The movie critics, whoever they are, say that 1939 was the greatest year in the history of American movies. Led by iconic films Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz, the last year of the 1930s featured many of the movie industry's finest films with an army of Hollywood legends on the screen and directed and produced by many of the world's legendary directors and producers. Most of the year's best films, and there were many of them, were shown in Dublin, but not until years later.
The trouble for Dubliners was that the town only had one theater. Dublin's Ritz Theater, operating in between fires, was a small theater in relatively small town. Only the top movie houses garnered Hollywood's latest films within weeks of their release. So, movie goers had to settle for re-released classics and not so classics with an occasional new release on the screen of the Ritz, which featured six movies a week, one on Monday and Tuesday, a second feature only on Wednesday, and a third on Thursday and Friday. Saturdays were the big days at the motion picture house. A matinee, usually a western or a serial picture, was followed by the evening's feature film. The week's last film was a midnight show, featuring films with adult themes, but no where near what adult films are these days.
The year's two best films, Gone With The Wind and the Wizard of Oz, are arguably two of the best movies ever produced. Both have small connections to Dublin. By now, most of you have read or heard that Karl Slover, a local resident, had four small roles as a Munchkin who helped Dorothy to follow the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard of Oz.
When young Margaret Mitchell Marsh began to compose in her mind the characters of her novel Gone With the Wind, she turned to fellow Atlanta Constitution employee and good friend Gladstone Williams. Members of the Williams family have always said that Mitchell modeled the style and demeanor of her character Rhett Butler after the Dublin journalist.
Too far from Tinsel Town and with no hometown movie star, the folks in Dublin knew that they would never have any sort of movie premiere event in the Ritz Theater. So, the downtown merchants decided that they would stage one of their own Hollywood spectacles. They hired one Robert H. Gage to organize the gala event on January 30, 1939.
Gage had staged more than a thousand similar events in cities around the country. The ladies of the Parnassus Club agreed to sponsor the event. They even hired Miss Elaine McKinney, a professional director, to direct the spectacle.
Promoters took out a full page ad promising that Jackson Street would become Hollywood Boulevard and that the Ritz Theater would be transformed into a famous movie palace. Bob Hightower, the affable manager of the Ritz, served as the master of ceremonies for the Hollywood Premiere of 1939.
To capitalize on the downtown crowds, merchants chipped in more advertising dollars by supplying the impersonators with luxurious clothing and accessories. Smith Jewelers provided the jewelry. Jones Barber and Beauty Shop beautified the participants. Swanky automobiles were provided by Peacock Chevrolet and Morris Motor Company. Elegant gowns were displayed in the show windows of Churchwell's, J.C. Penneys, and United Department Stores. Black's Pharmacy furnished cosmetics for the event.
Since no real Hollywood stars could be persuaded to appear, local people posed as real actors in their places. Mrs. Gray Reese portrayed Mae West. Mrs. J.F. Hart appeared as the comedic actress Zasu Pitts. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were impersonated by Dorothy Smith and Mike Harvard. Miss Charlie Mae Davis played the part of Eleanor Powell as a Hawaiian dancer. Thirty stars were scheduled to appear including those who portrayed Shirley Temple and the Marx Brothers.
Large crowds gathered around the theater at 222 W. Jackson Street for the arrival of the stars, who walked on the red carpet and posed for photographs. After the first stage show, the feature film, Always in Trouble, starring Georgia's own comedienne Jane Withers, was shown. Before the festive night ended, the stage show and the movie were performed again.
The event was such a success that seven weeks later a smaller encore stage show was held with Mike Harvard, Dorothy Smith, Helen Fussell, and Doris Mackey singing and dancing their way to the hearts of the audience.
Of the top 15 films of the year, only The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Dark Victory made it to the screen of the Ritz in 1939. Other favorites that landmark year were Dodge City, Son of Frankenstein, Stanley and Livingstone, and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Seventy years ago tonight, Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta. The film didn't make it to Dublin in 1939. It would be many months before the legendary film came to Dublin. There were only 300 prints to be shared by thousands of theaters across the country. Those unfortunate enough to make the trip to Atlanta were relegated to a showing of another Jane Withers comedy, the not so classic, Chicken Wagon Family.
Classic literary stories were often shown at the Ritz in 1939. Among the more popular tales were Treasure Island, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn, The Three Musketeers, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Beau Geste. Then there were the perennial favorites the Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes, the Little Rascals, Marx Brothers, Roy Rogers, Blondie, Gene Autry, Shirley Temple, Andy Hardy, Tarzan, Frankenstein, Dracula and Charlie Chan.
Not only were movies shown at the Ritz, there were highlights of collegiate football games, world championship boxing matches and the World Series. Traveling stage shows were always popular. Among the acts appearing on the Ritz stage were Red & Raymond and the Boys of Old Kentuck and Buck Owens, the Roaring Ranger. The most popular act was a quintet of black children who called themselves "The Cabin Kids." They appeared in more than two dozen movies performing songs and comedy skits.
Ritz manager Bob Hightower was a master showman. When Betty Grable appeared in Million Dollar Legs, Hightower staged a contest to determine who had the most beautiful legs. There were contests for the best fiddler and the best Hawaiian dancer. The first 500 ladies who bought a ticket for The Cowboy and the Lady were given a genuine photograph of Gary Cooper.
In today's world of $7.50 to $8.00 admission prices, admission to the Ritz Theater was 35 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Oh how I wish I was a kid in 1939. I could have gone to one movie a week and spent less than one movie a year in local theaters today.