1939 Academy Awards®
Winners and History
Introduction, 1927/8-39, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s
Academy Awards Summaries
"Best Picture" Oscar®, "Best Director" Oscar®, "Best Actor" Oscar®, "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar®,
"Best Actress" Oscar®, "Best Supporting Actress" Oscar®, "Best Screenplay/Writer" Oscar®
"GONE WITH THE WIND", "Dark Victory", "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", "Love Affair", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Ninotchka", "Of Mice and Men", "Stagecoach", "The Wizard of Oz", "Wuthering Heights"
ROBERT DONAT in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", Clark Gable in "Gone With The Wind", Laurence Olivier in "Wuthering Heights", Mickey Rooney in "Babes in Arms", James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
VIVIEN LEIGH in "Gone With The Wind", Bette Davis in "Dark Victory", Irene Dunne in "Love Affair", Greta Garbo in "Ninotchka", Greer Garson in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"
THOMAS MITCHELL in "Stagecoach", Brian Aherne in "Juarez", Harry Carey in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", Brian Donlevy in "Beau Geste", Claude Rains in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
HATTIE MCDANIEL in "Gone With The Wind", Olivia de Havilland in "Gone With The Wind", Geraldine Fitzgerald in "Wuthering Heights", Edna May Oliver in "Drums Along the Mohawk", Maria Ouspenskaya in "Love Affair"
VICTOR FLEMING for "Gone With The Wind", Frank Capra for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", John Ford for "Stagecoach", Sam Wood for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", William Wyler for "Wuthering Heights"
1939 is undoubtedly the most celebrated year in American film history - the year produced more outstanding films than any other 12-month period. It was bound to be difficult for the Academy to nominate or honor all the rich, outstanding films of the year.
This year, the first Oscar for Visual Effects (a new category) was given to The Rains Came, defeating Gone With the Wind's nomination (one of five that did not win) that included recognition for its remarkable burning of Atlanta sequence. The Wizard of Oz's nomination for Visual Effects (undoubtedly for its exceptional cyclone sequence) was also defeated. For the first time this year, the Cinematography award was divided into two categories: Black and White, and Color.
Director Victor Fleming's almost four-hour long blockbuster film was the longest feature film released up to that time - and it was the major Oscar winner of the year. It was also the first color film to win Best Picture. The epic was obsessed producer David O. Selznick's romantic costume melodrama Gone With the Wind, a story of the Civil War South (from Margaret Mitchell's best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) told by following the story of a tempestuous, headstrong Southern heroine from the O'Hara family who was married three times and carried on an unconsummated love relationship with a Southern gentleman from the Wilkes family. It was the first Best Picture-winning film that was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (the second was All the King's Men (1949)).
The film had thirteen nominations and won eight competitive awards (and two special citations) - both records for the time. [It would hold this record until Gigi (1958) won a record 9 Oscars.] The blockbuster film was the number one box-office champion for many years. Its awards included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel - the first African-American performer to be nominated and win), Best Screenplay, Best Color Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, and Best Film Editing. The only major award it didn't win was Best Actor for Clark Gable, meaning that it wasn't able to sweep the "Top Five" awards categories. The credited screenwriter for Gone With The Wind was Sidney Howard - he received a posthumous Oscar and became the first posthumous winner.
All the Best Picture nominated films were exceptional and unforgettable:
- director Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory (with three nominations and no wins) about a young heiress who is slowly dying of a brain tumor and ultimately accepts her death in noble fashion
- director Sam Wood's Goodbye, Mr. Chips (with seven nominations and one win - Best Actor), a version of James Hilton's novel about a beloved Latin teacher/schoolmaster at an English public school (the Brookfield School for Boys)
- director Leo McCarey's tearjerker Love Affair (with five nominations and no wins) - that he later remade as An Affair to Remember (1957) - about two lovers who promise to meet atop the Empire State Building
- director Ernst Lubitsch's delightful romantic comedy Ninotchka (with four nominations and no wins) about a cold Soviet official sent to Paris
- director Lewis Milestone's adaptation of the classic John Steinbeck tragedy Of Mice and Men (with five nominations and no wins)
- director John Ford's version of Ernest Haycox's story Stage to Lordsburg, Stagecoach (with seven nominations and two wins - Best Supporting Actor and Best Score) - the director's first film with star John Wayne - about a stagecoach journey by a varied group of characters
- director Victor Fleming's perennial favorite - the beloved fantasy film about a Kansas farm girl who journeys to a brightly colored world in The Wizard of Oz (with six nominations and only two wins - Best Song Over the Rainbow (almost cut from the film by MGM executives) and Best Original Score)
- director William Wyler's best film version of Emily Bronte's romantic novel about doomed lovers in Wuthering Heights (with eight nominations and only one win - Best Black and White Cinematography by Gregg Toland)
- director Frank Capra's film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with eleven nominations and only one win - Best Original story) of Lewis Foster's story about a naive and innocent junior Senator
A change in the Academy rules required that directors could be nominated for only one motion picture in a single year. Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and Sam Wood - all great directors for Oscar-nominated films, couldn't overcome the almost-total sweep of Gone With The Wind. Best Director winner Victor Fleming also directed another Best Picture nominee in 1939, The Wizard of Oz.
