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. With an acting cast from Welles' own Mercury Theater. 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, non-linear 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, when he creates a castle-like refuge where he is alone.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) (aka All That Money Can Buy), 107 minutes, D: William Dieterle
RKO's faithful adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's 1937 Faustian short story, with an Oscar-winning score by Bernard Herrmann. Set in 19th century New Hampshire in the 1840s in the town of Cross Corners, a kind-hearted New England farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) vows to sell his soul (he idly offers to sell it for two cents), to overcome his poverty and prevent the foreclosure of his farm. He is induced by the devil, Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) to sell his soul in order to receive gold and "all that money can buy." During a time of seven years of good luck, Scratch's hand-maiden Belle (Simone Simon) becomes married Jabez's seductive, live-in servant, and he takes to drinking and gambling. As time begins to run out, he is increasingly cold-blooded and heartless as a fearsome land baron, callous toward his wife Mary (Anne Shirley), and alienated from his shrewd and wise mother Ma Stone (Jane Darwell). He wants to end the deal, so he hires the famous eloquent orator and silver-tongued lawyer Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to plead his case and win back his soul from an iron-clad contract. In the dramatic Hell's courtroom scene, Webster argues the case in front of a 12-man jury of damned souls from hell, and wins Jabez the right to have a free soul.

Dumbo (1941), 63 minutes, D: Disney Studio
A charming, animated Disney story, released to theaters around the time of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the first of the Disney animated to be released on videocassette (in 1981). It was a twist on the classic ugly duckling story of a shy little circus elephant Dumbo. The baby pachyderm 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 an Oscar-winning Original Screenplay award), with many plot twists and turns. Similar in plot to Angel on My Shoulder (1946). The 1941 film's sequel was Down to Earth (1947), and it was cleverly remade as the sports fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1978) with Warren Beatty as a football player, not a boxer. Not to be confused with Heaven Can Wait (1943) starring Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. A good-natured saxophone-playing prizefighter Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), "The Flying Pug," dies in a plane crash in New Jersey 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, inexperienced 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 unscrupulous multi-millionaire playboy Bruce Farnsworth who has just been murdered by drowning in his bathtub by his scheming and 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), although is able to secretly reveal his soul's identity. Joe's/Farnsworth's reincarnated spirit falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man that Farnsworth had framed for securities fraud. Farnsworth trains with Max to enter a heavyweight championship boxing match against the reigning champ, when Joe/Farnsworth is again murdered by his secretary. Joe's/Farnsworth's replacement in the prize-fight with the champ is K.O. Murdoch. As the fight is about to begin, Murdoch, who has run afoul of the mob, is shot in the ring for betraying gamblers (by not "throwing" the fight). Joe's soul quickly takes Murdoch's place, and
awakens in Murdock's body lying on the floor of the ring. Joe, as Murdoch, defeats his opponent and wins the title of world champ, with only Max realizing that Joe's soul is in Murdoch's body. Murdoch loses his memory of his past life as Joe. In the conclusion, he is strangely drawn to Bette, even though they haven't met.

High Sierra (1941), 100 minutes, D: Raoul Walsh
A landmark gangster film from Warner Bros. studios (and a script by John Huston adapted from the book by WR Burnett). Remade as a western titled Colorado Territory (1949) with Joel McCrea, and as I Died a Thousand Times (1955) with Jack Palance. It tells about aging notorious gangster Roy "Mad Dog" Earle (Humphrey Bogart in his first lead role, although second-billed behind Ida Lupino). Pardoned after 8 years in prison, he is hired by his old crime boss, Big Mac (MacBride), to help amateur cons plan and carry out the jewel heist of a California resort hotel - one final job. He meets a runaway dance-hall girl named Marie (Ida Lupino), the girlfriend of one of the thugs nicknamed Babe (Alan Curtis), who eventually becomes his 'tarnished angel' friend. Before the robbery, he meets a destitute grandfather (Henry Travers) and club-footed Velma (Joan Leslie), and offers to pay for surgery to correct her disability. When he visits her after the successful operation, she rejects his marriage proposal ("We can still be friends..."), and he feels heartbroken and betrayed. Although the heist is successful, everything unravels after a car crash, a cop is killed, and an inside connection squeals to police.
In the conclusion, Earle is the target of a suspenseful manhunt high up in the Sierra Mountains as police pursue him in a doomed last stand. Marie refuses to call out to him as she tells the authorities: "He's gonna die anyway, I'd rather it was this way. Go on, all of you, kill him, kill him..." Earle is shot dead from behind when he calls out to his mongrel dog Pard. After he has been killed out in the open, a weeping Marie kneels over Earle's dead body, and asks an uncaring officer (who sarcastically calls the dead man "Big-shot Earle" - "Look at him lying there. He ain't much now, is he?"): "Mister, what does it mean when a man crashes out?" When told that it means being freed ("It means he's free"), she sadly repeats the word "Free?", questioning Roy's unnecessary death. She picks up Pard as she is escorted away and says the word "Free" one more time. The film ends with a blurry fadeout on Marie's tear-stained face as it fills the frame before a pan up to the mountains.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941), 115 minutes, D: Mitchell Leisen
A touching, moving soap-opera style melodrama from Ketti Frings' semi-autobiographical story. This was the last film written by Billy Wilder with his scripting partner Charles Brackett, before he embarked on his own directorial career. This was also the year that this film's star Olivia de Havilland was nominated as Best Actress, competing against her successful sister Joan Fontaine, also nominated for Suspicion (1941) - the first time for a pair of siblings. The film's plot was told in flashback - in the preface, the main character visits Paramount Studios in Los Angeles to sell his hard-luck romantic story to director Dwight Saxon (Mitchell Leisen, the film's actual director), for $500. An unscrupulous, hopeless Romanian refugee, dancer Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) from oppressive war-ravaged Nazi Germany, is stranded in Tijuana, a Mexican border town in the Hotel Esperanza with a number of other hopeful immigrants to the US, stuck with a waiting period of five years. His plan to satisfy immigration officials, especially Inspector Hammock (Walter Abel), is to marry a US citizen to gain entry (requiring only four weeks for a visa). He meets and marries a lonely, shy, innocent, and trusting American schoolteacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), who is visiting with her students on a school trip. Desperate to escape his situation, Iscovescu, a former gigolo, deceitfully lures the gullible Emmy into a quick matrimonial immigration scheme to merely gain entrance. His plan is to desert her after gaining entry, and link up with his old jealous girlfriend Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) from the Cote d'Azur who had also married an American to get into the US, and then dumped him. But then, they both fall deeply in love with each other, evidenced by Georges crossing the border illegally when Emmy has a car accident and is hospitalized and unconscious in Los Angeles. [This is when Georges requests $500 in the preface, to be used to help Emmy.] Although Georges is arrested and brought back to Mexico, he is soon released to cross the border to be with Emmy.

