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Mike’s Top Ten of 1943

1943 is the weakest year of the early 40s, and a lot of that has to do with one thing and one thing only: World War II. A lot of the top directors in Hollywood (the ones with the highest percentage of great films) were off participating in the war. There’s a great book (and documentary) about it called Five Came Back. The big five are John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler. Of the five, only one has a movie that came out this year, and that was because he was finishing his obligations before joining the war.

With those directors gone, it’s pretty slim pickings at the top. That’s not to say there aren’t really good films here, but there’s a marked difference between the overall quality of films in 1941 and 1942 vs. 1943. And it’s totally understandable. America is in the thick of the war effort and the industry doesn’t really have the time or the money to churn out the amount of films they had been.

The other thing I like about 1943 is the overall influx of Technicolor films. Still a primarily black-and-white top ten, but there’s definitely more color all around, and good use of color, too.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1943

Five Graves to Cairo

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Heaven Can Wait

The Human Comedy

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The More the Merrier

The Ox-Bow Incident

Sahara

The Seventh Victim

Shadow of a Doubt

11-20: Air Force, Edge of Darkness, The Gang’s All Here, A Guy Named Joe, I Walked with a Zombie, Lassie Come Home, Phantom of the Opera, So Proudly We Hail!, The Song of Bernadette, This Land Is Mine

Tier two: Action in the North Atlantic, Cabin in the Sky, Le Corbeau, Destination Tokyo, Lady of Burlesque, A Lady Takes a Chance, The Leopard Man, Madame Curie, Margin for Error, No Time for Love, The North Star, The Outlaw, Princess O’Rourke, The Sky’s the Limit, Stage Door Canteen, Stormy Weather, Tender Comrade, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Thousands Cheer, Watch on the Rhine

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1. The Ox-Bow Incident

“This is only slightly any of your business, my friend. Remember that.”
“Hangin’ is any man’s business that’s around.”

The greatest film of 1943 is also one of the greatest movies ever made. This film accomplishes more in 75 minutes than most films accomplish in two and a half hours.

It’s about the evil men do when left to their own devices. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan ride into a western town. One that’s been the victim of a lot of cattle rustling lately. No sooner do they arrive than they find out a man’s been murdered. The town quickly forms a posse to set out and find the killers. They come across three men that night who they suspect of being the murderers. They have cattle with them they claim they bought. Pretty soon the posse is divided between getting retribution and hanging the men for what they assume is murder and rustling, and bringing them into town for proper justice.

It’s definitely not a feel-good movie, but it is a very powerful drama. It makes use of all the western archetypes in interesting ways, and has a crazy good cast. Aside from Fonda and Morgan, there’s Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn, Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport and Francis Ford (brother of John). It’s one of the greatest westerns ever made and a true masterpiece.

2. The More the Merrier

“What do you do?”
“I’m a well-to-do, retired millionaire. How ’bout you?”
“Same.”

This is that one film I mentioned above that was directed by one of those five major directors. George Stevens finished this movie by January 1943 and then went off to war. Perhaps also not coincidentally, it’s the last comedy he ever made.

A classic set up (which was later reused for Walk, Don’t Run, Cary Grant’s final film): Charles Coburn is a millionaire in town to meet a friend of his. Only he finds out that his room will not be ready for another two days because of the housing shortage. Having no place to stay, he sees an ad in the paper for someone who wants a roommate. He goes to the woman, Jean Arthur, and talks her into letting him rent half her apartment. She agrees. He then meets Joel McCrea, a soldier on leave for a few days with no place to stay, and offers him half of his half of the apartment. Naturally there’s comedy with the three of them living together. But Coburn takes the opportunity to play matchmaker between the two. So you get a nice mix of romance and comedy.

It’s a great movie. It’s so funny, and everything about it works. Coburn won an Oscar for his performance and Arthur was nominated for hers. An absolute classic.

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

“Well sir, I have a friend…”
“Good. Not everybody can say that. Continue!”

