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

Citizen Kane (1941), 119 minutes, D: Orson Welles
A masterpiece - a movie milestone. Considered by most film critics as the greatest, or one of the top ten films ever made. It rewrote the rules of Hollywood cinema, setting Hollywood on its ear when first released. The film was co-written, directed, and starred in by 25-year old radio star Orson Welles in his first film effort and on a bare-bones budget. It is famous for its innovative cinematic techniques, quick cuts, use of shadows to intensify the drama, limited close-ups when they were in style, deep-focus photography, and dissolves. Told in flashbacks with a multi-viewpoint script, the story is the portrait of the public and private life of a newspaper publisher, loosely based on (and paralleling) the life of William Randolph Hearst. The last dying word of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), the mysterious "Rosebud," sends reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) on a search for the meaning of the word and an understanding of the publishing giant's life. Kane builds a publishing empire but ends up undone by his own excesses and obsessions.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) (aka All That Money Can Buy), 107 minutes, D: William Dieterle
A faithful adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's story. Set in 19th century New Hampshire, a kind-hearted New England farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) is induced by the devil, Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) to sell his soul. In return, he will receive gold and "all that money can buy." After seven years of luck and with time running out, as he becomes increasingly cold-blooded and heartless, Stone wants to end the deal, so he hires the famous eloquent orator and lawyer Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to plead his case and win back his soul. In the dramatic Hell's courtroom scene, Webster argues the case in front of a jury of damned souls from hell.

Dumbo (1941), 63 minutes, D: Disney Studio
A charming, animated story (a twist on the classic ugly duckling story) of a shy little circus elephant Dumbo, who is criticized, ridiculed, and outcast for his ears which are big enough to fly with. He is separated from his mother, Mrs. Jumbo, when she is branded a mad elephant for defending him. He is befriended by circus mouse Timothy Mouse who builds his confidence. Dumbo becomes the overnight sensation of the circus with his flying act, and he is reunited with his mother.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), 93 minutes, D: Alexander Hall
A highly inventive comedy-fantasy film, with many plot twists and turns. A good-natured saxophone-playing prizefighter Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) dies in a plane crash 50 years too early due to a heavenly screw-up. He is prematurely brought to heaven (he was supposed to survive the crash) by bumbling busybody Heavenly Messenger No. 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) for check-off by Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains). Because heaven has called him too soon, he is sent back to Earth to live out the remaining years allotted to him, occupying someone else's body. Escorted by Mr. Jordan back to Earth, the body he enters is that of an unscrupulous multi-millionaire who has just been murdered by his scheming greedy wife Julia Farnsworth (Rita Johnson) and his male secretary Tony Abbott (John Emery). The murderous pair are shocked and confused to see the deceased suddenly re-emerge from the bathroom. He also utterly befuddles his former fight manager Max Corkle (James Gleason). The reincarnated spirit falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes) and enters a boxing match when he is murdered again, and this time takes on the body of a champion boxer.

High Sierra (1941), 100 minutes, D: Raoul Walsh

Hold Back the Dawn (1941), 115 minutes, D: Mitchell Leisen
A touching, moving soap-opera style melodrama. An unscrupulous Romanian refugee Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) from oppressive Nazi Germany is stranded in a Mexican border town with a number of other hopeful immigrants to the US. He meets and marries a shy American schoolteacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland) who is visiting with her students. Desperate to escape his situation, Iscovescu, a former gigolo, lures the gullible Emmy into a quick matrimonial immigration scheme to merely gain entrance into the U.S. His plan is to desert her after gaining entry, and link up with his girlfriend Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard).

How Green Was My Valley (1941), 118 minutes, D: John Ford
Derived from Richard Llewellyn's novel. Beautifully directed, photographed, and performed, with a well-written screenplay, one of John Ford's masterpieces. Controversial though, because it won the Best Picture Academy Award over Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon. In voice-over, the life of a Welsh coal mining town in the late 1800s and early 1900s is seen through the sensitive eyes of the youngest son Huw (Roddy McDowall) of the hard-working, close-knit Morgan family. The Morgans become divided by a labor dispute, and experience disintegration, hardship, love, joy, and loss. With many memorable performances including the family's patriarch (Donald Crisp) and matriarch (Sara Allgood), and the noble-spirited beauty - the unmarried daughter Angharad (Maureen O'Hara) who loves preacher Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pigeon).

