A Century of Cinema: 1940-1949

Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1930-1939.

Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1940-1949:

 

Casablanca (1942) – Roger “Buddy” Allman

Casablanca

As a film critic, historian, and professor, not to mention one of the film “geeks” on the Two Geeks and a GIT movie review podcast, I am very frequently asked, “What is your favorite movie of all time?” Naturally, this question is quite problematic; choosing a favorite movie out of all the fantastic films I love so much is comparable to choosing a favorite child. Ask me this question on ten different days, I’m likely to give you ten different answers. But more often than not, the answer I give to the question “what is your favorite film?” is Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz. This unbelievably fantastic artifact of cinematic excellence, starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, and many other great actors from the elite tier of Golden-Age Hollywood, may just very well be the most perfect movie ever filmed.

Don’t believe me? Perhaps the movie’s numerous accolades speak louder than I can. This film is one of the rare few to win the “Big Three” Oscars: Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Directing, and of course Best Picture, while also being nominated for five more. As of this writing, Casablanca currently has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a practically unheard-of Metascore of 100. And that’s just for starters; virtually any critic, from Roger Ebert to Peter Bradshaw to Kate Cameron, has chosen this movie as one of the very best. It’s truly an American classic.

Casablanca, written by Howard Koch and Julius & Philip Epstein, tells the story of Rick Blaine (Bogart), a hardened and peculiarly expatriated American businessman who runs a saloon in the titular African city in Morocco during WWII. Circumstances bring some letters of transit, which anyone can use to escape the reach of the Third Reich and settle in America, into Rick’s hands, just before he is visited by resistance leader Victor Lazlo (played by Paul Henreid), a famous political agitator and painful thorn in the Nazis’ side. Major Strasser of the Third Reich (played by Conrad Veidt) arrives to attempt to arrest Lazlo and bring him back to occupied France. Rick is sometimes helped and occasionally opposed by the local Prefect of Police, Captain Renault (played by Claude Rains), a “poor corrupt official” who behaves like “any other man, only more so.” And if all this isn’t enough, there is a severe complication; Lazlo’s wife, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), with whom he comes to Casablanca, once had an affair with Rick, and it turns out they still have feelings for each other. Rick must decide whether to give up his cynical ways (“I stick my neck out for nobody,” he often reminds his guests) and let go of his selfishness, his jealousy, and his disparagement in order to espouse a much more noble cause. A fantastic cadre of incredible supporting actors, such as Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson, all contribute to one of the most tense, dramatic, romantic, entertaining, and expertly paced narratives ever produced in Hollywood, creating a truly timeless story that never, ever feels played-out or stale, no matter how many times it is viewed (and I have viewed this film a great many times in my life).

Remembering that this film was released while the war was still raging should impress its current audience that at the time, we had NO idea the Allies were going to win the war, and the notion that the Nazis might actually soon be marching on the streets of New York City was a real possibility; yet, this film is uplifting and inspiring, lending forth a strong element of patriotism and probity rarely seen in any movie, let alone a Classic Hollywood Style film. But Casablanca plays that deft hand with the amazing subtlety and grace of a master storyteller, utilizing one of the most well-paced and efficient screenplays ever written, as well as being beautifully shot and magnificently orchestrated. Casablanca is not only one of the very best films of the 1940s; it’s simply one of the best films, period. If you haven’t yet seen it, give yourself a genuine cinematic treat and watch it soon. Eventually, everybody comes to Rick’s.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

 

Double Indemnity (1944) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski

Double Indemnity

Film noir, aka black (or dark) film, was a term coined by a group of French critics for a specific style of film common in the 40’s and 50’s. Femme fatales, voice over/narration, crime/detective thrillers, dramatic lighting, pessimism – even venetian blinds. All characteristics of film noir exhibited in the 1943 Billy Wilder film, Double Indemnity. Starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyk, Double Indemnity is an adaptation of the 1935 novel by James M. Cain. It follows the story of an insurance agent who falls under the spell of the beautiful wife of a wealthy man, who uses that to convince him to carry out an insurance fraud scheme and murder her husband. Yikes.

This is honestly one of my favorite films ever. It’s not an incredibly original story line any more, but it sure is incredibly well made film. THE WRITING IS SO CLEVER. (S’pose you go watch this clip on YouTube and see for yourself right now). The pacing is methodical and builds the perfect amount of tension slowly but surely right under your nose. It looks fairly simple, yet it’s mysterious and beautiful every image means something to the narrative. The narration gives you just enough to keep you around for more, and completely sets the tone for the whole film. It’s super pessimistic and kinda makes you feel sad for humanity in the best way, and we see some awesome performances from some very prominent actors from that era. I would go so far as to say Double Indemnity is a timeless film – it won’t just be good because it’s a “classic film” we’re supposed to appreciate for some significant reason or another, it’ll always be good just because it’s good.

 

Gilda (1946) – Nick Potter

It’s no secret that when most people think about the cinema of the 40’s, they think about film noir. Arguably, the two biggest noir films are The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity (thanks for stealing my pick, Eliza), but I’d like to go to bat for a film that isn’t discussed quite as much as those: Gilda.

Gilda is the reason that you’re aware of Rita Hayworth. You may only recognize her as the woman on the poster in The Shawshank Redemption or the woman on the tv in Mulholland Drive, but both of those lasting images comes right back to this Charles Vidor directed film. Glenn Ford stars as Johnny Farrell, a young American gambler in Buenos Aires. He is rescued from a mugging by a stranger who informs him of a high-stakes casino that he should avoid, which only drives him to it. He is caught cheating and taken to the owner who happens to be the same mysterious man who told him about the casino. Johnny talks the man into hiring him along to help, but things get rocky when the man brings home his new wife, Gilda. It’s clear that Johnny and Gilda have a volatile past despite the fact that both deny it. Johnny is assigned to specifically guard Gilda and, as expected, things begin to escalate in their love-hate relationship. I was able to see this for the first time earlier this year via the Criterion Collection, and found myself too enraptured to willingly spoil this tense noir.

Glenn Ford is terrific in the lead role, as is George Macready as the casino owner, but the film is clearly a showcase in every possible aspect for Rita Hayworth. Not only was she one of the most beautiful and talented women in the history of cinema, but her Gilda has become one of the most iconic femme fatales of the entire noir movement. The introduction to her character in this film establishes so much with showing so little, and seems like a clear inspiration to Marilyn Monroe’s introduction in The Asphalt Jungle only four years later.

Sometimes a favorite film seems like an obvious pick, but I also like to ensure that things stay interesting as well. Gilda was not my initial thought, and it wasn’t even in my first three thoughts, but I wouldn’t change it on this list for anything. Few things make me happier than loving a film that you had no expectations for, and Gilda did exactly that.

 

His Girl Friday (1940) – Patty Williamson

His Girl Friday

Writing about a favorite film from the 1940s is tough, as the selections include some Hollywood classics. It seems like a no-brainer to write about a film such as Citizen Kane. I mean, Orson Welles’ classic about a lonely media titan with a burning desire to rule the world remains relevant today. But if you really want to know my favorite film from this important decade, it is, without a doubt, His Girl Friday. This 1940 screwball comedy starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant moves at a furious pace, jam-packed with witty banter; a trademark of director Howard Hawks.

The film is based on a 1928 Broadway play titled The Front Page, which was adapted for the screen and released as a film with the same title in 1931. The screen version of The Front Page was directed by Lewis Milestone and produced by Howard Hughes for United Artists. But that film doesn’t come close to the energy and witty repartee found in His Girl Friday. The main change from the original is that one of the main male characters was rewritten for a woman. Hildebrand Johnson (played in The Front Page by Pat O’Brien) becomes Hildy Johnson, played perfectly by Rosalind Russell. And thus the newspaper business-based comedy became a romantic comedy with a strong female lead.

