Thursday, September 29, 2011

At Long Last...The Constant Nymph Premieres on TCM

As a classic film fan, I have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of movies. However, I was never so excited as I was last night to see the premiere showing of The Constant Nymph on TCM. I had never seen this 1943 film starring Joan Fontaine in the title role. The movie has been out of circulation since 1951. The reason given seems to vary. One story claimed that the author of the book, Margaret Kennedy had a clause put in the film contract that  stated after its original theatrical run it could only be shown at libraries, museums, amd universities. Another story claimed the movie was not available because the script of the 1943 movie was derived from both the novel by Margaret Kennedy and the play by Margaret Kennedy and Basil Dean. These properties were legally separate and expensive legal intervention was needed to resolve the contractual situation. Thanks to TCM the legalities were resolved. This lost classic was finally shown at the 2011 TCM festival. Last night, those of us who could not go to the annual TCM festival were fortunate enough to view this film.

As I mentioned, I had never seen this film before. However, my husband David did years ago at his local public library. He spoke so lovingly of this movie, I longed to view it myself. Last night, our anticpation was mixed with a little fear. He worried that perhaps his memory of the film was stronger than the film itself. Sometimes, the movies we adored when we were younger, do not stand the test of time or are not as beautiful as our memories of them. I was concerned that after the build up David had given the film, that The Constant Nymph could not live up to my expectations. I am very happy to report that neither David nor I was disappointed while viewing this Warner Brothers gem last night!

The story is controversial in nature. The Constant Nymph on the surface could be viewed as a story bordering on pedophilia. However, I think that interpretation is incorrect. It is a story of timeless love. In such plots, one must suspend one's disbelief at times. Like The Portrait of Jennie, the title character is very ethereal. Tessa Sanger, in many ways, is not of this world. She is an inspiring, muse-like creature. Another truly sensitive soul would be touched by her and love her unconditionally. This is at the heart of the love story between Tessa and Lewis Dodd.

The Constant Nymph opens in Brussels with composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) reading a review of his latest symphony. He discovers that the London audience and critics hated it. Lewis wonders if he has any talent and also if his work is perhaps a bit too dark. Lewis decides he will visit his good friend and fellow composer Albert Sanger at his home in Switzerland. Albert has four daughters by three different wives. His current wife is unhappy with the poverty in which she, her husband, and stepdaughters live. The announcement of Lewis' arrival excites the all girls but especially Tessa (Joan Fontaine). It is obvious Tessa adores Lewis based upon the way she gushes over him. Fontaine did an excellent job depicting an adolescent's exhuberance over a first love. At the same time, Fontaine poignantly portrays Tessa's vulnerability. Tessa has a genuine effervescence but it is tempered with weak spells. Unfortunately, young Tessa has a frail heart.


Lewis comes to the country house and finds Sanger in poor health. It is obvious that Sanger believes in Lewis' talent. He advises Dodd to be more soulful and less intellectual in his work -- there is an underlying joy in Lewis that can come out in music. Sanger is also concerned about the fate of his two youngest daughters, Tessa and Paula (Joyce Reynolds). Sanger tells Lewis that their mother came from a wealthy family in England. He believes that their uncle, Charles Creighton, would take care of them. Sanger makes Lewis promise to contact Creighton in the event something happens to him.

Albert Sanger does die during Lewis Dodd's visit. Dodd fulfills his promise to Sanger by contacting Creighton (Charles Coburn). The older daughters have made arrangements for their futures. Kate (Jean Muir) will study music in Milan. Toni (Brenda Marshall) will marry Fritz Bercovy (Peter Lorre). Fritz is a successful theater owner and friend of the family. He has adored Toni for some time and convinces her to marry him. Creighton is more than willing to take care of Tess and Paula. He in fact has brought his daughter, Florence (Alexis Smith), with him to Switzerland to meet the girls. It is decided that Tessa and Paula will attend school in England. Meanwhile, Lewis has fallen in love with Florence. It is obvious that all of their lives will be much different -- but will their lives be better?


