1939: The Best Pop Culture Year

1939: The Best Pop Culture Year

There were a lot of bad things happening in the world in 1939, and over the next few years, things were going to get worse.

That may be exactly the kind of time that the public most seeks escape…and when those who create pop culture most try to make the world into a different and better place.

1939 was like that. They did things then that no one had ever done before, and that still affect us today…not just in what we see, but in how we see ourselves.


[to be added to appropriate dates below] (movies) there are eight 3 Stooges shorts (all with Curly), most directed by Del Lord. They include Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise which was remade in the 1950s, We Want Our Mummy, & Calling All Curs

(music) Fats Waller’s version of Your Feet’s Too Big is a giant hit and becomes one of the songs most associated with the artist, thanks in part to his ad libs

(music) Bandleader Red Nichols (Red Nichols and His Five Pennies), who had reportedly played cornet on thousands of recording in the 1920s, released the dingle The King Kong on Bluebird, five years after the movie opened https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsEP2mBFjyE

Martha Raye, nicknamed The Big Mouth, was a comedian and singer. In 1939, she was a regular cast member on Al Jolson’s radio show, and appeared in two movies: Never Say Die with Bob Hope & $1000 a Touchdown with Joe E. Brown

Cab Calloway, who had six big singles in 1931, kept things going with the hit (Hep Hep!) The Jumping Jive, and The Ghost of Smokey Joe

music. Guy Lombardo was back releasing with Decca, and 1939 hit singles included Penny Serenade, Little Sir Echo, Deep Purple, and The Umbrella Man. Lombardo had 10 top 10 Billboard singles this year.

(radio) With the sponsor switch from Log Cabin syrup to Wonder Bread, Jack Haley’s show became The Wonder Show. It was a breakthrough for Lucille Ball who appeared with Gale Gordon. The latter 2 would work together for half a century

(movies) Gabby Hayes, the classic grizzled Western sidekick (“Dadgummit!”) appears in an even dozen movies. He moves from Paramount and Hopalong Cassidy to Republic, which due to a rights issue, is where he changes from “Windy” to “Gabby”

(movies) Popular cowboy character Hopalong Cassidy appears in four movies (portrayed by William Boyd). It’s a transitional year, as Britt Wood replaces Gabby Hayes as the sidekick (after the former’s 14 movies in the role).

(music) America was years away from joining the war, but it was different in the UK. Vera Lynn’s version of “We’ll Meet Again” (“…don’t know where, don’t know when”) was a giant hit. It would later be used in movies and TV, from Dr. Strangelove to True Blood to Titans

(movies) 11 Our Gang (The Little Rascals) shorts are released. New members include Porky Lee and Mickey Gubitosi (later known as Robert Blake), joining Spanky, Darla, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and others

(movies) His father had been one of the biggest international movie stars of the 1920s, credited with helping build the success of Warner Brothers. He appeared in four movies this year, co-starring with Don Ameche and Buster Keaton. He is Rin Tin Tin Junior

music. Glenn Miller’s band hits the big time with 7 #1 songs and a concert at Carnegie Hall. In the Mood and Sunrise Serenade are both released

sports. For the fifth time, Curly Lambeau coaches his Green Bay Packers to an NFL championship. After his death, the team’s field would be renamed Lambeau Field in his honor

(movies) Nine Tex Avery directed cartoons are released, including ones with a series of gags (rather than a character-focused plot). A good example is A Day at the Zoo (which uses the character Egghead to connect the jokes).

literature. Robert L. May created Rudolph as a holiday giveaway for the Montgomery Ward department store. 10 years later, Gene Autry had a hit version and in 1964, the Rankin Bass stop-motion special debuted

sports and movies. Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie was in the 4th year of a highly successful movie career. Second Fiddle was an Irving Berlin musical, but Everything Happens at Night was an anti-Nazi with Ray Milland

literature. Henry Miller, living in Paris, has another book banned in the USA when Tropic of Capricorn is published. However, The Cosmological Eye, a collection of shorts, is Miller’s 1st book published in his native America

movies. 18 Porky Pig cartoons are released. The Lone Stranger and Porky starts it off, but pop culture tie-ins hit their peak with Porky’s Murder Mystery, including an appearance by the Frankenstein monster

