THE 10 BEST MOVIES OF THE 1940'S -- 10?? Thought you said 100!


Sep 18, 2003 (Updated Jun 12, 2005)


The Bottom Line The 1940's were the Hollywood Studios' heyday. That's my locus, but to single out ten films is an almost impossible task. I've favored classic comedies and my favorites. With apologies.

The early 1940's were a time when Hollywood Studios dominated the Movie scene more completely than at any time before or since. Most candidates for the Best Movies of 1940's were produced by that system. During the first half of the period, the people of the Earth were absorbed in World War II to an extent which makes our puny flag-waving "War on Terrorism" absurdly foolish and callow (at least, so far); and other nations either did not have a film industry yet, or had given their industry over almost entirely to the production of perfunctory and didactic propaganda films. Exceptions can be found in the work of Britain's Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger,(THE 49TH PARALLEL, 1941; THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, 1943; I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING, 1945) and Laurence Olivier's HENRY V (1944), France's Marcel Carne (CHILDREN OF PARADISE, 1944) and Russia's Sergei Eisenstein (IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Part 1, 1944 and Part 2, 1946).

Following the War, Powell/Pressburger's Company of Archers continued to create their masterpieces: STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, 1946; BLACK NARCISSUS, 1947; THE RED SHOES, 1948; THE SMALL BACK ROOM, 1949. David Lean collaborated with a the man who had given him his chance, Noel Coward (co-directing IN WHICH WE SERVE, 1943), on BLITHE SPIRIT (1945) and BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1946), and then, Lean launched a pair of never equaled Dickensian adaptations: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1946; OLIVER TWIST, 1948. Carol Reed broke into the American Market with such films as ODD MAN OUT, 1947, THE FALLEN IDOL, 1949 and THE THIRD MAN, 1949.

The Italian Film Industry emerged from the banality of Fascism with such neo-realist directors as Roberto Rossellini (OPEN CITY, 1945; PAISAN, 1946, THE MIRACLE, 1948); as did the Japanese Industry, in the person of Akira Kurosawa. But his earlier films, such as DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948) and STRAY DOG (1949) were not given wide distribution in the West until the revelation of ROSHOMON, in 1951.

One or two of the above films, certainly, should be on our list.

--------------------

However, the real problem with picking THE TEN BEST MOVIES OF THE 1940'S is that the Year 1940 yields from Hollywood alone over 20 candidates: ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (Cromwell); THE BANK DICK (Cline); FANTASIA (Algar and Armstrong); FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (HITCHCOCK); THE GHOST BREAKERS (Marshall); THE GRAPES OF WRATH, (Ford); THE GREAT DICTATOR (Chaplin); HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Hawks); THE LETTER (Wyler); THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (Ford); THE MARK OF ZORRO (Mamoulian); THE MORTAL STORM (Borzage); THE MUMMY'S HAND (Cabanne); NORTHWEST PASSAGE (Vidor); ONE MILLION B.C. (Roach/Griffith?); OUR TOWN (Wood); THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (Cukor); PINOCHIO (Hamilton Lusk and Ben Sharsteen); REBECCA (Hitchcock); THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (Lang); RHYTHM ON THE RIVER (Shertzinger); THE SEA HAWK (Curtiz); THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (Berger, Powell, and Whelan -- finished in Hollywood); VIRGINIA CITY (Curtiz); THE WESTERNER (WYLER)

Not only that, but an additional problem is that a dozen classic Hollywood directors were at the top of their form, producing at least half a dozen of their best films in the 1940's:


George Cukor: THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, 1940; KEEPER OF THE FLAME, 1943; GASLIGHT, 1944; A DOUBLE LIFE, 1947; ADAM'S RIB, 1949; EDWARD, MY SON, 1949.

John Ford: THE GRAPES OF WRATH, 1940; THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, 1940; TOBACCO ROAD, 1941; HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, 1941; DECEMBER 7TH (among other wartime documentaries); THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, 1945; MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, 1946; FORT APACHE, 1948; THREE GODFATHERS, 1948; SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, 1949.

Howard Hawks: (HIS GIRL FRIDAY, 1940; SERGEANT YORK, 1941; BALL OF FIRE, 1941; TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT, 1944; THE BIG SLEEP, 1946; RED RIVER, 1948.

Alfred Hitchcock, REBECCA, 1940; FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, 1940; SUSPICION, 1941; SHADOW OF A DOUBT, 1943; LIFEBOAT, 1943; SPELLBOUND, 1945; NOTORIOUS, 1946; ROPE, 1949).

