It all happened in a single year, just a half-century ago. The dark days seemed to have ended at last -- the years of the Depression and the dust bowl -- and Americans were regaining their pride and self-confidence. They had touched bottom, but they had pulled themselves up. As the '30s ended, the New York World's Fair summed up the nation's suddenly buoyant mood with its official march, Dawn of a New Day. And who, in the atmosphere of optimism that marked the start of 1939, could have doubted that it was so?
Certainly not Hollywood, which was beginning the greatest year of its Golden Age. In fact, it was to be the most memorable twelve months in the history of the American cinema. There was Gone With the Wind, of course, whose production attracted more intense public curiosity than any other film ever made. When Vivien Leigh -- beautiful, talented, but indisputably English -- was cast in the role of the Old South's own Scarlett O'Hara, thousands of Americans reacted with patriotic fury, as if the Redcoats had burned Washington again. "Why not cast Chiang Kai-shek and change the part to Gerald O'Hara?" a correspondent indignantly demanded of Movie Mirror, one of the era's many fan magazines.
But Gone With the Wind was just one in the astonishing list of movies released in 1939. There was also The Wizard of Oz, the grandest and most glorious of all fantasies, and Stagecoach, the model for all westerns to come. There was the dark, gothic romance of Wuthering Heights; adventure stories like Gunga Din, Beau Geste and Drums Along the Mohawk; sophisticated comedies like Ninotchka, The Women and Idiot's Delight.
Historical dramas? Of course. In 1939 there was something for everyone. Try Juarez, Union Pacific and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. Tearjerkers? Take a box of Kleenex and see Dark Victory, Intermezzo, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Light That Failed. Politics? Just think of Frank Capra's populist parable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or that gritty tragedy Of Mice and Men. The list goes on and on: Babes in Arms; Destry Rides Again; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; W.C. Fields' You Can't Cheat an Honest Man; The Roaring Twenties; and The Cat and the Canary, which gave Bob Hope his first starring role.
In those days of studio czars and long-term contracts, there was no time to watch the waves in Malibu while waiting for inspiration, the right script or more money. Everyone worked in the fantasy factories of 1939, and nearly every major figure was represented by at least one picture. Jimmy Stewart's fans, for example, had no fewer than five to choose from (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, Made for Each Other, It's a Wonderful World and Ice Follies of 1939), and so did Henry Fonda enthusiasts (Jesse James, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, Let Us Live and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell).