Top Grossing Movies of 1939

One of my dad's favorite movies was Gunga Din. Gunga Din starred one of my favorite actors of all-time...Cary Grant. Gunga Din was the 5th biggest box office hit of 1939.

One of the Top Grossing Movies of 1939 was Gunga Din starring Cary Grant.

This movie page looks at The Top Grossing Movies of 19391939 is considered by many people to be the greatest year ever for movies.  So you would figure finding box office information on the greatest year in movie history would be pretty easy to find.  That however is simply not true!  The box office information that is out there for 1939 movies… sorry to say …..pretty damn weak!

Many sources list Gone With The Wind as the top grosser and list between 5 and 10 movies in a tie for 2nd place (like that happened). Others list the top grossing movies but do not included any figures (looking at you Wikipedia and Variety) to back up their rankings. There are many Top Ten 1939 box office hit lists out there…. but with the exception of Gone With The Wind as the number one movie grosser they all list different movies in different order.  For somebody looking for box office information on 1939 it is very very frustrating.  Over the years, we have researched and collected information on over 20,000 movies.  So we figured we would show all the 1939 movies in our database.

To make this list a movie had to be made in 1939.  Obviously many movies (Pygmalion and Angels Have Dirty Faces) made in 1938 earned box office dollars in 1939.  On the other side many movies made in 1939 made money in 1940 and later.  Gone With The Wind actually earned very little box office dollars 1939 but broke the bank in 1940 and many other years during its many re-releases.

This page will looks at 170 Top Grossing Movies of 1939.  The movies are listed in a massive table that lets you rank the movies from Best to Worst in six different sortable columns of information.

John Wayne in Stagecoach. Stagecoach was Wayne's big break. Stagecoach was his first of many box office hits.

John Wayne in Stagecoach. Stagecoach was Wayne’s big break. Stagecoach was his first of many box office hits.

Top Grossing Movies of 1939 Can Be Ranked 6 Ways In This Table

The really cool thing about this table is that it is “user-sortable”. Rank the movies anyway you want.

  • Sort Top Grossing Movies of 1939 by the stars or in some cases the director of the movie.  If you want to see the 5 James Stewart movies on the table…just type in his name in the search box and up they will come
  • Sort Top Grossing Movies of 1939 by domestic actual box office grosses
  • Sort Top Grossing Movies of 1939 by domestic adjusted box office grosses using current movie ticket cost.
  • Sort Top Grossing Movies of 1939 how they were received by critics and audiences.  60% rating or higher should indicate a good movie.
  • Sort by how many Oscar® nominations and how many Oscar® wins each Top Grossing Movies of 1939 received.
  • Sort Top Grossing Movies of 1939 by Ultimate Movie Rankings (UMR) Score.  UMR Score puts box office, reviews and awards into a mathematical equation and gives each movie a score.
  • If there is link in the co-star column….that link takes you to our UMR page for that performer

one With The Wind is easily the most famous movie of 1939...but did you know it opened in theaters in late December of 1939? So the most successful movie of all-time actually earned very little box office dollars in 1939.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in 1939’s Gone With The Wind

My Main Sources

Source 1: Eddie Mannix MGM Ledgers

Source 2: C.J. Tevlin RKO Ledgers

Source 3: Variety Magazine – January 3rd 1940

Source 4: Year In Review Variety Editions – 1941,1942,1947,1954,1961,1968,1971,1974

Source 5: Grand Design: Hollywood As A Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939 by Tino Balio

Source 6:  Wikipedia – 1939 in film

Source 7:

Source 8:  “Revenue sharing and the coming of sound” by H. Mark Glancy

Source 9:  Professor Steve Lensman  Film Department Heston University.

Source 10:  Hundreds of autobiographies and biographies of star performers.  Sadly most of the time a book will say….”the movie did well at the box office or the movie did not perform as well as they were hoping”…those comments are no help at all…..but every once in awhile a book will give specific box office information.

How the Box Office Numbers were Calculated 

Sadly in 1939….BoxOfficeMojo was not around to keep track of box office earnings. Back then earnings seem to be a secret and a secret that needed to be safely locked up.  When studios did report box office stats they used “box office rentals”.  Box office rentals were the amount of money the studio got back from the theaters.  It is NOT the box office gross.  I created a computer program that looked at box office rentals and known box office grosses in my database.  My program found over 2,000 movies that matched that criteria and came up with an average of 2.2.  Meaning that box office gross was 2.2 times greater than box office rentals.  It is not an exact calculation….but it is the multiplier I used to calculate the grosses.  For example:  Looking at my dad’s favorite movie, Gunga Din.  Gunga Din returned to RKO studies $2,012,000 million in box office rentals.  Using my multiplier of 2.2….I calculate that the box office gross was $4,430,000 million in 1939. 

