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

Bambi (1942), 70 minutes, D: Disney Studio
Another appealing, popular Disney animated film classic, based on Felix Salten's book. The legendary film follows newborn baby fawn Bambi as he grows up, experiences the loss of his mother by a hunter, and eventually becoming a leader of the herd - a magnificent stag. The maturing of Bambi illustrates the struggles, turmoil, and changes that accompany the changing of seasons, the passage of time, and life's survival, as he comes of age and completes the cycle of life. With memorable supporting characters and forest friends of Bambi, including Thumper the rabbit, Flower the skunk and Owl the owl. Memorable scenes include the killing of Bambi's mother, and the forest fire.

Casablanca (1942), 104 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
The best-loved film of all time, a perennial-favorite, a must-see classic and Best Picture. [Note: The date given for the film is often either 1942 and 1943. That is because its limited premiere was in 1942, but the film did not play nationally, or in Los Angeles, until 1943.] A tale of intrigue, romance, love lost, heroism, and conscience, with a well-paced dialogue, sentimental script, moody and atmospheric sets, and a first-rate cast of memorable characters. Set during World War II in Casablanca (North Africa) at a seedy Algerian saloon/nightclub run by cynical saloonkeeper Richard "Rick" Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expatriate. The Cafe Americain is filled with European refugees, smugglers, thieves and Nazis. Into his joint walks now-married, long-lost-love Ilsa Lund Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman) and her underground Resistance freedom-fighter husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who are trying to arrange their escape from the Nazis. They urge him to help support the French Resistance movement. Vivid memories of Rick's and the luminous Ilsa's passionate Paris love affair (just before the Germans occupied the city) ending in betrayal are shown in flashback. Ilsa asks Rick to them escape to neutral Lisbon, because he has two "letters of transit" - will he give the letters to them, or will she stay with Rick?

Cat People (1942), 73 minutes, D: Jacques Tourneur
A classic, suspenseful RKO horror film, the first produced by horror film master Val Lewton (and his biggest hit), with moody and sinister atmosphere, eerie sound effects, subtle understatement, interesting camera angles, and judicious use of shock effects. An ship-building architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) marries a mysterious but beautiful young fashion designer Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon). He worries when his obsessed wife refuses to consummate the marriage. She believes she has inherited her Balkan family's ancient and evil curse from the homeland - part of a legend that if she becomes sexually and passionately aroused, she may be transformed into a killer panther and hunt and kill her lover. Psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) foolishly thinks he can cure her.

Gentleman Jim (1942), 104 minutes, D: Raoul Walsh
An entertaining, highly-fictionalized sports biography of famous heavyweight boxer "Gentleman Jim" James J. Corbett (Errol Flynn). It follows his career from a poor, brawling Irish family, to a lowly job as a bank clerk, then an amateur boxer, and onto the professional level in the 1890s ("the Naughty Nineties") - in the early days of bare-knuckled boxing. Based loosely upon James J. Corbett's own autobiography The Roar of the Crowd. The film is set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. He was known for using "scientific" boxing techniques - the first to "dance" around the ring with elusive footwork. He also found time to romance SF socialite love interest Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), an ambivalent patrician belle who believed he had a "swelled" head, although she supported him. Boxing was being transformed from a lower-class, illegal sport with new Marquis of Queensberry rules - three minute rounds, one minute between rounds, a ten-count, and no hitting below the belt. The brash, extroverted, stylish and charming Gentleman Jim cheerfully challenges John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) to an 1892 championship match, revealed in an exciting, action-packed sequence of 21 rounds.

In Which We Serve (1942, UK), 115 minutes, D: Noel Coward, David Lean
The first film with a directorial credit by David Lean. A stirring, patriotic (propagandistic), British World War II drama, the story of the lives of the crew of a torpedoed British destroyer HMS Torrin, commanded by Captain E. V. Kinross R.N. (director Noel Coward) (aka Captain 'D'), sunk in the Battle of Crete in 1941 in the Mediterranean. Based on the real-life experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Captain of the Royal Navy destroyer named HMS Kelly, which was sunk by enemy action early in the war in May, 1941. Filmed like a black and white documentary, with narration (by Leslie Howard) recounting the historic efforts of the three surviving crew members on a life raft, while they flash back to memories of their loved ones and service to the ship. The three were: (1) ordinary seaman Shorty Blake (John Mills), whose girlfriend was Freda Lewis (Kay Walsh), (2) Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles) who was married to ill-fated pregnant Katherine Lemmon Hardy (Joyce Carey), and (3) Capt. Edward Kinross, with two children and wife Alix (Celia Johnson). With two stirring speech sequences: an after-dinner speech by Alix, and Kinross' own concluding speech. The film closed with the narrator's words: "God bless our ships and all who sail on them."

Kings Row (1942), 127 minutes, D: Sam Wood
A penetrating look at American morals (rivalries, jealousies, and sordid affairs) in a seemingly peaceful small rural Midwestern (Missouri) town, Kings Row, at the turn of the century through to the time of World War I. With a fantastic score by composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (although unnominated for an Academy Award!). Two young men, future medical student Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) and future playboy Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan, in his career's best and most memorable role) grow up there. Other characters include the town's psychiatrist Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains) and his unbalanced, home-schooled daughter Cassandra Tower (Betty Field), Drake's working class girlfriend Randy Monoghan (Ann Sheridan), and the troubled and sheltered Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), daughter of vengeful and moralistic Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn). When they reach adulthood, a series of tragic incidents reveal sadism, insanity, moral decay, deceitfulness, and pettiness deceptively hidden. At one point, Drake asks Louise to marry him, but she declines. And then Cassie is poisoned by her father (who wishes to protect Parris from his insane daughter), who then suicidally shoots himself. Drake, who marries Randy, is unexpectedly the victim of a brutal Dr. Gordon, who unnecessarily amputates both his legs following an accident, prompting him to ask in the famous line: "Where's the rest of me?" [Note: Future president Ronald Reagan titled his 1965 autobiography with this line.] The film ends with Parris becoming the town's doctor after the death of Dr. Gordon, his truthful support of Drake, and his romancing of Elise Sandor (Kaaren Verne) whose family lives in his former residence.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), 88 minutes, D: Orson Welles
An adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a rich and dramatic period production, although Welles claimed it was "ruined" by the studio's intervention, editing, and censorship. The studio reshot some of the footage, re-edited the film down from the original length - 148 minutes - to 88 minutes, misunderstanding it and mutilating it with cuts, and adding a happy ending. This was Orson Welles' first film following his cinematic success with Citizen Kane a year earlier. Welles both wrote the screenplay and directed this film, a favorite of the critics, and a score composed by Bernard Herrmann.
With rich innovative cinematographic and audio techniques (by Stanley Cortez), including contrasting light and dark shadows, deep-focus photography, moving dolly and truck camera shots, iris-in iris-out scene closings, and "Welles sound" montages. It is the 25-year story of the decline of a wealthy midwestern Victorian family, the Ambersons, beginning in the 1890s and continuing into the 20th century. Young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) loves Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but she marries Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). About twenty years later, Eugene returns to the town as a successful automobile inventor/manufacturer and begins to court the widowed Isabel. But her spoiled and arrogant Oedipal youngest son George Amberson (Tim Holt), breaks up their relationship. The Amberson family fortune disappears, as Eugene's automobile industry fluorishes.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), 112 minutes, D: William Keighley
A wacky, side-splitting classic screwball comedy, originally a smash Broadway hit play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, although stagey and dated on screen. A bombastic, cocky, and witty radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) on a lecture tour falls and breaks his leg on slippery ice while in Mesalia, Ohio. The egotistical and abrasive Sheridan must remain during the winter at the house of a local midwestern family, conservative businessman Ernest (Grant Mitchell) and his dotty matronly wife Daisy Stanley (Billie Burke) while he recuperates from his injury, aided by nurse Miss Preen (Mary Wickes). His hosts are driven crazy and relegated to the second floor, and the household is thrown into chaos by his unending eccentric demands, expensive long-distance phone calls, orders to the servants, his loud-mouthed obnoxious manner, exotic animals (an octopus and penguins), and an assortment of oddball friends that come to visit him. His trusted secretary Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis) falls in love with local newspaper man Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis), complicating everything when the conniving Sheridan hires gold-digging, narcissistic actress friend Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) to seductively steal Maggie's love interest so that she won't marry and then quit as his secretary. And when Sheridan discovers that his leg is actually fine, he bribes Dr. Bradley (George Barbier) to prolong his stay, and uses blackmail (the threat to reveal that the Stanley's nutty sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) was once put away for being an axe murderer) to remain ensconced.

Mrs. Miniver (1942), 134 minutes, D: William Wyler
A moving, morale-boosting, propagandistic war drama (Best Picture winner) and box-office hit from MGM, adapted from the novel by Jan Struther. It follows the lives of beleaguered but courageous British villagers who face tremendous trials, hardships, and dangers during World War II and the Nazi aggression. In the town of Belham outside of London in the Thames Valley, the middle-class Miniver family, headed by Clem (Walter Pidgeon) and Kay Miniver (Oscar-winning Greer Garson) face the onset of the war, including war-time rationings, bombings during the London Blitz, a downed, wounded and threatening German paratrooper, the trauma of their sons fighting in the effort - one of whom is their eldest Oxford-educated son Vin (Richard Ney) who enters the Royal Air Force, and terrifying air raids - one of which kills daughter-in-law Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), Vin's wife. In the finale, the courageous family sings "Onward Christian Soldiers" in a bombed-out village church as proof that there will always be an England, and the church's vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) reads from Psalm 91 and delivers a moving, patriotic speech. Includes dramatic footage of the Dunkirk evacuation (in which Clem participates).

Now, Voyager (1942), 117 minutes, D: Irving Rapper
A sentimental, superb, romantic soap opera and tearjerker with great performances and a lush Max Steiner score, with a title based on Walt Whitman's 1900 work Leaves of Grass and the poem "The Untold Want": "Now, Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find." A shy, disturbed, dowdy and lonely middle-aged spinster, Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) from a prominent Boston family is dominated and tormented by her mean, unloving mother Mrs. Henry Windle Vale (Gladys Cooper). Sheltered ugly duckling Charlotte is helped by kindly psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) at his clinic to assist her in blossoming into a swan - a lovely, confident young woman brought out of her shell. She takes an ocean cruise to discover herself and meets handsome, but unhappily married Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid). They have an affair and enter into an ill-fated romance - because he will never leave his wife. Returning to Boston, she resists falling under her mother's domination and is liberated from maternal control. Her mother suffers a stroke when Charlotte breaks off her engagement to an eminent Bostonian Elliot Livingston (John Loder) after meeting Jerry again. Charlotte returns to Jaquith's clinic to resolve feelings of guilt and there identifies with and helps Jerry's shy, withdrawn daughter Tina (Janis Wilson), who has been rejected by her mother too. By coming close to Tina as a surrogate mother, she brings Jerry back into her life. Includes the famous, memorable scene of Durrance lighting two cigarettes at once.

The Palm Beach Story (1942), 88 minutes, D: Preston Sturges
One of the best of Preston Sturges' fast-paced, zany and madcap screwball comedies with snappy dialogue, originally titled: 'Is Marriage Necessary?' It opens with the end of the five-year marriage of struggling, poor, stingy architectural engineer/inventor Tom (Joel McCrea) and his frustrated, slightly wacky, but ambitious wife Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert). As she is preparing to leave, the couple meet the half-deaf Texas "Wienie King" (Robert Dudley) who is apartment-hunting, and offers the destitute couple $700 (for back rent, a new dress and salon visit, and dinner). Shortly after, Gerry departs and boards a train bound for posh Palm Beach, Florida, to get a divorce. Her scheme is to help finance her husband's inventions (and plans for a $99,000 airport) by locating a rich bank-rolling financier. On the train, she encounters a wealthy but wacky, oddball heiress divorced five times named Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), her companion Toto (Sig Arno) and her eccentric, clumsy millionaire brother John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), and a group of tipsy millionaire hunters in the Ale and Quail Club, led by First Member (William Demarest). J.D. falls madly in love with Gerry and pursues her with wealth and riches. Things get more complicated, hilarious and interesting when Gerry's husband arrives in Florida (financed by the "Wienie King") to jealously win her back (by pretending to be Gerry's brother Captain McGlew), even while the Princess falls in love with him.

