The Best Films of the 1940s

Its a wonderful Life

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra): A film I can’t quite quit. I’ve seen it a million times, yet something draws me back to it each year. Most people grasp on to the inspirational message of a man making a difference, but the darker aspects of it really keep me interested. George Bailey is really a man teetering on the edge of destruction for the most part. I see it like the story of Job of a man waiting for salvation but losing it. The alternate reality of Bedford Falls makes for a wonderful Dickensian nightmare. Yes it turns out alright int the end, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have edge, an unhappy/happy movie.

2. Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges): Here’s another film that doesn’t fit so well into a heartwarming category even on the surface it is. Preston Sturges’ satire on Hollywood has a lot to say about egos, false sentiment, and film making in general as it depicts a Hollywood director who wants to make a film about the common man and feels he must become common in the process. This leads to many hilarious situations, but also scenes full of real emotion and heart. The climactic church house scene where inmates watch a cartoon is one of the great moments ever.

3. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch): The greatest romantic comedy ever produced, a pitch perfect blend of sophistication, humour, and charm. Ernst Lubitsch creates a very modern feel in the story of two lonelyhearts who fall in love while writing anonymous letters to eachother. However in real life they hate eachother. So much about this film can be under the category of they don’t make them like they used to. Made after Europe’s inclusion in the war, it’s a film that is as subtle and delicate as a piece of priceless jewelry and is one of the true pleasures of movie watching.

4. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu) This could be seen as the beginning of great films directed by Yasujiro Ozu where he would in his own way conquer the 1950s. “Late Spring” follows the story of a father and daughter who are dependent of each other but as the daughter comes of age it becomes time for her to marry much to her dismay. Ozu doesn’t push for things to happen, rather he observes. The film’s ending is wonderfully devastating, and the compositions are always with his films…beautiful.

5. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles): You would see this film on the top of any list, and I’d be remiss not to add it to mine. Welles was a filmmaker of such talent, perhaps the greatest of all filmmakers. I can’t add more, other than this is more than just required viewing for any film fan, but a purely rich and absorbing film.

6. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock): By the 1940s, Hitchcock had come to Hollywood and was pretty much a success right out of the gate. “Notorious” is the crowning jewel at the this time, a noirish romantic spy thriller written by Ben Hecht. Cary Grant is a spy who uses his lover Ingrid Bergman to infiltrate a German (Claude Rains) in order to get government secrets even if it means marrying and sleeping with him. What’s not to love? Grant and Bergman are two of the most perfect people ever put on screen together, the story is dark, and perverse, the intrigue is compelling, and the direction is perfect.

7. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz): Hollywood’s gold standard of studio made movies. The story is probably the best war propaganda film ever made. It’s pretty perfect, and like “It’s a Wonderful Life” a film to watch over again and again just because it’s easy to love.

8. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles): Welles’ follow-up to “Citizen Kane” is the great film of legend. Cut in half without Welles’ permission with a tacked on happy ending he despised. Welles always said the finished film would’ve been greater than “Kane”. What we have is a fascinating masterpiece full of Welles’ great moments that come alive. What should’ve been a game changer is part of Hollywood lore.

9. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks): The pinnacle of screwball comedies, nothing has ever been faster, funnier, or hard boiled at the same time. Cary Grant gives perhaps his best comedic performance (Best dramatic probably “Notorious”), and Rosalind Russell equals him as a newspaper (man!) getting to the bottom of the trial of a man about to be executed. So entertaining, a film that makes me so happy, for so many reasons

10. To Have and Have Not/The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) The great combo of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall and Howard Hawks in this duo of great films. The first one feels like the anti-Casablanca where Bogart does the right thing and gets the girl in the end, while the other is a film noir for the ages with a plot that makes less sense the more you think about it. But the magic comes with the great chemistry of Bogart and Becall and Hawks’ direction of action and dialogue. Full of sexual tension, where the stars make love with their words, just wonderful all around.

If I had a number 11, it would go right away towards Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”. Howard Hawks excelled in this decade with two other great films “Ball of Fire” and “Red River”. John Ford had added stark realism in “The Grapes of Wrath” as well as romanticism with “My Darling Clementine”. Val Lewton became the master of horror, specifically with “Cat People”, “I Walked with a Zombie” and “The Seventh Victim”. “The Bicycle Thieves” has not lost any power. The musical “On the Town”. Lubitsch had two more great films “To Be or not to Be” and “Heaven Can Wait” before he called it quits much too soon. Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” is an entertaining and sobering look at alcoholism that hasn’t been matched. Preston Sturges also had “The Lady Eve”, and “Hail the Conquering Hero”, and Welles had another muddled masterpiece with “The Lady from Shanghai”, and Disney had their greatest animated film “Pinocchio”, John Huston has his great “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

Now a shout out to the Film Noirs of this decade like…”Scarlet Street”, “Out of the Past”, “Crossfire”, “The Set-Up”, “Murder My Sweet”, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, “Foreign Correspondent”, and his personal favorite “”Shadow of a Doubt”. “Gun Crazy”, “Born to Kill”, “Woman in the Window”, “The Maltese Falcon”, “Strange Impersonation”, “The Letter”, “Mildred Pierce”, “Border Incident”, “Laura”, Kurosawa’s “Straw Dogs”, and James Cagney’s greatest performance in “White Heat”

Have I missed any? I’m sure I did, what’s your favorite film of the 1940s and why? I’d love to hear it.

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2 thoughts on “The Best Films of the 1940s

  1. I agree with your mentions of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Shop Around the Corner”, “Notorious”, “Casablanca”, “Ball of Fire”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Lady Eve”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “Rebecca”, “Foreign Correspondent”, ”Shadow of a Doubt”, and “Stray Dog” (incorrectly listed as “Straw Dogs” 🙂 ).
    I’d add “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “The Bank Dick, “My Little Chickadee”, “The Killers”, and Kurosawa’s “The Most Beautiful”, “No Regrets for Our Youth”, “One Wonderful Sunday”, and “Drunken Angel” … there were so many great movies then 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yikes thanks on the correction on Stay Dog. (I guess I was thinking Peckinpah the moment I was writing it. I love “The Bank Dick, and your Kurosawa picks here. I know “The Best Years of Our Lives” is lauded a lot as a great film and I’ve seen it three times myself hoping I could get into it more, but I just don’t consider it as great as others, although I think it has some very effective individual scenes that are wrenching to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

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