“Charlie Chan at Treasure Island” (1939). I love the Charlie Chan films almost as much as the Sherlock Holmes series, and while I prefer Warner Oland’s Chan by a hair over Sidney Toler’s Chan, I do tend to like the Toler films a bit better. For me, the Toler entries at Fox boasted stronger production values and more colorful supporting casts. This one is one of the best, set against the Treasure Island attraction at the 1939 World Exposition in San Francisco. Besides being a first-rate mystery, there’s a touch of the occult in the proceedings thanks to a phony fortune teller racket. Cesar Romero heads a strong cast. Wouldn’t it be great if in real life murderers were uncovered in such dramatic fashion as in the Chan films?“Gunga Din” (1939). One of the most sheerly enjoyable movies ever made, I’m afraid this film would not go over well today due to its treatment of the Indian population. Three British soldiers (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Victor McLaglen) single-handedly take on hordes of Kali-worshipping Thuggee cultists in colonial India. But the action is thrillingly staged and the byplay between the three soldiers is a joy to behold. I bet Steven Spielberg screened this one a lot before undertaking “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984).
“Stagecoach” (1939). The film that made John Wayne a star. Regardless of how you feel about Wayne, this is one of the greatest westerns ever. As I’ve noted in previous blog entries, I’m a sucker for movies set in confined and/or isolated settings and this film features both. Nine distinct characters with their own reasons take a stagecoach through hostile Indian territory. This was John Ford’s first film photographed in Monument Valley and his love for the locale is evident throughout. A western for people who don’t like westerns.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939). Oddly, I never liked this one much as a kid. I don’t know why, and didn’t re-discover it until I was older. We didn’t have a color TV until I was a sophomore in high school, so the contrast between the black and white bookends and the rest of the film never resonated with me. I didn’t even watch the “Charlie’s Angels” tv show during the first season, because I would have watched it in black and white and what’s the fun in that? Oh yeah, back to “The Wizard of Oz.” Good movie.
"Gone With the Wind” (1939). One of the strongest examples of narrative filmmaking ever turned out by Hollywood. The first half is especially strong, but the whole film is a prime example of the Hollywood factory system at its strongest. Another perfectly cast film, save for Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes. Howard hated the role and felt Ashley was a simpering idiot; you feel that Howard wishes he were anywhere but in this movie. I wish Randolph Scott had been cast in that role. Pretty good Max Steiner score too.“The Bank Dick” (1940). More W.C. Fields, and another one guaranteed to chase the blues away, offering one colossal belly laugh after another. Every frame is a jewel. Shemp Howard has one of his best roles as Joe the bartender. Ditto for Grady Sutton as the immortally named Og Oggilby.
“The Mark of Zorro” (1940). Swashbuckling action with Tyrone Power giving what I think is his best performance. His Don Diego is the most foppish man you’ll ever see, giving the impression he can barely roust himself from his scented baths. But when night comes and he slips on that costume, look out. The sword duel between Power and Basil Rathbone is perhaps the best one ever filmed. Arthur Miller’s gorgeous black and white photography has been accurately described as “sun-baked” and I can’t think of a better adjective.“The Sea Hawk” (1940). Sorry for the redundancy – two swashbucklers in a row, but in 1940 the studio system was operating at such peak efficiency that they could seemingly turn out lavish swashbuckling adventure films in their sleep. The fact that there are so few four-star swashbucklers show how difficult it is to do these well, and this is one of the very best. Errol Flynn is the reckless English sea hawk, attacking Spanish navy vessels without the permission of Elizabeth I (Flora Robson). He’s captured and sentenced to chains on a Spanish galley for the rest of his life. When he escapes and hears about the plans for the Armada, it’s a race to England before the Armada can be launched. Flynn is at his peak here – a true original there’s never been anyone like him before or since. I wish Basil Rathbone were the English spy Lord Wolfingham, but Basil was over at Fox giving Tyrone Power fits in “Mark of Zorro.” Henry Daniell makes a fine substitute. Michael Curtiz again directs with his usual flair (love those giant shadows on the wall during the final duel) and the Korngold score offers some of the greatest music ever recorded to celluloid.
“The Thief of Bagdad” (1940). One of the greatest fantasy films ever, and one of the most physically beautiful viewing experiences of all time. Gorgeous Technicolor, sets and costumes, this is an Arabian Nights fantasy come to life. Conrad Veidt is the sorcerer Jaffar; I’m sure he gave nightmares to many a kid over the years. For a film with such a fractured production history (started in England, then moved to the U.S. when World War II broke out) and with three different directors credited, it’s a miracle the film turned out as well as it did. The bad thing about the gorgeous new DVD transfer on the Criterion label is they did such a splendid job one can now see the wires holding up the flying carpet. I pretend I don’t see them. The Miklos Rozsa score is pure music magic, one glorious melody after another.
“All That Money Can Buy”, also known as “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941). Along with the aforementioned “Thief of Bagdad”, this is a strong contender as the finest fantasy film of all time. Walter Huston is Mr. Scratch, aka The Devil, who takes the soul of Jabez Stone (James Craig) in return for seven years of riches and prosperity. When Jabez doesn’t want to deliver his soul, he hires Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to represent him at a trial, with the jurors being American’s greatest criminals. There’s a haunting mood to this movie which is very unique. Director William Dieterle may be one of Hollywood’s great underrated talents. Bernard Herrmann won his only Oscar for his score, and it’s a beautiful piece of Americana. Huston is a marvel, one of the most devilishly gleeful performances of all time. Mr. Scratch’s entrance is a wonder, done with smoke, lighting and mirrors, proof positive you don’t need elaborate CGI effects to make a strong impression. Some times the best special effects are the simple ones done in the camera. This was released by RKO the same year they released “Citizen Kane.” The mind boggles. The workers at RKO must have gone home giddy every night, marveling at the work they were involved in.