Book Review–Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 (2013)

majestic hollywood cover

Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939
Mark A. Vieira
Release Date: December 10, 2013
Running Press
Softcover, 224 pages

Every classic film fan has his/her own favorite decade, a span of time which they wholeheartedly believe produced the greatest movies of all time. (Personally, I gravitate towards the 1930s, from the naughty pre-Code period through the rise of the screwball comedy, a decade boasting  everything from intricately-staged musicals to menacing gangster flicks. You just can’t beat it.) But when you narrow down the question, and ask what year produced the best movies, a good number of fans will trumpet 1939 as a “golden year” for Hollywood filmmaking.

There’s a reason many a critic and film fan alike cites 1939. That year alone produced some of the most memorable movies to ever emerge from Hollywood, from epics like Gone With the Wind, to the Technicolor fantasy The Wizard of Oz, to the landmark Western Stagecoach. Stars were made that year: Vivien Leigh gained instant fame for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW; Oz turned teenage queen Judy Garland into a true icon of the screen; a briefly-out-of-focus, quick closeup of John Wayne twirling a rifle in Stagecoach lifted the actor off the B-list for good. And these are a scant few of the movies and stars who made their mark in that notable year.

Those films, and the stars who made them so memorable, are the focus of writer/photographer Mark A. Vieira’s new book Majestic Hollywood. Vieira handpicks fifty films–out of the 761 that were released in 1939–and focuses on each one in turn, relating behind-the-scenes tales, snapshot quotes, and original critical reactions for each movie. As might be expected, the bigger names in the book get the lion’s share of the attention; for instance, the entry for Oz spans across ten pages, while films like Young Mr. Lincoln warrant a mere two. Nonetheless, Majestic Hollywood serves as an interesting, entertaining primer for the 1939 canon, providing a gorgeous array of photographs and stills as well as some informative tidbits about the production of each film.

Some of Vieira’s choices are no-brainers; the three films mentioned in the previous paragraph join other ’39 essentials including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Women, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, among many more. But the author also includes several delightful pictures that are perhaps lesser-known to general film audiences, such as Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London, Five Came Back, and Rose of Washington Square. The decision to feature smaller films such as these is a wise one, serving to paint a much more encompassing portrait of what 1939 had to offer from a multitude of studios. (On a personal note, I must add that I was particularly pleased by Vieira’s inclusion of the underrated Ginger Rogers gem Fifth Avenue Girl, as well as the actress’ more popular comedy from that year, Bachelor Mother.)

Though Majestic Hollywood admittedly lacks any manner of analytical focus on the films presented, that is far from the purpose here. The biggest draw is the wealth of lovely photographs and film stills from each of the featured titles, which are carefully chosen to highlight these movies’ unique appeal. That being said, there is still enough supplemental information about each movie’s production–and the stars and directors involved–to provide a solid, if all too brief, introduction to these films. Majestic Hollywood may not reveal anything new to most classic film fans, but it certainly makes for a beautiful addition to anyone’s personal film-book library (or coffee table).

True Classics thanks Running Press for providing a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

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