Powell and Pressburger’s second film they co-directed and first in Technicolor. And man, did this start a hell of a run.

The film is about the life of a solider. We start with him as a brash lieutenant during the Boer War and through to World War II. That’s really all you need to know about it.

The names Powell and Pressburger should give you all the interest you need in seeing it. They made some real masterpieces and there’s something about the way they used Technicolor that is still breathtaking to this day. These two are true auteurs in the best sense of the word.

4. Shadow of a Doubt

“You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something. There’s so much you don’t know, so much. What do you know, really? You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”

Hitchcock. Really the first of his movies that feels like a “true” Hitchcock movie. He’d been building up to it, and there were a lot of bits and pieces of what we’d come to expect, but this feels like the first one that put it all together.

Teresa Wright is a teenager whose uncle comes to stay with the family. At first, he’s a perfectly charming guy, though pretty soon she begins to suspect a much darker side to him — the fact that he may actually be a wanted murderer. This is so perfectly Hitchcock, creating tension out of everyday situations, and using subjective camera and the way he rolls out information to create a wonderful atmosphere.

This movie is incredible. One of his absolute best. Joseph Cotten is so great. One of cinema’s underrated actors.

5. Five Graves to Cairo

“I’m not afraid of generals.”
“You’re not?”
“It’s lieutenants I’m afraid of.”

Billy Wilder’s second film. The man directed 25 movies. Of the 25, there are 10 that are generally considered among the finest films ever made. Five that are automatically there, and another five that are really good and really beloved that also belong there when you put any thought to it. Then there’s that next set of ten that are all great films, some of which are sort of known and others that are very much hidden gems but also great. Whenever people see them, they almost always come out going, “That was great.” Of those ten, probably about five are sort of known and are easily discoverable, and then there are five that most people don’t know and don’t see. Then there are the five that are just okay. Mostly those are his last handful of movies.

This film belongs in that second category, specifically to the portion where no one knows about them at all. Not only did I not know what this was before I watched it, I had no notion of what it was before I watched it. And I got about twenty minutes into this before I said, “Man, this is great.” And I know that very few people reading this will actually know what this movie is. No casual film buff knows about this. I had to get hardcore into film and deliberately start watching all the Billy Wilder movies before I got to this.

It’s a war thriller about a British soldier who is the only surviving member of his platoon after they all get wiped out by Germans. He sneaks into a hotel in the African desert. The only people working there are the owner and a French woman. The hotel’s cook ran away and their one waiter died in a bombing. Just as the soldier arrives, so do the Germans. They take over the hotel to use it as headquarters for Rommel. So to survive, the soldier pretends to be the hotel’s waiter. I won’t spoil where it goes from there, but man, are there some great twists and turns to this one.

An incredible movie and a great thriller and the kind of film that I love recommending to people who already have  base level of movie watching under their belt. Once you have Casablanca and Citizen Kane down, then you get to that second tier stuff like Mrs. Miniver and Pride of the Yankees. But this is that third tier stuff that you didn’t really know about that’ll really fuck your shit up because you didn’t know how good it was. It’s stuff like this that makes my job as a movie recommender fun. People love discovering great stuff like this.

6. Heaven Can Wait

“If you meet our requirements, we’ll be only too glad to accommodate you. Uh, would you be good enough to mention, for instance, some outstanding crime you’ve committed?”
“Crime? Crime? I’m afraid I can’t think of any, but I can safely say my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor.”

I love the set up of this movie so much. Only Ernst Lubitsch could pull off something as genius as this.

Don Ameche dies and enters the waiting room of Hell. There, he interviews with the Devil about his qualifications to enter. He says he’s more than qualified to enter and has been a terrible person. As such, he begins telling his life story. And we flash back to his life, slowly starting to see that he may not have bee the awful person he claims to be… and may end up actually going to “that other place.”

