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Mike’s Top Ten of 1944

For me, the big thing about 1944 is the noirs. I know the war is still in full force and the dominant set of films are either pro-war movies or light and fluffy stuff to take people’s minds off of it. But really, the thing that stands out is the amount of noir films that came out this year. This is really the first year where the noirs are a staple of cinema. Sure, all those other ones were the headliners, but the noirs played in front of all of them.

You look at this list — maybe 7 or 8 noirs in total. And it’ll only grow from here. This is the time when the cynical underbelly of society started to pop up. Most people speak of that popping up post-war. With everyone returning to the suburbs and people’s collective weariness about the war and all of that starting to creep into the films. But you really start to see it as early as 1944. It doesn’t solidify until after the war, but you definitely start to see it happening as early as now. I’d say the noirs here are much more “drama”-leaning. That is to say, they’re presented more like dramas than what we’d consider the traditional noirs. But they’re still noirs by any account.

That’s how I look at this list — great comedies, great war films, and that nice underbelly of noirs. Just how I like it.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1944

Arsenic and Old Lace

Double Indemnity

Gaslight

Going My Way

To Have and Have Not

Lifeboat

Meet Me in St. Louis

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

National Velvet

Since You Went Away

11-20: Address Unknown, Between Two Worlds, The Fighting Sullivans, The Great Moment, Henry V, Hollywood Canteen, I’ll Be Seeing You, Laura, Murder My Sweet, None But the Lonely Heart

Tier two: Buffalo Bill, The Canterville Ghost, Christmas Holiday, The Curse of the Cat People, Dragon Seed, Hail the Conquering Hero, I’ll Be Seeing You, It Happened Tomorrow, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Lodger, Ministry of Fear, Mrs. Parkington, Once Upon a Time, Passage to Marseille, The Seventh Cross, The Story of Dr. Wassell, The Suspect, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Three Caballeros, The Way Ahead, Wilson

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1. National Velvet

“We’re alike. I, too, believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life. I was twenty when they said a woman couldn’t swim the Channel. You’re twelve; you think a horse of yours can win the Grand National. Your dream has come early; but remember, Velvet, it will have to last you all the rest of your life.”

One of my absolute favorite films. It never fails to make me happy.

Elizabeth Taylor is a young girl who really wants to own a horse. She’s constantly sneaking away to watch them when she isn’t supposed to. One day, the town has a raffle, and the prize is the horse. Taylor puts in for it and, to everyone’s great surprise, she wins. She then decides that she wants to race the horse in the Grand National, the most famous steeplechase race there is. The steeplechase equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. She’s aided in this by Mickey Rooney, a former jockey whose career ended in tragedy. The film culminates in an absolutely thrilling race sequence where Taylor rides the horse herself in the race.

It’s just a wonderful film. The scene where Taylor’s mother gives her the money so she can train, and tells her the story of how she got it is just beautiful. This is one of those movies that everyone should show their daughters. It’s the kind of movie that makes you believe you’re capable of anything you want to be.

2. Meet Me in St. Louis

“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings
From the moment I saw him I fell”

This is one of the most perfect musicals ever made.

How does this movie not make every single person who watches it happy?

Between the great songs — the title track, “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and hell, this is the movie that gave us “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

I love everything about this movie. The structure is great — centered around each of the four seasons. The characters are fantastic — from Leon Ames as the father to Harry Davenport as the grandfather (how great is that scene with him at the Christmas dance?) to Margaret O’Brien as the younger sister. And Mary Astor as the mother! I love that they meander from vignette to vignette. This movie takes five minutes away from the main storyline (if there even is one) to have that Halloween scene where O’Brien has to throw flour on the scary neighbor to show her meddle.

This is one of the ten or fifteen greatest musicals ever made. I will never turn this movie down.

3. Double Indemnity

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

If you were to make a list of the top ten quintessential noirs, this would be on that list. It would be in the top five. This is the noir genre.

An insurance salesman, a femme fatale, a plot to kill her husband in a way that looks like an accident so she can collect double on the life insurance. An illicit affair, a persistent detective, a doomed romance, fatalistic themes, and lots and lots of shadows.