music. Bing Crosby, thought to be the bestselling singer of the 1930s, releases his first album…and five more in 1939, as well as more than twenty singles, including The Lonesome Road and Little Sir Echo. This year also sees his first collaborations with The Andrews Sisters

movies. Glenda Farrell was back as quick-witted, fast-talking reporter Torchy Blane for “…in Chinatown” and “…Runs for Mayor”. Jane Wyman played Torchy in the 3rd Torchy feature of 1939 (which was the last of nine)

dance. George Balanchine, who would go on to found the New York City Ballet and is one of the most influential choreographers, also works in Hollywood with Vera Zorina (this year in On Your Toes)

sports. Boxer Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title four times in 1939 with multiple knockouts (his January 1st round knockout of John Henry Lewis begins the “Bum of the Month” streak). He was named the Fighter of the Year (his third time) by Ring Magazine, and was the subject of a documentary short

Month unknown (literature) Curious George is first introduced in the French short story Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys. While named Fifi at this point, this is the character who will appear in the first full-length book in 1941

(music) The Mills Brothers have a top ten hit with their version of the barbershop quartet standard, Sweet Adeline. Their chart run started in 1931 (Tiger Rag was a number 1), and continued for decades


(literature and movies) Nancy Drew. 3 Nancy Drew movies starring Bonita Granville (Reporter, Trouble Shooter, and Hidden Staircase) are released, and the 16th book in the series (The Clue of the Tapping Heels) is published

Month unknown (music) Billie Holiday 1st sings & a record (after some negotiation) is released of Strange Fruit. The song, protesting lynching, eventually becomes very popular

Month unknown (literature) The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler introduces hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Later, Humphrey Bogart & Robert Mitchum would both star in movie versions of the novel

(movies) A once a month news film (longer than the typical newsreel) with each episode focusing on one topic. It’s style of journalism, which included dramatic reenactments, was influential in public opinion and a forerunner of programs such as 60 Minutes and 20/20

(music) The Ink Spots have a giant breakout hit with If I Didn’t Care, establishing their style of including Hoppy Jones spoken bass. It would become one of the top selling singles of all time

3 very different Jimmy Cagney movies open (following a year in which he was Oscar nominated): The Oklahoma Kid (Western), Each Dawn I Die (thriller), The Roaring Twenties (gangster movie…Cagney’s last for some time, co-starring with Humphrey Bogart)

No fewer than 7 Humphrey Bogart movies open this year, including The Return of Doctor X, his only science fiction movie, the Best Picture Oscar nominee Dark Victory, and a Western, The Oklahoma Kid

(music) The Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxene, and Laverne) have a string of hits, including Beer Barrel Polka, and Ciribiribin, one of a number of collaborations with Bing Crosby

music. Kate Smith releases her signature song, God Bless America, which had been revised by Irving Berlin the previous year to update it for World War II

(music) Three versions of the song Jeepers Creepers are released (including the hit version by Louis Armstrong), as well as it being featured in two cartoons. Armstrong introduced the song in a movie introduced December 31st, 1938

(literature) 1939 saw the launch of many pulp magazines, some of which would continue into the 1950s. One theme was science fiction/fantasy pulps with the word stories in the title, including Dynamic Science Stories, Planet Stories, Science Fiction Stories, Startling Stories and Strange Stories.

Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, released what would become his theme song, Back in the Saddle Again…and appeared in eight movies

(movies) Randolph Scott moved from Paramount to Fox, which put him in movies with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Temple. He appeared in 5 movies this year, including starring in Frontier Marshall as Wyatt Earp

Saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet is at his most popular when he releases Cherokee, written by Ray Noble. It will later be used in several movies.

Theatre. Maurice Evans was playing Hamlet on Broadway, also producing the groundbreaking full-length performance of the Bard’s play in America

After more than 200 cartoons, starting in 1916, Krazy Kat was winding down with four more this year. The comic strip would continue to run on Sundays into the mid forties.

