Movies and American Culture
in the Annus Mirabilis
Conventional wisdom says that this was the annus mirabilis—the year of wonder, a time of remarkable achievement—in Hollywood movies. The industry itself initiated the claim even before the fact. Responding partly to an antitrust suit filed against five studios, the Academy launched a campaign called "Motion Pictures' Greatest Year" for the 1938–39 release schedule. Over 150 mayors and governors issued proclamations recognizing the campaign (Thorp 50). Later commentators have shifted a half-year to fix on the movies of 1939. In 1975, in just the third issue of American Film, Larry Swindell observed that the supremacy of the year's movies was "common knowledge" (24). A book on movies from "Scarface to Scarlett" said that the movies of this year "reached a fabulous zenith it was never again to attain" (Dooley 611). A historian of the era agreed: "There are good reasons for selecting 1939 as the greatest year in Hollywood history" (Bolino 109). When the assessment even makes it to the reference shelves, we know it is deeply embedded: a recent reference book on American movies asserted that in this year the studio system reached "its peak year of artistic success, as Hollywood release"d" a record number of critically acclaimed films" (Corey and Ochoa 59).
While it is tempting to get swept up in all the praise, in this chapter we look more closely at American culture, the Hollywood film business, and the movies from other perspectives. We can call this year the annus mirabilis, but more accurately if we use that term as The American Heritage Dictionary defines it, as a "year of wonders or disasters; a fateful year." The year was one of achievement and crisis, both in the movie industry and the broader culture, and the sense of crisis shook Hollywood loose, however tentatively, from its public position that its sole commitment was to entertain moviegoers by suggesting that movies might also serve a larger social purpose. Following an overview that will help us understand how in this year the tension between entertainment and social engagement came