This was only the third movie that Billy Wilder directed (in America). For those keeping score: three movies, two top tens, one 11-20. That’ll be a trend that continues throughout his career.

4. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

“Daughters. Phooey.”

My favorite Preston Sturges movie. This movie never fails to leave me in stitches. It’s so goddamn funny.

This is Betty Hutton — as a woman named Trudy Kockenlocker — and Eddie Bracken, playing his usual nervous, stuttering character. She’s got a thing for soldiers, and he’s in love with her. She goes out partying with some soldiers one night and gets married to one of them, though when she sobers up she can’t remember his name at all. So she has no idea how to contact him. And of course, now, she’s pregnant. So in comes Bracken to be like, “I can help with that!” Which pretty soon puts him in the line of her father, William Demarest, overprotective and hilarious, and which leads to some of the greatest screwball situations I’ve seen.

If there’s anything I can impress upon you, it’s just how hilarious this movie is, and how it holds up better than most comedies released today.

5. Arsenic and Old Lace

“Look I probably should have told you this before but you see… well… insanity runs in my family… It practically gallops.”

Frank Capra directing one of the great screwball comedies. What’s great about this one is how dark it is. It’s a screwball comedy about murder and serial killers.

Cary Grant is an author who writes about how bullshit marriage is, who suddenly finds himself in love and getting married. He then takes his new bride to visit his aunts, who raised him, and his cousin, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. He soon discovers that his aunts are serial killers. They bring in unmarried bachelors and, thinking they’re unhappy, they poison them and bury them in the basement, thinking they’re doing them a service. So while he’s dealing with this, his other brother shows up. He’s wanted for murderer, has a fresh body to dispose of and has just had plastic surgery to change his face. Oh, and he decides he’s gonna kill his brother. Hilarity ensues.

It’s one of the great comedies ever made. I feel like this doesn’t get the respect it should among Capra’s other works. But it’s incredible. It’s insane, but it’s hilarious. And it’s so dark, which makes it way more intriguing than a lot of other screwball comedies out there.

Also, aside from Cary Grant, you have Josephine Hull, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson, James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton and Peter Lorre. How could you go wrong there?

6. To Have and Have Not

“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”

I can put so many different quotes from this movie in here. The famous one is the “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

There’s so much about this movie that marks it as a classic. It’s a Howard Hawks movie. The first of two films he and Bogart did together. And more importantly, it’s the first movie of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Somehow, despite their age difference, they had one of the most enduring screen romances of all time. Their chemistry is off the charts.

Nobody really remembers the plot of this movie. In a way, it’s almost like Casablanca all over again. A lot of similar plot elements there. Doesn’t matter. Really all that matters is Bogart and Bacall. And you get Walter Brennan thrown in, along with Hoagy Carmichael. This is one of the greatest film debuts of all time, the way Lauren Bacall jumps off the screen. And the movie’s actually good!

Fun fact: the novel this was adapted from was written by Hemingway and the script was c0-written by William Faulkner. Which may still be the only time when one Pulitzer winner adapted another.

7. Going My Way

“I’m sure that the way to say what I’d like to say will occur to me after you’ve gone.”

I have no idea how this became one of the most beloved movies of the 40s, became the highest-grossing film of 1944 and won 7 Oscars out of 10 nominations. But I also can’t deny the fact that it’s charming as all hell.

Bing Crosby is a traveling priest who gets sent to help out struggling parishes. The film is about him getting sent to a parish in Brooklyn, run by Barry Fitzgerald. Crosby is a new wave kind of priest — the kind who golfs and sings and plays baseball, while Fitzgerald is the old kind — the strict, Irish, by-the-book kind. Crosby is basically sent there to take over all operations of the parish, while Fitzgerald is only gonna get to be its head priest. And the film is first about the clashing styles between the two priests (done comedically), though eventually leading to a growing respect and friendship. And there are songs and stuff in between, and little subplots here and there.

I can’t explain this movie, but it’s just great.

8. Since You Went Away

“Conductor, can’t we do anything to get this train going?”
I wish we could, but those supply trains have the right-of-way.”
“But we’re going to meet my Pop! He’s in the Army, and if this train is late, we may not see him before he leaves!”
“Don’t you think those tanks had better get through if you want him to come back?”

