Mike’s Top Ten of 1940
You’d be hard pressed to find a bad choice in 1940’s list. Straight up, nine of them are legitimately among the biggest classics in cinema history. And the other (if you’ve seen it) is just incredible.
I feel like there’s gonna be a lot of this coming up in the future. A lot of top ten lists with mostly classics that we all agree are great. The real interest is gonna come in all the hidden gems below the line. The 40s is a decade full of amazing films that aren’t as well known simply because not everything can be.
One thing I like about this year in particular is how it has a nice pairing of films. You’ll see several times where two films are akin, either because they share the same director and stars, or are similar in story. Or they’re two of the greatest animated films ever made.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1940
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Dictator
His Girl Friday
I Love You Again
The Long Voyage Home
The Philadelphia Story
The Shop Around the Corner
11-20: All This and Heaven Too, City for Conquest, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, Foreign Correspondent, Night Train to Munich, Our Town, They Drive by Night, The Thief of Bagdad, Waterloo Bridge, The Westerner
Tier two: Angels Over Broadway, Arise My Love, The Blue Bird, Boom Town, Christmas in July, The Ghost Breakers, The Great McGinty, Kitty Foyle, Knute Rockne All American, The Letter, Lucky Partners, My Favorite Wife, Remember the Night, The Return of Frank James, Road to Singapore, Santa Fe Trail, Third Finger Left Hand, ‘Til We Meet Again, Too Many Husbands, Virginia City
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1. His Girl Friday
“I like him; he’s got a lot of charm.”
“Well he comes by it naturally his grandfather was a snake.”
This is an absolutely perfect film. This is my personal favorite Howard Hawks film (even though he’s got about ten choices for that distinction), and it’s just immaculate from start to finish.
A remake of The Front Page, albeit with one major twist — the Hildy character is a woman. And boy, does that make everything so much better. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are amazing, and the movie is the finest example of Howard Hawks dialogue — Grant and Russell speak so fast here you almost don’t know what they’re saying some of the time. And it works to perfection. The chemistry is off the charts, and this is legitimately one of the greatest movies ever made. This movie is so good that Cary Grant drops inside jokes about himself and the other actors it doesn’t even take you out of the movie.
I am suspicious of people who do not love this movie.
This might be Disney’s finest achievement. I’m not gonna claim it’s their absolute best film (though it still may be), but it’s definitely a masterpiece of animation and in the top three, no questions asked.
The idea was that they took a bunch of pieces of classical music and set them to animation. Generally based on the feel. They took the music and wrote stories around them when they could. Some of them, as they say, tell definite stories, and others evoke a feeling, from which they developed a visual story for them.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence (above) is one of the most famous single pieces of animation ever created. The Night on Bald Mountain sequence is incredible, and remains one of my favorites to watch. But the whole film is great. The crazy centaur sequence, the dinosaurs, the hippo dancing and almost being raped by the crocodiles, the Nutcracker Suite with the flowers — it’s all incredible.
There’s no one in this world who loves both film and animation who has not seen this movie. This is just a masterpiece on every level.
3. The Grapes of Wrath
“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”
One of the finest American films ever made. Just amazing. This is the kind of movie — if I made a list of the 20 or 25 films that everyone must see, and should be shown in school, this would be on that list. If in middle school, you had to be shown certain films just to become a better educated person, this would be one of those movies.
You know when people call things the “Great American Novel”? Well this is based on the Great American Novel. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer for this the year before the movie came out. So they took a Pulitzer winner and within a year, turned out this movie, which, nearly 80 years later is still one of the greatest movies ever made, and one that I don’t think can ever be remade in any proper way.
Tom Joad is one of the most iconic characters in fiction, and John Ford puts forth one of his finest efforts. It is, without question, a masterpiece.
4. I Love You Again
“You be careful, madam, or you’ll turn my pretty head with your flattery.”
“I often wished I could turn your head – on a spit, over a slow fire.”
William Powell and Myrna Loy. A lot of the stuff they did together outside of the Thin Man movies is not as well know. But man, some of those movies are just as perfect. And this might be my favorite of all of them.
He plays an uptight businessman on a cruise. When rescuing a man who falls overboard, he’s hit on the head by an oar and gets a concussion. However, when he wakes up he realizes that he’s not actually the man he thought he was, but a con man. He has no memory of the last nine years. He returns home to find that he’s married to Myrna Loy… who is about to divorce him. And that he’s also a respected businessman. He decides to use his great reputation to swindle the town out of money. He cooks up a phony oil scheme, making everyone think he’s got oil on his property, to have them buy the worthless property for a lot of money. Complications ensue when he finds that he’s actually falling for “his” soon-to-be ex-wife. And she discovers that she’s starting to fall for him too, since he doesn’t seem at all like the boring man she married.
This movie is amazing. Full stop amazing. There are two absolutely wonderful scenes in it. The first is pictured above. He’s trying to win her over and makes an analogy about the cooing of birds. I don’t know how she kept a straight face during this scene. The other is the ending, which is set up absolutely perfectly and never fails to do a number on me. If you’re not smiling from ear to ear by the end of this movie, I don’t know if you’re capable of feeling real human emotion.
5. The Philadelphia Story
“Sometimes, for your own sake, Red, I think you should’ve stuck to me longer.”
“I thought it was for life, but the nice judge gave me a full pardon.”
One of the great comedies of all time. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made four movies together. Two of them are all-time classics, one of them is great and the other one is well-known in its own right for a variety of reasons. Not only do you have Grant and Hepburn here, but you also have Jimmy Stewart.
It’s the classic comedy of remarriage, even more so than The Awful Truth. They get divorced and two years later, she’s gonna remarry. Two tabloid reporters are sent to cover the wedding, and they get in with the help of Grant, who pretends they know Hepburn’s brother, which pretty much everyone knows isn’t true. But they have to stay, because they have dirt on Hepburn’s father they don’t want out there. So Grant and the reporters (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) stay for the weekend, and comedy and romance ensue.
What a classic this is. Absolutely hilarious and while I’m not cataloguing it all — what is this, one of the 20 greatest comedies, ever? It’s up there.
6. The Great Dictator
What is this, the third time now where I begin an entry with “this may be Chaplin’s masterpiece”? The man just knew what worked.
This was his first sound film. The first words he spoke on the screen. And this was really one of the only firm stances taken against Hitler and fascism before World War I. And it’s actually a masterpiece.
He plays both a Jewish barber and a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (the joke being that Hitler and Chaplin’s Tramp character had the same moustache), culminating in a mistaken identity and one of the greatest speeches ever given on film. The comedy here is incredible, the satire here is incredible, and it’s one of the most pointed endings to a film I’ve ever seen.
Honestly, I feel it would do us a lot of good to post the entire final speech here. It still holds resonance to this day:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible. Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes. Men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate. The unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power, the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Hitchcock’s first American film, and the only one of his films to win Best Picture. Only one of four to even be nominated.
It’s a gothic romance and a mystery film that is almost not even a Hitchcock movie in a lot of ways. It still bears a lot of his hallmarks, but I think the presence of David O. Selznick kept it from being a full on Hitchcock movie as we know them today.
Joan Fontaine is a young girl who, while on vacation with her mother, meets and falls in love with Laurence Olivier, a widowed aristocrat. They marry after a whirlwind courtship and move into his house. One there, Fontaine starts to feel a weird aura about the house. None of the servants seem to like or respect her, and there’s this memory of Olivier’s dead former wife hanging around everywhere she goes. She soon begins to come into her own, taking ownership as his wife, while also looking into the mystery of what happened to the previous one.
It’s so good. Fontaine and Olivier are great, and Judith Anderson as the mysterious housekeeper Mrs. Danvers practically steals the movie. It’s not a classic the way other Hitchcock films are, but this one is great.
“When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do”
It’s gonna be difficult to not put one of these Disney movies in the top ten. They’re all classics for a reason, and they all carry such weight because of their importance to our childhoods that I can’t really ever find myself going, “Yeah, I do like that movie a lot, but that Disney movie is something I’ve seen like twenty times…”
The great thing about these Disney movies is that we all know them. There’s nothing that needs to be said. I can visualize practically every frame of this film. And it’s responsible for the single greatest Disney song ever written, so great that they made it the official theme song to their studio logo.
