Greatest Films of the 1940s
Greatest Films of the 1940s

Greatest Films of the 1940s
1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946 | 1947 | 1948 | 1949


Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), 110 minutes, D: John Cromwell
An adaptation from Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. An historically accurate and realistic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln's (Raymond Massey) life as shopkeeper, suitor, lawyer, legislator, and President. The film begins with Lincoln's childhood in the backwoods of Illinois, through his early career, his memorable debates with political rival Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart), and his ill-fated love for Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard) and his marriage to Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon).

All This, And Heaven Too (1940), 140 minutes, D: Anatole Litvak
An elaborate, melodramatic,19th century period production, set in France, based upon Rachel Lyman Field's novel about a real-life murder case. A French nobleman Duke De Praslin (Charles Boyer) enters into a scandalous loving relationship with the governess of his children, Henriette Deluzy Desportes (Bette Davis). His sultry Duchesse (Barbara O'Neil) wife is insanely jealous and resentful of the kindly and loving Henriette, although she is uncaring about her own children. Accused of having an affair, the Duke and the governess become prime suspects after the Duchesse is murdered - Henriette is considered his accomplice. To save her and the French government (because of his associations with the French king) from further embarrassment, the Duke takes poison and assumes full responsibility for the crime.

The Bank Dick (1940), 73 minutes, D: Eddie Cline
A great classic W. C. Fields comedy, with wonderful sight gags and one-liners. A drunken, unemployed no-account, henpecked husband in Lompoc, California - Egbert Souse (W. C. Fields) - inadvertently foils a bank robbery, and is rewarded for his accidental heroism with a position as a bank guard inside the bank. His most frequent visits are to the Black Pussy Cat Cafe for stiff drinks. Hilarious, bumbling antics, concluding with another bank robbery and car chase, with Egbert taken as hostage.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), 90 minutes, D: Dorothy Arzner

Fantasia (1940), 120 minutes, D: Ben Sharpsteen and Disney
An innovative and revolutionary animated classic from Walt Disney, combining classical music masterpieces with imaginative visuals, presented with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The eight animation sequences are colorful, impressive, free-flowing, abstract, and often surrealistic pieces. They include the most famous of all, Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" with Mickey Mouse as the title character battling brooms carrying endless buckets of water. Also Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," dinosaurs and volcanoes in Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," the delightful "Dance of the Hours" by Ponchielli with dancing hippos, crocodiles, ostriches, and elephants, and Mussorgsky's darkly apocalyptic "Night on Bald Mountain."

Foreign Correspondent (1940), 120 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
A thrilling and suspenseful espionage masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock. An American reporter, Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock (Joel McCrea), the foreign correspondent, is sent to Europe just prior to World War II. He meets a peace activist Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), falls for his attractive daughter Carol (Laraine Day), accidently becomes involved chasing spies, and begins to suspect that Fisher is part of a Nazi spy ring. Memorable scenes include the assassination scene of a Dutch diplomat in a crowded sea of umbrellas, a murder attempt in Westminster Cathedral Tower, and a spectacular trans-Atlantic ocean plane crash. The film concludes with a memorable radio speech/plea for America to join the war effort.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940), 128 minutes, D: John Ford
A powerful, classic dramatic masterpiece, adapted from John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It is the epic, but heartbreaking story of the perilous migration of a drought-stricken, Oklahoma Dust Bowl family to the promised land of California, seeking farm work during the Depression. When they reach California, they are met with violence, prejudice, and fear, moving from one campsite to the next, treated as migrant laborers. With magnificent performances of the family members who are poor but honest people struggling for dignity, especially the idealistic son Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and his loving mother Ma Joad (Jane Darwell).

The Great Dictator (1940), 127 minutes, D: Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin's first full talking feature film in which he delivers spoken lines - a full 13 years after the advent of sound in the movies. The film is a slapstick satire on world conditions and fascism at the start of World War II. Chaplin plays a dual role: as a poor, unnamed Jewish ghetto barber, and as a Hitler look-alike, the ruthless tyrannical dictator Adenoid Hynkel of the European country of Tomania. Hynkel's rival is Mussolini-like Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) of Bacteria. The barber and the dictator are involved in a case of mistaken identities. With a memorable scene of Hynkel dancing with a world globe balloon. The film concludes with a lengthy monologue about hope and human rights.

