When 1940 came around, Europe already was at war and hundreds of thousands of people had already died. The war would dominate the first half of the decade and then its aftermath would subsume the rest. And yet… musicians still made music, novels were still written, movies still got made.
Despite the war, however—or in some cases because of it—the ‘40s produced a remarkably diverse array of great films. When you look at the variety and scope of films made in the 1940s, it really is one of the greatest decades for film. These are my favorites and I’ll categorize them in three ways: 1. Just Great Movies. 2. Best Foreign Films. 3. Best Portrait of Life in the 1940s.
One of the most moving and gripping American films ever made. This is John Ford’s take on the classic John Steinbeck novel about the Okies, the people from Oklahoma who fled economic and agricultural disasters in the 1930s and came to California looking for a better life… and found endless troubles instead. Henry Fonda is unforgettable in this film as Tom Joad, and Gregg Toland’s cinematography is remarkable and ground-breaking. Inspiring and tear-jerking—a great American film.
Preston Sturges is one of my favorite screenwriters of all time. And this may be his best picture. He wrote and directed this comedy about a highly successful film director (Joel McCrea) who is tired of making silly comedies and decides to make a socially relevant film. He heads out on a journey of self-discovery that turns out to be a series of farcical misadventures, accompanied by 40s blonde bombshell Veronica Lake. Man, this is a funny movie. One of the best American comedies ever made. The dialogue is so head-spinning, you’ll have to watch it a few times to catch all the jokes.
This film has been saddled with the sobriquet of the greatest movie ever made. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t even think it’s Orson Welles’s best picture (I’d go with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or Chimes at Midnight (1965) instead.) Regardless, it is a masterpiece. It is worth watching again in this plutocratic era we live in with social media infiltrating our lives at every corner. It’s a cautionary tale and one worth watching again and again.
America was one year into a global war when this World War II classic came out. One thing that is helpful in understanding this film is to understand Vichy, France. After Germany successfully invaded France, a collaborationist national government was set up and the working capital of France moved from Paris to the town of Vichy. Rains’ character is the Vichy representative nominally in charge of Casablanca, Morocco. Humphrey Bogart is magnificent, and so are fellow cast members Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Peter Lorre. The cast is filled with ex-patriate European actors who lived in exile in Los Angeles during the war. It is also one of the most quotable films ever made, a tribute to screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein.
You probably have seen the first two movies I’ve cited more than a few times by now, but how about this masterfully told ghost story? Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play a pair of urbane and sophisticated Londoners who buy a gloomy house overlooking a sea in Cornwall. Turns out the reason they got such a great deal on the house is—you guessed it—it’s haunted! This is a wonderful ghost story that is just scary enough. You could even watch it with your kids and everyone will enjoy it… just be sure to have a blanket handy you can pull over your eyes for the genuinely spooky parts!
I think this is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best. And, like virtually every Hitchcock, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s a World War II spy thriller set in…Rio de Janeiro? What? And everyone is wearing tuxedos and formal gowns for most of the movie. Huh? Just sit back—or should I say, sit forward on the edge of your seat. It’s a great thriller and Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are just about as beautiful as two human beings can be. Every time I watch this movie, I am so tense in the final moments of the film I keep half expecting a different ending.
Considered by many to be the greatest French film of all time, the story of its production is also incredible. While the film is set in 19th century France, it was shot during the Nazi occupation of France, and many of the extras were Resistance fighters using the filming as cover. Much of the food meant for the film was stolen by the starving extras during production. This movie is a story of life in the theater, and the title is a nod to “Paradis”—not just heaven but also the upper balconies in a theater, the cheap seats, where things were always lively and combustible. This movie should be on your bucket list. Francois Truffaut once said, “I would give up all the films I made to have directed Children of Paradise.”
I have watched this Italian movie by Vittorio de Sica dozens of times since I first saw it on late night TV in the early 1970s. Set in devastated post-war Rome, the movie tells the story of an impoverished family and the job the father gets riding around Rome on a bicycle putting up posters. His bicycle is stolen. The movie mainly focuses on the relationship between the father (Lamberto Maggiorani) who is desperate to provide for his family and his perpetually optimistic son (Enzo Staiola). It is moving, human, and humane.
This Japanese movie tells a simple but powerful story about the conflicts that social conventions place upon our lives. Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, it tells the story of a widowed professor whose only child, a daughter, takes care of him. It is time she got married, her family decides, but she doesn’t want that. She likes the life she has and feels a powerful obligation to care for her father. Something’s gotta give.
The Best Portrait of Life in the 1940s
This is a war picture without the war. Made just after the war ended, it takes up the story of three servicemen who return home from war, each with different horrifying experiences, each struggling to adjust to civilian life. This is one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite movies, and it should be one of yours as well. It is a deeply compassionate portrayal of the toll war takes on the combatants and the families at home as everyone tries to live normal American lives. This film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is a great window into what life was like in middle America after the soldiers came home from war.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.