This movie is gorgeous. There’s something about the early 40s Technicolor look that continues to stun to this day. And you can never, ever go wrong with an Ernst Lubitsch movie.

7. Sahara

“You think she’ll pull us out alright?”
“Oh, well, it all depends on the way we handle her. It’s like a dame. But no dame ever said anything as sweet as this motor’s going to sound to us when she gets rollin’.”

Badass war movie. If you liked the movie Fury, you’ll like this.

Humphrey Bogart is a tank commander and the film is about him, his men and his tank. A great supporting cast here. Dan Duryea, Lloyd Bridges, Rex Ingram and J. Carrol Naish.

It’s these adventure war films that always entertain, and with Bogart in the mix — how can you go wrong?

8. The Human Comedy

I love this movie. A great drama that really only works in the era in which it was made. I don’t think you can really make this again (and it’s been tried).

Mickey Rooney is a high school kid who gets a job as a telegram boy in order to help his family after his father dies during the war and his brother enlists. It’s a slice of life movie about the home front and has great performances all around. The great parts are him, as this teenager, having to deal with the harsh realities of life as he brings the telegrams telling people their family members have been killed and has to watch them weep as he delivers them.

It’s one of the underrated dramas of the 40s, and has a terrific ending.

9. For Whom the Bell Tolls

“If you don’t love me, I’ll love you enough for both of us.”

This is one of those movies I think of when I think “big budget, prestige, studio-era A picture.” It just feels like the model for that kind of picture. Adapted from Hemingway, Technicolor, all the studio resources put into it, two major stars — Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. You look at this movie and the year and know it was nominated for at least 7 or 8 Oscars.

It’s about a bunch of guerrilla fighters during the Spanish Civil War who plot to blow up a bridge. And then there’s romance and all that good stuff in between.

It’s just a classy film. Looks great. And fantastic supporting performances by Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou.

10. The Seventh Victim

“I run to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

Val Lewton again. The man made really great horror movies.

This one is about a woman who goes in search of her missing sister and uncovers a ring of devil worshippers who may have something to do with her sister’s disappearance.

The cool thing about this is that there’s a scene that forecasts the famous shower scene in Psycho. You watch the movie and you’re like, “Wait, that looks familiar!” Which is fun. Not to mention the appearance of Tom Conway reprising his psychiatrist character from Cat People.

Also, that ending… definitely one of the more feel-bad endings to come out of Hollywood in the studio era.

– – – – – – – – – –

11-20:

Air Force — It’s a war film about pilots directed by Howard Hawks. You’re pretty much in from that. Also, it’s awesome.

Edge of Darkness — Lewis Milestone directed this. It’s about a Norwegian village being occupied by the Nazis whose residents decide to fight back. A 40s Red Dawn, of sorts. Starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan and Walter Huston. Very entertaining.

The Gang’s All Here — A Busby Berkeley musical. If memory serves, his first color film. It’s also a fucking bizarre movie. Famous for a lot of reasons. Carmen Miranda wears a giant fruit hat in this one, which became her trademark. (Also, the musical number is loaded with sexual imagery.) It’s got this huge, surreal Busby Berkeley numbers that we’re used to, only now in color. And, the finale of this movie is one of the most insane, trippy things you’ll ever witness. By the time the floating heads show up, you’re just completely through the looking glass. It’s amazing. I have no idea what the plot of this movie is, nor do I care, nor does it matter. When you watch a Busby Berkeley number, the point is the musical numbers, not the plot.

A Guy Named Joe — Great story. Steven Spielberg remade it as Always (a movie that I’m pretty sure no one also knows about. Which we’ll discuss when we get to 1989). It’s about Spencer Tracy as a pilot who dies during a mission. He comes back as a ghost/guardian angel for a younger pilot. Complications ensue, however, when the young pilot starts to fall in love with Tracy’s wife (now widow), Irene Dunne. It’s a really great film. An underrated classic.