Six months later, Lewis and Florence are married but not so happily. Florence desperately loves her husband and wants to see him succeed. However, Lewis seems to resent the way she goes about it. In addition, Tessa and Paula have run away from their school. This is not surprising. After all, the girls never attended school before. Lewis hears the news and sets off to find Tessa and Paula. This puts further strain on his marriage as he misses the party Florence has organized. The party was intended to introduce Lewis to some important friends and contacts of the Creightons.

Lewis does find Tessa and Paula. It is decided that Paula will go to live with Toni and Fritz. Tessa will stay with Lewis and Florence. It is during this period that Tessa helps Lewis see that his music needs to convey more feeling. Lewis has always be technically proficient, but his compositions have lacked emotion. It is Tessa who becomes Lewis' inspiration to write a more soulful symphony. It also becomes clear to Florence that Tessa is her rival. Will Tessa be sent away? Will Lewis realize how much he loves Tessa? Those are questions I will not answer --- WATCH THE FILM FOR YOURSELF!


This film succeeds for several reasons. First, the musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold perfectly sets the atmosphere for this poignant story. Second, there is the excellent direction of Edmund Goulding. Goulding had the ability to take potentially overly melodramatic plots and elevate them. He proved this previously with Dark Victory, so Jack Warner made the right decision in entrusting Goulding with The Constant Nymph. Third, the quality of acting by the entire cast. Such an usual story requires skillful actors who make us believe the story is plausible. Joan Fontaine is truly amazing as the teenage Tessa. Fontaine manages to depict the all the energy and guilelessness of her character. Charles Boyer makes Lewis Dodd a man who finally discovers he is capable and worthy of love. The fact that a teenage girl is the one who helps Lewis discover this could be creepy in a lesser actor's hands. However, Boyer conveys that Tessa is his inspiration and soulmate, rather than an object of lust or sexual conquest. Finally, Alexis Smith does an outstanding job as Florence. Florence is a complex character. She genuines loves Lewis but does not always know how to help him. Florence is jealous of Tessa but the audience can understand that. After all, she took the orphan into her home and now Tessa is unintentionally putting additional stress on her marriage. There was a honesty and maturity to Alexis Smith's acting and it shows in this performance.

Hopefully, you set your DVR and will enjoy this film. If not, I have a feeling The Constant Nymph will become a new favorite on TCM.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Now Showing --- Dodsworth

The summer is officially over! I went back to my job as a high school math teacher on September 1st. Yes, I miss sleeping in late and having coffee on the patio each morning with my husband David. I miss the beach and road trips to Indianapolis too! However, fall does bring the new season of class film viewing at two great venues: Loews Landmark in Jersey City, NJ and The Lafayette Theater in Suffern, NY. Yesterday, David and I saw Dodsworth at the Lafayette Theater. As always, it is special seeing a classic film on the big screen.

I was particularly excited when I discovered this movie was part of the fall Big Screen Classics series at the Lafayette Theater. I have always loved this movie. To me, it is one of those beautifully filmed and perfectly cast movies. Samuel Goldwyn purchased this popular stage play by Sydney Howard (based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis). The drama opened on Broadway in 1934 to excellent reviews and ticket sales with Walter Huston in the lead role. Wisely, Goldwyn had Sydney Howard do the screenplay and cast Walter Huston as the title character. The crucial role of Dodsworth's wife was given to Ruth Chatterton. Chatterton herself was a stage veteran with the experience and depth needed to handle the complex role of Fran Dodsworth. The supporting cast was impressive and included: Mary Astor, Paul Lukas, David Niven, Maria Ouspenskaya, Spring Byington, and John Payne. The direction was placed in the capable hands of William Wyler. By carefully choosing all the right personnel both in front of camera and behind it, Goldwyn produced a timeless masterpiece.
Dodsworth opens with Sam Dodsworth(Walter Huston) looking wistfully out his office window at the factory which bears his name. Sam has decided to retire and take a second honeymoon to Europe with his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Fran wants start a new phase of her life now their daughter Emily has married. She is also anxious to get away from her Midwestern surroundings. Fran tells Sam that she's still a young woman and wants to experience more than their provincial town has to offer. Sam's friend Tubby Pearson (Harlay Briggs) voices his concern  about Sam's retirement. After all, it is men like he and Sam who make the country prosperous. In addition, Tubby tells Sam that he is strong man except when it comes to dealing with Fran. Tubby believes that the whole European vacation will only further indulge Fran and her snobbish attitude. As the two men are talking, Fran and Tubby's wife Matey(Spring Byington) enter the room. Fran is not the least bit phased by Tubby's comments. It is obvious that Sam adores his wife and she always gets her way. This clearly shows the audience who is truly in control of the Dodsworth marriage.

