Film historians and critics have long considered 1939 a golden year for movies. A list of the year’s notable films reads like the cream of the classic crop: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Stagecoach, Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”), Wuthering Heights, The Wizard Of Oz, and a little Civil War drama called Gone With The Wind.
The Best Actor category that year was packed with iconic performances. The nominees included Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, and, um, Mickey Rooney for something called Babes In Arms.
Strangely enough, the voters chose British actor Robert Donat for the inspirational teacher drama Goodbye Mr. Chips over Gable, Stewart, and Olivier.
Donat’s win cast a black cloud over Gone With The Wind’s triumphant night — eight Oscars and two special awards — and producer David O. Selznick considered Gable’s loss his greatest disappointment that year.
Time has not been so kind to Donat. His is one of the least remembered performances in a banner year for cinema, and he isn’t as highly regarded as his competitors. Or, as one writer put it:
Seventy years later, we’re still quoting Gable, while we’re googling who Robert Donat was, how his performance could have outshone Gable’s, and what Goodbye Mr. Chips was about.