10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
The Dead Poets Society model for movies about teachers who create endless opportunity by opening up the potential of young minds can be traced to this heartfelt British boarding-school classic, whose title character was so unforgettable that Robert Donat captured the Best Actor Oscar over Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.
9. Midnight (1939)
Before the tired, recycled formulas of romantic comedies, Hollywood’s cleverest minds specialized in screwball comedies characterized by breathless, twisty plotting and tart dialogue. Co-written by greats Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett before Wilder became a director, this Paris-set whirlwind starred John Barrymore and Claudette Colbert in their prime.
8. Ninotchka (1939)
Greta Garbo’s greatest gamble — she was known exclusively as a dramatic actress at the time — turned into her greatest success. Playing a Soviet agent sent to Paris who expects to sneer at the degradations of capitalism and democracy, she instead finds herself swept away by the glamour and a bourgeois love affair with a dashing count (Melvyn Douglas). The unsurpassed light-comic director Ernst Lubitsch and Hollywood’s most accomplished cynic, screenwriter Billy Wilder, proved a combination for the ages.
7. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Advancing cartoons from slapstick short subjects to lush, dramatic, feature-length storytelling, Walt Disney all but created a new artistic form with this still-irresistible fable of love and jealousy.
6. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
The intensity of the battleground scenes in this anti-war drama told from the German side of WWI would not be matched onscreen until 1957’s Paths of Glory. Hollywood in the 1930s was even more slanted toward the side of amusing entertainment than it is today, so this devastating warning about the dangers of being led into war by jingoism stands as a landmark, decades ahead of its time.
5. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
A true story so compelling it has been made into five feature-length films was never better done than in the Frank Lloyd-directed version that brought together a spellbinding pair of adversaries: Charles Laughton as the imperious Capt. Bligh and Clark Gable as the reluctant mutiny leader Fletcher Christian. The clash of personalities, the vividness of the maritime details and the sense of grand adventure with high stakes set it apart.
4. Top Hat (1935)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were always delightful together, but this one had the script, the songs and the sophistication that made it a classic among classics. Irving Berlin songs like “No Strings (Fancy Free)” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” typified studio dazzle, but the film saves its best for the climax: the indelible performance of “Cheek to Cheek,” the apex of Hollywood musical romance.
3. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Every few years Hollywood takes another crack at the Robin Hood story, but the Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland Warner Bros. version, directed by Michael Curtiz before he went on to do Casablanca, is the one that heaves with swashbuckling, love and villainy as personified by Basil Rathbone. With its fast pace and cutting dialogue, it’s a medieval tale that still feels fresh and modern.
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Nearly every scene of this brilliantly imagined film holds a line or a detail that exerts a grip on the memory. Its take on the journey from childhood into the scary unknowns of growing up is ultimately a comforting, conservative reassurance that we are not truly ourselves without the grounding of our families.
1. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Morally flawed but cinematically unsurpassed, Victor Fleming’s other 1939 project — the gig he took over from fired director George Cukor right after The Wizard of Oz — was sold on its historical sweep and its sexiness, both of which are highly entertaining, but it’s the psychological depth of the four lead characters that make the film so gripping. Nor does the film have many equals when it comes to the beauty of the photography, notably in the “as God is my witness” scene that closes the first half, still perhaps the most awe-inspiring sequence put on film.