The voyage to Europe gives the audience a chance to see how different Sam and Fran really are. Fran envisions herself as worldly and sophisicated. Therefore, she dresses to the hilt and does not want to appear to be a tourist. Sam, on the other hand, views this trip as way to educate himself further and he embraces all there is to see and do. While aboard ship, Fran and Sam meet Captain Clyde Lockert (David Niven) and Edith Cortright (Mary Astor). Sam chats with Mrs. Cortright very comfortably. It is obvious that he likes her directness and lack of pretense. Meanwhile, Fran enjoys the attention of the younger British man and leads him to believe she is interested in pursuing something more than friendship. When Lockert propositions Fran, she becomes angered. Lockert remarks that perhaps Fran is not as savvy to ways of world as she pretends to be. Sam interrupts the encounter and finds his wife still upset that Lockert would dare proposition her. Sam tells Fran that they are "hicks" and she should not have flirted so much with Lockert. Sam has no illusions about himself and is not ashamed of being a man from a small town. Fran refuses to accept the fact that she did anything wrong and just wants to avoid all contact with Lockert. Therefore, she demands they go immediately to Paris and avoid London altogether.

Fran becomes attracted to the European aristocrats and they apparently embrace her. However, it is the "naive" Sam who recognizes that it mainly Fran's wealth that these aristocrats truly enjoy. In spite of the Lockert incident, Fran goes back to her flirtatious ways. This time it is with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas). At Fran's birthday party in Paris, Edith warns Fran not to do anything foolish. However, Fran confronts Sam after the party with the fact that she has rented a house and plans to stay in Europe. Fran tells Sam he should return home without her. She believes they need time apart in order to save their marriage. Sam returns to America while Fran remains in Europe and has an affair with Iselin.

Back in the United States, Sam is visibly unhappy despite the efforts of daughter Emily (Kathryn Marlowe), son-in-law Harry (John Payne), and the Pearsons. Matey finally pulls Sam aside and he shows her one of Fran's letters. This is a powerful scene played brilliantly by both Huston and Byington. The expressions on each actor's face convey the thoughts of each one's character. Matey asks who Arnold Iselin is and that confirms Sam's suspicions. After his talk with Matey, Sam arranges a meeting with his wife in Europe and also arranges for Arnold Iselin to be followed. As Sam travels to Europe, he receives updates about Iselin's location. Sam finally is reunited with Fran who tells him some of the places she's been -- the same locations where Iselin spent time. Sam tells Fran he that has an appointment with a man in their hotel room. She's annoyed thinking he is conducting business again. The man arrives and it is Iselin. Sam confronts the pair and offers to divorce Fran if that's what they want. Arnold Iselin, like Sam, knows who he is. Iselin enjoyed his fling with Fran but it is clear he wants to move on -- which he graciously does. Fran and Sam decide to reconcile. Sam tells Fran she will want to start acting differently since she is going to be a grandmother.
This is a great moment for Chatterton who is intially happy that Emily is pregnant. Then, slowly Chatterton's demeanor changes as she realizes becoming a grandmother is further proof that she is aging.

As usual, Fran manipulates Sam into doing what she wants. The couple goes to Vienna where Fran renews her friendship with Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye). The young Austrian feeds Fran's ego by taking her all the places Sam dislikes such as night clubs. On the night in which Fran discovers she has become a grandmother, Kurt professes that he is in love with Fran and wants to marry her. After Kurt leaves the Dodsworths' hotel suite, Sam confronts Fran. She tells him that she wants a divorce so she can marry Kurt. As he waits for for his divorce to become final, Sam travels all over Europe. He finally meets a familiar face in Naples, Edith Cortright. She invites Sam to lunch and he tells her all about the divorce. Edith invites Sam to stay at her villa while the divorce is being finalized and he accepts.