I Walked with a Zombie — (I mean, they do say to walk a mile….) Great Val Lewton movie directed by Jacques Tourneur (who also did Cat People and also has Leopard Man this year). It’s about a nurse moving to a sugar plantation to care for its owner’s wife, an invalid. It’s one of those movies that was made with the most shlock-y of intentions and yet is directed with a sort of elegiac poetry that’s just fascinating.

Lassie Come Home — It’s the first Lassie movie. I didn’t think this would appeal to me, but it really won me over. Possibly because it stars Elizabeth Taylor in her first major role. Plus it’s about a dog that escapes to return home to her family. In Technicolor! Who wouldn’t love that?

Phantom of the Opera — It’s the Phantom of the Opera story, told in Technicolor with Claude Rains as the Phantom. That’s pretty much it. The joy here is the Technicolor more than anything. They put some crazy backstory onto it — Rains is a violinist and all that — I don’t really care about that. The Lon Chaney version is still better. The Technicolor is what makes this one good.

So Proudly We Hail! — Really solid film about army nurses, played by Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake. It’s as much about the nurses as much as it’s about the awfulness of the war. It’s a really solid film that is one of the more underrated 40s films and definitely one of the best films made about and during World War II.

The Song of Bernadette — About a young girl who sees the Virgin Mary in a toxic waste dump. Not a joke. It’s actually a solid film, and one of the few overly religious movies I actually like. Jennifer Jones’s first real movie and it won her an Oscar. It’s more about this girl who tries really hard and wants to do good but just struggles. And then she sees this vision and everyone freaks out. They question her and decide she isn’t lying, so people start to pray to this spot where she saw the vision. And she enters a convent and struggles to be a good nun. (Until she dies of tuberculosis of the bone, which was likely the cause of being around toxic waste for so long.) It’s a really solid movie.

This Land Is Mine — Jean Renoir directed this. Charles Laughton is a schoolteacher in a Nazi-occupied town who has to decide whether or not to help the Nazis or resist them. Maureen O’Hara and George Sanders are also in this. Really great movie. But, I mean, with the names I just gave you, you probably knew that already.

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Tier two:

  • Action in the North Atlantic
  • Cabin in the Sky
  • Le Corbeau
  • Destination Tokyo
  • Lady of Burlesque
  • A Lady Takes a Chance
  • The Leopard Man
  • Madame Curie
  • Margin for Error
  • No Time for Love
  • The North Star
  • The Outlaw
  • Princess O’Rourke
  • The Sky’s the Limit
  • Stormy Weather
  • Tender Comrade
  • Thank Your Lucky Stars
  • Thousands Cheer
  • Watch on the Rhine

More than a few war-oriented movies here. We’re gonna begin with what I feel are the two most important of the war-related films: Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stage Door Canteen.

I’m not sure what the official classification of these films is. Ensemble? Propaganda? Revue? All-star cast? All of the above? I don’t know. The idea is that all the major stars of Hollywood got together to make a bunch of these films where they all did little cameos and numbers and the general idea is, “Look at all of us. We’re supporting the troops.” They’re all fun because the whole thing is meant to be light entertainment during a tough time. No one’s trying to win Oscars. (A good recent example is that Love Actually thing they did for charity. Where they checked in with all the characters fifteen years later.)

The backstory to this is that in Hollywood, Bette Davis and John Garfield started the Hollywood Canteen. It was a nightclub in the heart of Hollywood — for those of you who live in Los Angeles, it’s now the site of the parking structure behind the CNN building on Cahuenga and Sunset across from Amoeba — that was open to (and free for) all servicemen (of the Allied forces, naturally) and a way to provide entertainment for them while they were on leave. The great thing about the club was that all the Hollywood stars came and volunteered to be waiters and waitresses and cooks and busboys. It was a hugely popular club and a big morale booster for the troops, and one of the bright marks for Hollywood during the war. The Stage Door Canteen was the New York equivalent of the Hollywood Canteen.

