1939 July to September

2nd July – THE SISTERS

On the screen – for seven days – THE SISTERS – a 1938 Warner Brothers American drama film produced and directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Errol Flynn and Bette Davis. The screenplay by Milton Krims is based on the 1937 novel of the same title by Myron Brinig. In it three daughters of a small town pharmacist undergo trials and tribulations in their problematic marriages between 1904 and 1908. For the earthquake sequence, which took three weeks to film but lasted only 2½ minutes on screen, the studio spent $200,000 on special sets that were razed and burned, in addition to using footage from the 1927 Warner Brothers film Old San Francisco. When preview audiences responded unfavourably to the film’s original ending, in which Louise married William Benson as she did in the novel, studio executives decided to film a new one in which she reunites with her seafaring husband instead.

View the original trailer

NANCY DREW, DETECTIVE. a 1938 American comedy film from Warner Bros., directed by William Clemens and written by Kenneth Gamet. The film stars Bonita Granville, John Litel, James Stephenson, Frankie Thomas, Frank Orth and Helena Phillips Evans.

9th July – TAIL SPIN

On the screen – for seven days – TAIL SPIN – (also known as Tailspin) is a 1939 aviation film from 20th Century Fox. The screenplay was written by Frank Wead and directed by Roy Del Ruth. It was based on the book, “Women with Wings: A novel of the modern day aviatrix” (Ganesha Publishing, 1935), authored by Genevieve Haugen, who was also an advisor and stunt pilot in the film. Tail Spin starred Alice Faye, Constance Bennett, Nancy Kelly, Joan Davis, Charles Farrell and Jane Wyman. Tail Spin centered on the “Powder Puff Derby” that was part of the 1939 Cleveland Air Races. Some of the crashes in the race were incorporated in the production. The aerial photography was directed by noted Hollywood film pilot Paul Mantz.

Scenes from Tail Spin

TARNISHED ANGEL, is a 1938 American drama film directed by Leslie Goodwins from a screenplay by Jo Pagano, based on a story by Saul Elkins. Starring Sally Eilers, Lee Bowman, Ann Miller, and Alma Kruger, the film was produced and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. The story is of ex-fiancée of a young rich man who becomes the companion of a jewel thief, forming a vaudeville act with face “cure”, but after she discovers, that she can really cure people, she decides to quit.


On the screen – for seven days – TROUBLE BREWING – a 1939 British comedy film from Gaumont’s competitor, Associated British Pictures,  directed by Anthony Kimmins and starring George Formby, Googie Withers and Gus McNaughton. In the film George has won a lot of money at the races but he’s paid with counterfeit money. He sets about tracking down the criminals himself. It includes the songs “Fanlight Fanny” and “Hitting the Highspots Now”. The film is based on a novel by Joan Butler, and the sets were designed by art director Wilfred Shingleton.

George Formby with a number from the film

The supporting feature was I STAND ACCUSED a 1938 Republic Pictures American drama film directed by John H. Auer and written by Gordon Kahn and Alex Gottlieb. The film stars Robert Cummings, Helen Mack, Lyle Talbot, Thomas Beck, Gordon Jones and Robert Paige.


On the screen – for seven days – THE STORY OF VERNON & IRENE CASTLE – a 1939 American biographical musical comedy from RKO Radio Pictures and was directed by H.C. Potter. The film stars Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edna May Oliver, and Walter Brennan. The film is based on the stories My Husband and My Memories of Vernon Castle, by Irene Castle and adapted for the screen by Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Yost and Richard Sherman. The film tells how novice American dancer Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers) convinces New York-based British vaudeville comic Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) to give up slapstick comedy in favour of sophisticated ballroom dancing. Irene Castle acted as advisor to this film, and constantly disagreed with the director as to details of costuming and liberties taken. When informed that white actor Walter Brennan was to play the part of faithful servant Walter, she was dumbfounded: the real Walter was black. The film marks several “firsts”: the characters in it are more realistic than usual in an Astaire-Rogers film, there is none of the usual “screwball comedy” relief provided by such actors as Edward Everett Horton, Victor Moore, or Helen Broderick, it is the only Astaire-Rogers musical biography, the only one on which Oscar Hammerstein II worked, the only one of their musicals with a tragic ending, and the only one in which Astaire’s character dies.

The opening credits

The supporting film was AMBUSH, a 1939 American drama film from Paramount, directed by Kurt Neumann and written by Laura Perelman and S. J. Perelman. The film stars Gladys Swarthout, Lloyd Nolan, William “Bill” Henry, William Frawley, Ernest Truex and Broderick Crawford.


On the screen – for seven days – THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES – a 1939 mystery film based on the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was directed by Sidney Lanfield and released by 20th Century-Fox. It is among the best-known cinematic adaptations of the book, and is often regarded as one of the best. The film stars Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson and Richard Greene as Henry Baskerville, Wendy Barrie as Beryl Stapleton. Fox was unsure of the potential of a film about Sherlock Holmes, so top billing went to Richard Greene and not to Rathbone.  The Hound of the Baskervilles marks the first of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson, respectively. It is also notable as the earliest known Sherlock Holmes film to be set in the Victorian period of the original stories; all known previous Holmes films, up to and including the 1930s British film series starring Arthur Wontner as Holmes, had been updated to a setting contemporaneous with the films’ release.

A trailer for The Hound Of The Baskervilles

MYSTERY OF MR WONG, a 1939 American mystery film directed by William Nigh and starring Boris Karloff. The second in the series of Mr. Wong features from Monogram Pictures, starring Boris Karloff finds wealthy gem-collector Brandon Edwards gaining possession of the largest star sapphire in the world, the ‘Eye of the Daughter of the Moon’, after it has been stolen in China.

