By 1973 Peter Bogdanovich was one of Hollywood’s true wonder boys. I have heard it expressed thusly—and I paraphrase: “taken as a group, Peter Bogdanovich’s first three major films, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and What’s Up, Doc? are as fine as any first three films any American director ever made.” Indeed, Bogdanovich’s early work revealed a gift of Wellesian proportion that should have presaged one of the great careers of all-time, but it didn’t because of what happened after those films: Peter Bogdanovich lost his mojo and made a series of flops—Daisy Miller, Nickelodeon, Saint Jack, At Long Last Love, et. al.—films that were inpenetrable even to his most ardent admirers. Occasionally he would make a film that was pretty good (Mask), or serviceable (Noises Off), or a curiousity (The Cat’s Meow), but since 1973 the erstwhile wunderkind has primarily distinguished himself as a dynamic and passionate film historian and occasional actor. His books about personal heroes like John Ford, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles are essential to both scholars and film buffs and will certainly define his legacy at least as much as his own movies.
I love a book by Mr. Bogdanovich that was published in 1985 called Pieces of Time, a compendium of essays from Esquire magazine, most of which dated from the 1960s and 1970s, in which he recounts experiences, chance meetings, or long term relationships with some of the greatest film artists of the classical period. One piece that I love in particular is called the Best American Films of 1939 which, in addition to being the year Bogdanovich was born, is frequentlly referred to by film geeks and others with the predilection to sit around and debate the subject as the greatest year in Hollywood’s history. To illustrate how impressive a year 1939 was, here is a partial list of the films that did not even make the director’s list: The Wizard of Oz; Intermezzo; Goodbye Mr. Chips; Dark Victory; Made for Each Other; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Wuthering Heights; and, because Bogdanovich cheats and lists six films in tenth place, either Gunga Din; Destry Rides Again; Midnight; Union Pacific; Northwest Passage; or Gone With the Wind.
From Pieces of Time:
Everyone’s always doing ten-best lists at the end of each year when really the only way to do them right is twenty or thirty years later. Some persepctive might be possible then. As we get to this ten-best list of 1939, bear in mind that the game is always a little suspect (even after thirty years), since the pictures are often too dissimilar to compare or rate beside one another, and that the films—particularly those at the top of the list—are all of such quality that the distinctions must be purely personal.
1. Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford’s first masterpiece).
2. Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks’ adventure story with Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth).
3. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch’s hilarious and humane satire on cold-war machinations, advertised with the key phrase: “Garbo Laughs”).
4. Stagecoach (Ford again, with Claire Trevor, John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell—he got a Supporting Actor Oscar for his perfomance of the drunken doctor).
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra’s irresistible political fantasy with Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell again, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold).
6. Love Affair (Among Leo McCarey’s most successful and characteristic mixtures of comedy and pathos—a touching affirmation of the picture’s theme song, Wishing Will Make it So, with impeccable acting from Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer).
7. Drums Along the Mohawk (Ford yet again, with Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert).
8. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh’s terrific gangster picture about the rise and fall of a “big shot,” featuring one of James Cagney’s most memorable performances, and one of Bogart’s least).
9. The Women (George Cukor’s immaculately mounted version of Claire Luce’s brittle, bitchy stage play, with a dazzling all-girl cast including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard).
10. A toss-up between Gunga Din, Destry Rides Again, Midnight, Union Pacific, Northwest Passage and, I guess there’s no way around it, Gone With the Wind.
By any measure, it was an extraordinarily vigorous year for American movies, and not a little disheartening to contemplate in comparison to the meager pickings of the Seventies. Of course, there were four hundred seventy-six U.S. pictures relased in 1939—as opposed to one hundred forty-three in 1971; nevertheless, imagine a director of Ford’s caliber today—even if there was one—having three major films released the same year. And no one thought all that much of it in those mercifully unselfconscious days; as Ford would say, it was just “a job of work.”