- Reviewed by
Charles F. Adams. Fresno, CA: Craven Street Books, 2014.
On the 75th anniversary of what has been deemed “Hollywood’s greatest year,” author Charles F. Adams has composed a uniquely insightful narrative of six of the most memorable motion pictures ever produced by Hollywood. In 1939: The Making of the Six Greatest Films from Hollywood’s Greatest Year, he has crafted for each of these classic films a detailed and distinct history, bringing together not only the backgrounds of the stories themselves, but also behind the scenes episodes that came together in unimagined ways to make movie history. The six legendary films that Adams has chosen will be well known [End Page 40] to many readers: Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wizard of Oz.
The depth with which Adams explores these films reflects a well-researched and well-loved topic. By highlighting not only the films themselves and how they were adapted from their original stories, but the rise of some of the most renowned actors, directors and writers in Hollywood as well, Adams demonstrates why these films and their creators continue to delight movie lovers today. Adams’ book is filled with entertaining anecdotes about the films, filmmakers, and actors, including the heated arguments between Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh while filming Gone With the Wind, MGM’s initial desire to have Shirley Temple play the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and the disastrous premier of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These tales, along with page after page of photographs, enable the reader to envision how these classics unfolded on the ground.
In his introduction, Adams acknowledges that many of the most “memorable and legendary [and profitable] films” produced by Hollywood were made in 1939. However, while most audiences and readers are very familiar with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, Adams’ other choices, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were, as Adams acknowledges, not as celebrated as the first two. In fact, Adams then goes on to allow that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “was not a great movie, but it was certainly a memorable film” (204). Why, then, has Adams chosen to include it in his compilation of what he terms “the six greatest films?” Perhaps to acquaint readers with its enduring story and classic stars or perhaps to remind readers that this film is equally important to Hollywood’s history. Adams justifies his choice of films primarily because each film was made seventy-five years ago and has a “remarkable history” (vi). Aside from this, however, Adams offers little explanation of what makes these films the “greatest” of 1939. Therefore, Adams’ book title is somewhat misleading. While these films were well made, entertaining, and successful, he admits that not all are necessarily the year’s most financially fruitful or critically acclaimed. As he states, Gunga Din was the “second highest grossing film of the year, surpassed only by Gone with the Wind” (263), and he also notes that Goodbye, Mr. Chips was a “critical and financial success and was nominated for seven Academy Awards” (262). So, what appeal did The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have for Adams that Goodbye, Mr. Chips did not? He does not answer this question. Perhaps The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a more interesting and intricate history, but that is hardly a criterion of greatness.
Despite such omissions and contradictions, Adams’ carefully constructed narrative in 1939: The Making of the Six Greatest Films from Hollywood’s Greatest Year allows moviegoers to relive these wonderful stories. He brings new life to films that have been forgotten while reminding audiences that those such as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz will likely remain ageless.