The Pride of the Yankees (1942), 127 minutes, D: Sam Wood
An exceptional sports biography of one of the greatest baseball players ever, Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper), following his life from his playground days to New York Yankee stardom in the 1920s and 30s. At the height of his career, he was afflicted by a crippling, lethal and incurable muscle disease - ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (now bearing his name "Lou Gehrig's Disease") and eventually died. The film chronicles the struggles of his immigrant parents, his early life, his romantic courtship and marriage to Eleanor (Teresa Wright), his career and his courageous fight against the disease. It is a sensitive portrayal, endearing and touchingly portrayed, especially the final emotional scene - his memorable farewell address at Yankee Stadium: "...People all say that I've had a bad break. But today - today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Random Harvest (1942), 125 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
MGM's sentimental, moving melodramatic romance with an implausible plot (based on the James Hilton novel) - about an amnesia victim who forgets the woman he loves and marries. A shell-shocked and mute World War I army officer Charles Rainier (Ronald Colman) suffers from amnesia and is renamed John Smith (or "Smithy"). He escapes from a county asylum and in a small town, he meets and falls in love with a music dance hall singer/performer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). They are happily married, move into a cottage, and have a son together. While away in London to sell a story he has written about three years later, a sudden shock to his head from a car accident causes him to regain his former memory/life from three years earlier as Charles Rainier and forget Paula and their life together. Paula tracks him down, and finds him at work in his family's industrial factory. She reenters his life as Margaret Hansen, but on the advice of the doctor, does not reveal her identity or their past life together (or that their son had died). She becomes his devoted secretary as she persistently but patiently attempts to rekindle their relationship which he can't remember. Rainier's new fiancee, Kitty (Susan Peters) calls off their engagement, leaving him depressed, so he turns to Paula and asks her for marriage "in friendship" - or a "merger" in name only. In the final memorable scene, he is jarred into remembering his past life with her when he is fully reunited with her in the familiar setting of their cottage.

The Talk of the Town (1942), 118 minutes, D: George Stevens
An intelligent screwball comedy concerning a love triangle between a woman, a suspected murderer and a celebrated defense attorney. An avowed anarchist, factory worker Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is a fugitive from justice, falsely wanted and framed by his employer for murder/manslaughter and the arson of the factory. He escapes into the countryside and seeks refuge in the attic of a rented summer house, being prepared by sympathetic school teacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) for an unsuspecting vacationing law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). Dilg poses as the gardener while he attempts to prove his innocence. The stuffy renter, a strict law-and-order man, and a Supreme Court judge appointee, takes a liking to the fugitive as they engage in a series of witty debates and discuss the justice system. The judge defends Dilg from an angry lynch mob in the final trial, clearing him of the charges. The final scene reveals whom Nora romantically chooses (one of the film's two possible endings).

