Back to IndieWire

The Greatest Year?

The Greatest Year?

Back in the early 1970s, I had a monthly column in Esquire called “Hollywood”, and one piece I did concerned the low state of movie quality at the time (things have only gotten worse), especially in light of the glorious past. To make my point, I arbitrarily picked 1939, the year I was born—along with a number of my illustrious colleagues (like Coppola and Friedkin)—and ran through the amazingly prolific array of movie classics released in that last year of the 1930s, including such seeming evergreens as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. A few months later, in a huge spread in Life magazine, Richard Schickel wrote a similar lengthy rundown of pictures from 1939, but he declared it unequivocally The Greatest Year of American Movies. This worked its way into the culture and is now the establishment viewpoint. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d been born in 1941.

Certainly a case can be made that 1941 is actually a greater year for American film than 1939, since John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (the Oscar winner for Best Picture) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane are certainly greater, more personal works of art than either Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz. And clearly one could return more frequently to Preston Sturges’ 1941 masterpiece, The Lady Eve. Though Howard Hawks had his archetypal Only Angels Have Wings in 1939, he had in 1941 both Sergeant York and Ball of Fire (both with Gary Cooper, who won Best Actor for York). And Raoul Walsh had his tragic gangster milestone, High Sierra, which made Humphrey Bogart an A-list star and made it possible for John Huston to cast him in the lead for his first directorial effort, The Maltese Falcon, also a 1941 release.

Anyway, all this is by way of introducing the Esquire column that seems to have started it all, which author-critic Clive James has uploaded on his website, and to which we herewith supply a link. The substantial question of which year is The Greatest will be more deeply discussed when we get around to the 1940s in our Golden Age of American Talkies series of blogs. In a nutshell, however, I would simplify matters by stating that the absolute highpoint in the American Cinema was reached with the years 1939-1940-1941, since 1940 boasted, among others, such treasures as Ford’s Depression family epic, The Grapes of Wrath, Hawks’ breakneck screwball newspaper romance, His Girl Friday, and Ernst Lubitsch’s most beautiful human comedy, The Shop Around the Corner

This Article is related to: Uncategorized and tagged



“The substantial question of which year is The Greatest will be more deeply discussed when we get around to the 1940s in our Golden Age of American Talkies series of blogs”
Can’t wait! I’m looking forward to 1932 and the following years.


The network shopping from the start
Please look: tradetrusting


The network shopping from the start
Please look: tradetrusting


If we take 1940 as the mid-point year of that great era and 1970 as the same for THAT great movie era, that would mean by extrapolation that after another 30 years, 2000 should have been a great year for films. All I can say is, what happend? I’m sure there will be someone to point out all the stand-outs for that 2 to 3 year period (1999 to 2001), but really. Movies have always been “product” don’t kid yourselves so it can’t just be that. My feeling is the quality of the writing has gone down dramatically. No?


The Rules of the Game by Jean Renoir


I agree ’39 and ’41 were sterling vintage, but I cast my vote along with Shaun for 1973 as being none too shabby.
Following with the films he listed I’d add: Charley Varrick, The Exorcist, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, American Graffiti, Serpico, Sleeper, Serpico, Blume in Love, Bang the Drum Slowly, The Sting, The Friends of Eddie Coyle,The Way We Were, Scarecrow and Kid Blue.
I think Mr. Bogdanvich was too close to that period to be objective.

Christopher Stilley

as for me…gimme 1918,1928,1933,1939,1941,1947,1953,1957,1969,1973
There was a rash of good pictures from 1967-74..Lucas and Spielberg then usherd in the super malls and out went the mom and pop business.. :op

Chris Barry

I think when one considers the “best year(s)” in cinema its a perspective that’s dependent on when one was born. I was born in 1960 and my favorite movie years fall between 1968 (2001: A Space Odyssey) and 1976 (Taxi Driver). The films I saw during that period had a major impact on my growing years. They informed and molded me as a human being and I’m no nostalgist. I don’t long for the “good old days when ‘movies were movies.’ If I hadn’t been exposed to film during that time in my life, my undying love of cinema would never have developed.

Mark Polak

With the 70s now considered by many as the 2nd golden age of cinema (with Mr. Bogdanavich’s films partly responsible), I’m glad to see some acknowledgment that as people were experiencing the 70s in real time, many felt that the movies were in decline. I was born in 1962, and I can remember hearing adults constantly complaining about how terrible the movies had become.

I think what has happened is that we now only see the best of the 70s movies (e.g. The Godfather, Chinatown, Network, The Last Picture Show), and we can see what a revolutionary time it truly was. However, for solidity across the entire product line that makes up the movies, the peak of the studio system simply could not , and probably never will be surpassed.

Keil Shults

i don’t know why it says “almost made” in my previous post. nix that, please.

Keil Shults

I can’t fathom anyone considering the early 1970s a bad time for American cinema. On the contrary, most of my all-time favorite films were released between 1967 and 1979. For the record, I was born in August 1978, but I’ve always felt out of step with my generation, especially when it comes to popular culture. I will say, however, that I’ve lived during a wonderful time for quality television (though even that recent golden era of TV appears to be on the wane).

While some of my favorite movies were almost made pre-1967 (The 400 Blows, Casablanca, The Apartment, City Lights, Vertigo, etc.), I think I can attribute my natural opposition toward both “older films” and most theatrical productions to the style of acting. No matter how great some of those early scripts are, they are rarely delivered in a realistic fashion. I realize that’s not the fault of the actors or even directors, given that it was the norm for those times, but I simply find it harder to become engrossed in such efforts.

I’m not sure I can fully explain my love for the cinema of the 1970s, and my favorites of the era certainly vary (Chinatown and Breaking Away couldn’t be more different). And while many of my favorites have been created in the decades since (with 1999 being a banner year for recent cinema), I doubt we’ll ever have another golden age, thanks largely to the intrusive, single-minded nature of the studio system. Thankfully, though we may be losing our Altmans and Lumets, we’ll always have their films sitting on our shelves, ready to be selected and viewed at our pleasure.


In my opinion 1973 is the best year in American film. With Mean Streets, Sisters, Paper Moon, The Long Goodbye, Badlands, and The Last Detail. Even though ’39 and ’41 are great years.


As pre-Code cinema begins to be better exposed and appreciated after not being on TV for decades, you can make a good argument for 1932 being in the same neighborhood as ’39 or ’41. “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,” “Trouble In Paradise,” “Grand Hotel,” “Scarface,” “Shanghai Express,” “American Madness,” “One-Way Passage”…so many excellent films that year.


I have a lot of respect for the movies of the late 30’s and early 40’s. And it is inarguable that these films have infulenced generations of film makers ever since. I however find that the films of the late 60’s and early-to-mid 70’s make up another golden era for American films. Then personally I feel that 1994 is the greatest single year for American film with the uprising of the American independent scene.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *