#29 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year
In 1939, all the stars aligned in Hollywood. There were 365 films released that year, and an astronomical number of them became classics. If you found someone who knew next to nothing about classic cinema and asked them to name as many old movies as they could think of, there is no doubt they would list one—probably more—released in 1939.
By 1939, the talkies had hit their stride. With ten years of practice, the first wave of Hollywood directors, writers, and stars were at their peak. The production code had cleaned up the filth, making movies respectable. Many great European filmmakers fled Hiter’s encroaching Nazism and brought their talents to Hollywood.
Snuggled between the Depression and the start of World War II, eighty million people a week went to watch their favorite stars in black and white. With no television, the big screen was the only screen. On any given week, six out of every ten people went to the movies. Compare that to one in ten today (or zero in ten since the pandemic hit.) For your twenty-three cent ticket, you got a short film, a cartoon, a newsreel, and two feature films.
For part V of this blog, we’ll revisit the best of the best from 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.
And where else would we start than with Bette Davis?
Davis released four films in 1939, but Dark Victory is undoubtedly the best.
Honing her craft since 1931, by Dark Victory Davis has come into her own. She plays Judith Traherne, a rich young socialite who discovers she has a fatal brain tumor.
Judith Traherne displays everything we want in a Bette Davis character—the hip first walk, the clipped speech, those silver dollar eyes, the endless smoking and fidgeting.
Everything about Bette Davis—and Judith Traherne—demands your undivided attention.
Judith falls in love with her doctor, who conceals her fatal condition from her. In one of the film’s best scenes, Judith had discovered the truth of her illness. She takes temporary refuge from facing her impending early death by raging over her doctor’s (and fiancé’s) lies.
At lunch, when it is time to order, a drunk Judith declares that she’ll have a “large order of prognosis negative.”
The look on the doctor’s face says it all. Busted.
But what makes the film special is the second half. Judith doesn’t just wait to die—she lives.
And when Judith’s death comes, she rises to meet it. She sends away those who love her. Blind, she walks up the stairs and crawls into bed. Facing her fate with solitary dignity will be her dark victory over death.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.