January (literature) Mad Mesa Doc Savage pulp adventure. Doc Savage debuted in March of 1933 and was the clear forerunner of Superman (and to some extent, Batman). Doc and Superman are both named Clark. Doc is the Man of Bronze: Superman is the Man of Steel. Doc has a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic Circle…years later, Superman would have a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic Circle. As to Batman, Doc is rich and has a variety of specialized vehicles. Doc also wears a “utility vest”…among the items in it is a “batarang” like grappling hook

January (literature) Startling Stories begins publication (& continues through 1955). A full novella/novel appeared in each issue. Eventual cover artist Earle K. Bergey helped shape the image of sci-fi https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Startling_Stories | https://archive.org/search.php?query=startling%20stories

January 7 (movies) Bela Lugosi stars as mad Dr. Zorka in this 12-chapter serial from Universal. Inventions include a belt of invisibility, robot spiders, and especially a scowling robot whose design has inspired Rob Zombie. The opening credits are said to have inspired the Star Wars crawl

January 13 (movies) Son of Frankenstein. The 3rd Universal Frankenstein brings together Karloff (in his last appearance as the Monster) & Lugosi (introducing Ygor). Helped save the studio

January 16 (comics) the Superman comic strip begins, and on this date, introduces Jor-El (spelled Jor-L) and Lara (spelled Lora). While Superman’s origin had been referenced earlier, this is the first full telling of it, including describing the home planet as “Krypton”

January 16 (radio) I Love a Mystery, starring three thrill-seeking adventurers, debuts on NBC West Coast and would go national later that year. Various versions will air until 1952, in addition to movies, TV and comics

January (literature) The Yellow Cloud Doc Savage pulp adventure

January 27 (movies) Customers Wanted Popeye cartoon opens

January 27 (movies) Warren William debuts as The Lone Wolf in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt a role he would play 8 times. Ida Lupino and Rita Hayworth also appear

February 1 (movies) Herb Jeffries, an African-American singing cowboy, stars in Harlem Rides the Range, from Hollywood Pictures (which produced movies with all-black casts for African-American audiences). The adventure concerns the attempted theft of a radium mine

February 8 (movies) Fay Wray and Grant Withers play Navy spies spying on each other who don’t know they are spies in the Monogram movie Navy Secrets. This is one of seven movies directed by Howard Bretherton released in 1939

February 18 – October 29 (and reopened for 1940): (events) Golden Gate International Exposition

Celebrating the recent completions of the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco went all out…even building a new island for the event (Treasure Island) which is still in use today! Tourists also still drive the scenic 49-mile drive, created in conjunction with the Exposition.


February 24 (movies) Disney’s Three Little Pigs made their 3rd and final appearance in The Practical Pig. Practical uses his lie detector invention on The Big Bad Wolf, and we hear Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf

March: (literature) The Freckled Shark Doc Savage pulp adventure

March (literature) Isaac Asimov’s first science fiction story, Marooned Off Vesta, is published in the March issue of Amazing Stories, beginning a diverse and impactful career.

March 18 (literature) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 1st appeared in The New Yorker. James Thurber’s story about the daydreams of an “insignificant” man has been made into movies & become part of the lexicon

March 31 (movies) The Hound of the Baskervilles: Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce are Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson, in the first of 14 movies in which they’ll play these parts (tweeted 27 February 2019)

April: (literature) Glamour Magazine (originally Glamour of Hollywood) begins publication with the April of 1939 edition. It eventually gives out Woman of the Year & Top College Women awards https://www.glamour.com/

April 7 (movies) Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, the longest Popeye cartoon, is released. Olive Oyl works at Surprise Pictures, and fantasizes about Popeye in an Aladdin movie

April 9: (music) African American classical singer Marian Anderson had been blocked from singing to an integrated audience. 1st Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange a concert at the Lincoln Memorial that 75000 people attended

April 14: (literature) John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is published. The Pulitzer and National Book Award winning novel of the farming Joad family economic distress was made into a movie the following year

April 17 (movies) Wuthering Heights. William Wyler directs Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, and Geraldine Fitzgerald in this Oscar-winning adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel

April 22 (movies) Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur is the first Daffy cartoon supervised by Chuck Jones, leading to a deepening of his personality. Daffy’s stone-age enemy is a parody of Jack Benny.

