tin Man might spend the movie looking for his heart, but the Scarecrow is definitely in full possession of his; the amity that strikes up between him and Judy Garland’s legendary Dorothy is one that provides the film with an immense sense of comfort from their first steps together and throughout their perilous journey. When Dorothy tells him that she thinks she’ll miss him most of all, we feel it somewhere deep. Plus, just look at the man dance: he really seems like he’s made of straw.

Honour Roll: Brian Aherne, Juarez; John Barrymore, Midnight; Humphrey Bogart, Dark Victory; Brian Donlevy, Beau Geste


No way in hell would I ever want to undo one of the most important events in movie history, which is the awarding of the first ever Oscar to an African American when Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for Gone With The Wind. Not that it did her much good; she spent most of her career playing maids before and after the trophy, but it’s still one for the books. Looking back after all these years finds that the stronger female performance in support of Vivien Leigh’s silly little Scarlett is Olivia de Havilland as her sister-in-law Melanie. Playing good people is no small challenge: it’s very easy to make them boring, and de Havilland magically manages to find the strength and grit in making her character a moral force. Just watch her in the scene where Scarlett shows up at her house in the flaming red dress that Rhett has forced her to wear; it’s a masterpiece of subtle acting, and her powers would only increase over time.

Honour Roll: Jean Arthur, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; Mary Astor,Midnight; Hattie McDaniel, Gone With the Wind; Rosalind Russell, The Women


Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz are among my favourite movies, but I’ll skip them for this category and go with the great Howard Hawks. One of his most enjoyable melodramas, Only Angels Have Wings, benefits greatly from his strong style; he makes something marvelous out of what could have been a mundane airplane adventure (whereas Victor Fleming expertly shepherded two projects that were probably going to be good anyway).

Honour Roll: Victor Fleming, Gone With the Wind/The Wizard Of Oz; John Ford,Stagecoach; Edmund Goulding, Dark Victory; Mitchell Leisen, Midnight