One of the few categories where the celebrated Best Picture didn't win was Best Actor. British actor Robert Donat (with his second - and final - consecutive nomination and sole Oscar) won the Best Actor award for his touching performance as the shy British schoolmaster Mr. Charles Chipping at his beloved institution, who evolves from a novice to a respected headmaster in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (from James Hilton's novel). It appeared that he was being honored as much for his neglected performance in Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and for his Oscar-losing performance (to Spencer Tracy in Boys Town (1938)) in The Citadel (1938) from a year earlier as he was for the part of the schoolteacher.
The rest of the competition was fierce in the Best Actor category:
- Clark Gable (with his third and last career nomination even though he made 27 more films in his career) as blockade runner Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind
- Mickey Rooney (with his first of four unsuccessful nominations) as showbiz kid Mickey Moran (opposite Judy Garland in their first major film together) in Busby Berkeley-directed Babes in Arms (with two nominations and no wins)
- Laurence Olivier (with his first of ten career nominations - he attended the ceremony with fiancee Vivien Leigh) for his role as the brooding, tragic Heathcliff on the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights
- James Stewart (with his first nomination) for one of his best, quintessential roles as innocent, crusading Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. [Stewart won the Best Actor Oscar the following year, often considered a consolation prize for his loss for this great performance in 1939.]
Both lead acting awards were presented to British performers - for the first time in Academy history. Unknown 24 year old brunette actress Vivien Leigh was the first British female star to win the Best Actress award - for her role as the flirtatious, petulant Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind.
The other Best Actress nominees were a talented group:
- Greer Garson (with her first nomination) in her film-debut performance as Katherine Ellis - Mr. Chips' sweet and vivacious wife in Goodbye, Mr. Chips
- Greta Garbo (with her fourth and last unsuccessful nomination in her second-to-last film) as Lena Yakushova "Ninotchka", a cold Soviet agent who is seduced by a playboy and capitalism in the marvelous Ninotchka - the film advertised as the one in which 'Garbo laughs'
- Bette Davis (with her third nomination) as the dying Judith Traherne in Dark Victory
- Irene Dunne as tragically-injured lover Terry McKay in the classic romance Love Affair
Thomas Mitchell (with his second and last career nomination and sole Oscar), who had played Scarlett O'Hara's father Gerald in Gone With The Wind, a grounded flyer Kid Dabb in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (with two nominations and no wins), a newspaperman Diz Moore in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Clopin, the King of the Beggars in director William Dieterle's best version of the Victor Hugo classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with two nominations and no wins) won the Best Supporting Actor award for another role: his whiskey-soaked, drunken Doc Boone in John Ford's celebrated Western, Stagecoach.
[Mitchell was the third performer to have three appearances in Best Picture-nominated films - in 1939: Gone With the Wind (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Stagecoach (1939). Claudette Colbert was the first to star in three Best Picture-nominated films in the same year, in 1934: Cleopatra (1934), It Happened One Night (1934), and Imitation of Life (1934), and the second was Charles Laughton in 1935: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Les Miserables (1935), and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). The feat would be repeated by John C. Reilly, in 2002: Chicago (2002), The Hours (2002) and Gangs of New York (2002).]
The other four Best Supporting Actor nominees included:
- Brian Aherne (with his sole career nomination) as Emperor of Mexico Maximilian von Hapsburg in director William Dieterle's story about revolutionary Mexican leader Benito Pablo Juarez in Juarez (with two nominations and no wins)
- Harry Carey (with his sole career nomination) as the presiding President of the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
- Brian Donlevy (with his sole career nomination) as sadistic Sergeant Markoff in director William Wellman's Beau Geste (with two nominations and no wins)
- Claude Rains (with his first of four unsuccessful career nominations) as the corrupt and deceitful Senator Joseph Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Hattie McDaniel's Best Supporting Actress award for her unforgettable role as Scarlett O'Hara's devoted but sly Mammy in Gone With The Wind was significant. She was the first African-American Oscar nominee and winner - and she was the first black guest to attend the awards ceremony. However, she was relegated to a seat at the back of the Cocoanut Grove, away from her colleagues on the film.