If a big budget movie made $4.43 million today it would be considered a huge box office bomb (can you say The Adventures of Pluto Nash?).  To compare box office results from movies from different eras you have to use tickets sold as the common denominator.  Back in 1939 the average movie admission was .28 cents (Box Office Mojo says it is .23 cents…but I disagree with their number).  So you take the box office gross and divide it by average movie admission….in this case…$4.43 million divided by $.23 you get 15.8 million tickets sold in 1939. Now (have I lost you yet?) you take the average movie admission price today ($8.14) and multiply that by tickets sold.  15.8 * $8.14 = $128.61 million  So if Gunga Din was released this year it would earn about $128.61 million.  Gunga Din’s unadjusted box office total of 4.43 million would rank as the 153rd highest grossing film of 2014….right behind The Skelton Twins.  But if we look at Gunga Din’s adjusted box office total of $128.61 million…it would rank as the 23rd highest grossing movie of 2014….one spot ahead of Lucy.

The ones that got away.  There are so many more movies from 1939.  My Top Ten movies that I am still searching for their box office totals.  First Love, The Great Victor Herbert, The Man In The Iron Mask, Four Feathers, Thunder Afloat, 6,000 Enemies, Stand Up And Fight, and Yes, My Darling Daughter …..the seach continues.

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21 thoughts on “Top Grossing Movies of 1939

  1. You have the absolute best site for Hollywood film statistics! I especially enjoy checking out the year end reviews with the actual box office grosses (domestic and world wide…). I have a couple questions: 1) Are you planning on adding any additional yearly reviews + how far back can you go for accurate information? The earliest box office info I’ve ever seen was from Birth of a Nation from 1915; the numbers are all over the place. 2) There appears to be a few differences of opinion on the rental vs gross percentage; from all of the information I read over the years historically rentals could go as high as 70% to the studios on particular film titles while conversely lesser films were sold on a flat rate per screen basis. I guess my question is how did you get the 44% average? Thanks!

    1. Hey John…..thanks for a great comment. Eventually we will get all the years done….currently the way our database is set up….the yearly pages are pretty difficult to do. I have about 25 more movies for 1939 to add to this one. Is there a particular year you are interested in?

      The unresolved question of the box office of Birth Of A Nation. If you can ever get your hands on a copy of Variety May 4th, 1983…they give a lengthy essay on the box office rental number of that movie. According to that….Birth of a Nation earned 10 million in gross…..which is the amount I have in my database…which translates to about $648.50 million in today’s grosses. Is that number right? Who really knows… seems D.W. Griffin was constantly over estimating the success of his movies.

      When I started doing this page…I used one % for everything….about 10 months ago…I discovered some new information that made me change my entire calculation….it is really explained better here.

      That page probably provides more information than you ever wanted to know…..but you did ask…lol.
      Thanks again for the nice words and the visit.

      1. It’s hard to definite the box office number for Birth of a Nation because it’s exploitation was special. It played non stop until 1921. And it was released many times. In 1923, 1924, 1925 and 1930-31.
        According to Variety, it grossed $705 000 in 47 weeks at the Liberty of New-York in 1915 (Variety of 04/22/1921).
        For the 1923’s reissue the US rentals are $450 000 (Variety of 03/25/1925), and for the 1925′ reissue they were $500 000 (Variety of 09/05/1928).
        The 03/18/1921, Variety gave the US rental number of $2 125 000.
        Finally, I’ve just found the number of $5 200 000 worldwide rental in four years. It provide to the David W. Griffith collection, according to Jant Wasko.

        1. Hey Laurent…thanks for sharing this great information on Birth of a Nation. My calculations would put Birth of a Nation as the 24th biggest hit of all-time when looking at Adjusted Box Office totals..but Box Office Mojo does not list it at all. I think it is safe to say that Birth of a Nation was the Gone With The Wind, Sound of Music, The Godfather, Star Wars, ET, Jurassic Park, Titanic and Avatar of it’s time. Great comment. 🙂

  2. hello bruce,

    Thanks for all theworks you do and for 1939 one of the best years for films in USA and of course there is the incredible succes of GONE WITH THE WIND in USA and after war all over the world it was really a smash hit and with return every ten years…..

    may i suggest you to open a page for 1929/ 1930 because it was the first years of talking and it changes quite a lot the CINEMA. So many new STARS and so many HAS BEEN in the mean time, Hollywood changes and became the magical movies years of the

    bye and this istime for vacations in france

    1. Hey Pierre….glad you like this page….it is actually about to get yet another update….as I have found another 20 grosses for another 20 movies. As for a page on 1929/1930….I will add that to the request list….currently I do not have many movies to include….but the movies found increase each and every day. Hope you enjoy your vacation.

  3. Thank You for all this hard work. I am fascinated by these type of statistics; and can spend hours reading these. I owe you dinner!–hell, maybe two dinners.

    1. Hey Len….thank you….your comment is greatly appreciated. Months later…I still think this is the best thing out there when it comes to box office grosses and the great movie year of 1939. Glad the information kept you reading so long.

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