John Huston: THE MALTESE FALCON, 1941; THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, 1945; LET THERE BE LIGHT, 1945; THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, 1948; KEY LARGO, 1948; WE WERE STRANGERS, 1949.

Fritz Lang: THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, 1940; WESTERN UNION, 1941; MAN HUNT, 1941; HANGMAN ALSO DIE, 1942; WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, 1944; MINISTRY OF FEAR, 1944; SCARLET STREET, 1945.

Lewis Milestone: THE NORTH STAR, 1943; EDGE OF DARKNESS, 1943; THE PURPLE HEART, 1944; A WALK IN THE SUN, 1946; THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, 1946; THE RED PONY, 1949.

Vincent Minnelli: CABIN IN THE SKY, 1943; MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, 1944; THE CLOCK, 1945; ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, 1946; THE PIRATE, 1948; MADAM BOVARY, 1949.

Robert Siodmak: PHANTOM LADY, 1943; THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY, 1945; THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, 1946; THE KILLERS, 1946; DARK MIRROR, 1946; CRISS CROSS, 1948.

Preston Sturges: THE GREAT MCGINTY, 1940; CHRISTMAS IN JULY, 1940; Sullivan's TRAVELS, 1941, THE LADY EVE, 1941; THE PALM BEACH STORY, 1942; THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK, 1944; HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, 1944; THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK, 1947; UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, 1948.

Jacques Tourneur: CAT PEOPLE, 1942; THE LEOPARD MAN, 1943; I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, 1943; OUT OF THE PAST 1947; BERLIN EXPRESS, 1948; EASY LIVING, 1949.

Raoul Walsh: STRAWBERRY BLONDE, 1941; THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, 1941; HIGH SIERRA, 1941; GENTLEMAN JIM, 1942; DESPERATE JOURNEY, 1942; BACKGROUND TO DANGER, 1943; THE MAN I LOVE, 1946; PURSUED, 1947; WHITE HEAT, 1949.

Orson Welles: CITIZEN KANE, 1941; THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, 1942; JOURNEY INTO FEAR, 1942 -- credited to Norman Foster but co-directed by Welles; THE STRANGER, 1945; THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, 1947; MACBETH, 1948.

Sam Wood: OUR TOWN, 1940; KITTY FOYLE, 1940; THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES, 1941; THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942; KINGS ROW, 1942; FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, 1943; COMMAND DECISION, 1948.

William Wyler: THE LETTER, 1940; THE WESTERNER, 1940; THE LITTLE FOXES, 1941; THE MEMPHIS BELLE, 1944; FIGHTING LADY, 1944; THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946; THE HEIRESS, 1949.

Not all of these movies may be represented as a director's World Class in the period, nor can a Jacques Tourneur's output, say, be matched fairly against that of a William Wyler, in terms of quality properties and budget, but the movies as a group represent an extraordinary output in quality for a factory movie-making operation, probably unequaled in number per Hollywood director.

Not only that but Warner Brother's perpetual motion director Michael Curtiz, all by himself, in the first half of the decade, produced ten arguable possibilities, the equal of many above: VIRGINIA CITY, 1940; THE SANTA FE TRAIL, 1940; THE SEA HAWK, 1940; THE SEA WOLF, 1941; YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, 1942; CASABLANCA, 1942; THIS IS THE ARMY, 1943; MILDRED PIERCE, 1945; NIGHT AND DAY, 1946.

And, of course, we have not mentioned the smaller Hollywood outputs of the decade: Irwin Allen's THE UNINVITED (1944); Clarence Brown's EDISON THE MAN (1940), THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943), INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1949); Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE (1941), ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944), IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), STATE OF THE UNION (1948); Jules Dassin's NAKED CITY (1946), NIGHT AND THE CITY (1949) C.B. De Mille's REAP THE WILD WIND (1942); Alan Dwan's SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949); Victor Fleming's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941); Tay Garnett's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946); Stuart Heisler's THE GLASS KEY (1942); HENRY King's 12 O'CLOCK HIGH (1949); Joseph Mankeiwicz's A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949); Max Ophul's LETTER TO FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948), CAUGHT (1948), THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949); Abraham Polansky's FORCE OF EVIL (1949); Otto Preminger's MARGIN FOR ERROR (1943), LAURA {1944); Irving Rapper's NOW VOYAGER (1942); Nicholas Ray's THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1949); Mark Robson's THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943), ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945), BEDLAM (1945), CHAMPION (1949); Robert Rossen's ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949); Russell Rouse's D.O.A. (1949); George Seaton's THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947); George Steven's WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1941), TALK OF THE TOWN (1942), THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943); ( Herman Shumlin's WATCH ON THE RHINE (1943); Ted Tetzlaff's THE WINDOW (1949); Frank Tuttle's THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), LUCKY JORDAN (1943); Charles Vidor's GILDA (1946); Josef Von Sternberg's THE SHANGHAI GESTURE; George Waggner's THE WOLF MAN (1941); William Wellman's ROXY HART (1942), THE OXBOW INCIDENT (1943), THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (1946), BATTLEGROUND (1949); Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942), FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE LOST WEEKEND (1945).