One of the great World War II dramas. A drama of the home front. One that is a bit overdone, but still every bit as affecting as it’s intending to be.

Claudette Colbert is a woman whose husband has gone off to fight the war. She’s left to raise two daughters and make ends meet. She, like most people, has to give up certain luxuries in the face of war, eventually needing to take boarders into her home. The man who moves in is Monty Woolley, a retired colonel, who has a strained relationship with his son. Pretty soon his son and one of Colbert’s daughters falls in love, and then there’s a subplot with Colbert and Joseph Cotten, as a friend of hers and her husband’s, coming back from war and falling for her. There are a lot of really great scenes in this movie. The confrontation between Monty Woolley and Robert Walker, the train station goodbye (pictured above), which became so iconic it was famously spoofed in Airplane!

I love this movie a lot. It can be overly sentimental at times, but I really like that it examines war and its effects on those not in battle. And it’s a David O. Selznick production, starring Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Joseph Cotten, Monty Woolley, Lionel Barrymore, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel and Keenan Wynn. A total package.

9. Lifeboat

“Dying together’s even more personal than living together.”

One of Hitchcock’s great stylistic exercises. He shoots a movie that takes place almost entirely in a single lifeboat.

The film is pretty simple — a ship gets torpedoed and the survivors end up in the same lifeboat. Though they quickly realize one of them was actually on the ship that sunk their boat. There’s only about ten actors in the whole movie, and he shoots it entirely around this confined space, and yet it never feels cramped or limited in any way. He also finds a genius way to work in his own cameo.

This is one of his most underrated movies. No one runs to watch this over the others. But it’s great. You get into the second tier stuff like this and Rope and Dial M for Murder, and it’s all great. The man was a maestro.

10. Gaslight

“If I were not mad, I could have helped you. Whatever you had done, I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad, I hate you. Because I am mad, I have betrayed you. And because I’m mad, I’m rejoicing in my heart, without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!”

There are very, very few films that exist that have the distinction of being good enough to qualify as “Hitchcock films not directed by Hitchcock.” There’s this unexplainable quality to them that has to be there for them to feel like they could have legitimately been made by him. This is one of those films. George Cukor directed this, of all people.

A famous opera singer is murdered. Her niece, who saw the murder, is sent off to train as an opera singer. Years later, she’s Ingrid Bergman. And she meets and falls in love with Charles Boyer. The two get married and come back to the house where Bergman’s aunt was murdered years earlier. Pretty soon, weird stuff starts to happen around the house, and Bergman starts to think she may be losing her mind. Things go missing, and she starts to see and hear things that everyone else tells her aren’t really there. And… well, it gets good.

Bergman rightly won an Oscar for her performance, and Boyer is terrific, as is Angela Lansbury as the maid. It’s a great thriller with a great ending. I love how this movie ends.

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11-20:

Address Unknown — Is a great, forgotten drama. It’s about two close friends, older men. They’re art dealers in San Francisco, and their children are about to marry. Though eventually one of the men’s daughter says she’s going to postpone the engagement so she can go try to be an actress. So she goes to Germany to train as an actress, along with her fiancé’s father and mother. Meanwhile, once there, the soon-to-be father-in-law falls in line with a Nazi and begins to espouse Nazi ideologies. Though that soon cuts him off from his old friend, who is Jewish. He’s forced to cut off all contact with him, and begins ignoring his friend’s (and even his son’s) letters. Things eventually start to get serious as the rise of the Nazis (and persecution of the Jews) gets more serious. Really terrific, and packs a wallop for it’s relatively short (75 min) run time. Huge fan of this movie.

Between Two Worlds — This is a terrific fantasy film that’s forgotten today. It’s about a bunch of people who all die and end up on a boat together. Some of them know they’re dead and others do not. To some, they can’t remember how they got on this boat or where their destination is. Soon, it becomes apparent that they are in a purgatory of sorts, and each of them will be individually judged and sent to their final destinations. It’s a really fascinating film. A character-piece, great for the stage, and adapted from the stage. One of those great movies that you know nothing about. Stars John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid and Edmund Gwenn.