Back in Vienna, Kurt brings his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) to meet Fran. This is truly one of the great moments in the film. In fact, the audience at the Lafayette Theater reacted immediately to Ouspenskaya when Chatterton opens the door to greet the Baroness. You could hear the "OOH"s from the crowd anticipating the imminent confrontation. Fran has finally met her match. The Baroness tells Kurt she needs to speak to Fran alone. After Kurt leaves, the Baroness does not mince words. She tells Fran she will not give her permission for Kurt to marry Fran. The Baroness tells Fran that although the family is no longer rich, they still have pride and need to continue the family line. The Baroness tells Fran that she knows Fran is probably unable to fulfill this need. In addition, she bluntly tells Fran there is no future for the old wife of a young man. Fran calls Kurt back into the room and expects him to take her side. Kurt is a traditionalist and thinks the marriage should be postponed until his mother can be won over. Fran recognizes she is defeated and sends the Von Obersdorfs on their way.

Meanwhile, Sam is a new man in Naples. Edith is everything Fran is not -- a friend and supporter of Sam and his ideas. In fact, Sam wants Edith to join him as he scouts locations for an airline. He makes it clear that he wished to marry Edith once his divorce is final. Edith is genuinely thrilled telling Sam she'd follow him anywhere. Their happiness is short lived as Fran phones the villa and tells Sam she wants a reconciliation. He tells her that he'll book passage on ship back to America. Sam tells Edith he's going back to Fran. It is obvious that he loves Edith. However, he is old- fashioned and feels a responsibility to his wife of 20+ years.

Sam and Fran are aboard ship ready to head home. Fran is unrepentant. In fact, she tells Sam that he is partially to blame for what happened. She then precedes to go back to her gossiping ways -- speaking badly about Kurt, his mother, and even friend Matey Pearson. Chatterton is brilliant portraying the self absorbed Fran who truly believes she is the center of the universe. Huston's facial reactions of disgust are perfect. Therefore, the audience cheers when he tells the porter to get his bags because he's disembarking. Fran is in shock! She can only keep repeating "He's going ashore! He's going ashore!" Never has Sam stood up to Fran before and Chatterton conveys Fran's disbelief beautifully. The film ends with Edith looking out of the villa's terrace where she ses Sam returning to her in a sailboat. A close up of Mary Astor's joyous expression is a glorious way to end a great film.
All the performances in this film are excellent. However, Huston and Chatterton were particularly outstanding. Huston perfectly depicts the unassuming, All-American man. Sam Dodsworth has achieved the American Dream but is still humble enough to realize that he just a simple Midwesterner. I don't mean that in a condescending way -- I mean simple in the sense that he is without pretense and what you see is what you get. The audience admires Sam for being proud of who is and where he comes from. Chatterton to me was extremely brave. She makes Fran a vulnerable woman but does not try to make us like her. Fran is a shallow and vain person. Chatterton is brilliant in playing her as a woman who can be charming and accomodating but ultimately wants to be taken care of. I find it shocking that Ruth Chatterton was not even nominated for the Oscar that year. Her performance still rings true today.

If you have not seen Dodsworth or wish to see it again, tune into TCM's The Essentials on November 26, 2011. The film will be shown that evening. It is a truly timeless masterpiece. Its themes of fear of aging and hiding behind pretense are even more revelant today than they were in 1936. Plus, I doubt you could find better cast, screenwriter, director, and producer to tell such a story today!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Saturday Mornings on TCM -- Serials and Programmers Find New Life!

There are certain aspects of TCM that I hope will improve. For instance, I would love a new Essentials co-host because I've honestly had my fill of Alec Baldwin. I would also like to see Silent Sunday Night be expanded to several hours. It would also  be nice if it were actually on Sunday night and not early Monday morning! However, I must give TCM credit for using Saturday mornings to show serials and programmers. I personally love these guilty pleasures as do many classic film lovers.