[It would be another 24 years until another African American actor Sidney Poitier would win for Best Actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. And it would be over 50 years before another black woman would win an acting award, Whoopi Goldberg's Best Supporting Actress award for Ghost (1990), followed by Halle Berry's Best Actress win for Monster's Ball (2001) and Jennifer Hudson's Best Supporting Actress award for Dreamgirls (2006). Male black actors who would later win acting awards include Louis Gossett Jr. for Best Supporting Actor for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Denzel Washington for Best Supporting Actor for Glory (1989) and Best Actor for Training Day (2001), Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire (1996), Morgan Freeman for Best Supporting Actor for Million Dollar Baby (2004), Jamie Foxx for Best Actor for Ray (2004), and Forest Whitaker for Best Actor for The Last King of Scotland (2006).]
McDaniel defeated the following Best Supporting Actress nominees:
- co-star Olivia de Havilland (with her first nomination) as the frail, sweet and forgiving Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind
- Geraldine Fitzgerald (with her sole career nomination) as Isabella Linton, Heathcliff's second-choice wife in Wuthering Heights
- Edna May Oliver (with her sole career nomination) as the widowed aunt - Mrs. Sarah McKlennar in director John Ford's first color film about Mohawk Valley frontier settlers in Revolutionary war days titled Drums Along the Mohawk (with two nominations and no wins)
- Maria Ouspenskaya (with her second and last unsuccessful nomination) as Grandmother Marnet (of co-star Charles Boyer) in Love Affair
Disney won another Short Subject: Cartoon Oscar for The Ugly Duckling - his eighth (and consecutive) win in the category. His streak would be broken the next year, when MGM won for Milky Way (1940), while Disney was pre-occupied with Pinocchio (1940) (with two nominations and two wins for Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song).
Oscar Snubs and Omissions:
In 1939, there were so many exceptional films and actors that didn't receive nominations or Oscar wins:
- Charles Laughton as the deformed Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with only two nominations and no wins for Best Sound and Best Score)
- Warner Bros' and director Michael Curtiz' historical drama The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (with five nominations and no wins) starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn
- director Rouben Mamoulian's Golden Boy (with one nomination and no wins) with William Holden as a violinist/prizefighter in his first major film role
- Intermezzo: A Love Story (with two nominations and no wins) which introduced the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman in her first American film opposite co-star Leslie Howard (un-nominated) as a middle-aged married musician
- director John Ford's classic Young Mr. Lincoln (with one nomination for Best Original Screenplay and no wins) with Henry Fonda in the unnominated lead role
- director Michael Leisen's Cinderella-tale screwball comedy Midnight (completely overlooked, and noted for its screenplay by Billy Wilder and partner Charles Brackett, and its acting leads Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert)
- Merle Oberon's performance as Cathy in Wuthering Heights (with eight nominations and one win for Best B/W Cinematography)
- director Ernst Lubitsch as Best Director for Best Picture-nominated Ninotchka
Other notable films and/or actors without or with very few nominations or awards:
- Howard Hawks' action/adventure film about daredevil mail pilots, Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, with only one nomination for Best Visual Effects
- George Marshall's Destry Rides Again (with Marlene Dietrich's great performance as saloon singer and lusty hostess Frenchy)
- George Cukor's The Women (with a great performance by Rosalind Russell as a screwball society wife)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, the first of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
- director George Stevens' classic adventure film Gunga Din (with one nomination and no wins)
- The Wizard of Oz without nominations for 17 year-old Judy Garland in her signature role as Dorothy (who sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), all her Yellow Brick Road companions (Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion), the Wizard himself (Frank Morgan) and its director Victor Fleming, although the latter took the honors for Gone With The Wind
[Note: Instead, Judy Garland was the year's recipient of the special juvenile Oscar.]
- both Jean Arthur as James Stewart's secretary, and Thomas Mitchell (although nominated in the supporting category) as the crotchety Washington reporter for their roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The only opportunity that actor Lon Chaney, Jr. had of being nominated was for his performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but there were too many other competitors and he was not nominated.
The Oscar for Best Visual Effects, awarded for the flood disaster sequences in The Rains Came, should have been awarded to either Gone With The Wind's burning of Atlanta sequence, or the flying monkeys sequence in The Wizard of Oz.
The most identifiable of all film scores (Tara's Theme in Gone With The Wind) was composed by Max Steiner, but he was defeated in the Best Original Score category by Herbert Stothart for The Wizard of Oz - not for the popular songs, but for the film's incidental music (including the recognizable theme music for Miss Gulch on her bicycle or the Wicked Witch on her broom, and the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" instrumental theme)!