1938: Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m replacing our monthly Pre-Code with a different artifact from Hollywood in the 1930s — 1938, to be exact: a year where the country was in a recession inside the depression, and attendance at the movie theaters had, for the first time that decade, dropped. There was much speculation as to what the problem was, with many pontificating on the studios’ widening gulf between “A pictures” and “B pictures” and a general dip in quality across the board. To combat this decline, industry executives got together and dreamed up a massive publicity campaign — “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year” — with a contest that encouraged audiences to see 30 different movies during the last four months of 1938. All the major studios/exhibitors participated — MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Columbia, United Artists — along with Monogram, and a booklet was distributed listing 94 potential films that patrons could choose to see and for which they’d answer a question, culminating in a short essay about their selected favorite.

But the contest was ill-conceived and executed, for a variety of reasons — check out Catherine Jurca’s comprehensive look at this campaign in her 2012 book for more — including the fact that one of the listed films (“Thoroughbred”) was never produced/released at all! So, ultimately there was no consensus about the publicity stunt actually being a success. Fortunately, however, 1939 was a much better year for Hollywood… one that we still talk a lot about today.

Nevertheless, I found one of the booklets from this forgotten chapter in cinematic history, and below is a copy. Of the 94 listed pictures, 93 of which were released, I confess that my number seen is quite slim — a paltry 15, just half of what I would have needed to see in order to be in consideration for the prize. Take a look at the selections below and let me know how many of these films — from “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year” — you’ve seen! (Also, note that “Ranger Code” was released as The Renegade Ranger and “The Comet” became Personal Secretary.)



Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for Phil Silvers!