By Greg Boone
Hello again fellow film lovers,
Another month, another decade of film to celebrate! The historical context of the forties is obviously dominated by World War II. The Great Depression has ended, FDR has been in office since 1933 and will stay there until 1945. The US enters the war in 1941, but it takes some time for this to be reflected in film. Here are some of my favorite movies of the decade:
Fantasia (1940) - I think it’s agreed upon by most that this was a revolutionary marriage of classical music and animation. If you have somehow missed this seeing this film, you have a treat in store for you.
The Great Dictator (1940) - Charlie Chaplin’s first talkie! One of my favorite films of all time, Charlie plays the part of both a humble barber and (very) thinly veiled Hitler-like dictator. We see classic Chaplin bits, coupled with an ending monologue that is stunning for its time.
Citizen Kane (1941) - Considered by many to be one of, if not THE greatest film of all time. Orson Welles at his finest. I have not idea how many times I’ve seen this film. It never grows old. Gregg Toland, an accomplished cinematographer, let Welles have his artistic vision and did his best to achieve it—going so far as to do things like cut a hole in the floor to get the camera lower for a shot. This film was so far ahead of its time that it took years for it to be recognized as the masterpiece that it is.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Humphrey Bogart at his best in this noir detective thriller. Fabulous supporting cast, including Peter Lorre.
This Gun for Hire (1942) - I really enjoy this one. Spy and war themes are becoming part of the fabric of film at this point in the decade. This is a well-made film, with a plot that I am unable to describe in brief terms but I can assure you it will keep your interest if you are a fan of noir.
Mrs. Miniver (1942) - British living through Nazi air attacks. Greer Garson received the Academy Award for Best Actress for this one. It’s excellent. You will cry.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) - James Cagney won best actor in this sappy wartime flag-waving musical film about the life of George M. Cohan. There are many dances and famous songs. Cagney is a tour de force. It’s in many top 100 lists. Simplistic by today’s standards, but it’s still a fun ride!
Bambi (1942) - I avoided this movie for years and I’m not sure why. Maybe I thought it would be too childish? But it’s an early animation masterpiece and WAY ahead of its time! The visuals are so stunning that the story is almost irrelevant. And keep in mind that every frame is hand-drawn!
Stormy Weather (1943) - This film has huge historical significance. It’s the first big-budget mainstream film to feature all African-American actors. And there is some REALLY good music in here too!
Heaven Can Wait (1943) - An early big budget romantic comedy done in Technicolor. Well-written and still quite clever in spots, and the Technicolor consultants went nuts with this one! Every frame is bristling with as many colors as humanly possible to the point where some of the scenes are being drowned in color clutter! Fascinating to watch.
Going My Way (1944) - Bing Crosby in an Oscar-winning performance as a priest arriving to fix a parish. Schmaltzy but makes you cry like a baby anyway. This was a huge uplifting hit in the middle of the war.
Double Indemnity (1944) - This is a must-see! Considered by many the best of film noir, this one is a jewel of a film. I love the visuals. The film makes beautiful use of light and shadow, and at the time it contained some of the longest darkly lit scenes ever filmed.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) - Another must-see! This is the film adaptation of the hit Broadway play. Cary Grant discovers that his elderly aunts are poisoning lonely old men and burying them in the cellar. Yes, it sounds macabre, but it’s just delightful to watch!
Henry V (1944) - Even more of a must-see! A complete masterpiece! This is the first Technicolor Shakespeare film and it was made by Laurence Olivier. It was shot three ways. First, as a straight play being performed at the Globe Theater, then the French sections are shot to look like the paintings of the time, without perspective, which makes for fascinating sets and looks to each scene, and then traditional cinema filming after that. The Criterion version has excellent commentary. Olivier produced, directed, and starred in the movie. He went so far over budget to create this labor of love that he actually sold his full interest in the film to get enough money to complete it! So he saw no return on his investment, but was able to complete his artwork.
Scarlet Street (1945) - Wow. Fritz Lang (of the silent film classic Metropolis) directs this one. This is the first serious look at a prostitute and her pimp playing an old guy for his money since the Hays Code was instituted in 1934. It’s not specifically said that this is happening, but you get the idea pretty quickly. Edward G. Robinson is great, as always. There are many interesting twists and turns. The downside is that the copyright holder let this film fall into the public domain and most copies are low quality with lots of film scratches and pops in the sound. But despite all that, it’s still yet another great Fritz Lang movie!
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) - You’ve probably seen this multiple times. But just in case there is that slim chance that you have NOT seen it, be sure to do so. Considered one of the greatest films of all time, it can make you smile, get upset, and can certainly make you cry. It is crisply made, the story moves along nicely, and it’s well acted. A true gem of film history.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - This won Best Picture. While it now seems a bit heavy-handed and simplistic, it is nonetheless still emotional, showing the lives of three WWII vets as they try to acclimate to returning home. You can certainly see why this would have won Best Picture at the time.
