Cinema's years to remember The best year ever for American film was indisputably 1939, but a runner-up is a whole lot harder to choose.

June 28, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

As the American Film Institute's recently released Top 100 list showed, there's plenty of competition when it comes to naming the greatest American movie ever. And it's a sure bet that competition for the title of greatest actor, actress or director would be just as fierce.

But when it comes to the greatest year for American films, there's no disputing the champion - 1939 was such a banner year for Hollywood ("Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Intermezzo," "The Women," "Gunga Din," "Stagecoach," "Ninotchka," "Destry Rides Again," "Wuthering Heights"), it would win the nod by acclamation.

Ask about the second greatest year, however, and the arguments start flying. Maybe 1942, which saw - besides "Casablanca" - the release of "Bambi," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "To Be or Not To Be," "The Pride of the Yankees" and "Sullivan's Travels"? How about 1950, with "Sunset Boulevard," "All About Eve," "Cinderella" and "Winchester '73?" Or 1967, with such faves as "The Graduate," "Bonnie and Clyde," "In the Heat of the Night," "In Cold Blood" and "Two for the Road"?

There's no runaway winner for this runner-up trophy. But in the interest of spirited debate, here are a few candidates worthy of consideration.

1925

Highlights: "Ben-Hur," the film that announced new-studio-on-the-block MGM as a force to be reckoned with, still stands as one of cinema's most exciting epics. "The Gold Rush," another in an amazing run of classics from Charles Chaplin, has the little tramp seeking fame and fortune in the Klondike - where, among other disappointments, he has to eat cooked boot for dinner. "The Phantom of the Opera" has an unmasking scene that still qualifies as one of the movies' most frightening moments. "Tumbleweeds" is William S. Hart's swan song to the Old West he so lovingly chronicled. And there's King Vidor's World War I masterpiece, "The Big Parade."

Other films of note: "The Eagle," perhaps Rudolph Valentino's best effort; "The Merry Widow," from fabled director Erich von Stroheim; "The Unchastened Woman," the final film of silent-screen legend Theda Bara; "The Joyless Street," with Greta Garbo, directed by G.W.

Pabst; "Little Annie Rooney," with Mary Pickford; Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman"; and Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances."

Reason it's overlooked: Who remembers silent films? Besides, there were no Academy Awards in 1925, leaving historians with no easy way to measure film greatness.

1940

Highlights: "The Grapes of Wrath," director John Ford's flawless adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, with Henry Fonda in the role of his career; "His Girl Friday," maybe the best film about reporters and certainly the funniest; "Rebecca," the film that brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood and made a star of Joan Fontaine; "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio," a double triumph for Walt Disney; "The Philadelphia Story," one of the great screwball comedies, with Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant; and Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," an early attack on Hitler.

Other films of note: W.C. Fields in "The Bank Dick"; Raymond Massey's dignified, Oscar-nominated performance in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"; "The Sea Hawk," with Errol Flynn (under the direction of Warner Bros. workhorse Michael Curtiz) as a dashing British sea captain out to cripple the Spanish; and "The Great McGinty," the first in a long run of hilarious films from director Preston Sturges.

Reason it's overlooked: If you had 1939 for a neighbor, you'd be overlooked, too.

1962

Highlights: David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," unquestionably one of the greats; the still-moving "To Kill a Mockingbird," a remarkably evocative look at growing up in the South, with a resonant performance from Gregory Peck; Bette Davis and Joan Crawford battling each other tooth and claw in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"; "The Manchurian Candidate," a relentlessly tense thriller with what may be Frank Sinatra's best screen performance; an all-star cast in the overblown, but still honorable "The Longest Day"; Robert Preston's magnificent performance in the clever "The Music Man"; and director John Ford's spin on the mythology of the Old West, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

Other films of note: "Days of Wine and Roses," with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick; "The Miracle Worker," with Oscar-winning performances from Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft; director Sidney Lumet's star-studded adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; "Birdman of Alcatraz," with a winning performance from Burt Lancaster; director Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country."

Reason it's overlooked: It isn't. It's probably the leading candidate for best year runner-up.

1976

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