---------------------

And so here is my list, paying suitable homage to what, in my opinion, are the best films of the 1940's, with possibly a surprise or two. The list is weighted to the Hollywood Studio Film, which reached its zenith early in the 1940's. Here they are:

1. THE RED SHOES (1948): If CITIZEN KANE is the Perfect Film, THE RED SHOES is the Perfect Art Film. No more beautiful, colorful, entertaining, dramatic, tragic or original film has ever been made. Michael Powell and Emerich Pressberger, Leaders of Britain's The Company of Archers, wrote and directed this allegory, based on the folk tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a young dancer who becomes the star of a great new Ballet and is destroyed by it. A film for all of us who stay too long at the fair. With Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Leonide Massine and Robert Helpmann. The original music in the film is by Brian Easdale, and Massine did the choreography for "The Ballet of the Red Shoes." It was a great influence on the Hollywood Musical, Ballet in America, and perhaps Musical Theater in general.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-6FFA-8A3D9A5-389B6CC3-prod1


2. CITIZEN KANE (1941): Far too much has been written about this film, including stuff by me. It is the perfect American Film. Producer/Co-Writer/ Director/Star Orson Welles told his cast, the rags to riches to senility story of Charlie Kane involved the kind of man we are led to admire in America: The Rich, The Powerful, The Extravagant Men who rule our lives from afar. Obviously, we still admire such men, a cautionary lesson our Democracy has never learned. The film brought together techniques from a score of other movies, invented its own methods, and introduced players, artists and musical concepts which revolutionized Hollywood in a unique fashion. It continues to influence Motion Pictures, and our perception of National Life. Some say CITIZEN KANE is "cold," not sexy, but that's because most of us, whatever our position, race or religion, would rather have "wish fulfillment" than truth. The screenplay for the film was originally entitled: American.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-4874-81FD18C-38741497-bd4

3. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (Sturges, 1941) Between the "Compassionate Conservatism" of George Bush now and the Coen Brothers' crazy, imagined 1930's of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? then, the message of Preston Sturges' SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1942) remains: Most of us, at the end of our day, are pretty much where we started. If we are truly rich, we stay rich; if we are poor, we stay poor. It takes a nightmare or a miracle to shift the equation. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS provides a satirical fantasy-nightmare, showing us both extremes, and illustrates the point that, wherever we are on the scale of life, we may as well trust in divine laughter because in the end, that's all we've got.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-7BD0-DF78D67-398B31A6-prod1


4. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (Dieterle, 1941): Inspired by Stephen Vincent Benet's famous short story of the period, the German Expressionist William Dieterle pulled this fable of the corruption of a man and America from under CITIZEN KANE's cloak at RKO. With a wonderful performance by Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch (The Devil), "who has all the best lines." Benet seemed to be saying in his story, and in this film, produced in 1941, on the Eve of World War II, that a Nation like America can lose its soul in many ways, and actually a number of times, but there is always a chance to regain it. We would be wise to follow that good message today. (But we must do it soon.)

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-6DBF-7F3AAB0-397BCAC0-prod1

5. THE BODY SNATCHER (Wise, 1945): After helping edit CITIZEN KANE (1941) and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), Robert Wise was given an opportunity to direct by Welles' surrogate, Producer/Writer Val Lewton. THE BODY SNATCHER was the finest product of their association; Wise's best film, and Lewton's, too. Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson about the true-life Scottish fiends, Burke and Hare, it shows us a pair of 19th Century Edinburgh Entrepreneurs. They set out to provide cadavers, illegal at the time, to fledgling medical schools. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are the pair, in their best straight performances. Henry Daniell is their equal as the epitome of the logical man of science, a legendary doctor who must have a steady supply of actual human subjects by which to pass on his surgical skills. The real horror of the film resides in the idea that good ends can never justify evil means, and that no matter how wise we become, we can never quite strike that spark (the soul) at the heart of life and regeneration -- at least, not yet. It is truly a great film: simple, atmospheric and unforgettable.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-2175-A44930D-39E130BB-prod1


