Why Was 1938 “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year”?

By  · Published on July 3rd, 2014

Columbia Pictures

The short answer: because Hollywood declared it so.

Of course, that was before 1939 came along and actually became the unofficial greatest year of movies of all time, including the releases of Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Love Affair and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. And those were just the Best Picture nominees, excluding The Rules of the Game, The Women and Gunga Din and many more.

Well, 1938 did have Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Jezebel and Best Picture winner You Can’t Take It With You, which I honestly adore. Yeah, there’s something of an imbalance there.

The claim that 1938 was the greatest came before the year was through as part of a marketing campaign to get Americans back to the movies. It was still the Great Depression, and by some theories that should’ve meant people sought out more escapist entertainment with whatever spending money they could manage, but the fact was that radio was enough of a distraction and it was free. In spite of a contest gimmick tie-in that I would love to see done today (with or without the cash prize), the plan was a big failure, according to Karina Longworth on the latest episode of her You Must Remember This podcast.

I could go on about the story of this fascinating and fascinatingly fucked campaign. Longworth admits to having “piggybacked” on the research of Catherine Jurca, who covers the whole thing in her 2012 book “Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year,” so I wouldn’t feel bad piggybacking as well. But it’s a short episode and as always a very enjoyable listen. It’s also the beginning of a series focused on movie releases and other Hollywood-related events of 1938.

First of all, kudos to this podcast for bucking with the current anniversary tradition. Not that there are enough people actually highlighting 75th anniversaries of the great films of 1939 – traffic on movie sites is better with 30-year and lower nostalgia – but Longworth is concentrating on 76 years ago for no other reason than she was inspired by Jurca’s book. Fortunately, so far with You Must Remember This, what has interested her has been very interesting for anyone who likes, as the podcast is focused on, “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”

Let’s back up a bit. It’s about time we gave the podcast some love in general, and now that I’ve finally gotten the time to catch up with all of its eight episodes, the first of which debuted back in April, I’m able to do so, better late than never. It’s a special program, in part because most movie podcasts are devoted to reviewing new movies and this one instead brings us stories of the past, whether the main topic is a film, a star, an album, a marriage, a producer or, in the case of this week, a year and an industry scheme. And it’s not just the facts. Longworth, a former film editor for L.A. Weekly, offers some insightful criticism where applicable.

Think of it more like our own Junkfood Cinema podcast, a kind of secret and/or forgotten film history program of its own, focused on cult classics and weird and obscure non-classics. The great thing about these shows is that they’re never really dated. While I could recommend a movie podcast to you and you’d be best off just starting with the last or next episodes, with You Must Remember This you can and you’ll want to go back and start from the beginning. Or at least listen to them all, in any order. It won’t take you long; episodes run only half an hour.

So far, Longworth has covered a pretty wide spectrum of subject matter. She kicked off with an episode on Kim Novak that responded to the harsh reaction to her appearance at the Oscars this year. From there she jumped to a sorta celebration of Frank Sinatra’s sorta bonkers 1979 triple album Trilogy: Past, Present and Future, the last part of which is a conept album with ol’ Blue Eyes singing about outer space. And not in a figurative manner a la “Fly Me to the Moon.” For instance, here is my favorite lyric from the first track, “What Time Does the Next Miracle Leave,” in which Sinatra is riding on a spaceship: “Uranus is heaven. How will I know? I will know, if they need me at the station, with a cheese and tomato pizza, well done, and a little red wine.” Uh, what?

She’s done episodes on Judy Garland, Isabella Rossellini, Val Lewton and the many loves of Howard Hughes, which is another continuing topic that will alternate with the 1939 series this summer. My favorite, though, is a piece she did on Frances Farmer. It’s not just her story that makes this an excellent listen – in fact, part of the point of the episode is how her life wasn’t quite as scandalous as many believe. Longworth starts the show off with the Nirvana track “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” and afterward uses Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s hardcore interest in the actress as a gateway to a tale of truth versus legend and how the latter tends to win out as the accepted history.

There’s so much to that one, and it’s partly due I think to Longworth’s broad interests in film, music, pop culture and, most of all, narratives. The episode, titled “(The Printing of) The Legend of Frances Farmer” also features a funny portrayal of film critic Rex Reed by actor Noah Segan (Looper), who lends his voice to other installments in the role of Howard Hughes and reading William Goldman excerpts. Another notable voices heard on the show include Nora Zehetner (Brick; Mad Men) as Frances Farmer and, as an expert on Novak, film critic Farran Nehme.

Getting back to 1938, a year when Farmer was at the height of her short success, I’m looking forward to what else Longworth shares in this series, which specifically will look at the “follies” of that time. In the first part she does hint that she’ll be talking about You Can’t Take It With You, and I presume that means she considers it a “folly.” I’ve never been one to defend its Oscar prestige necessarily, but Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is much better than it’s currently regarded as being (check out some of my thoughts on a post I wrote celebrating its 75th anniversary last year). If Longworth has something to say on the matter, though, it’s going to be smart and fair and I can’t wait to hear it, even if I disagree with it.

My guess is the next one in that series is a month away – the next episode, however, is going to be another on the loves of Huges and probably will arrive in a couple weeks. You’ve got some time to play catch up on the podcast. Although it’s the best, I recommend starting with the Farmer installment here:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.