BOOK REVIEW: ‘1939’

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1939: THE MAKING OF SIX GREAT FILMS FROM HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST YEAR
By Charles F. Adams
Craven Street Books, $16.95, 260 pages

As this book’s titles suggests, Hollywood may never have another single year with the successes it had in 1939. It produced no fewer than 18 important films, all of them critical and box-office successes, two of which are still generating healthy annual sales 75 year later.

Author Charles Adams writes, “It was a rare confluence of circumstances and events that made it such a productive year for Hollywood.” It was the era of the big studios. They had more than 100 directors, some of the country’s best writers to turn out screenplays and an array of stars whose names are still well remembered. All were studio employees, thus controlled by the studios.

Mr. Adams gives us a detailed picture of the creation of six of 1939’s films and a summary of 12 others. The long-term biggest of the six were “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” He gives us the full story on them, as well as those of “Stagecoach” (John Wayne’s first hit), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (James Stewart’s), “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (starring Mickey Rooney).

He begins each section with the history of the story behind the film. For example, “Gone With the Wind,” began its journey to publication and film when Harold Latham, an editor at Macmillan Publishers, was in Atlanta scouting for Southern fiction writers. Peggy Marsh, a local housewife, asked to call on him. She gave him a bundle of paper wrapped with string, He took it back to New York. Once there, Mr. Adams tells us, “he soon realized he was holding something special in his hands. The story had scope, history, sweep and grandeur.” The writer had wired him saying she had changed her mind and wanted the manuscript back. He ignored it and sent her a contract and a check as an “advance.” Her husband persuaded her to take it. For six months, she labored on it. She decided to use her maiden name as a pen name, Margaret Mitchell.

Latham and his colleagues felt they had a best-seller, but decided to get a pre-publication movie sale. Several studios turned it down. Macmillan went ahead with publication in May 1936. It was such a big hit that Hollywood now clamored for it. The legendary David O. Selznick bought the movie rights. The details of how he assembled his production team and the competition among leading men and women for the star roles make for compelling reading. On the eve of shooting the first scenes, the book had sold 1 million copies.

With many production problems overcome, “Gone With the Wind” premiered in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1939. The film was nominated for 23 Oscars and won 10. As with the other films he writes about, the author gives us a rest-of-life account of the main figures involved in the film that has now been seen by 202 million moviegoers.

In 1900, Frank L. Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was published and became an instant hit. By 1925, it was a durable classic. Baum’s son partnered with a filmmaker to produce a silent version of “The Wizard of Oz.” In 1938, Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, acquired the film rights and put top producer Mervyn LeRoy on it. LeRoy assigned the scriptwriting to Herman Mankiewicz. He also asked three other writers to turn in scripts. Ultimately, 11 writers had a hand in the project.

For the cast, MGM wanted Shirley Temple, 10, to play Dorothy. She was Hollywood’s biggest star from 1935 to 1937, but she was under contract to 20th Century Fox. Negotiations broke down after several weeks. Judy Garland, then 16, had been in minor roles at MGM until she played Mickey Rooney’s love interest in “Love Finds Andy Hardy.” She was chosen to be Dorothy. Gradually, all casting was completed, including a performing group called Singer’s Midgets as the Munchkins.

Production began, but there were problems. Dancer Buddy Ebsen, as the Tin Woodman, was allergic to the powdered aluminum used on his costume. He had to be replaced. The film then went through three directors before it was completed.

It premiered on Aug. 15, 1939. Audiences — especially children — loved it. However, it got mixed reviews. MGM’s most expensive film to produce up to that point, “The Wizard of Oz” did not turn a profit until a re-release to theaters in 1948-49. Once it was released for television, it became a steady, profitable hit.

Mr. Adams has given us rich detail about each of the films he covers. Readers who also like good films will find themselves wanting to see any of the six they have not already seen. Today, they’re available on DVD and TV downloading.

Peter Hannaford, who writes from California, is a fan of classic films. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold).

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