Many movie fans consider 1939 the greatest ever in the history of American filmmaking and it would be hard to argue the point. In the days before Hollywood degenerated into the trash heap it is today, one could expect productions that would appeal in some way to different segments of society while entertaining the whole family at the same time. And 1939 was the acme and epitome of all that made up old Hollywood.
There were gallant swashbucklers sure to enliven the dreams of young boys everywhere like Beau Geste, a tale of mystery, gallantry and the French Foreign Legion starring the manly Gary Cooper. And my father’s boyhood favorite, Gunga Din, a terrific action-adventure movie with golden temples, bloodthirsty savages, elephants and military glory for the boys, and Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. for the moms.
Women’s movies, or “weepers” as they were known, also abounded that year. Bette Davis bravely faced blindness and death in the arms of George Brent in Dark Victory, while suave Charles Boyer and the delicious Irene Dunne kicked off the doomed and oft-remade Love Affair genre. And what woman didn’t long to fall under the dark yet dreamy allure of Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights?
There were epics like Gone With the Wind that celebrated the bygone glory of the Old South and gems like Ninotchka whereby Greta Garbo’s stern Soviet title character is seduced by the charms of Melvyn Douglas, Paris, and capitalism. Do you think we’ll ever hear a line like this from Hollywood again: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”
John Wayne, future bane of liberals everywhere, made his starring debut in John Ford’s Stagecoach, which is always worth watching if for no other reason than to recall how devastatingly good-looking the Duke was in his heyday. Likewise, The Wizard of Oz always gets me misty, not because of the story line, but for the sweet sadness of the sixteen year-old Judy Garland.
Nineteen Thirty-Nine marked the last of the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire pairings for RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and the onset of World War II signaled the end of an era. The Great Depression was over and therefore so was one of the most treasured of movie gimmicks: lampooning the lives of the idle rich.
RKO and other studios had made millions filming musicals and “screwball comedies” which lifted the hearts of suffering Americans. The plots didn’t much matter when you had screen giants like Grant and Gable and real movie queens like Rogers, Garbo, and Hepburn reciting snappy dialogue while dressed to the nines.
One of the last movies to skewer the idle rich was 1939’s The Women, a torrid romp through two years in the lives of a group of selfish, pampered, Manhattan socialites. The main objective of their lives is, of course, to snag a rich husband. Achieving this, they spend their days shopping, taking exercise classes, being pampered at health spas, seeing analysts and gossiping.
The all-female cast boasted an unprecedented lineup of Hollywood’s elite ladies; Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine topped the bill. Based on a play by Clare Booth Luce and directed by George Cukor, the script crackled with sparkling dialogue and one-liners tossed off expertly in a manner unseen in modern movies.
AND SO IT WAS with amusement and dismay that I heard that a remake of The Women was released this month. It is, as to be expected, everything the original was not. Where the original featured spoiled housewives — with the exceptions of gold-digger perfume clerk Crystal Allen and cynical author and spinster Nancy Blake — the remake is of course mostly populated with independent working women. The idea that the lives of these gals hinge on acquiring and keeping a husband makes the whole premise worthless.
Where the 1939 flick sizzled with witty repartee, the 2008 trailer alone contains five instances of vulgarism; that which passes for clever dialogue in modern Hollywood. Predictably, the cynical author is now gay, negating one of the original’s best lines: “[I’m] what nature abhors. I am an old maid, a frozen asset.”
In 1939, nearly all of the major characters in The Women, even the saintly Mary Haines at the end, were the antithesis of American womanhood — aggressive, self-centered, catty, materialistic and vacuous — and therefore, profoundly unhappy. Today, they represent the aims of the average woman; at least according to Hollywood and the rest of the media. Indeed, were the 1939 group around today they would, each and every one of them, have their own talk or reality shows.
With few disastrous exceptions, most of today’s filmmakers haven’t dared to tread the sacred waters of the 1939 classics by sullying them with modern remakes. Do yourself a favor, skip the remake of The Women and rent the glorious original; a starkly prescient glimpse into Hollywood’s future.