The Great McGinty (1940), 81 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
The classic film that debuted the talents of screwball comedy director and screenwriter Preston Sturges, a witty, satirical look at corrupt American politics. In flashback, a banana republic bartender, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) tells the story of his rise from obscurity to the state governor's mansion as the result of a crooked election. Starting out as a dumb hobo, he is admired by The Boss (Akim Tamiroff), head of the political machine, for his feisty nature and for stuffing the ballot box with phony votes. By playing the game crookedly, he is appointed collector of protection money, alderman, and through charm and more appointments, becomes mayor and then governor. Along the way, he marries and has a family, and develops a social conscience. He loses it all and suffers a political demise when he tries to go straight and promote real reform as governor - opposed by The Boss (Akim Tamiroff).

His Girl Friday (1940), 91 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
One of the earliest and best of Howard Hawks' madcap comedies, a remake of the Hecht and MacArthur play The Front Page, switching gender roles so that the reporter is played by a woman. Newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) wants to leave the paper, find a more domestic and less frantic life style, and marry a mild-mannered, stuffy mama's boy insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). But her scheming newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), her ex-husband, wants to keep his star reporter. When a hot-breaking escaped convict/manhunt story develops and she is called upon to cover the story and write the scoop, he attempts to win her back in a battle of the sexes. With fast pacing, whirlwind, rapid-fire dialogue, and sped-up action.

Kitty Foyle (1940), 105 minutes, D: Sam Wood
Known for featuring Ginger Rogers in her first dramatic acting role, winning a Best Actress Academy Award Oscar in one of the best "women's pictures" of the 40s. A touching and poignant love story/soap opera. An ambitious, attractive working girl-secretary, Kitty Foyle (Ginger Rogers), marries a rich Philadelphia socialite Wyn Strafford (Dennis Morgan), but they divorce when he chooses to marry another woman more suited to his aristocratic background. Kitty enters into a romance with a noble, but poor and struggling doctor Mark (James Craig). She accepts his marriage proposal but then must choose between her love for him and a new proposal from her wealthy ex-husband.

Knute Rockne: All American (1940), 96 minutes, D: Lloyd Bacon
A sentimental, sports biography-drama of Notre Dame's legendary and dedicated football coach, who became known for inspirational pep talks to his players, exhorting them to greatness. The film begins with Knute Rockne's (Pat O'Brien) boyhood, his schooling and football days at Notre Dame, graduation, marriage to Bonnie Skiles (Gale Page), and the start of his coaching career. The film contains actual newsreel footage of Notre Dame football games, and is most-remembered for Rockne's words to his team to "go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper" - to play in memory of a superb player named George Gipp (Ronald Reagan) who died of pneumonia at an early age. The film concludes with the tragic plane crash that took Rockne's life, and his funeral.

The Letter (1940), 95 minutes, D: William Wyler
A superb melodrama, adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham play. In the opening scene, Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell), an old family friend, is killed and shot point-blank on the front steps of the Crosbie Malayan rubber plantation by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) while her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) is away on business. She claims that she killed him in self-defense to protect her honor (in fact, she killed him because as her lover, he threatened to leave her). Her husband faithfully believes in her and hires respected lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her, but soon the lawyer has his doubts. An incriminating letter (from Leslie to Geoffrey) surfaces in the possession of Hammond's Eurasian widow (Gale Sondergaard), and she blackmails them for $10,000. The letter must be retrieved personally in a dramatic scene. Leslie is found innocent of murder charges in the court trial, but she suffers a fateful retribution in the conclusion.

The Long Voyage Home (1940), 105 minutes, D: John Ford
Adapted from four short, one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill. Set in pre-World War II year of 1939. In a series of vignettes, the film takes a look at the lives and loves, hopes, dreams, and comradeship of working-class Merchant Marine seamen. Their freighter, the S.S. Glencairn, is transporting dynamite in a dangerous mission-convoy from America to England, and is threatened by bad weather, German U-boats and plane attacks. With effective performances by John Wayne as young Swedish sailor Ole Olsen and Thomas Mitchell as fellow seamate Aloysius Driscoll, and atmospheric cinematography by the famous Gregg Toland.