Modern day serials do not exist. Yes, there have been modern movies such as The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and Indiana Jones series which capture the spirit of the serial. However, one has to experience the serial in its chapter format to truly appreciate it. That's why I was thrilled to discovered this past spring that TCM was showing Buck Rogers starring Buster Crabbe every Saturday morning at 11and 11:30. This programming method gives viewers a chance to relive the experience because it is necessary to tune next Saturday to find out what happens next. I like this approach rather than a marathon because the concept of the "cliffhanger" is preserved. In a day and age of instant gratification, I think it is important to expose new classic film fans to this old school technique of building toward a dramatic climax. TCM has continued to show classic serials such Ace Drummond and Zorro Rides Again. Currently, Zorro Rides Again is winding down and will be followed by Zorro's Fighting Legion. So if you haven't had a chance to indulge in some serials, why not tune on October 1st?


For fans of Tarzan, those films are shown every Saturday at noon. I must confess that my favorite has always been Johnny Weissmuller. However, it is important that viewers get the opportunity to see the later Tarzans as well. TCM has done a great job following the sequence by showing Weismuller first, then Lex Barker, and currently Gordon Scott. Mike Henry's rendition of the famous ape man will start in November. In addition, the Tarzan films are hosted by Ben Mankiewicz so we get so extra insight into each movie too.


If you like mysteries, you can find some popular programmers from the 1930's earlier in the morning on Saturdays. I watched two Philo Vance movies over the past two weekends. Last Saturday was The Kennel Murder Case with William Powell as Philo Vance. Yesterday I saw The Dragon Murder Case with Warren William as Vance for the first time. It is always interesting to see a new actor in a familiar role. Next Saturday (September24) will be yet another Philo Vance installment, The Casino Murder Case. In this film Vance is played by Paul Lukas and his leading lady will be Rosalind Russell.


Beginning on October 1, 2011, five movies featuring amateur sleuth Hildegarde Withers and detective Oscar Piper will be featured. If you haven't seen these fun mysteries, I recommend catching at least the first three in the series. The Penguin Pool Murders, Murder on the Blackboard, and  Murder on a Honeymoon star the delightful Edna May Oliver as Hildegarde Withers and James Gleason as Oscar Piper. These two outstanding character actors make a great team. It is also nice to see them get center stage for once. I have not seen the other two films in the series, Murder on the Bridle Path  and The Plot Thickens. These two movies feature James Gleason but not Edna May Oliver. When Oliver left RKO in 1935, the studio attempted to continue the series with Helen Broderick then Zasu Pitts. Unfortunately, audiences loved Oliver in the part and the two later films failed at the box office. I must admit that I am curious to see how the other ladies approach the part, so I'll be tuning in.


Not  every film produced during Hollywood's Golden Age was a masterpiece. However, a number of serials and programmers entertained many theatergoers at the time. The importance of these movies should not be overlooked. Most of these films were made quickly and cheaply. However, they managed to tell a decent story in a short amount of time and often had some good production value. I think fans new to classic films need to see these gems to realize that million dollar budgets were not required to tell a good story back in the day.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: Memories a Decade Later

Perhaps, this topic seems unlikely for a blog dedicated to discussing films, TV series, and Broadway shows. However, events like 9/11 are precisely the reason why preservation of classic film and TV remains essential. Consider how our experience as an American was redefined that day. Each of us was directly affected by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. For the Americans who lived through a World War and various other wars and "conflicts," it was a sobering reminder. A reminder that the names and missions may change, but evil men still rise to power and take their revenge on the innocent. For other adults, it was the shocking realization that violence could take place on American soil. For the children, it shattered their innocence. Many young adults and teens can not remember a time of peace for the United States. In addition, all of us know someone  in the military  or someone who has a family member in the military. As a result, we are very aware of the sacrifices of the members of the Armed Forces as well as their families.

I will never forget that day. I teach Mathematics at a high school in Bergen County, NJ. This school is just 10 miles from NYC. In fact, many commuters who work in Manhattan pass through this town. As a result, 9/11 was not just an event on the evening news for myself and my students. I still remember finding out at the end of 2nd period that the towers had been struck by airplanes. The information was minimal at that point. It was impossible to have lessons that day. Many students were worried about parents and other relatives who worked in Manhattan. As the day progressed, our principal handled the stressful situation well with periodic announcements and allowing the TV's to be on in the classroom. Our school was ordered to be on "lockdown." That meant no one could leave the building until 3 pm. The cafeteria workers did a great job making extra lunches for the students who would normally go home for lunch. Before the teachers and students were dismissed for the day, we were told that school would be closed the next day. The town's close proximity to NYC led to that decision. The local, county, and state leaders knew it was essential to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles. In addition, I believe the safety of the students was also a major concern for our Superintendent of Schools.

