Best Screenplay 1939

1927/28 through 1997

What was the Best Screenplay of 1939?

Gone With the Wind (Sidney Howard)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Eric Maschwitz, R.C. Sheriff, Claudine West)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Sidney Buchman)
Ninotchka (Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Billy Wilder)
Wuthering Heights (Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur)
No votes
Total votes: 13

Mister Tee
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Re: Best Screenplay 1939

Postby Mister Tee » Sat Nov 26, 2016 4:20 pm

Okay: hopefully this is the last time you'll all have to hear me gripe about how boring I find 1939.

Overseas, they were making Rules of the Game and Le Jour Se Leve -- two lasting masterpieces. Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes was eligible here. And Only Angels Have Wings and Midnight could have been nominated. All of which makes me even more irked that Hollywood's 1939 nominees are kept under such special preserving glass.

The best to be said about Goodbye, Mr. Chips is it keeps it brief enough, unlike the monstrously bloated 1969 musical version. It's just a sentimental little "shy man who finds love and then fulfillment inspiring more students than he could have imagined". Supposedly Alexander Woollcott -- the curmudgeonly inspiration for The Man Who Came to Dinner -- touted the book relentlessly, showing that cynicism and deep sentimentality can be two sides of the same coin. I don't find anything special about this.

I've never read Gone with the Wind; I'm sure I never shall. How this soap opera became the great beloved novel and movie of America in the early sound era is simply beyond me. The first half -- the lead-in to war and the war itself -- is engaging enough, but the Reconstruction sections ramble on and on (and of course wildly sentimentalize the old South) to no purpose. The only constant that works is Leigh's Scarlett -- a daringly self-centered character, especially for a female in pre-feminist times. But that's not nearly enough to support the film's unconscionable length. When Titanic opened in 1997, Janet Maslin of the Times called it the Gone with the Wind of its time, and I don't disagree, but for negative reasons: to me, both are hugely produced efforts surrounding thin love stories that a mass audience and far too many critics thought passed for art.

Wuthering Heights is simpler, more delicately done, and a far more successful adaptation -- though adaptation may not be precisely the word, since the film truncates Bronte's novel by quite a bit (as I discovered in high school, when I thought I'd speed-read through the book on a weekend, having already seen the film). Cathy is a considerably less interesting character than Scarlett, but Heathcliff is far more complex than Rhett Butler, and Olivier's smoldering performance raises the engagement level of the love story to great (forgive me) heights. I'm not voting for the film, but it has my respect, which is more than I can say for most of the year's achievements.

I'm down to the two films I choose between in Original Story, but here I go the opposite way: though I think Mr. Smith is overall a more powerful piece of work, as a pure example of screenwriting (dialogue highlighted), Ninotchka is such a delight it gets my vote in this group.

The Original BJ
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Re: Best Screenplay 1939

Postby The Original BJ » Mon Nov 21, 2016 7:44 pm

1939 was such a bountiful year that you could make a case for plenty of movies as being just as worthy of recognition in this category as the actual nominees (including, and especially, an ineligible title like The Rules of the Game).

Goodbye, Mr. Chips has the disadvantage of being such an archetypal entry in a genre -- the inspirational teacher movie -- that by the time I got to it, it didn't feel like much of a revelation. I think there are definitely moments of emotional honesty in the script -- especially in the Greer Garson segment -- but on the whole, much of it feels like standard operating procedure in a genre I'm not that wild about anyway. It's nothing I actively dislike, but I don't consider it here.

I discussed Ninotchka in the Story thread, but I'll add here that the movie has clever dialogue throughout, unsurprisingly, given the pedigree. "Must you flirt?" / "I don't have to, but I find it natural." / "Suppress it." is an especially memorable exchange. If it didn't get my vote in the less competitive Story race, it won't get my vote here, but it's easy to see why its words were singled out for achievement.

I quite like this version of Wuthering Heights, and I'll give a decent amount of credit to the screenplay for making this one of the few classic lit adaptations from this period that doesn't just feel like a book on screen. A lot of this simply has to do with the decision to include a portion of the novel's plot, but by doing so, the movie frees itself up from the risk of tackling too much for a two hour narrative, and allows the selected segment of the story to land with heartbreaking emotional impact. Not a groundbreaking adaptation, but a very effective one.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington got my vote in the Story thread, and it's a strong enough piece of writing that I wouldn't feel too bad about double-dipping -- on a scene-to-scene basis, there's a lot of thoughtful dialogue exchanges about the nature of the American political process, and Smith's filibuster is a grippingly written climax.

I hear the point that, as with many epic films, the screenplay is not the chief strength of Gone With the Wind. But the writing assignment here was quite herculean, requiring a writer to take a mammoth novel and streamline it into a nearly four hour film that maintains its pace throughout that running time. And I think the movie improves upon its source material considerably -- based on her one book, I would call Margaret Mitchell more a great storyteller than a great writer, which is to say, her knack for dramatically compelling plotting is more impressive than her prose. (And more specifically, the outsize drama of her story often feels at odds with the simplicity of her language.) The film version essentially takes what was best about the novel -- its epic sweep of events across years in its characters' lives -- and dramatizes them in a manner as rousing as the best of Golden Age Hollywood cinema. The film's iconic characters, and their legendary dialogue, feel even more a part of film history than of literary history, and I must credit the adaptation for its role in making the film the popular landmark it is. It gets my vote.

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Re: Best Screenplay 1939

Postby FilmFan720 » Wed Oct 19, 2016 11:23 am

Hey, I've seen all five of these!

I find Wuthering Heights a very dull, stilted adaptation. Maybe I need to see it again, but it is my least favorite film on this list and once I easily throw out first.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a fine film, and the screenplay adds to its sweetness, but with the better films on this list, and the smarter, more risk-taking screenplays, I'm eliminating it next.

I understand why Gone With the Wind won here, a popular pick that takes a monster sized book and pares it down to a monster sized movie, complete with legendary quip after legendary quip, but I'm far from voting for it here. I find the film a little too plodding, and I keep wanting it to dive a little deeper than the soap opera it is content to be. A great piece of Hollywood filmmaking, but I think the script is the one place you can easily excuse it from awards.

This is down between two legendary screenplays: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka. Mr. Smith is an almost perfectly structured screenplay: it moves quickly, deals with the complexities of Washington in an interesting and intelligent way and gives a lot of actors some juicy material to dig into. It also, for all of its charm and optimism, manages to teeter the line very closely and avoid going overboard in any direction. It never feels as rosy-eyed or sacchrine as some of Capra's other films could bleed into. That said, my vote went to Nintochka, for being one of Wilder's funniest screenplays, with wry characterization and a fresh take that still feels modern even all these years (and revolutions) later.
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Re: Best Screenplay 1939

Postby Big Magilla » Sun Oct 16, 2016 4:48 pm

These are all wonderful adaptations, but once again I have to agree with Oscar's choice here. Gone With the Wind is such a singular accomplishment that it's difficult not to vote it even if it is competing with four other masterpieces. Rranking them, I would place the other two literary adaptations, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Wuthering Heights right behind with what today would be considered original nominees Mr. Smith and Ninotchka right behind them. It's really an embarrassment of riches.

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Best Screenplay 1939

Postby Big Magilla » Sun Oct 09, 2016 3:59 am

As a reminder, all nominees in this category are adaptations. Here we have three adaptations of famous novels and two adaptations of this year's nominees for Original Story, one of which won that category.

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