Mike’s Top Ten of 1941
Don’t let anyone tell you the 30s and the 40s weren’t the greatest era for American film. Look at this. It’s year after year of just amazing stuff.
I guess what we need to talk about for 1941 is that the consensus greatest movie ever made was released this year. Or, I guess, for contrarians, the most influential film ever made. No matter how you slice it, Citizen Kane is on the Mount Rushmore of movies. And then you have a bunch of other really amazing stuff. The “official” beginning of the noir genre, with The Maltese Falcon. Classic comedies like The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. Cultural classics like Sergeant York. This year is just stacked with incredible films.
This is one of those years where I could swap out half the top ten for the 11-20 and it would still look like a formidable top ten list. That’s the 40s. They churned out incredible stuff on a consistent basis.
Mike’s Top Ten of 1941
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
How Green Was My Valley
The Lady Eve
The Maltese Falcon
Shadow of the Thin Man
11-20: Blossoms in the Dust, The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Devil and Miss Jones, Dumbo, High Sierra, Man Hunt, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Penny Serenade, The Reluctant Dragon, They Died with Their Boots On
Tier two: Ball of Fire, Blood and Sand, Blues in the Night, The Bride Came C.O.D., Buck Privates, Dive Bomber, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Hold Back the Dawn, I Wake Up Screaming, The Little Foxes, Meet John Doe, Nothing But the Truth, Road to Zanzibar, The Strawberry Blonde, Suspicion, Texas, That Hamilton Woman, The Wolf Man, You’ll Never Get Rich, Ziegfeld Girl
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1. Citizen Kane
I mean — yeah. It’s Citizen Kane.
There is a reason it’s considered the greatest American movie ever made.
This movie never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many times I watch it.
2. The Maltese Falcon
“What is it?”
“The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.”
This movie is the stuff dreams are made of.
The quintessential detective movie, and a perfect film through and through. Iconic performances by Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor.
One thing I love about this movie — the freedom of movement by Bogart. So many scenes, he’s just leaning against stuff or hopping up on counters to sit there. Most actors of this era would be formally standing or sitting. Not Bogart. Watch how he positions himself in all his scenes. It really adds to the character.
The crazy thing about this is that it was John Huston’s first movie. Talk about starting at the top.
3. How Green Was My Valley
“Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.”
I don’t know, Larry, you lived there. Why are you asking me?
This movie is another John Ford masterpiece. It’s truly remarkable. Some films you watch and you think, “Only John Ford could have made this.”
It’s about a family of Welsh coal miners. Told through the eyes of their youngest boy, who narrates the film. And it’s among those “childhood reminiscence” films that are all very good. I Remember Mama, A Christmas Story, Avalon, The Sandlot — they’re all great.
It’s got all the classic John Ford moments, like when the boy’s brothers show up at the school to beat up his teacher after the teacher’s been too hard on him. Great performances all around here. Donald Crisp, Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Barry Fitzgerald, Sara Allgood, Roddy McDowall.
Truly one of the greatest films ever made.
4. Love Crazy
“She’s married now – got a husband.”
“Yeah? Whose husband has she got?”
I would like to point out that this movie is ranked higher than a Thin Man movie.
Of all the Powell and Loy movies, the two outside of the Thin Man franchise that I like best are I Love You Again (which I discussed in 1940) and this one. This movie is so hysterical.
It’s a screwball about a married couple who, on every anniversary, do the same things they did on the night they first got engaged. They plan on doing that again, only to be thwarted by her mother. Meanwhile, he runs into an old girlfriend who moved into their building. Complications ensue and his wife thinks he’s having an affair. They divorce. He tries to clear things up, but is unable to get anywhere near her to explain. The night before the divorce hearing, he finds out that divorces can only be postponed if one of the parties is insane. So he goes about, trying to get himself declared insane just so the divorce can be postponed long enough for him to convince his wife he loves her. It’s an understatement to say that hilarity ensues.
This movie made me double over in laughter. It’s so funny. And the way everything comes together in the end is so wonderful. This is one of the best screwball comedies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most underrated movies of its era.
5. Here Comes Mr. Jordan
“I don’t want anybody’s body. I want my body!”
This is a true classic. It began the sub-genre of “guardian angel” movies, and is such an iconic story it’s been remade twice. And even the remakes are well-known. One with Warren Beatty and another with Chris Rock.
Robert Montgomery is a boxer on his way up to a championship fight. He’s flying a plane one day when a freak accident occurs and he dies. He’s taken by an angel up to the afterlife, where he meets Claude Rains (Mr. Jordan). He argues that he wasn’t meant to die at all. And when they check the records, they realize that he’s right: he wasn’t meant to die for another fifty years. But they can’t now put him in his body because it’s been cremated. So for the time being, until they can find him a suitable body, they give him a loaner — the body of a millionaire who was just killed by his wife and his secretary, her lover. He, meanwhile, uses the body of this guy to train for the championship fight he never got, all the while falling in love with a woman who was doing business with the millionaire before he died.
It’s incredible. This version is great, the Warren Beatty version is great, even the Chris Rock version is good. It’s just a great story that deserves remakes because it’s always interesting.
6. Shadow of the Thin Man
“He’s getting more like his father everyday.”
“He sure is. This morning he was playing with a corkscrew.”
By now the plots of these Thin Man movies really don’t matter at all. This one’s about a murder at a racetrack. Mostly the joy is, as always, the interplay between Nick and Nora, and all the many moments of Nick Charles being the best alcoholic you’ve ever seen on screen.
The best scene in this movie is when Nick takes Nick Jr. out to the park with Asta, and Nora needs to get them back inside. So she picks up a cocktail shaker and begins mixing a drink. And out of nowhere, from a couple hundred feet away, Nick looks up and goes, “I think we ought to go back inside. Something’s telling me something important is happening and we should be there.” Meanwhile, back in the house, the maid, who was watching with binoculars, is like, “Did he hear that, or smell it?” And Nora’s like, “That’s Mr. Charles, isn’t it? And this is a cocktail, isn’t it? They’ll get together.”
Man, I love these movies.
7. 49th Parallel
“I see a long, straight line athwart a continent. No chain of forts, or deep flowing river, or mountain range, but a line drawn by men upon a map, nearly a century ago, accepted with a handshake, and kept ever since. A boundary which divides two nations, yet marks their friendly meeting ground. The 49th parallel: the only undefended frontier in the world.”
One of the most underrated films ever made.
Michael Powell directed this, with a screenplay by Emeric Pressburger. Get used to that pairing. There’s gonna be a lot of them over the next twenty years.
The beautiful thing about this movie is that it’s told almost entirely from the perspective of the Germans. A U-Boat is sunk in Canada, and the small group of sailors sent ashore for supplies is stuck there. They make their way for the border, because if they can reach the U.S. (which is still neutral), they can get back to Germany.
It’s so great. Your protagonists are Nazi sailors. And there are cameos all around. Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey.
It was essentially a propaganda film at the time, designed to boost British morale and scare the shit out of Americans and get them into the war. But this movie holds up so well just as a film. Seriously one of those movies that deserves to be looked at as a true classic and not just a hidden gem.
8. Sergeant York
“Folks say you’re no good, ‘ceptin’ for fighting and hell-raising.”
This is one of those baby boomer nostalgia movies, but I still love it.
Gary Cooper is a backwoods hick who likes to drink and shoot. He’s constantly drunk and getting into fights, much to the chagrin of his family. One day he gets struck by lightning and decides to give up all that and become religious. Then war breaks out and he has to decide between his new pacifist ideals and the notion of serving his country. He chooses to serve, and eventually becomes a hero, single-handedly capturing an entire platoon of Germans through his great shooting.
It’s just one of those really enjoyable films. Gary Cooper is awesome, and you have Walter Brennan. And it’s Howard Hawks! This film is an American classic.
9. The Lady Eve
“Positively the same dame!”
One of the five quintessential screwball comedies. This movie is so good.
Barbara Stanwyck is a con artist who travels with her father, Charles Coburn. Henry Fonda is heir to a beer fortune and they plan to swindle him out of some money. Though she falls for him and prevents her father from actually carrying out the plan. The problem is, even though they’re not gonna con him out of money, they’re found out and Fonda dumps her. To get back at him, she comes back into his life, pretending to be a high society woman, making him fall in love with her all over again. The way this movie ends is perfect.
It’s Preston Sturges, Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn. That’s all-star material. This is “greatest films of all time” material.
10. Sullivan’s Travels
“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”
A double billing of Preston Sturges. Purely by accident.
This one is considered his finest film. It’s incredible. One of the greatest comedies ever made.
Joel McCrea is a comedy director who longs to make something more. He wants to make a movie that analyzes the plight of the poor. In order to research this movie, he plans to go undercover as a homeless person. It doesn’t go as planned. Though he does meet Veronica Lake, an actress about to give up and go home after a lack of success. Complications ensue when he actually does end up like a homeless person for a while. Not in a good way. But you know, it’s funny. And love and all that.
It’s a classic. And it’s just perfect, as far as comedies go. Sturges movies are all great. And this is the quintessential one.
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Blossoms in the Dust — Love this movie. Gorgeous cinematography in this one. Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon. This is the first of eight movies they did together. Next to Mrs. Miniver, to me it’s their best. She plays a crusading woman who makes a home for orphaned and illegitimate children, trying to find families for them. It’s great.
The Devil and Daniel Webster — Very famous story. Essentially Faust with a twist. Man sells his soul to the Devil for prosperity, then when the Devil comes to collect, the man wants to back out. So he hires Daniel Webster (who was actually a famous orator) to defend him. And it becomes a trial for the man’s soul. Walter Huston is amazing as the Devil. One of those gems that most everyone seems to like.
The Devil and Miss Jones — I love Charles Coburn. He feels like he was the Rodney Dangerfield of his time. Especially in films like this. Here, he plays a department store owner who hears his workers are getting upset and trying to unionize. So he goes undercover in his own store to sniff out the perpetrators so he can fire them. Though, while there, he learns the value of hard work and befriends Jean Arthur, one of his employees. It’s a solid movie. Clearly gearing up for The More the Merrier later on, but this is still very good.
Dumbo — It takes a strong year for a Disney movie to not make the top ten. Dumbo is a classic. Still pretty racist at parts, and surprisingly short. But that “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence is still one of the coolest things Disney’s ever made.
High Sierra — This is a classic noir all around. Between this and The Maltese Falcon, Bogie was the king of the early noir. Here, Bogie gets out of prison and plans a heist. He and his buddies commit the heist and hide out in the mountains. But eventually shit goes south, right at the moment where it seems like Bogie’s found himself a girl who can actually take him out of a life of crime. This movie has one hell of a finale. And a great performance by Bogart.
Man Hunt — I love this set up. Famous British hunter is on vacation in Germany and slips through undetected. He soon finds Hitler himself in his crosshairs, having a clean shot a him. He gets captured and beaten and sent to be killed in an “accident.” But he escapes back to England and is soon hounded by Nazis looking to finish the job. It’s such a good movie. One of the best thrillers that no one knows about. Fritz Lang directed this!
Mr. and Mrs. Smith — This is the only straight comedy Hitchcock ever made. A screwball at that! Starring Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery. They’re a married couple who fight all the time and wonder why they ever got married in the first place. They then find out that their marriage actually isn’t valid. So really they’re not married at all. Complications (and comedy) ensue. It’s actually very funny. You can never go wrong with a Carole Lombard screwball comedy. You wouldn’t really know just by watching it that it’s a Hitchcock movie, but even if comedy wasn’t his genre you know you’re in safe hands with him no matter what it is.
Penny Serenade — This probably ended up being my #11 for this year. I love this movie a lot. One of the few dramas Cary Grant made. It’s him, Irene Dunne and George Stevens. At this point, do I even need to sell you on it anymore? The film is framed around Dunne deciding whether or not she’s gonna leave Grant, and we flash back to show how they met, how they fell in love, and all the tragedy and triumphs of their lives together. It gets very sad at times and also very funny. I love movies like this. There’s one it reminds me of that we’ll get to in 1972 that not a lot of people know about anymore. I’m such a huge fan of this movie.
The Reluctant Dragon — I love this. What an odd movie. Half the “plot” is actually not a plot. The film is based on the children’s book, but only the last like, fifteen minutes actually has the animated version of the book. The rest is about the author, starring as himself, agreeing to sell the rights to his story to Walt Disney. And he goes to Disney studios, and takes a tour around. So they show him (and us) all the different areas. The animators, the score recording, the voice recording. There’s amazing stuff here. You get to actually watch them make their movies. The actual story part is fine, but I’m more interested in all the stuff before it. It’s like your own personal tour of Disney animation.
They Died with Their Boots On — Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Directed by Raoul Walsh this time (who also directed High Sierra this year). Flynn plays Custer. That’s pretty much all you need. It’s a biopic of Custer. Despite what is clearly a heavily fictionalized story, I really liked it on its own as a film. Flynn is charming, he and de Havilland have great chemistry, and it’s just a really engaging movie. You also have Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse. And any time Anthony Quinn is in a movie, it’s a huge plus.
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- Ball of Fire
- Blood and Sand
- Blues in the Night
- The Bride Came C.O.D.
