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