6. THE KILLERS (Siodmak, 1946) has so many complicated, thoughtful plot and character moves that some callow recent reviewers have dismissed it as only a crime story which doesn't add up. Far from it, the film is one of the best jobs of story-telling ever done in motion pictures. Scripted by John Huston (uncredited), THE KILLERS is not THE GODFATHER, but based (and prologued by) one of Hemingway's finest short stories, its story of a man who once made a "fatal mistake" is not a one trick knock-off either. From the score, which was used by Jack Webb in DRAGNET, to all the caper films like Huston's own THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), to the careers of half a dozen future movie stars and character actors, the film's influence was wide and long lasting: Burt Lancaster's first role; Ava Gardner's first important part, as the irresistible fatal mistake.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-6622-E7313F-39C93734-prod1


7. THE GREAT DICTATOR (Chaplin, 1940): A little barber from the Ghetto becomes confused with Dictator Adenoid Hynkel of Tomania. It is Chaplin's last brilliant film as a physical comedian. A scene in which he does a ballet with a large balloon of the World is pantomime magic. The film is now criticized for the barber's mawkish plea for World Brotherhood at the end. [I have always remembered the message, if not necessarily the delivery.] But we should remember, THE GREAT DICTATOR was produced in the first full year of World War II, with America still firmly isolationist, and the full horrors yet to come. Chaplin financed the film largely by himself. With the beautiful Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie (as Benzino Napoleoni), and the sinister Henry Daniel doing a take on real life Reich Minister of Propaganda Paul Goebbels.

8. THE BANK DICK (Cline, 1940): Follow the attempts of Egbert Souse (with an accent over the "e") to escape his wife, find a good drink -- any drink -- gold brick on his job at the bank, and catch some robbers who go on one of the longest, funniest getaways in movie history. (Not quite my life story, but I'm still chasing those bank robbers.) I've seen THE BANK DICK in the theater, on TV, and on video. It's still that rare movie you can laugh at honestly more than three times. At least, I can.

9. THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (Huston, 1943) was ordered cut from five reels to three. Inspired by the still photography of Robert Capa, John Huston shot the first real American combat documentary. It was too realistic for the Brass. If Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall had not intervened, the film might have been scrapped entirely. By the time of its eventual release, at the end of the War, the footage had been further reduced to about 30 minutes. An introduction by grandstanding General Mark Clark (dutifully written for him by Huston himself) was added. The faces of ragged, frightened Italian children, climbing from under wreckage of their homes in San Pietro, were apotheosized by the addition of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But Huston caught the true raw irony, brutality and humanity of War in a way which survived censorship, propagandizing and sentimentalization.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-37AC-36FC48F-38D16480-prod2

10. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (McLeod, 1947): Based on James Thurber's classic comic short story, Danny Kaye becomes the title character in his best performance. Momma's boy Walter Mitty is under the thumb of his mother (Fay Bainter), and his hand-picked fiancee (Ann Rutherford). At the darkest of times (when he has to buy "puppy biscuits," for instance), he daydreams he is rescuing an immortally fair dream girl (Virginia Mayo), in scenes of surrealistic Technicolor splendor: as an RAF hero, a sea captain in a hurricane, a riverboat gambler, a brain surgeon, a western tough guy, etc. As a German Spymaster, Boris Karloff becomes a real life threat to the incarnated heroine, but no fear, Mitty is here. The improbability of the latter doesn't matter; we can all identify with Mitty or at least his fantasy.

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-3DAE-1963C484-3A3D83B8-prod4

------------------

When I was almost finished with this list, some weeks ago, I lost it and most of my notes. This reconstruction undoubtedly neglects a few keepers I had rooted out. I'm not even sure if the list is the same. It seems to me, in honor of Stephen Murray, that I intended to have IVAN THE TERRIBLE in the final grouping, but that film remains half a loaf of rye for me, and so I've gone with only movies that I love, a couple of which are guilty pleasures. Nevertheless, the incentive of Wartime anxiety, and released currents of creativity, produced a rich ton of movies which the Hollywood Studio System never achieved again. Any of the movies, if only mentioned, are probably well worth taking a chance on.

----------------------------------------------

UPDATE: June 12, 2005 -- I invite you to visit the "BLOG" which I now maintain on my Epinions Profile Page, where I occasionally discuss matters of the day:

http://www.epinions.com/user-macresarf1/show_~View_Profile#long_bio

Read all comments (16)

About the Author

Epinions.com ID:
Location: San Francisco, Ca.
Reviews written: 567
Trusted by: 375 members
About Me: 2/7/14: Having very much recovered, I want you to watch for Macresarf1's return to reviewing!