The Mark of Zorro (1940), 93 minutes, D: Rouben Mamoulian
A swashbuckling adventure story, a remake of the 1921 silent classic with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.. Diego de Vega (Tyrone Power), the son of an early 19th century California aristocrat, Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), returns home after an education in Spain. He finds power has been usurped from his father by corrupt oppressors led by Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his tax-collecting henchman led by Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). By day, Diego is considered a harmless aristocrat, but at night he dons a black outfit, a mask and a sword, and rides to avenge the tyrants, carving the letter Z signifying his name: Zorro. The film includes some of the best dueling scenes in cinematic history, between Zorro and Capt. Pasquale. In the end, the cruel regime is overthrown, and Zorro's father is reinstated as governor. Zorro's love interest is provided by Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell).

The Mortal Storm (1940), 100 minutes, D: Frank Borzage

My Favorite Wife (1940), 88 minutes, D: Garson Kanin
One of the classic screwball comedies of all time. Ellen Arden (Irene Dunne), the wife of a young attorney is shipwrecked on a South Seas voyage and presumed lost. In reality, she is alive, marooned on a desert island with another survivor, a handsome young scientist Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott). Declared legally dead after seven years, she happens to arrive back on the day of her husband Nick Arden's (Cary Grant) remarriage to Bianca (Gail Patrick) and their honeymoon night. He is stunned by her reappearance - what's he to do, and what about the other man who may have compromised her?

Our Town (1940), 90 minutes, D: Sam Wood
A film presentation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a much-loved classic, dramatic story of human life, love, tragedy and conflict, set in the simple, small New England town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire between the turn of the century and World War I. The film is given down-home commentary by the Narrator, Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven), who profiles the lives of the town's residents. The story centers around young Emily Webb (Martha Scott), the hard-working daughter of the town's newspaper editor (Guy Kibbee), who falls in love with George Gibbs (William Holden), son of the local doctor (Thomas Mitchell). They court each other over a period of time and eventually marry, but she is lost during childbirth. In contrast to the play, performed without scenery and only a few props, the film includes realistic scenery.

The Philadelphia Story (1940), 112 minutes, D: George Cukor
A classic romantic comedy, a witty adaptation of Phillip Barry's Broadway hit. Set among the upper class society in Philadelphia, a spoiled, wealthy heiress, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is about to be remarried to a stuffy executive, George Kittredge (John Howard). She divorced her first husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) because he drank excessively and was irresponsible. He still loves her and shows up in attendance. So do Spy Magazine's scandal reporter Macauley "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and a photographer. Dexter is there to prevent them from publishing an expose about the womanizing reputation of Tracy's father Seth (John Halliday), his ex-in-law. Things get complicated when the inquisitive, cynical Connor falls in love with Tracy and teaches her what love is.

Pinocchio (1940), 87 minutes, D: Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske and Disney
Walt Disney's second full-length animated feature film, a brilliant classic, a masterful, animated achievement. Released the same year as Disney's Fantasia. The tale, told by a chirpy cricket named Jiminy Cricket (voice of Cliff Edwards), concerns a lonely, poor, toy shop woodcutter Geppetto (voice of Christian Rub) who creates an inquisitive marionette wooden boy named Pinocchio (voice of Dick Jones). His wish that Pinocchio would become a real boy (earlier, Jiminy has sung "When You Wish Upon a Star") is made true, although the boy is still made of wood. If he proves himself to be brave and unselfish, he will be changed into a real flesh-and-blood boy. Pinocchio runs quickly afoul associating with bad company, including the unforgettable characters of J. Worthington Foulfellow (a fox), the evil stage showman Stromboli, and influential juvenile delinquent Lampwick on Pleasure Island. With some truly frightening sequences, including Lampwick's transformation into a donkey, and scary Monstro the whale.

Pride and Prejudice (1940), 117 minutes, D: Robert Z. Leonard
Adapted from Jane Austen's novel, with a screenplay partially written by author Aldous Huxley, a dramatic, witty comedy of manners and morals. Early 19th century English (pre-Victorian) parents, the Bennets (Edmund Gwenn and Mary Boland) are looking to marry off their five eligible daughters - Elizabeth (Greer Garson), lovely and gentle Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), Lydia (Ann Rutherford), Kitty (Heather Angel), and Mary (Marsha Hunt). Fortunes look favorable when some eligible young men stay at a neighboring country house. Each girl has her own peculiarities - flirtatious, silly, serious, bookish, plain, lovely, and gentle. A difficult, contrary romance develops between arrogant but handsome Mr. Darcy (Laurence Olivier) and the opinionated, spirited, and independent Miss Elizabeth.

