Several months ago I started a list of my picks for the Greatest Movies ever made. I began with silent films, made my way through the 30’s, then started the 40’s but got sidetracked by, um, laziness.
I’m going to continue with my list of the 20 films that I feel are the best of the 40’s. My picks are deeply personal and will enrage many film school types who will wonder why Citizen Kane is absent. Answer: it’s boring, pretentious and I have no idea what the film is about. Just try watching the movie with an audience of actual normal human beings instead of film geeks.
As you can see, the list is heavy on screwball comedies because anyone who knows anything about film knows that comedy is the hardest genre to master.
There is one foreign film on my list, Day of Wrath, directed by Carl Dreyer, a true masterpiece that never fails to reveal unexpected depths.
There are omissions, films that I love, but hey, this list is not written in stone and next year I can always come up with another list of the Greatest Movies—entirely revised.
All the films are available on DVD to which I link and many, if not all, on Netflix.
1. His Girl Friday, 1940. A comedy of remarriage, a specific genre within the larger screwball genre. Perhaps my favorite movie of all time. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell make use of brilliant whiplash dialogue to define the battle of the sexes.
2. My Favorite Wife, 1940. Another screwball comedy of remarriage. After seven years as a castaway on a remote island, Irene Dunne returns to her husband, Cary Grant, on the eve of his remarriage. Every man wants to be Clark Gable and tries. But every man also wants to be Cary Grant, but doesn’t even make an attempt. Irene Dunne might be the greatest screwball comedienne ever.
3. Remember the Night, 1940. This film, directed by the under-appreciated Mitchell Leisen is a perfect blend of comedy and drama. Barbara Stanwyck plays a hardened petty thief who is redeemed on Christmas by the honest, sturdy lawyer Fred MacMurray.
4. Waterloo Bridge, 1940. Tragic wartime romance between fallen woman Vivien Leigh and the achingly decent officer Robert Taylor. When Robert Taylor was dying of cancer he repeatedely screened this movie.
5. The Lady Eve, 1941. Barbara Stanwyck as a con artist who makes the mistake of falling in love with her mark, millionaire innocent Henry Fonda. Things get truly insane on perhaps the most horrifying wedding night ever filmed. Preston Sturges wrote, produced and directed this comic masterpiece.
6. How Green Was My Valley, 1941. Set in a Welsh mining town at the turn of the century, this understated and beautiful film tells the story of the Morgan family—mother, father, six brothers and one sister—and a way of life, disintegrating under the forces of modernity. Told in flashback, the adult Huw (pronounced Hugh) looks back fifty years later on his childhood. The voice-over is sad, elegiac, evoking a vanished way of life. My favorite John Ford movie.
7. Ball of Fire, 1941. Once again, Barbara Stanwyck eats up the screen as a bad girl who discovers her good nature by falling in love. This is a retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The weakness in the film is lack of chemistry between Stanwyck and Gary Cooper—Cary Grant would have been perfect in the role—but the film still works.
8. Random Harvest, 1942. Perhaps the most romantic movie I have ever seen. This has it all: war, amnesia, unrequited love. In the starring roles are Ronald Colman and Greer Garson, two of the most gorgeous voices Hollywood has ever produced. There is a plot twist in the second act that will make you gasp. The title refers to the Western front during WWI, “a random harvest of death.”
9. The Major and the Minor, 1942. This is the first movie directed by Billy Wilder. Ginger Rogers plays a “massage therapist” in NY who disguises herself as a teenager in order to get a cheap train fare. Ray Milland shows up, takes the little girl in hand and finds himself strangely attracted to the lollipop licking child. A brilliant comedy in spite of Milland, a second tier leading man. Cary Grant would have been perfect.
10. Day of Wrath, 1943. Denmark, 1623. Witches are being hunted and burned in a small village. A beautiful young woman, the wife of the Parson, is having an affair with her stepson. Soon, love, guilt and witchcraft become intertwined. Some view this dark masterpiece as a veiled attack on the Nazi persecution of the Jews—director Carl Dreyer, a devout Christian, was an outspoken defender of Jews and Judaism—but this film transcends all neat interpretations. The ending is perhaps the most shattering I have ever seen.
Next week, my next five picks for the greatest movies of the 1940’s.