April 30 (opening day…continues into the next year) (events) The New York World’s Fair. Over 200,000 people were at opening day of this extraordinary exhibition where the theme was the World of Tomorrow. Many firsts happened, with TV demonstrations being notable

May: (comics) Batman first appears in Detective Comics #27

May 4 literature. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been controversial since its release. Its style is nontraditional and has been called everything from a joke to one of the great books of English literature

May 6 (movies) Columbia’s serial, Mandrake, the Magician (based on the comic strip) releases its first chapter. Warren Hull stars as the evil-fighting stage magician with supernatural powers and he and Lothar face The Wasp and a radium energy machine

May 20 movies. Chuck Jones introduces Sniffles the Mouse in the cartoon, Naughty but Mice. Two more Sniffles cartoons are released this year

May 20 comics. The Phantom Blot, a supervillain in the world of Mickey Mouse, made his first appearance in the daily comic strip. The masked mastermind would appear many times, sometimes using his powers of hypnosis to influence good guys to commit bad acts

Summer (comics) Superman, introduced in Action Comics in 1938, gets his own self-titled comic book series, a first

June 9 (movies) Undercover Doctor is a Paramount movie starring Lloyd Nolan, J. Edgar Naish, Heather Angel, and Broderick Crawford. Based on a book by J. Edgar Hoover, Naish is a society doctor who secretly treats criminals

June 9 (movies): Young Mr. Lincoln opens. John Ford directs Henry Fonda in this Oscar-nominated biography of Abraham Lincoln’s early years, before he became President

June 16 (movies) Tarzan Finds a Son! opens…the 4th of the Johnny Weissmuller series, it introduces Johnny Sheffield

July. Literature. A.E. Van Vogt’s The Black Destroyer was the author’s 1st published science fiction, appearing in the July issue of Astounding Stories. Some people consider that issue the start of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The story later became the beginning of the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle, and Van Vogt got a fifty thousand dollar settlement from the makers of the movie Alien

July 1 (movies) Warner Brothers releases The Right Way, Crane Wilbur’s cartoon cautionary tale about getting involved with societies which may secretly have subversive aims. Voices include Irene Rich and Gabriel Dell

July 2 (radio) The Alrdrich Family radio series brings the popular character of adolescent Henry Aldrich to his own show. It was a top ten hit and would run until 1953.

July 4 (sports) Baseball player Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, called himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth after retiring due to ALS (now also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease) addressing fans. His number would become the 1st retired in baseball history. Gary Cooper would recreate the moment

July 13 (movie) The Man in the Iron Mask. Louis Hayward and Joan Bennett star in James Whale’s Oscar-nominated (for score) adaptation of Alexandre Dumas novel featuring The Three Musketeers

July 14 (movies) Million Dollar Legs stars Betty Grable and her husband Jackie Coogan. While the movie was not a big success (it led to her being released by Paramount…which then led to her stardom), it gave her her nickname which later became reality when her legs were insured for that amount

August 4 (movies) Garson Kanin directs Ginger Rogers, David Niven, and Charles Coburn in Bachelor Mother, a comedy about a shopgirl who finds a baby which everyone assumes is hers. The story was Oscar-nominated & the movie was remade as a musical

August 13 (music) Ted Lewis (and His Orchestra), who was very popular in the 1920s and early 1930s , was still a draw when he performed at the Golden Gate International Exposition. Known for his spoken, lilting delivery and the catchphrase, “Is everybody happy?” Yessir!

August 14 (movies) Tod Browning, helming his last movie, directs Robert Young in Miracles for Sale. Young plays a retired stage magician who gets involved in investigating murders

August 18 (movies) Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, and Kay Francis have an unusual love triangle in this film. Francis is Grant’s gold-digging wife; Lombard is a widowed mother. A car accident reveals all

August 28 (theatre) The 16th and final edition of Broadway’s George White Scandals revue opens on Broadway. Performers include The Three Stooges and Ann Miller.

September (literature) The pulp hero The Avenger debuts with the story called Justice Inc. Wealthy adventurer Richard Benson’s wife and daughter disappear and the shock leaves The Avenger with a face which can be molded into other’s faces. New tales were told in the 1970s and in comics

September 1 (movies) The Women. Not only headlined by female stars (incl. Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, & Joan Fontaine), the Women was written by Anita Loos & Jane Murfin

September 5 (music) Lester Leaps In is recorded by Count Basie’s band. The jazz classic is later recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame. Basie also went on a national tour, including the band’s first West Coast appearances.