The Big Sleep (1946) - Bogie and Bacall. A classic private eye movie. You are in for a treat if you’ve never seen it.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) - A surreal and innovative movie, with the Earth in Technicolor and Heaven in black and white. A pilot who should have died gets missed in getting picked up for Heaven, then pleads his case to stay on Earth because he has fallen in love. Fascinating, groundbreaking camera work and special effects.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - An absolute must-see! One of the most famous movies of all time. The real Santa Claus gets a job at Macy’s to prove to a doubting world that Santa Claus really exists, and winds up on trial! Shot on location in NYC, many of the locations, including Macy’s are still recognizable today.
Black Narcissus (1947) - This is a British Technicolor masterpiece. Nuns try to open a facility in India and find themselves affected by the altitude and the beauty to the point where they question their vows. Unintentionally hilarious in places, this film was far ahead of its time in many ways.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) - Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant work that was buried by anti-communist sentiment during the Cold War. In this little known film, Chaplin actually plays a serial killer! Who knew? This one is not to be missed! Special features are also quite good.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) - This movie is SO wrong! So politically incorrect. Shirley Temple, as teenager, falls in love with a dashing man (Cary Grant) who is a magnet for trouble through no fault of his own. To “cure” this infatuation, the (female) judge and her legal cronies make him “date” the young girl until she is over her infatuation in order to save himself from criminal charges. What?! Allowing for the usual historical context and disregarding how incredibly creepy this is, the movie is hilarious.
Red River (1948) - One of the most famous classic westerns. Replete with cattle drives, gunfights, heartbreak, redemption, you name it. One of John Wayne’s most famous films.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - Humphrey Bogart falls victim to the spell of gold in this movie about prospecting gone wrong. The famous line, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!” comes from this movie, not from Cheech and Chong, who many years later appropriated it for their stoner comedy!
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - Another very famous John Ford/John Wayne collaboration. The cavalry, after Custer’s defeat, are being pushed back by the Native Americans, who have joined forces. This has a lot of little humorous touches. They also had technical advisors on set so that the cavalry stuff is historically accurate for the time (1876 or so), and it’s not nearly as offensive as a lot of the old westerns. Some actual tribesmen and chiefs are in the film, rather than the usual badly made-up white guys. This is a surprisingly enjoyable film to watch.
White Heat (1949) - James Cagney plays a demented gangster with a mommy complex in his Oscar-winning role. Plus it’s really amusing to see how the cops use oscillators and triangulation and wacky little hoops on top of their cars to track things. This is very early electronic surveillance in movies. An excellent film containing some very famous lines like, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
And don’t forget:
Foreign Correspondent (1940) - Hitchcock. Gotta see all Hitchcock!
Knute Rockne, All American (1940) - One of the most loved sports movies of all time. Ronald Reagan in his most famous role. You might have heard the phrase “win one for the gipper”?
The Wolf Man (1941) - Monster movies! This is one of the best.
Casablanca (1942) - Oddly enough, this has never been one of my favorites, but it is on many lists of best films, so maybe you’ll love it more than I did.
The Outlaw (1943) - This Howard Hughes movie is most famous for Hughes having personally designed a bra for Jane Russell to wear in the film. Seriously.
The More the Merrier (1943) - A delightful screwball romantic comedy that still entertains while providing a little history of the housing shortage in Washington, D.C. during the war.
National Velvet (1944) - Elizabeth Taylor as a young teen in perhaps one of the most famous horse movies of all time. It’s treacly sweet, but it spawned generations of young female horse lovers and will still make you shed a tear or two.
To Have or Have Not (1944) - Bogart and Bacall fell in love while filming this picture and this gets captured on film. It’s delightful, and has some of the best lines in film history.
Lifeboat (1944) - Hitchcock. Gotta see all Hitchcock! Here, the master films the entire movie on a small boat. Who would do that? Most directors would fail with such limited shot choices, but not Hitch. And you know how he is famous for having a cameo in every one of his movies? Betcha miss this one.
Notorious (1946) - Hitchcock. Gotta see all Hitchcock! This is one of his best espionage thrillers, a genre which he defined.
The Bishop's Wife (1947) - Cary Grant as an angel who answers a bishop’s prayer and solves his problems in a way that is not at all comfortable for the bishop. Sappy old movie fun!
The Red Shoes (1948) - All Powell/Pressburger films are original and great, but this one is particularly good. Considered by many one of the top ten British films of all time, it inspired generations of girls to dance.
Easter Parade (1948) - This a beautifully restored Technicolor musical with many famous songs. It’s way over the top with color but quite fun, and has some of the best Fred Astaire dancing ever. It also features a hilarious scene in which a maître d’ orgasmically describes the menu, which somehow made it past the censors of the time.
Batman and Robin (1949 movie serial) - A classic example of the old movie serials, where our heroes meet certain death at the end of every episode, followed by a miraculous escape at the beginning of the next. Replete with laughable technology, a bat signal that shows in DAYTIME (?!) and so many goofy things that is continually entertaining.
I hope you find a few gems here that you love as much as I do. Enjoy your tour of the forties!
Greg Boone spends his days helping the hearing impaired at his practices in Lafayette and San Leandro, while his nights are spent on a many years-long project watching the most notable films in history.