Authors look at ‘The Greatest Year at the Movies’

Lee D Mitgang

AP – What was the greatest year in cinema history? Among film fans and critics, 1939 has long been a favourite pick.

Hollywood’s studio system was at its peak that year and cranked out an astonishing number of crowd-pleasing, star-studded films including The Wizard of Oz, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Dark Victory. At the top of that formidable heap was Gone with the Wind, which won eight Oscars, including best picture.

A new history by Los Angeles film critics and scholars Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan offers a different and, for many, surprising alternative. In their audaciously titled Cinema ’62: The Greatest Year at the Movies, they argue that the early ‘60s in general – and 1962 in particular – deserve recognition not just for big-wave beach movies, but also for new-wave films from abroad and for the emergence of a generation of American auteurs who were fashioning a mould-breaking new Hollywood.

Strictly by numbers, 1962 may not have produced as many enduring classics as 1939, a year that placed 19 films on the Library of Congress’ prestigious National Film Registry, more than twice the eight such films from 1962. But 1962’s importance rests on the artistic daring of its films, and on the unprecedented willingness of filmmakers to tackle taboo subjects at a time when the production codes and the censorious Legion of Decency still wielded influence on Hollywood producers and American audiences. Echoing the emerging civil rights spirit of the early ’60s, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird poignantly indicted racial injustice.

The authors add spice and credibility to their history with interviews of survivors of 1962 filmmaking, including Mariette Hartley who made her debut in director Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country; and Angela Lansbury, who gave a deliciously villainous performance in director John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. The book ends with a chapter-long appraisal of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1962’s most honoured, commercially successful and technically dazzling film.