Rebecca (1940), 130 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
Adapted from Daphne du Maurier's novel of gothic romance and mystery, a compelling romance-mystery with intense psychological suspense. Following a rapid courtship, a shy, naive young woman becomes the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) by marrying a dashing, but brooding British nobleman (Laurence Olivier). She is haunted by the memory and shadow of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. At his huge Manderley mansion, the icy-cold housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) taunts and frightens her. The untold secrets of the past are slowly unraveled, finally freeing her from her fear and uneasiness. A winning Best Picture film.

Santa Fe Trail (1940), 110 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
An action-filled, but historically-inaccurate adventure tale, a misnamed Western. West Point graduate, cavalry officer Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) is assigned to a Kansas post with other Point graduates. He leads cavalry forces (including George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan (David Bruce), James Longstreet (Frank Wilcox), George Pickett (William Marshall), and John Hood (George Haywood)) to capture fanatical abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey).

The Sea Hawk (1940), 109 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
An exciting swashbuckler, one of the best of its kind, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini. Set in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Flora Robson) suspects that Spanish King Phillip II (Montagu Love) and his crafty ambassador Don Jose Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) are planning to spread their influence over the continent. The Spaniards are getting ready to launch a naval attack with their armada against England. The Queen secretly commissions swashbuckling privateer, British sea captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn), "the Sea Hawk," to raid Spanish settlements and ships. While threatening the Spanish, the beautiful daughter of the ambassador Donna Maria (Brenda Marshall) falls in love with Thorpe. He and his crew are ambushed and imprisoned by Spanish forces. With Maria's aid, he escapes slavery aboard a Spanish galleon slave ship, and helps alert the Queen to the impending Armada attack.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940), 97 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
A brilliant and charming romantic comedy about everyday people in a "shop around the corner," with all the right elements to make the "Lubitsch touch." A Budapest notions/gift shop sales clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and a shopgirl Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) mutually dislike each other and bicker constantly. They are unaware that they are each other's anonymous pen pals. On paper, they are romantically compatible, and correspond with affectionate "lonely-hearts" letters. On the same night that Alfred is fired by his employer Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), suspected of having affair with his wife, he seeks solace with his pen-pal sweetheart in a cafe, in a memorable sequence. In the end, Alfred is rehired, and his identity is finally revealed to Klara.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940, UK), 106 minutes, D: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan, produced by Alexander Korda
Subtitled: An Arabian Fantasy. One of the best, most enchanting fantasies ever made - with an Arabian Nights theme, including spectacular special effects, amazing Technicolor photography, a memorable musical score, and wonderful performances. A mischievous young urchin/thief Abu (Sabu) is thrown in a dungeon for theft. He helps the good-hearted, prince Ahmad (John Justin) of the city of Bagdad - who is tricked out of his kingdom - save his kingdom, his throne, and his love for the Princess (June Duprez) from an oppressive, evil magician Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) with the help of a giant genie Djinni (Rex Ingram) and a magical flying carpet.

Waterloo Bridge (1940), 109 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
A classic, sentimental, romantic tearjerker, Vivien Leigh's first film following her success in Gone With The Wind. Middle-aged British colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) paces on the famous Waterloo Bridge in the city of London during World War II, and in flashback, remembers when he was a handsome Army Captain in World War I. He falls in love with a naive young ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), but is called off to war and their plans to wed are postponed. Bidding him farewell at the Waterloo train station, she abandons her dance performance and is fired from the ballet company. Myra soon descends into poverty, and becoming destitute, desperately turns to prostitution. She falsely learns that Roy has been killed in the war, but in a memorable scene, accidentally meets him when he returns while soliciting business from returning soldiers. During their reunion, Myra doesn't reveal her occupation to him. They renew their romance, but she becomes distraught and suicidal, feeling degraded by her indiscretions.

The Westerner (1940), 100 minutes, D: William Wyler
Drifter cowboy Cole Hardin (Gary Cooper), on his way through Texas to California, rides into a town (named Langtry) run by Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), who calls himself "the Law west of the Pecos." He is falsely accused of stealing a horse after buying a horse from a horse thief and is taken before the infamous justice of the peace for a mock trial, and sentenced to hang. He talks his way out of being hanged by convincing the judge of his friendship with the judge's idol, stage star Lily Langtry (Lilian Bond). Later, he gives the judge a lock of hair, convincing him it is real. Hardin ends up defending homesteaders on the opposite side from the judge in a bloody and violent range war and land dispute. In the final scene, Hardin confronts the judge in a theatre with guns drawn before a Langtry performance.

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