How Green Was My Valley (1941), 118 minutes, D: John Ford
Derived from Richard Llewellyn's best-selling autobiographical novel about labor unrest, personal tragedy, the end to a way of life, and the power of the family. Beautifully directed, vividly photographed, and performed, with a well-written screenplay, one of John Ford's masterpieces (for which he won his third Best Director Oscar). Controversial though, because it won the Best Picture Academy Award over Citizen Kane (1941) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). 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 (with seven children), relating the story in flashback. With many memorable performances including the family's strict anti-union patriarch Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) and matriarch Beth (Sara Allgood), and the noble-spirited beauty - the lovely unmarried 17 year-old daughter Angharad (19 year-old Irish actress Maureen O'Hara). Domestic life, romance, harsh treatment at school, the departure of two Morgan boys to find their fortune in America, unrequited love between the local preacher Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) and the only Morgan daughter, and other events (such as a labor dispute, and a devastating mine accident) are portrayed within the warm, human story.

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 (Fonda's multiple pratfalls) 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 crooked 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/ophiologist Charles "Hoppsy" Pike (Henry Fonda), the socially-awkward 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 ulterior motives before she can confess, and he dumps her. To get revenge for being coldly dropped, she poses with another identity - as an English aristocratic lady, Lady Eve Sidwich, and he falls in love with her all over again in front of his tycoon father Horace (Eugene Pallette) at the Pikes' Ridgefield, Connecticut mansion. She later 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 (with assistance from others including Dorothy Parker), with fabulous cinematography (deep-focus) by the acclaimed Gregg Toland. Followed by the pre-quel Another Part of the Forest (1948) with Fredric March and Ann Blyth. This was the third icy, mostly-villainous female role that Bette Davis performed for director William Wyler (after Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940)). It was the turn-of-the century story about 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. The principled Horace, who is an invalid with a bad heart, wants no part of their exploitative 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, manipulative and conniving Regina blackmails her brothers into giving her a percentage of the business. Horace, however, foils Regina's scheme when he informs her 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 very bold and memorable scene, the heartless and avaricious Regina refuses his pleas for help to get his medicine as he expires on the staircase. The cold-hearted Regina is left alone and deserted by her daughter.