This Gun for Hire (1942), 80 minutes, D: Frank Tuttle
An atmospheric, sinister, film noir mystery from Paramount Studios, an adaptation from Graham Greene's novel A Gun for Sale. Remade as director James Cagney's Short Cut to Hell (1957). This was the first of four pictures teaming Alan Ladd with co-star Veronica Lake and their great on-screen chemistry, followed by two great noirs: The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Saigon (1948). Paid professional killer Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), after committing two murders for hire, seeks revenge after being double-crossed by double-agent Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) and chemical company president Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall). Drawn into the hunt after meeting by accident (and sharing a common enemy, Gates) is super-sultry, peek-a-boo blonde nightclub singer/magician Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), who attempts to understand the "soft side" of the murderous, cold-blooded hired gun, who admits he was abused as a child. The pair struggle to avoid police, led by Ellen's boyfriend - police investigator Michael Crane (Robert Preston), as Raven tracks his double-crossing smugglers down to a secret plant where the spy ring manufactures poison gas to sell to Japan - the wartime enemy. In the rousing conclusion, Brewster attempts to kill Raven but dies of heart failure, while Raven shoots Gates dead. Raven is lethally-wounded by police, but does not shoot Michael because Ellen is helping him. As Raven dies, they find the sabotagers' written confession.

To Be or Not to Be (1942), 99 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
A classic, black comedy satire, propagandizing and exposing the real nature of the Nazis by lampooning the Third Reich and its leader. It was a controversial film that used humor to deliver a powerful message against tyranny. Remade as a comedy To Be or Not to Be (1983), by director Mel Brooks. The two leads are hilarious Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and flirtatious Maria (Carole Lombard in her final screen appearance, before her tragic death in a plane crash) - the husband-and-wife stars of a shabby Polish Shakespearean theatrical group. They satirize and outwit the Nazis during World War II in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Their anti-Nazi play is censored and replaced with a production of Hamlet. Joseph gives priceless imitations of Hamlet and Hitler and other disguises to fool the inquisitive Nazis, led by bumbling Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), aka "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt. They help Polish flyer Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who is madly in love with Maria, to prevent an imposter-spy sent from England named Prof. Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) from delivering names of the underground resistance to the Gestapo.

Woman of the Year (1942), 112 minutes, D: George Stevens
A witty romantic comedy-drama (and a semi-screwball comedy) about gender roles originally developed by Garson Kanin (with an Oscar-winning script by Ring Lardner, Jr. and Michael Kanin). This marks the first onscreen pairing of Tracy and Hepburn (the first of nine such films that lasted over a period of 25 years). It is a charming film with superb acting, dialogue and chemistry between the two actors. Successful New York newspaper sportswriter Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) teaches a celebrated, sophisticated, no-nonsense, career-minded political columnist (working for the same newspaper) Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn), who knows everything but sports and domesticity, about the simple pleasures of life. They first meet after he angrily responds in a column to her unpopular opinion that baseball games should be suspended during the war. The opposites (or odd-couples) have some attraction to each other and they get married, but find that they have very little in common with each other. She is clueless when he takes her to a daytime baseball game - a classic scene. The plot highlights their strained marital relationship: her inabilities as a housewife although she is a devoted career-woman feminist, while he drinks, has typical male expectations and resents her working career. In the film's conclusion, she considers getting divorced, but then is chosen "Woman of The Year." The film includes the famous final scene of Tess attempting to cook breakfast (coffee, waffles, and eggs) in his kitchen, with disastrous results.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), 126 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
A somewhat fictionalized rags-to-riches, All-American biography and grand musical - one of Hollywood's greatest musicals, and the highest-grossing film of the year. Notable for having its energetic tough-guy star, James Cagney, honored as the first Academy Award Oscar for Best Actor for a performance in a musical. Cagney reprised the role of George M. Cohan in The Seven Little Foys (1955). This film, mostly told in flashback, is about the legendary life of Cohan, the early 20th century vaudevillian song and dance (hoofer) man, prodigious Broadway playwright and songwriter (with at least three dozen-produced Broadway musical shows and more than 300 songs). Born on the 4th of July, immensely patriotic Cohan (James Cagney) relates his life story in flashback to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Captain Jack Young, only viewed from the back). He was a member of a vaudevillian family including his father Jerry (Walter Huston), mother Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), and sister Josie (Jeanne Cagney). Through sheer determination and talent, he becomes the most famous performer, songwriter and screen writer (aka "the man who owned Broadway"). With fancy footwork and memorable flag-waving tunes (such as "Over There," You're a Grand Old Flag," and "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), this was a film that helped to build World War II morale on the homefront.

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