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 film follows newborn baby fawn Bambi as he grows up, 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. 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. 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). 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. Vivid memories of Rick's and 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 sports biography of famous heavyweight boxer "Gentleman Jim" James J. Corbett (Errol Flynn) and his career from amateur boxer to professional in the 1890s, the early days of boxing. He was known for using "scientific" boxing techniques - the first to "dance" around the ring with elusive footwork. The brash, stylish and charming Gentleman Jim cheerfully challenges John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) to a championship match, in an exciting, action-packed sequence.

In Which We Serve (1942, UK), 115 minutes, D: Noel Coward, David Lean
A stirring, patriotic, British World War II drama, the story of the lives of the crew of a torpedoed British destroyer Torrin, commanded by Captain Kinross (director Noel Coward). Based on the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten (whose ship was sunk early in the war) and filmed like a documentary, with narration recounting the historic efforts of the crew as they survive the ship's sinking and struggle on a raft, while they flash back to memories of their loved ones.

Kings Row (1942), 127 minutes, D: Sam Wood
A penetrating look at American morals in a seemingly peaceful small rural Midwestern town at the turn of the century through to the time of World War I. 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 daughter Cassandra (Betty Field), Drake's girlfriend Randy Monoghan (Ann Sheridan), and troubled Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman), daughter of vengeful Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn). When they reach adulthood, a series of tragic incidents reveal sadism, insanity, moral decay, deceitfulness, and pettiness deceptively hidden. Drake 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?"

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

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. 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. It is the 25-year story of the decline of a wealthy midwestern Victorian family, the Ambersons, beginning in the 1890s. 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 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. With rich innovative cinematographic and audio techniques, 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.

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 Kaufman and Hart. A bombastic, cocky, and witty radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) falls and breaks his leg on slippery ice while on tour in Ohio. He must remain during the winter at the house of the local midwestern family, the Ernest Stanleys (Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke) while he recuperates from his injury. His hosts are driven crazy and the household is thrown into chaos by his unending eccentric demands, his loud-mouthed obnoxious manner, and the assortment of oddball friends that come to visit him.

Mrs. Miniver (1942), 134 minutes, D: William Wyler
A moving, morale-boosting war drama (and Best Picture winner), following the lives of beleaguered but courageous British villagers who face tremendous trials, hardships, and dangers during World War II. In the town of Belham outside of London, the middle-class Miniver family, headed by Clem (Walter Pidgeon) and Kay Miniver (Greer Garson) face the onset of the war, including war-time rationings, bombings, a downed, wounded and threatening German pilot, terrifying air raids, and the trauma of their sons fighting in the effort. In the finale, the courageous family sings "Onward Christian Soldiers" in a bombed-out church as proof that there will always be an England, and the church's vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) delivers a moving, patriotic speech. Includes dramatic footage of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Now, Voyager (1942), 117 minutes, D: Irving Rapper
A sentimental, superb, romantic soap opera and tearjerker with great performances. 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). 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. 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. 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, 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. The frustrated, slightly wacky, but ambitious wife Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) of a struggling, poor, stingy engineer/inventor Tom (Joel McCrea) leaves her five-year marriage and boards a train bound for posh Palm Beach, Florida, to get a divorce. On the train, she encounters a wealthy but wacky, oddball heiress Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) and her eccentric, clumsy millionaire brother John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), and a group of millionaires in the Ale and Quail Club. He falls madly in love with her and pursues her. Things get more complicated, hilarious and interesting when her husband arrives in Florida to win her back, and 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 muscle disease - 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.

Random Harvest (1942), 125 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
A sentimental, moving romance about an amnesia victim who forgets the woman he loves and marries. A shell-shocked 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 meets and falls in love with a music dance hall singer/performer Paula Ridgeway (Greer Garson). They are happily married 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 as Charles Rainier and forget her and their life together. She tracks him down and reenters his life as Margaret Hansen, but on the advice of the doctor, does not reveal her identity or their life together. She becomes his devoted secretary as she 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 name only. In the final memorable scene, he is jarred into remembering his past life with her when he is reunited with her in a familiar setting.

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 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 mob in the final trial, clearing him of the charges.

This Gun for Hire (1942), 80 minutes, D: Frank Tuttle
An atmospheric, sinister, film noir mystery, an adaptation from Graham Greene's novel A Gun for Sale. A hired professional killer Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) seeks revenge after being double-crossed by double-agent Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) and Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall). Drawn into the hunt is super-sultry peek-a-boo blonde Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), who attempts to understand the "soft side" of the murderous hired gun. The pair struggle to avoid police as he tracks his victims down to a secret plant where they manufacture poison gas to sell to the enemy.

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. Hilarious Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and flirtatious Maria (Carole Lombard), the husband-and-wife stars of a shabby Polish Shakespearean theatrical group, 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. They help Polish flyer Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) prevent a spy named Prof. Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) from delivering names of the underground to the Gestapo. Joseph gives priceless imitations of Hamlet and Hitler. Notable as Carole Lombard's last film before her tragic death in a plane crash.

Woman of the Year (1942), 112 minutes, D: George Stevens
A witty romantic comedy-drama, and the first onscreen pairing of Tracy and Hepburn (the first of nine such films that lasted 25 years), 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. Opposites attract and they get married, but find that they have very little in common with each other.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), 126 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
A somewhat fictionalized rags-to-riches, All-American biography and musical - one of Hollywood's greatest musicals, and the highest-grossing film of the year. It tells of the legendary life of George M. Cohan, the early 20th century vaudevillian song and dance (hoofer) man, prodigious Broadway playwright and songwriter. Born on the 4th of July, immensely patriotic Cohan (James Cagney) relates his life story in flashback to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 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"), a film that helped to build World War II morale on the homefront. 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.

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