6th August – ASK A POLICEMAN

On the screen – for seven days – ASK A POLICEMAN – a 1939 British comedy film released by Gaumont, directed by Marcel Varnel which stars Will Hay, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt. The title comes from the popular music hall song Ask a Policeman. The Turnbotham Round police force are threatened with dismissal by their Chief Constable and decide to manufacture some smugglers to keep their jobs. When they encounter real smugglers, their plans begin to fall apart.

A scene from the film

In support was a general interest film, MAN’S HERITAGE.

13th August – JESSE JAMES

On the screen – for seven days – JESSE JAMES, is a 1939 American western film from 20th Century Fox, directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Nancy Kelly and Randolph Scott. Written by Nunnally Johnson, the film is loosely based on the life of Jesse James, the notorious outlaw from whom the film derives its name. It is “notorious for its historical inaccuracy.” The supporting cast features Henry Hull, John Carradine, Brian Donlevy, Jane Darwell and Lon Chaney, Jr.

The film gained a measure of notoriety for a scene in which a horse falls to its death down a rocky slope toward the end of the film. This scene was one of many cited by the American Humane Association against Hollywood’s abuse of animals, and led to the association’s monitoring of all future filmmaking.

Watch the trailer for Jesse James

LET’S BE FAMOUS is a 1939 British comedy film directed by Walter Forde and starring Jimmy O’Dea, Betty Driver and Sonnie Hale. It was made by Associated Talking Pictures (ABC) and the film’s art direction was by the Austrian Oscar Werndorff, in his final production.


On the screen – for seven days – SON OF FRANKENSTEIN – is a 1939 horror film directed by Rowland V. Lee, and is the third entry in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein series and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster. It is also the first to feature Bela Lugosi as Ygor. The film is the sequel to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, and stars top-billed Basil Rathbone, Karloff, Lugosi and Lionel Atwill.

The film was a reaction to the popular re-releases of Dracula with Lugosi and Frankenstein with Karloff as a double-feature in 1938. Universal’s declining horror output was revitalised with the enormously successful Son of Frankenstein, in which the studio cast both stars and for Southampton it reflected the lifting of the British embargo on American horror films introduced in 1936.

The original trailer for Son Of Frankenstein

In support, THE RUDD FAMILY GOES TO TOWN (original title – Dad and Dave Come to Town) a 1938 Australian comedy film directed by Ken G. Hall, the third in the ‘Dad and Dave’ comedy series starring Bert Bailey. It was the feature film debut of Peter Finch.


On the screen – for seven days – THE LITTLE PRINCESS – a 1939 American drama film from 20th Century Fix, directed by Walter Lang. The screenplay by Ethel Hill and Walter Ferris is loosely based on the novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The film was the first Shirley Temple movie to be filmed completely in Technicolor. It was also her last major success as a child star. Although it maintained the novel’s Victorian London setting, the film introduced several new characters and storylines and used the Second Boer War and the Siege of Mafeking as a backdrop to the action. Temple and Arthur Treacher had a musical number together, performing the song “Knocked ‘Em in the Old Kent Road”. Temple also appeared in an extended ballet sequence. The film’s ending was drastically different from the book.

Watch the trailer

Support feature was EVERYBODY’S BABY, a 1939 American comedy film directed by Malcolm St. Clair and starring Jed Prouty, Shirley Deane and Spring Byington. It was part of Twentieth Century Fox’s Jones Family series of films. An author moves to the area with radical views on raising children.

3rd September – GUNGA DIN – CANCELLED

On the 3rd September the Empire was set to open a week’s run of “Gunga Din” RKO’s adventure film directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. However, events in the morning overtake the film’s opening, as at 11.15 , a dejected Neville Chamberlain broke the news to the nation on BBC Radio, speaking from 10 Downing Street, that Britain’s request for Germany to withdraw its forces from Poland had been ignored, with words that would echo through history. ‘I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’ Twenty minutes later, air raid sirens sound in London (a false alarm).

Instructions to all operators of places of public entertainment were issued for immediate closure. The Empire, like every other cinema and theatre across the country was shut and the staff turned away as they arrived that evening for work (it was a Sunday and the theatre wouldn’t normally open until 7.30). There was no indication as to whether and when they would be able to reopen.

The children of Southampton are evacuated

15th September – GUNGA DIN

With realisation that the outbreak of war had not threatened Britain at home, the government relaxed its rules on cinema openings, allowing cinemas to reopen albeit for reduced hours from the 15th and theatres the following Monday. This effectively meant that cinemas would need to adjust their programming in order to close by 9.00 pm.

Most cinemas still had the print of the programmes that were scheduled to be shown upon closure and so these became the reopening programmes. There would be one further problem and that related to the distribution of film as the delivery/collection infrastructure had been seriously depleted, mainly due to conscription, and alternative arrangements needed to be put into place. While this happened programmes would typically be held over for a few more days or as in the case of the Empire that had a big hit with Gunga Din, for another week.

So, on the 15th September the Empire reopend its doors and On the screen – for SIXTEEN days – Gunga Din was at last shown – a 1939 RKO adventure film directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., loosely based on the poem of the same name by Rudyard Kipling combined with elements of his short story collection Soldiers Three. The film is about three British sergeants and Gunga Din, their native bhisti (water bearer), who fight the Thuggee, an Indian murder cult, in colonial British India. The supporting cast features Joan Fontaine, Eduardo Ciannelli, and in the title role, Sam Jaffe. The epic film was written by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol from a storyline by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, with uncredited contributions by Lester Cohen, John Colton, William Faulkner, Vincent Lawrence, Dudley Nichols, and Anthony Veiller.

In 1999, Gunga Din was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Watch the original trailer

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