I was also worried all day because my mother worked as an executive secretary at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I was unable to reach her during the day because the circuits were overloaded. In addition, the Twin Towers were the home of many antennas including those of many tv and radio stations. Ironically, the building which the Twin Towers "replaced" became the unsung hero of September 11, 2001. CBS had a back-up transmitter at the Empire State Building and was able to stay on the air through the entire crisis. Eventually, the other stations did find temporary facilities so they too could broadcast. Now, the Empire State Building is once again home many of NYC  TV and FM radio stations.

I finally reached my mother after 8 pm that evening. She was safe but obviously had a difficult day. The one thing she said that has remained with me is that everyone seemed to pull together. She and a coworker traveled together since they lived in the same NJ suburb. The NY Waterway sent its busses to pick commuters like my mom and her friend who would normally have taken the bus home. Instead, they were taken to the ferry and crossed the Hudson River from Manhattan to Hoboken. At Hoboken, she and her coworker were able to take a NJ Transit train to a town close to where she lived. They then shared a cab ride home. All of the transportation that day (with the exception of the local cab) was free. The Port Authority of NY/NJ did an admirable job making sure it provided as many people with a way home as possible. Honestly, I still believe this was possible in large part because of the strong leadership of Mayor Giuliani.

Now, back to my original statement at the beginning of this article. I said, " events like 9/11 are precisely the reason why preservation of classic film and tv remains essential." Memories fade and those who lived during a particular moment in history eventually pass away. However, movies preserve the emotions and thoughts that exist at those specific moments in time.  It is important for us to remember our ENTIRE history as a nation. Therefore, classic films and TV series do provide us with insight about not only the sad times but also the happy times we as a nation have experienced. Classic films and TV shows reflect that we were not always a country in conflict nor a country targeted by terrorists for attack. In fact, many films from the 1930's through 1950's celebrate the American spirit. These movies often show how people from many countries of the world came here by choice and were proud to become citizens.

Obviously, I realize that many old films and TV series contain stereotypes. In addition, gangster and film noir genre movies do show the darker and less appealing aspects of the American culture. However, that does not mean the negative has to overshadow the positive. I believe that viewing a variety of classic films and TV shows gives a person a well rounded idea of why there is reason to be proud to be an American. Throughout history, the people of the United States have found a way to recover from tragedy. In my opinion, it is important that classic films be preserved so that today's young people have the opportunity to see that there were times of peace and prosperity. These young viewers will also see that even in times of crisis such as the Great Depression and World War II there was still an optimism that we as a country could and would recover. That is a legacy worth preserving.

Monday, September 5, 2011

1939:The Greatest Year for Hollywood Films -- But Who Was Its Greatest Star?

Most classic movie fans would agree that 1939 was Hollywood's top year. Consider the 10 films which competed for the Best Picture Oscar:  Dark Victory; Gone With the Wind (The winner); Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; Stagecoach; The Wizard of Oz; and Wuthering Heights. In my opinion, nominating 10 films for Best Picture now is absurd. However, in 1939, I believe the number of quality films released warranted a field of 10. Consider the some of the classic films not nominated that same year:  Babes In Arms; Beau Geste; Destry Rides Again; Dodge City; Drums Along the Mohawk; The Four Feathers; Gunga Din; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Jesse James; Only Angels Have Wings; The Roaring Twenties; The Strory of Vernon and Irene Castle; The Women; and Young Mr. Lincoln.

Obviously, a number of actors and actresses had great success in 1939. James Stewart, for instance, had two very successful movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again. Many fans of classic cinema would argue he should have won the Oscar for Best Actor for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Henry Fonda had a very productive year too. Fonda delivered solid performances in Jesse James, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Young Mr. Lincoln. Judy Garland established herself as a bona fide star in Babes in Arms and The Wizard of Oz. Bette Davis ended the decade as the undisputed Queen of Warner Brothers with Dark Victory, The Old Maid, and Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.