The Lady Eve (1941), 93 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
A classic, witty, romantic screwball comedy of the 1940s, with traditional fast-paced dialogue, farce, slapstick and visual humor. Considered possibly as Preston Sturges' best film, a wonderful battle of the sexes. Con artist, swindler, and professional card shark Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), with her father "Colonel" Harry Harrington (Charles Coburn) make their living by charming gullible multimillionaires out of their money. On board a luxury ocean liner, she selects her next victim, millionaire herpetologist Charles "Hoppsy" Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to a brewery fortune, who has just returned from an expedition up the Amazon River. When he is set up, she runs into one difficulty - she has fallen in love with her victim, but he finds out about her motives before she can confess, and he dumps her. To get revenge for being coldly dropped, she poses as an aristocratic lady, Lady Eve Sidwich, and he falls in love with her all over again. She extracts her revenge on their honeymoon on a speeding train.

The Little Foxes (1941), 116 minutes, D: William Wyler
Adapted from Lillian Hellman's play. The turn-of-the century story of a greedy, corrupt, and dysfunctional Southern family, the Hubbards, who attempt to build a factory on what was once a beautiful plantation. Brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) scheme to bring industry by building a cotton mill in their small southern town. But they need the capital of their sister Regina's (Bette Davis) banker husband Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall) in order to make the deal. Horace, who is an invalid, wants no part of the scheme despite Regina's requests. Regina's nephew Leo Hubbard (Dan Duryea), who works in the bank, steals some bonds from Horace's safe-deposit box to make the deal work. Learning of the theft, the ruthless and conniving Regina blackmails her brothers into giving her a percentage of the business. Horace, however, informs Regina that he actually gave the money as an interest-free loan, and that he is changing his will in favor of their daughter Alexandra Giddens (Teresa Wright). Before he executes the change, he suffers a heart seizure and collapses, and in a memorable scene, she refuses his pleas for help to get his medicine.

The Maltese Falcon (1941), 100 minutes, D: John Huston
One of the all-time greatest film-noir detective mysteries and John Huston's incredible directorial debut. Adapted from Dashiell Hammett's hard-edged detective novel. Hard-boiled San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by pretty client Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to trail her that evening. When partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) is shot dead that night, Spade quickly becomes a murder suspect. He also finds himself at the center of a great deal of attention by a group of shady, unsavory characters (including Fat Man Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) and his henchmen Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and hired gun Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.)). They are on the elusive search for a "black bird," the stolen Maltese Falcon statuette. With superb moody images, a sinister atmosphere, a pace that accelerates as tension mounts, and an innovative film noir style.

Meet John Doe (1941), 123 minutes, D: Frank Capra
A dramatic, endearing, and poignant social/political commentary from Frank Capra. Struggling reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is fired, and as a last desperate act to keep her job, she creates a fictional "John Doe" character to dramatize the hard times. In his letters to the editor, he writes that he is for the common man and little guy, but is so disgusted by political corruption that he is going to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall's roof on Christmas Eve. Her ploy works as a publicity stunt and she is persuaded to continue writing "John Doe" letters. When the public's interest takes off, the paper must save its image and find an impersonator to be the real John Doe. They hire a naive, homeless tramp, ex-baseball pitcher Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who quickly becomes a national hero. But he also becomes the unwitting tool of the paper's unscrupulous right-wing publisher, a corrupt politician named D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). He expects the John Doe Club movement and convention to be an endorsement for his fascist party's run at the White House. "John Doe" realizes that the only way out is to actually commit suicide by jumping off City Hall, but in the final scene, he is persuaded by "the people" who still believe in him to not go through with it.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), 71 minutes, D: Edward F. Cline
An absurd, wacky film spoofing the film industry and Hollywood, with Fields in his last starring role in a feature-length film. It is a surrealistic film with no real plot, only a series of very funny scenes and bizarre sequences one after the other. The Great Man (W. C. Fields), a film scriptwriter, attempts to get backing from a skeptical producer (Franklin Pangborn) at Esoteric Studios for a movie about one of his highly improbable romantic adventures. He relates the whole story in the hopes of getting financial support. He drunkenly falls out of an airplane, diving to retrieve his bottle of booze, and falls thousands of feet to the ground. He lands in a strange country named Ruritania in the mountain retreat of Mrs. Hemoglobin (Margaret Dumont). There, he meets an attractive girl, Ouliotta Delight Hemoglobin (Susan Miller), who's never met a man and teaches her how to play "Post Office." The producer throws the Great Man out of his office after listening to the absurd, impossible tale. The film concludes with a classic car chase scene - he drives an obese woman through downtown Los Angeles to the maternity hospital.