- Buck Privates
- Dive Bomber
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Hold Back the Dawn
- I Wake Up Screaming
- The Little Foxes
- Meet John Doe
- Nothing But the Truth
- Road to Zanzibar
- The Strawberry Blonde
- That Hamilton Woman
- The Wolf Man
- You’ll Never Get Rich
- Ziegfeld Girl
Ball of Fire is awesome. Howard Hawks screwball comedy written by Billy Wilder. Barbara Stanwyck is a nightclub singer who ends up witnessing a murder and hides out in a house full of professors who are making an encyclopedia of everything. Gary Cooper is one of the professors who studies slang. And they all love the way Stanwyck talks. So she lives with them and livens up their dull, academic lives. Great movie. Similarly, The Bride Came C.O.D. is a screwball with James Cagney and Bette Davis. He’s a pilot hired by Bette’s father to kidnap her in order to stop her from marrying a douchebag. How can you turn down a screwball with big stars?
Blood and Sand is a gorgeous Technicolor movie about a bullfighter. The story is fine. Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, Anthony Quinn. It’s the color that’s front and center in this one. The film looks absolutely stunning even today. One of the 100 most beautiful looking films ever shot, color-wise. Blues in the Night is an interesting one. It’s a musical noir. A jazz band gets together and tries to make ends meet, and it’s about all the problems they end up getting into. Really solid movie that more people ought to see. Nothing But the Truth is a Bob Hope comedy about a stockbroker who has to tell the truth for 24 hours straight in order to win $10,000. But he also can’t tell anyone that’s why he’s doing it. Very funny movie.
Meet John Doe is a quintessential Frank Capra film. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter about to be laid off. She writes one final column, a letter written by a fictional “John Doe,” so upset about the problems of society that he says he’s going to kill himself on Christmas Eve. The letter becomes a sensation, and people start to suspect it was all bullshit. So they hire Gary Cooper, a homeless guy, to be their John Doe. You can guess where things go from there. Buck Privates is an army comedy with Abbott and Costello. The first of the “service comedies,” a genre that would give way to films like MASH and Stripes. The film is also famous for having songs by the Andrews Sisters, most notably “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I Wake Up Screaming is a noir about a guy being railroaded by an obsessive police officer over the murder of an actress, despite the officer knowing he didn’t do it.
Road to Zanzibar is another Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movie. These are the best. Some of the best comedies ever made. The Little Foxes is William Wyler and Bette Davis. She and her family are just awful people doing awful things. That’s pretty much all you need. Great performances here all around, specifically by Patricia Collinge as one of Davis’ brothers’ alcoholic wife. Also the first screen performance of Teresa Wright and Dan Duryea. (You’ll get to know pretty quickly just how much of a fan of Dan Duryea I am.) That Hamilton Woman is about Admiral Nelson’s relationship with prostitute Emma Hamilton. It stars Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, themselves married at the time. And that’s really the interest in it. Watching the two of them on screen together.
Suspicion is a Hitchcock film whose story is so iconic I knew it long before I even watched it. (If you saw the Simpsons episode where Sideshow Bob marries Aunt Selma, then you know the basic story of this movie.) Joan Fontaine marries Cary Grant. Not long into their marriage, he starts acting very strangely, and she starts to believe he may be thinking of killing her. Texas is a fun adventure with Glenn Ford and William Holden as two guys with no money looking to get by. They go around, getting into some shit, one ending up being “good” and the other being “bad.” But like all buddy movies, it all works out in the end. Ziegfeld Girl is about Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner as three girls all trying to win a part in Florenz Ziegfield’s Follies. You also get Jimmy Stewart here as a bonus.
Jekyll and Hyde is another version of the famous story, but this time with Spencer Tracy in the lead role. The Wolf Man is the famous monster movie. Just a pure classic. Hold Back the Dawn is a melodrama that earned Olivia de Havilland her first Oscar nomination. She’s a spinster teacher on vacation in Mexico where she meets a gigolo who hangs around the tourist areas, trying to snag an American wife so he can get into the country. The trouble here, though, is that he actually starts to fall in love with de Havilland. The Strawberry Blonde is a romantic comedy with James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland and Jack Carson. Cagney’s in love with Hayworth, who is actually more interested in Carson, and de Havilland is the one who’s been interested in Cagney all along. Things work out.
Dive Bomber is a cool aviation movie with Errol Flynn as a surgeon trying to help pilots survive flying in high altitude. It’s a really solid and underrated Michael Curtiz movie. You’ll Never Get Rich is a very underrated comedy with Fred Astaire as a theater manager whose boss is a notorious womanizer. He’s trying to woo Rita Hayworth, the star of his new show. His wife ends up catching him and he pretends like Astaire is the one wooing Hayworth. So he forces Astaire to pretend to woo her, which he doesn’t want to do, and then comedy ensues. Though he eventually realizes he actually does want to woo her, which is right as she finds out he was faking it the entire time. So he has to go through drastic lengths to actually win her over, even after he’s drafted into the army. It’s quite funny.
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