9. The Long Voyage Home
This is one of the lesser-remembered John Ford movies, yet ranks up there among the best he’s ever done. It’s such a distinct film in a lot of ways, mostly because of the amazing cinematography by Gregg Toland. When you watch it, it feels like a warmup for what he’d do in Citizen Kane. The movie looks stunning, and adds an entire dimension to the story.
The film is about a steam ship working in the West Indies that’s finished its tour and is on (insert title here) back home to England. And, as is typical with Ford films, the focus is more on community than plot. So we just sort of hang out with the crew, who are this random assortment of people who like to drink and hang out together. And it’s got Ford’s usual suspects: John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Barry Fitzgerald, John Qualen, Ward Bond. You’ll recognize everyone. And the film is mostly these little episodic bits of the stuff the crew gets into along the way. It’s really fun.
Every time I go back to this one, I like it more and more. It really is one of the best movies Ford ever made.
10. The Shop Around the Corner
“There might be a lot we don’t know about each other. You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”
“Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.”
Jimmy Stewart again. And Margaret Sullavan. And Ernst Lubitsch. An all time romance.
Stewart and Sullavan are coworkers who can’t stand each other. But secretly they’ve fallen in love as pen pals, not realizing the other is the person they’ve been corresponding with. You may recognize the plot of this movie as having been borrowed for You’ve Got Mail. They also made a musical out of it with Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime.
The words Ernst Lubtisch mean quality. The rest of it should let you know just how amazing this movie is. This is one of those movies that I don’t go back and watch as often as I should, but every time I do, it reminds me of just how brilliant it is.
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All This and Heaven Too — Bette Davis melodrama I enjoyed quite a bit. She’s a schoolteacher who is known for some famous crime or something, which she then tells her inquisitive students, leading to a giant flashback. She was a governess who tutored a rich couple’s children. The husband really took a liking to her, while the wife is just nuts. Probably bipolar, if you had to put a modern day diagnosis on it. The husband soon distances himself from the wife and finds himself falling in love with Davis. And it all ends tragically when the wife begins to take her anger out on Davis. I liked it. Davis, Charles Boyer, and a nice performance as the crazy wife by Barbara O’Neil.
City for Conquest — This has all the hallmarks of noir, but also plays like melodrama. Probably because it was directed by Anatole Litvak (who also directed the previous film. Go figure). James Cagney is a truck driver who becomes a major boxing contender. His girlfriend leaves to become a dancer. Things end up not going well for both of them. Let’s just leave it at that. It’s a really engaging film. One of those gems that not enough people know about.
Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet — The words magic bullet should give away what this is about. (Hint, it’s not JFK.) It’s actually about the doctor that cured syphilis. Not a joke. Edward G. Robinson is a doctor who discovers a way to inject certain chemicals into the body to help fight diseases. This was essentially an early form of chemotherapy. He then starts looking into a cure for syphilis, which most people consider immoral because it’s a venereal disease. It’s an awesome movie. I love these sort of early medical movies, because they don’t get too complicated with the science and always seem to be interesting.
Foreign Correspondent — Hitchcock’s second American film, though the first to be released. Very much in the vein of his later thrillers. Journalist gets involved in the assassination of a diplomat, which is involves a giant conspiracy. Great stuff. That windmill sequence is so good.
Night Train to Munich — Great thriller directed by Carol Reed. A scientist develops an armor that both the British and the Germans want. So they both start following the scientist’s daughter, hoping she’ll lead them to her. It’s great. There’s a bit of a love triangle here between Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison and Paul Henried. Trust me when I say this is one of the great early adventure/thrillers that wasn’t directed by Hitchcock.