September 25 (literature) Tarzan the Magnificent, the 21st book in the series, is published. It combines two stories previously serialized in magazines. By this time, the Jungle Lord is encountering lost cities, women warriors, and genuine magic. Due in part to the war, it will be 8 years before the next book http://www.erbzine.com/mag7/0728.html

September 29 (movies) The Fresh Vegetable Mystery is one of the stranger entertainments of 1939. Dave Fleischer directs his Popeye star, Jack Mercer, as a potato cop investigating a carrot kidnapping, including using harsh techniques to interrogate suspected vegetables

September 29 (theatre) Straw Hat Revue opens and runs for 10 weeks. The breakout, who would become a major star years later, was Danny Kaye, who was pianist, lyricist, & composer. While he had been in some shorts, this was what got him (and Sylvia Fine) notice

October (comics) Marvel Comics #1 is published. That leads to the mighty Marvel universe (although the company was called Timely Comics at this point). Namor makes his first appearance, as well as the android The Human Torch

October 4 (radio) The successful radio variety show, Town Hall Tonight, was renamed The Fred Allen Show as of October 4th. It’s comedy news segment inspired many others, and this was in the midst of the Jack Benny-Fred Allen “feud”

October 6, 1939 (movies) What a Life: Jackie Cooper stars in the first film version of Henry Aldrich (https://twitter.com/bufocalvin/status/1110523747532832768) . He would reprise the role once, then by replaced by Jimmy Lydon for 9 more films

October 8, 1939: Tenor Dennis Day first appears on the Jack Benny radio show. It begins a relationship which would continue for more than thirty years, with Day singing, doing impressions, and acting as a young boy. That’s okay: Jack Benny also comedically stayed the same age

October 13 (movies) Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney star in Babes in Arms as the kids of vaudeville struggling stars who decide to do a performance themselves to help out. Origin of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” even though that exact quote doesn’t appear

October 19 (movies) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Oscar-winning, Frank Capra directed, Jimmy Stewart starring political comedy about idealism versus the U.S. Senate

October 20 (movies) In the Marx Brothers At The Circus, Groucho debuts the comedy song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” written by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen

October 20 (movies) The Flying Deuces is a feature-length Laurel and Hardy movie. In this one, the comedy duo, who had been popular for more than a decade, join the Foreign Legion

November: (comics) MLJ  (later Archie Comics) launches with Blue Ribbon Comics. Archie Andrews would not be introduced until 1941

November 3 (movies) Call a Messenger is a crossover between the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys. This year, Warner releases the Dead End Kids from their contracts, which leads to them eventually becoming the Bowery Boys at Monogram

November 6 (literature) And Then There None by Agatha Christie is first published under its original title. The story of eight people invited to an island who are murdered one by one eventually becomes the most adapted Christie mystery

November 8 (theatre) Clarence Day’s autobiographical comedy, Life with Father, opens on Broadway. It will run for 7 years, making it the longest-running non-musical Broadway show. It spawned a movie and a TV series

November 17 (movies) Another Thin Man: the 3rd in the very successful film series, William Powell & Myrna Loy solved mysteries as the witty, loving, married couple, Nick & Nora Charles. Their dog Asta was also popular. Nicky Jr. is introduced

November 24 (movies) That’s Right – You’re Wrong: in a meta comedy, bandleader and radio star Kay Keyser plays himself being tried out for a movie. In the film, that doesn’t work out well, but Keyser and the band would appear in other movies. Lucille Ball and Edward Everett Horton also appear

November: (comics) Batman’s origin story is first told in Detective Comics #33, introducing Thomas and Martha Wayne

December: movies. Paradise in Harlem: one of the movies produced for African American audiences and starring an African American cast, the story features a comedian who wants to play Othello but faces barriers. Many musical numbers, including a performance by Juanita Hall of Flower Drum Song

December 6 theatre. DuBarry Was a Lady opened on Broadway on December 6 and would run for over 400 performances. The musical comedy featured Bert Lahr, Ethel Merman, and Betty Grable. The song “Friendship” is the hit. A movie version, starring Red Skelton, would follow

December 15 (movies) Gone with the Wind premieres in Atlanta, Georgia. It will also premiere in New York (December 19th) and Los Angeles (December 28th). It won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Lead Actress, and Supporting Actress. According to Box Office Mojo, in January 2019, it was still the biggest box office success (adjusted for inflation/ticket prices)

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.

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