One Foot in Heaven (1941), 106 minutes, D: Irving Rapper
A wholesome, nostalgic, poignant and moving film, based on a book written by the son of the actual real-life minister. It is the story of Rev. William Spence (Fredric March), a devoted Methodist minister who begins his ministry in a small town in an Iowa community at the turn of the century. He moves from community to community over a period of years, building up troubled parishes. With his ever-faithful wife Hope Morris Spence (Martha Scott), they must cope with the clash between fast-changing attitudes and church teachings.

Sergeant York (1941), 134 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
The true, but unusual story of World War I's biggest war hero. An authentic tale and portrait of a poor Tennessee backwoods mountain boy Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper). His brawling, hell-raising life changes when he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) and has a religious experience signaled by a bolt of lightning. When the war breaks out, he refuses to enlist, but he is drafted into World War I service, even though he has become deeply religious and pacifistic. He heroically fights in the war, mostly as a great marksman, and single-handedly captures a large regiment of 132 German soldiers, becoming the most decorated soldier of the war. A sensitive, affecting, and compassionate portrayal of York (for which Cooper won his first Best Actor Academy Award), with fast-paced action sequences and some wartime propagandizing.

Sullivan's Travels (1941), 91 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
A landmark, classic Hollywood satire and social comedy, thought by many to be Preston Sturges' greatest film. A successful Hollywood film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), known for making lightweight, trite movies (musicals and comedies), becomes disgruntled. He decides to research his next picture, one that will be more worthwhile, by leaving Hollywood disguised in hobo's clothing with only ten cents in his pocket. He nomadically sets off cross country for new material, to learn how the common people are experiencing the Great Depression. He is joined by has-been actress (Veronica Lake). Sullivan experiences slapstick, sorrow, loss of name and liberty, and human suffering as they encounter the common people on their journey. In the end, he discovers the real value of laughter and returns reinvigorated to Hollywood to make comedies.

Suspicion (1941), 99 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
A suspenseful classic thriller from Alfred Hitchcock. A lonely, prim, but very rich British wall-flower, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is courted by and falls in love with charming, flamboyant, and debonair playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). In an unusual courtship, she learns very little about him and his background. She marries him, but then unearths clues and begins to suspect that he is trying to kill her. He has created financial difficulties for himself in an embezzlement scheme, and she fears, with mounting tension as the film progresses, that he has plans to do away with her to collect an insurance payoff. (Fontaine won the Best Actress Academy Award, some thought as consolation for not winning the previous year for Rebecca.)

That Hamilton Woman (1941, UK), 128 minutes, D: Alexander Korda
A touching, poignant and sadly beautiful costume drama. A realistic, historical portrayal of the ill-fated, tragic romance between England's famous Naval Commander/hero Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) and Lady Emma Hart Hamilton (Vivien Leigh). The story is told in flashback by a drunken cellmate, the former Lady Hamilton. She was a beautiful and intelligent woman of poor, common origin who had raised herself up to become an unloved "trophy" wife of the British ambassador to Naples, Lord William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). Seven years later, Lady Hamilton meets the dashing Nelson when he comes to Naples to ask for the king's support in the fight against Napoleon. They fall passionately in love, but their love is thwarted because he is also married (to the stern and unforgiving Lady Nelson (Gladys Cooper)). When Lord Hamilton dies, Nelson asks Lady Nelson for a divorce so that he can marry Emma, but she refuses. He makes a home for Emma and their child in the country, but when he is killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, she is left destitute.

The Wolf Man (1941), 71 minutes, D: George Waggner
One of the greatest, classic horror films, a tense, well-made, eerie production. Easy-going, innocent British heir Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to Wales to the mansion of his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) after an education in America. He is bitten by a ravenous, hairy werewolf (Bela Lugosi) when he attempts to save a beautiful young woman Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) from being attacked on the moors. A gypsy fortune teller Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) informs him that this is no ordinary wolf - he has been bitten by a werewolf, and at each new full moon, he is now condemned too. That night the moon is full, and he is transformed into a blood-thirsty creature. In the final moments of the film, Talbot's father joins a search party and kills the beast as it attacks pretty Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) on the moors, ending the man's suffering. This film spawned many sequels with Lon Chaney continuing in the role with which he would always be identified - the wolfman.

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