Stage Door Canteen takes place in New York, while Thank Your Lucky Stars is LA-based. They both have loose stories, designed to fill in the spaces between songs and cameos, but ultimately they’re designed to parade the stars through with cameos, musical numbers and comedy bits designed to play off their screen personas. Stage Door Canteen is “about” three women who volunteer as servers, one of whom ends up falling for a soldier. Thank Your Lucky Stars is more of a “put on a show” story, where they’re trying to organize something and things go crazy. Cameos galore in both of them and just a good time that still works even outside of the context of a morale booster for the war.

Then we get into the actual war movies. The North Star is…stop me if you’ve heard this before like four minutes ago… a Lewis Milestone-directed movie about a village dealing with Nazi occupation which decides to fight back against them. Also co-starring Walter Huston. (Milestone basically made the same movie twice in the same year. Both are good.) Destination Tokyo is Cary Grant as a submarine captain sneaking into Japan to put some spies behind enemy lines.  Action in the North Atlantic is a Bogart naval film where he fights German U-Boats.

The flip side to the actual war movies are the war musicals. The ones tangentially about the war but mostly fun song-and-dance pictures. The Sky’s the Limit is about Fred Astaire as a pilot who sneaks away during leave to have some time to himself. Naturally he finds a girl and romance ensues. Thousands Cheer is Gene Kelly as a guy who falls in love with his commanding officer’s daughter. The film ends with an extended USO show of sorts, with all sorts of different bits.

 

The other two films dealing with the war are more home front dramas. Tender Comrade is about women on the home front living in a boarding house and working in factories together while their husbands are off fighting. Ginger Rogers stars in that one. Watch on the Rhine is about a German man who has fought against fascism while in Germany, but had to flee for the sake of his family. Now coming into the U.S. from Mexico, he soon finds Nazi sympathizers sniffing out his identity and ready to rat him and his family out to the Germans. Mostly the film is presented as a Bette Davis melodrama where she worries about her husband constantly putting himself in danger and wanting him to settle down, even though she knows he’s ultimately doing the right thing.

Everything else is just cool, random stuff. Le Corbeau is a movie about anonymous letters being sent around a French town, saying malicious things about all the people in the town. Everyone starts going nuts trying to figure out who did it, as terrible consequences start to occur because of the letters. Henri-Georges Clouzot directed it. He’s famous for Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. A Lady Takes a Chance is a rom com with John Wayne and Jean Arthur. The Leopard Man is a Val Lewton horror movie (that is not a spinoff of Cat People) about a series of leopard attacks that may, in fact, be the work of a serial killer. Madame Curie is a biopic of Marie Curie, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. No Time for Love is a romantic comedy with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. One of like, seven movies they made together.

The Outlaw is the Howard Hughes western about Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. Famous for being the movie that made Jane Russell a star. And for the… controversy… surrounding her wardrobe.

Princess O’Rourke is basically Roman Holiday meets It Happened One Night, starring Olivia de Havilland. She’s an exiled princess traveling incognito. After being given too many sleeping pills on a plane, she wakes up in the pilot’s apartment in his pajamas. She soon falls in love with the pilot and has to deal with all the complexities of marrying a commoner, and him vice versa. Lady of Burlesque is about a bunch of burlesque dancers who work to solve a murder of one of their own before the killer strikes again.

Now, the last two films I wanted to take some special time for. Because they’re really unique films within history. They both have primarily African-American casts. Cabin in the Sky is about a man killed over gambling debts who has six months to save his soul and deem himself worth of Heaven. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, it has Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram. It’s really good, too. Stormy Weather, meanwhile, is based loosely on the life of the film’s star, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. It’s about him coming home after World War I and trying to make it as a performer. He meets Lena Horne, a singer, and romance ensues. The great thing about this movie is that it’s less than 80 minutes long and has 20 musical numbers! These two make a great double feature and are about (sadly) one of the more underutilized (and important) areas of the film industry.

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