Santa Clara Valley Lives: Celebrating a classic year at the movies

Image courtesy of Robin Chapman
The Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto opened in 1925 and today shows classic films. 


The year 1939 is remembered as the last year of peace in Europe, before the outbreak of World War II. It was also a landmark year for Hollywood. By the end of 1939, international markets went dark as the war changed the world – and the movies – forever.

Beginning this month and running through Jan. 5, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto celebrates that year with a program of 47 titles that were on the marquee at the Stanford in 1939. On the schedule are John Wayne in “Stagecoach,” Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and the fabulous, all-female cast of “The Women.” There is Greta Garbo in “Ninotchka,” Laurence Olivier in “Wuthering Heights” and Bette Davis in “Dark Victory,” a film that features both Humphrey Bogart and a guy named Ronald Reagan in supporting roles.

The best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made – at least I think it is – “The Hound of the Baskervilles” – is on the program, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, with John Carradine as the Baskerville butler. Carradine can be seen in several of these movies; he played 350 parts in Hollywood before his death in 1988.

“The Wizard of Oz” plays next month, and you may be surprised to learn it ran at the Stanford for just three days 80 years ago. As the program notes, we think of these films as eternal, “but they were just business as usual in 1939.”

The 48th movie on tap is an annual anomaly. “It’s a Wonderful Life” came out in 1946 and plays each year at the Stanford on Christmas Eve. Because the evening show often sells out, the Stanford has added a matinee so more of us can reach for our hankies as George Bailey learns his life – like each of ours – has value.

In nearly all the scripts, the good win out, the sad find solace and everyone wears great clothes. Thus, this program is a gift of optimism – and fantasy – from past to present. We have the Packard family of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills to thank for it. Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard saved the theater, which opened in 1925, in 1987; his foundation restored it; and his son, David Woodley Packard, keeps it going. Tip your hat to them – you will wear a hat, won’t you? – as you travel through time at the Stanford Theatre this holiday season.

For the full schedule, visit

Robin Chapman is a Los Altos resident, author and journalist.

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