Timmy Ryan’s fortnightly column for the Waterford News & Star
I’M A massive film buff and always have been. I can pretty much date my love of movies back to the early seventies.
I remember as a kid my Mum brought me to a Sunday matinee at the old picture house in Dungarvan to see a double feature which I vividly recall was “Carry On Teacher” and “Apache Woman”. It was to be the first of many memorable trips.
There’s just something about the whole experience that grabs you and when the lights go out and that big screen comes to life, you’re transported in to a whole other world.
Thankfully, within a few years after that maiden voyage, my Mum got a job in that very same cinema and my visits were wonderfully frequent and utterly enjoyable. From James Bond to Dracula to Rocky, over the following years, I got to soak up the atmosphere there as much as I could and even today, I love an outing to the flix.
‘In 1939, events unfolded that would lead the World into another horrific global war, one we believed could never happen again after the previous cataclysm which had only been roughly 20 years earlier.’
I had the good fortune to see a documentary on the history of Hollywood recently and I was struck by the number of highly rated “classic” movies that I actually have never seen from start to finish.
My interest was particularly drawn to the year 1939. According to experts and film historians, this is generally accepted as the best year ever for great films and it stands out for the quality that hit the silver screen in a moment in time when all was most certainly not right with the world.
In 1939, events unfolded that would lead the World into another horrific global war, one we believed could never happen again after the previous cataclysm which had only been roughly 20 years earlier.
Hitler was spreading his tentacles in Europe and once again we stood on the brink of calamity. In neutral America life went on as normal and it would not be until 1941 and the terrible attack by Japan on their naval forces at Pearl Harbour that they would finally enter the war on the side of the Allies.
Perhaps there was a feeling that things were about to change one way or another, but everyone in the film industry seemed to go for broke this year and really come up with the goods for their extremely eager audiences.
1939 marked the 50th anniversary of the first projection of moving pictures and the 25th anniversary of the American industry’s move to Hollywood from the other side of the country.
There were some big budget pictures made and movie goers would be in for unprecedented quality. Some 365 no less were released and film fans were buying tickets at the incredible rate of 80 million a week!
Most of us are familiar with “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind”. They have surely held up well over the decades, are much loved and not surprisingly are shown regularly on Irish TV.
The other memorable winner that year regrettably not yet seen by yours truly, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, noted for a superb performance by the legendary James Stewart, one of my favourite actors.
We also had “Stagecoach” which starred the all-American icon John Wayne. Laurence Olivier portrayed the dark and brooding Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” with Merle Oberon as Cathy.
One of my personal all-time favourites was Robert Donat as the charming and wonderful Mr Chipping in a beautiful story of the life of a schoolteacher, his loves and losses and the unfolding of his grief at the deaths of his former beloved schoolboys in the Great War. Sadly, another was just looming on the horizon. “Goodbye Mr Chips” is delightful and I love it to bits, Donat is superb, if only all teachers could have this man’s heart for his pupils.
“Only Angels Have Wings,” with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, “Love Affair,” a mega box office hit starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, “The Little Princess” with child star Shirley Temple. Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln” and the famed “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” are all in there too. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, the list goes on. They all contributed to a blockbuster yield. Over twice as many films came out in 1939 compared to 1988.
The times were definitely changing though and things would never be the same again in Hollywood.
At the onset of World War II later that year, the tide was turning and with Europe at war, that market was now closed off to the movie makers. Simultaneously, American Congress passed a law prohibiting block booking, the system by which the major studios filled theatres with double bills scheduled at their own convenience.
Within two years, America joined the Allies and many film makers and stars had been enlisted so back in the States, there was a dearth of major screen talent available to keep the show on the road. here would never be another year quite like 1939 and I’m intrigued now more than ever to get my hands on some of these big screen gems.
I don’t get to the cinema as much these days but I know that even now, they are showing a few old classic films, something I’ve advocated for ages.
In times like these, the movies mean more than ever and if ever hope, inspiration and just a little dose of harmless escapism were needed, it’s today. I can’t begin to imagine a world without films, I believe they can show the best of us as well as the not so good, but they can light fires within us that can make change possible in sometimes hopeless circumstances. These days it’s an expensive business, movie making, but I sincerely hope the new breed continue to follow their dreams, think big and give us more fantastic moments to savour.
Far from being a luxury, I suggest the film world is actually so vital to us as people, we don’t even fully understand it. Long may they cast their magic and here’s to another bumper year like 1939 soon.