This year marks the 80th anniversary of 1939, considered the greatest year in film history. (Shameless plug: I was fortunate to interview several TCM personalities about their tribute to the era here.) Thomas Hischak’s book touts itself as a film encyclopedia/history book, deconstructing how global events, popular culture, and more came to aid in the creation of the best year in film, and while there are glimpses of it the structure is just boring.
Hischak’s book is broken down like a diary, charting the important events and movies released on a given day which doesn’t exactly lend a compelling quality to the book. You can’t exactly pick this up and want to read it all the way through as movies and events are choppily dropped in. Unless you’re actively remembering what’s happening in Czechoslovakia or the Comintern Pact, it’s like reading an “On This Day” almanac. The book works more for someone writing a paper and needing to find what happened on a specific day.
That’s not to say the book is completely uninteresting. Hischak does his homework and it is amazing to look at not just the films but the history that was being made in 1939. Baseball celebrated its centennial, Hewlett/Packard became a business, Billboard started listening “hillbilly music” which would, eventually, become country music. The war is detailed minutely as well as several prominent features and plays released overseas. As far as the movies go, there’s nothing new in the work.
Hischak details the films and gives a summary of the movie with a one or two line “review” that generally runs to it’s good or bad. (Some of his information is also a bit suspect. He mentions Rosemary Lane and John Garfield were paired up because they worked so well together in Four Daughters yet they don’t interact in that film.) There is the occasional bit of well-trod trivia but that’s it. It’s great to hear about the small studios like Spectrum and Monogram and, if the reader is interested enough, you can discover some unique commonalities in the era, and that’s what I wanted 1939 to be about.
What Hischak should have done was detail why these movies might have been coming out so feverishly. Film is part of the dialectic, it fuels the culture. So why were there so many singing cowboy films? What was the appeal and how does a country on the edge of war play into that? What did it say about us that monster movies were a thing? If Hischak wanted to prove his point about why this year is so iconic it would have been worthwhile to weave a narrative about how the movies spoke to the year in particular. Bring up the issues going on and intercut that with discussions on the films and their themes. Instead, the book’s 347 pages just feel cut and pasted from Wikipedia with a little film review thrown in.
1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year doesn’t tell readers much more than they already know. It’s great to see the historical elements woven in, but this isn’t a book you’ll want to pick up and read cover-to-cover. It’s a research tome and a basic one at that.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.