However, I would have to argue that 1939 belonged to Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell appeared in five great films in 1939. He played Gerald O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1939. In addition, he costarred in 2 other Best Picture nominees, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach. The other two films which featured Mitchell's talents were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Only Angels Have Wings. To appear in five major motion pictures in 1939 is in itself an impressive feat. However, for any one actor to have appeared in five memorable films is the true achievement.

Thomas Mitchell was acknowledged for his work in Stagecoach with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Indeed, Mitchell's portrayal of Doc Boone was both humorous and sincerely endearing. Doc Boone was an alcoholic whose medical skills were questionable. However, Mitchell shows us he is a man with underlying strength and goodness. Ultimately, when Doc Boone is needed to deliver the baby of fellow stagecoach passenger Lucy Mallory, he is able to sober up and use his medical expertise. In the hands of of a lesser actor, Doc Boone could have become simply comic relief -- the man who continually "helped" whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock by sampling his liquor. Instead, Mitchell provided some much needed levity as well as some inspiring moments as a man overcoming his fear of failure.

To me, Thomas Mitchell stood out in 1939 by portraying characters who could have been unlikable or unrelatable if not portrayed deftly. Gerald O'Hara in Gone With the Wind is a tragic figure who has a nervous breakdown after the the death of his wife. Mitchell depicts him not as an idiot but a man lost in his grief and still has a fighting spirit in his lucid moments.

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he played 'Diz' Moore who competed for the affections of Clarissa Saunders(Jean Arthur) with the title character. Moore was a hard-nosed reporter who has the opportunity to ruin Smith with his newspaper articles. However, from the start, Mitchell depicts 'Diz' as street smart and a straight shooter. Therefore, filmgoers accept that Moore would start writing balanced (even favorable) articles about Senator Smith despite the fact that negative articles could rid him of his rival for Saunders.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mitchell took on the role of Clopin, the leader of the gypsies. In my opinion, this character provided Mitchell with a huge challenge. How can the audience like someone who embraces being anti-establishment and rationalizes a criminal lifestyle? Answer: give the role to an actor who can make the filmgoers dislike the establishment and understand Clopin's motivation. Mitchell once again succeeded in showing the audience the decency in a man of questionable character. As Clopin, Mitchell effectively used his character's speeches to articulate that any deeds commited by him or his followers were for survival. Indeed, he ultimately loses his life in his attempt to save fellow gypsy Esmeralda.

In Only Angels Have Wings, Mitchell played 'Kid' Dabb. Dabb is a pilot for a small airline managed by Geoff Carter(Cary Grant). 'Kid' is a loyal friend and coworker of Carter. Unfortunately, 'Kid' has poor eyesight and has to be grounded. This leads to Geoff hiring Bat MacPherson(Richard Barthelmess) to fly for the airline. MacPherson is hated by 'Kid' because MacPherson's cowardice years earlier caused the death of Dabb's younger brother. In addition, MacPherson married the woman Geoff loved deeply, Judy(Rita Hayworth).Mitchell could have made the part 'Kid' Dabb one note by  focusing on the anger of the character. Instead, the viewers saw a man who desperately wants his good friend Geoff to succeed and be happy. Dabb even warns the woman in love with Geoff, Bonnie Lee(Jean Arthur) that she is in for a hard road because Judy made Geoff suspicious of all women. The moviegoers admire 'Kid' Dabb because in spite of the bad events in that have occurred in his life, he still cares about the people in his life. He ultimately copilots a dangerous mission with his enemy MacPherson because Geoff can not and the mission must be completed to keep the airline in business. In the end, the audience does believe 'Kid' would put his hate of MacPherson aside in order to save his friend's business. I'm not sure that happens with someone else in the role.

I realize that it simply my opinion that Thomas Mitchell was 1939's "Greatest Star." Part of the fun of being a classic movie fan, is hearing other fans' opinions and discussing the different viewpoints. I LOVE Bette Davis and it could be argued that she made four films (Dark Victory, The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex, The Old Maid, and Juarez) and three of which showcased her starpower. However, it is more difficult to make an impact as a supporting player than in a starring role, in my opinion. Thomas Mitchell succeeded in creating FIVE memorable roles in films featuring the biggest stars of the era. Think about it, Mitchell costarred with Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, James Stewart, and John Wayne -- yet HE stood out! I'd say that was quite an accomplishment!