Our Town — Based on the Thornton Wilder play, famous for having no scenery. The film is basically life in a small town. We meander from person to person, basically showing how these people live, until there’s this one third act sequence where one of the characters dies and floats around as a ghost, seeing everyone’s lives go on without her. (In the play, she’s actually dead. Here, they reveal it was all a bad dream.) I like this a lot just because I love when films don’t follow the same narrative flow I’m accustomed to from films of this era. It’s got more of a laid back feel, and I respond to that.
They Drive by Night — One of the earliest noirs. Raoul Walsh is one of the pioneers of the genre, as we’ll also see in 1941. It’s in that sub-genre of truck driver movies, which I love. There’s something about these 40s and 50s movies about guys transporting goods and getting into fights with each other and dealing with corruption. This one’s George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as two brothers trying to eke out a living driving trucks. They get mixed up with Ida Lupino, the wife of a former truck driver who has the hots for Raft and gets the men into some real nasty business.
The Thief of Bagdad — This is one of the most beautiful movies of the first decade of color cinema. It’s absolutely stunning, between the cinematography and the special effects. There were about a half-dozen directors on this. Three credited, one of whom is Michael Powell. It’s a remake of the famous 1924 version, but those who haven’t seen that will for sure recognize much of this story from the movie Aladdin. Same basic structure. The real joy, though, of this movie is the visuals. This movie looks better than 95% of any big budget movie’s visuals today.
Waterloo Bridge — This is a remake of the 1931 James Whale version. This one stars Vivien Leigh. It’s one of the great romantic tragedies. She’s a ballerina who falls in love with Robert Taylor, a soldier. They plan to get married, but are unable to because he has to leave for war. Though she soon reads in the paper that he died in battle. That, along with a miscommunication with his family, leads to her having no place to live or work, and she becomes a prostitute. Though later on, he turns up alive and well, leading to some real heartbreaking shit.
The Westerner — I love this movie. Awesome western drama. More drama than western. Walter Brennan plays Judge Roy Bean, the stern hangman of a town who basically makes his own rules, hanging anyone who doesn’t do what he says. Gary Cooper shows up, accused of stealing one of Bean’s friend’s horses, and they’re planning on hanging him. But Cooper is smart, and manages to find Bean’s one weakness — he’s really in love with Lily Langtry, a famous actress. Cooper tells him he knows her, and Bean delays the hanging long enough for them to find the actual guy. And pretty soon they develop this weird friendship of sorts — though the kind of friendship you know is gonna end up in a gunfight. It’s awesome.
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- Angels Over Broadway
- Arise My Love
- The Blue Bird
- Boom Town
- Christmas in July
- The Ghost Breakers
- The Great McGinty
- Kitty Foyle
- Knute Rockne All American
- The Letter
- Lucky Partners
- My Favorite Wife
- Remember the Night
- The Return of Frank James
- Road to Singapore
- Santa Fe Trail
- Third Finger, Left Hand
- ‘Til We Meet Again
- Too Many Husbands
- Virginia City
Road to Singapore is the first of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby films. It doesn’t have all the running gags, but it’s still a great time. These will be recurring on these lists. While we’re on the subject of Bob Hope, The Ghost Breakers is one of those movies where I had absolutely no idea what the movie was before I watched it, and put it on one day on a whim and laughed my ass off. It’s a weird horror comedy (that admittedly is kinda racist, but is quite funny outside of that). Bob Hope is a crime reporter and Paulette Goddard as a woman who just inherited a mansion in Cuba. Through a series of events, Hope is about to be murdered by a crime boss he just exposed on radio and Goddard is traveling to look at the property she’s just inherited. Some shady people come around to stop her, and through a mix-up — well, it’s pretty screwball. Hope ends up in her luggage, thinking he killed a guy and pretty soon they’re in Cuba together at this mansion which seems to be haunted. I don’t know how to explain it except — it’s funny.
Speaking of double features, My Favorite Wife is a Cary Grant and Irene Dunne screwball. She gets lose in a plane crash and is presumed dead after seven years. Miraculously, she is found alive and flies back home… right on the day Grant is about to get remarried. Hilarity ensues. Too Many Husbands, meanwhile, is the great alternative to it (worthy of a double feature with it), about Fred MacMurray going missing after a boat trip and his wife, Jean Arthur, marrying Melvyn Douglas. MacMurray shows up alive, and Arthur can’t decide which husband she prefers. Angels Over Broadway is a noir before there were noirs. But also kind of a straight drama too. A con man, a dancer and a drunk team up to help a suicidal man who lost a bunch of money. They all decide to do one good deed and help out this nice guy. It would make a great first half of a double feature with It’s a Wonderful Life.
We have two Preston Sturges movies here. His first two films. He’ll be on here a bunch over the next decade. The more famous of the two is The Great McGinty, the film that won the first Original Screenplay Oscar. It’s about a guy who goes from being homeless to governor by doing just about every dishonest thing you could possibly do. And he recounts his story in flashback, saying he ruined it all by doing one legitimately honest thing. One thing you’ll come to know when you see the films is that Preston Sturges was a comedic genius, and his movies are, in a way, like watching Stanley Kubrick movies, but for comedy. Which brings us to the second film he did this year, Christmas in July. Which is much more of a hidden gem. Dick Powell enters a contest to write a new slogan for a coffee company. He really wants to win so he can marry his girl and start a life. His coworkers mess with him and send him a fake telegram that says he won, thus setting off a chain of comedy. It’s short, and it’s great.
We also have two Errol Flynn movies directed by Michael Curtiz on this list. First is Santa Fe Trail, which is also a Flynn/de Havilland picture. Flynn is Jeb Stuart Ronald Reagan plays Custer, and the two of them are put in charge of the most dangerous territory in the west to help keep things peaceful so the railroad can be built. The other is Virginia City, which is Flynn as a Union officer who escapes a Confederate prison and plots to steal a bunch of Confederate gold. Bogie’s in that one too.
Til We Meet Again is a remake of One Way Passage from 1932. A great story both times. An escaped convict caught and on his way back to America to be executed meets a dying woman on board the ship taking him there, and he convinces his escorts to remove his cuffs for the duration so he can pretend to be a normal man. He and the woman fall in love, him not knowing she’s terminally ill, and her not knowing he’s heading home to death.
Knute Rockne All American is about the legendary coach of Notre Dame and the film that gave us the famous “win one for the Gipper” speech. Remember the Night is about Fred MacMurray as a store detective who falls in love with Barbara Stanwyck, a shoplifter he’s assigned to prosecute. Written by Preston Sturges, now giving him three films on this list. Third Finger Left Hand is a romantic comedy with Myrna Loy as a woman who pretends to be married in order to prevent the men in her business from hitting on her. Complications ensue when she meets a man she actually wants to be with… who thinks she’s married.
Boom Town is an awesome movie. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are good friends who end up becoming feuding oil tycoons who both love the same woman, Claudette Colbert. It’s amazing. They bet entire fortunes on coin flips and shit. The Blue Bird is a Shirley Temple fantasy that’s basically a lesser Wizard of Oz. Similar concepts. Lucky Partners is Ronald Colman and Ginger Rogers as two people who go in on a lottery ticket and through various machinations end up on a trip they agreed to do if they’d won.
Kitty Foyle is the film that won Ginger Rogers her Oscar. Famously called by Katharine Hepburn “a drama about a shopgirl.” Ginger’s a girl who is torn between running off with two men: a doctor who’s always loved her and the man she loves, who happens to also be married. The Return of Frank James is the sequel to Jesse James, an entirely fictional sequel about Henry Fonda as Frank going out for revenge on Bob Ford, who killed his brother. Directed by Fritz Lang, of all people. Fritz Lang doing a Technicolor western. Go figure.
And The Letter… you knew we were gonna get to The Letter at some point. It is, as I always tell everyone, the movie where Bette Davis gets shanked by a Chinese woman. There’s more to it than that, of course. But that’s the best thing about it, so why ruin a good thing? Bette is a woman who shoots her lover when he won’t leave his wife for her and claims it was done in self-defense. Which is all well and good… until the presence of (insert title here) that was written from her to him throws a wrench into those plans, causing her to have to resort to some rich white women shit to hush it all up. And then — shank shank shank, baby.
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