The Pre-War Years: 1939

As the Lord Baltimore Hotel entered its second decade, momentous events were occurring both here and around the globe. Some of the most consequential things that happened that year were scientific and political, but there were significant cultural and athletic developments as well.

A uranium atom was split for the first time in early 1939, laying the groundwork for the Manhattan Project that would eventually build the world’s first nuclear weapons:

“Previous attempts at atom-splitting had resulted, so to speak, rather in knocking chips off the atoms than in dividing them into two. There has always been a hope that some such process would make available the vast stores of atomic energy which make every handful of dirt a potential source of true wealth. In the Columbia experiments it was found that the uranium atom, when split, gave out six thousand million times as much energy as was needed to split it.”

Around the same time, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was making wild accusations and ominous proclamations to the Reichstag (German parliament) regarding the “Jewish question” (for a detailed timeline of events leading to the Holocaust, go here):

“If the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations into a world war yet again, then the outcome will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

Back in the United States, three more states finally ratified the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (also known as the Bill of Rights) – Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Georgia – 150 years after they were first written.

Also in 1939, America hosted the king and queen of England for the first time ever, as described by history.com:

“King George VI becomes the first British monarch to visit the United States when he and his wife, Elizabeth, cross the Canadian-U.S. border to Niagara Falls, New York. The royal couple subsequently visited New York City and Washington, D.C., where they called for a greater U.S. role in resolving the crisis in Europe. On June 12, they returned to Canada, where they embarked on their voyage home.”

In the sports world, Lou Gehrig ended his consecutive games streak with 2,130 games, a record that would fall to Cal Ripken Jr. 56 years later, right here in Baltimore. Gehrig was shortly thereafter diagnosed with ALS, and would also give his legendary “Luckiest Man” speech that year.

John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” about the Dust Bowl, was published in 1939:

“and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Finally, two legendary films that are still watched today had their debuts in 1939.

In August, “The Wizard of Oz” premiered across the U.S. Last year, Susan King wrote about the film for the L.A. Times:

“The Wizard of Oz,” starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan, is one of the most beloved films in all of cinema. In fact, according to the Library of Congress, the musical fantasy is the most-watched picture in history.

But how did the film fare at the box office and with critics when it came out in 1939?

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ was a moneymaker for its time,” noted William Stillman, co-author of “The Wizardry of Oz: The Artistry and Magic of the 1939 M-G-M Classic,” by email. “But with the average national ticket prices at 25 cents (more than half of its audiences were juvenile patrons who paid a dime or 15 cents), it was not expected to recoup its $3 million in production and promotion costs.

Remember, film historian Scott Essman says, movies in those days were “very ephemeral.” There wasn’t any TV or DVD on which to extend their life, he points out, so “they came and they went, and that was it.”

And a few months later, on December 15, the Civil War/Reconstruction-era tale “Gone With The Wind” premiered in Atlanta – watch a newsreel here.

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One thought on “The Pre-War Years: 1939

  1. I look forward to reading your blog. I know two people who just love the Wizard of Oz. It was a special event at their houses. Hurry up and take your baths and get the popcorn ready!

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