The Maltese Falcon (1941), 100 minutes, D: John Huston
One of the all-time greatest film-noir crime-detective mysteries and scriptwriter John Huston's incredible directorial debut. Adapted from Dashiell Hammett's hard-edged detective novel about greed and deceit. Previously filmed as The Maltese Falcon (1931) (aka Dangerous Female), with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez, and as director William Dieterle's Satan Met a Lady (1936) with Bette Davis. Poorly remade as Roger Corman's Target: Harry (1969), and the comedy The Black Bird (1975) with George Segal. Hard-boiled San Francisco sleuth/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, a treacherous femme fatale (Brigid O'Shaughnessy) 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 (and scriptwriter Robert Riskin), Capra's third Depression-Era populist parable about the common man's struggles, following after Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). 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, Doe writes that he is for the common man and little guy, but is so disgusted by powerful political corruption (and big money interests) 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 to appeal to the masses. 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, manipulated 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. In one of the film's most powerful scenes held at a rally, 'John Doe' is denounced as a fraud. He 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, to skewer the entire movie business. 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 he wishes to make 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, heartwarming, poignant and moving film told episodically, and based on a biographical book written by Hartzell Spence, the son of the actual real-life minister. Although trained to be a doctor, William Spence (Fredric March) in the early 1900s decides to quit his studies and devote himself to God and ministry. The Rev. Spence, now a devoted Methodist minister begins his work 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 the faith of 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, and the highest grossing film of the year. An authentic war saga and portrait of a poor Tennessee backwoods mountain boy Alvin C. York (Best Actor-winning Gary Cooper). His hot-headed brawling, hell-raising life in Pall Mall changes when he falls in love with teenaged Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), works hard to buy farm land for them sometime in the future, and has a life-changing religious experience signaled by a bolt of lightning. When the war breaks out, he refuses to enlist (as a conscientious objector), but is reluctantly 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 kills about 20 Germans (in a machine gun nest to save his comrades), and captures (almost single-handedly) a large regiment of 132 German soldiers in the Battle of the Argonne, becoming the most decorated soldier of the war. Upon his return, he is greeted with parades, the gift of a farm and house by the people of Tennessee, and the love of Gracie. A sensitive, affecting, and compassionate portrayal of York 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 yet naive 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 "message" picture to be titled "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - 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 for his next movie - about how the common people are experiencing the Great Depression, so that he has a fresh, first-hand experience of the dark days of suffering. He is joined by a waitress and has-been actress dubbed The Girl (Veronica Lake) to encounter the common people during their journey. Only when Sullivan, after one failed attempt to shake off the publicity-seeking studio, experiences real poverty, loss of his name and memory, and his freedom, does he begin to understand the plight of his beaten companions. When he views a Mickey Mouse cartoon in a brutal work camp where he has been sentenced to a 6-year term, he discovers the real value of laughter and returns reinvigorated to Hollywood to make comedies that will lift people's spirits.

Suspicion (1941), 99 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
A suspenseful classic thriller from Alfred Hitchcock. Fontaine won the Best Actress Academy Award, some thought as consolation for not winning the previous year for Rebecca (1940). A lonely, prim, overprotected and 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), known for his womanizing, fortune-hunting reputation. 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, with a nightly poisoned glass of milk delivered to 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. Unfortunately, the studio modified the ending, making it a disappointing and contrived finale with a happy ending. She barely escapes death after a careening drive on a twisty cliffside road with Johnnie driving.

That Hamilton Woman (1941, UK), 128 minutes, D: Alexander Korda
A touching, poignant and sadly beautiful costume drama, and reportedly Winston Churchill's favorite film. 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), portrayed by two married stars who also had an affair while married to other spouses. 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 - a dance hall girl. She had raised herself up to become an unloved "trophy" wife of the British ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). Seven to eight years later, Lady Hamilton meets the dashing Nelson when he again comes to Naples to ask for the king's support in the fight against Napoleon - and soon wins the war in Egypt. When he returns as a wounded Admiral, they fall passionately in love - and she takes care of him when he is exhausted and in poor health (he lost an arm and eye in battle), while Sir Hamilton lets their affair occur. But their love is thwarted because Lord Nelson is married to the stern and unforgiving Lady Nelson (Gladys Cooper). When Sir Hamilton dies, he leaves his inheritance to his nephew, and Lady Hamilton is left penniless. Nelson asks his wife Lady Nelson for a divorce so that he can marry a pregnant Emma, but she refuses. The couple were able to defy gossipers by setting up housekeeping (with their child) for a few years in the English countryside cottage, 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, and one of the last of Universal's great monster films. This film spawned many sequels with Lon Chaney, Jr. continuing in the role with which he would always be identified - the wolfman. Also remade as The Wolfman (2010). Easy-going, innocent British heir Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to Wales to the castle-mansion of his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) after an education in America. When he visits an antique shop and its pretty blonde shopkeeper Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), he purchases a rare silver-topped cane with a pentagram design - a symbol of the werewolf. Shortly after, at a gypsy festival accompanied by Talbot, Gwen has her palm read by Bela (Bela Lugosi) and his mother, gypsy fortune teller Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) - and the results are alarming (the image of a pentagram). Then, Talbot is bitten by a ravenous, hairy werewolf (also Bela Lugosi) when he attempts to save Gwen's girlfriend, beautiful young Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) from being attacked on the moors. When the police investigate, they only discover the body of Bela. Maleva informs Talbot that the bite is from no ordinary wolf - he has been bitten by a werewolf, and at each new full moon, he is now condemned like her son was. That night the moon is full, and Talbot is transformed into a blood-thirsty creature, who first kills the gravedigger. In the final moments of the film, Talbot's father joins a search party and kills the beast with the silver cane as it attacks Gwen on the moors, ending the man's suffering. After Talbot's body (transformed from a werewolf) is found at the site, he is praised as Gwen's heroic rescuer.

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