Walter (Cary Grant) is the editor of the Morning Post and Hildy (Rosalind Russell) is his star reporter, and his ex-wife. Hildy breaks the news to Walter that she is soon remarrying a boring insurance salesman and moving to upstate New York to start a new life as a housewife. She wants to leave Walter and the newspaper business far behind. Walter, still in love with his ex, meets her milquetoast fiancée Bruce Baldwin (played by Ralph Bellamy) and immediately plots to win her back, both romantically and professionally. In order to do so, Walter entices Hildy into writing one last big expose about a man named Earl Williams, who is set to be executed for killing a policeman. The only problem is; he may be innocent. Hildy works tirelessly on the story, is confronted by the escaped man, who she helps to hide from the authorities. In the end, Hildy breaks the story, and realizes she can’t leave her job. She’s a “newspaperman” at heart. She’s addicted to her work. And the truth is, she’s still in love with Walter, even if he is a scoundrel. Hildy bids meek, nice-guy Bruce Baldwin farewell, and agrees to remarry Walter and return to her reporting gig.

The plot and dialogue move at a frenetic pace. Rosalind Russell is powerful in her iconic striped suit, armed with a quick wit and biting comebacks. Overlapping dialogue and constant movement of the characters on screen create a dance of sorts between the two leads. Russell and Grant have great chemistry, and Bellamy shines as the beleaguered fiancé who has no chance to walk away with firebrand Hildy. The film’s 92-minute runtime keeps the audience on its toes. The rapid-fire one-liners and banter between characters are perfectly executed. His Girl Friday is a classic screwball romantic comedy, and my choice for favorite ‘40s film.

 

The Great Dictator (1940) – Dylan Clauson

The Great Dictator

If you read our lists for the 1910s & 1920s, then you already know that I am a big Charlie Chaplin fan and the reason for that is his 1940 hit The Great Dictator. The film follows two character, both played by Chaplin: a nameless Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the ruthless dictator of Tomania meant to be a direct parody of Adolf Hitler. When Hynkel orders the extermination of Jewish-Tomanians, the barber is sent to a concentration camp with his friend and former Tomanian officer Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). Schultz and the barber eventually escape the camp in stolen officer’s uniforms just as Hynkel’s forces invade neighboring Osterlich, where the barber’s family is currently in hiding. Thanks to a good ol’ switcharoo, the Tomanians confuse the barber (in his disguise) for their leader while at the same time the real Hynkel, who was duck hunting in civilian clothes, is mistaken for the Jewish barber. The real Hynkel is arrested and sent to a concentration camp by the barber, posing as Hynkel, addresses the nation in one of the most powerful speeches ever performed on film.

Beginning production in 1937, the horrors of Hitler’s regime were not yet apparent to the world at large. In fact, due to Britain’s policy of compliance with Germany at the time, Chaplin was warned that the film would be banned in the UK upon its release. By 1940 Great Britain was in open war with Germany, so the ban never happened. The film was however banned in Germany until 1958 and heavily censored in Italy until the 1970s and Spain until 2002. Meanwhile, President Roosevelt personally encouraged Chaplin to finish the film and General Eisenhower requested French dubs be made for distribution in France after its liberation from the Nazis. That being said, Chaplin himself has confessed that had he known the full scope of Hitler’s atrocities he may not have parodied them in such a way.

The Great Dictator is simultaneously one of the funniest and most powerful films of the 1940s, finding a perfect balance between whimsical gags and commentary on the growing Nazi threat in a way that only Chaplin could. This balance is evident by the fact that the two most iconic scenes from the film are Chaplin’s speech about peace and humanity (linked above) and one where he dances with an inflatable globeThe Great Dictator is a phenomenal film that served to lift the spirits of countless people during a time of unfathomable war and it is a movie that needs to be seen.

 

Honorable mentions for the 1940s, in no particular order:

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941)
  • Late Spring (1949)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • The Killers (1946)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

What are some your favorite films of the 1940s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1950-1959 coming up in two weeks.

Dylan Clauson

A good, good beard boy that studied broadcasting and film at Central Michigan University, where I learned how to pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

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[…] Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1940-1949. […]

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