The Fighting Sullivans — A biographical war film about the famous brothers who all went off to war and died. (A similar situation is what they were trying to avoid in Saving Private Ryan.) The film here is about the five brothers, an it’s told John Ford-style. Very much about the family and building a sense of the community around these boys. The big role is Thomas Mitchell as their father. He’s incredible here. It’s more about the family than the battle stuff. But still, it’s really good. One of the great “war” films of the 40s.

The Great Moment — Preston Sturges again. The man just knew how to make them. Three films on this list alone. This one is such a weird choice for him, and yet I love it. It’s about a dentist that discovers nitrous oxide can be used as an anesthetic. It feels like his answer to all those high-class, serious biopics of the late 30s. Rather than all those moments where the character has their big moment that fits with the historical notion of themselves, this guy’s like, “Oh, well shit, this actually works,” and adding some levity to the proceedings (the scene with William Demarest going nuts is amazing). Everyone loves all the “big” Sturges movies. I always liked the ones like this for some reason.

Henry V — Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare. He adapted, directs and stars. This movie placed him on another level. It’s a hell of an achievement, and, to this point, the finest Shakespeare adaptation put to screen. Very 40s, which is understandable, and not as visceral as the Branagh version (not that it can be), but it’s still beautiful to look at and quite compelling.

Hollywood Canteen — Another of those all-star war-effort films. Loaded with stars doing cameos. This one has a plot I like better than the other ones. It’s about some soldiers on leave for a few days, one of whom is really in love with Joan Leslie. He’s generally pretty bummed, given his feeling of bad luck after recent losses in battle. The organizers of the club (namely Bette Davis and John Garfield) hear about this and work it out so he “wins” a date with Joan Leslie. And this all happens throughout a bunch of the different musical acts and comedy bits. This movie is just the right kind of junk food.

I’ll Be Seeing You — is one of the great underrated films of the 40s. Joseph Cotten is a soldier with shell shock, on leave from a military hospital for the Christmas holiday in the hopes he’ll be able to get back into society. Ginger Rogers is a woman in prison given a week off to go see her family. (Not sure how that works, but it’s romance, go with it.) They meet and each lie to the other about their actual situations. But eventually they meet and fall in love. Two lonely outcasts forming a companionship over Christmas. It’s a beautiful movie.

Laura — One of those classic noirs that’s bound to pop up immediately once you start looking into the genre. Otto Preminger directing Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb (with some nice Vincent Price action as well). It’s about a woman who is murdered and a detective falling in love with her as he tries to figure out who killed her. Gorgeously shot.

Murder, My Sweet — A film noir based on Raymond Chandler. An adaptation of Farewell, My Lovely. Dick Powell plays Marlowe (which he did a couple of times), and it’s about him helping a big, hulking dude, find his missing former girlfriend. And this uncovers a whole bigger conspiracy and all that good stuff. I like the book a lot and this is a solid adaptation of it. Very good noir.

None But the Lonely Heart — One of the two real times Cary Grant went full on into drama, and it is great. This is his most dramatic performance of his career, and probably his best. He’s a wandering ne’er-do-well who returns home to his mother. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t stay in one place for too long because he doesn’t want to actually do an honest day’s work. His mother (who secretly has cancer) tells him to either stay for good or leave, so he chooses to leave. He then meets a woman in a bar and takes a liking to her, so he ultimately decides to stay. And it’s about him trying to do right for a change, while also getting in business with a local criminal.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • Address Unknown
  • Buffalo Bill
  • The Canterville Ghost
  • Christmas Holiday
  • The Curse of the Cat People
  • Dragon Seed
  • Hail the Conquering Hero
  • It Happened Tomorrow
  • The Keys of the Kingdom
  • The Lodger
  • Ministry of Fear
  • Mrs. Parkington
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Passage to Marseille
  • The Seventh Cross
  • The Story of Dr. Wassell
  • The Suspect
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
  • The Three Caballeros
  • The Way Ahead
  • Wilson

Curse of the Cat People I love because it’s like Bride of Frankenstein — it’s a completely different movie than the original. Though whereas Bride of Frankenstein was deliberately campy in tone, Curse of the Cat People has no cat people whatsoever. The main character of the first film is now remarried and has a daughter. The daughter doesn’t have any friends and is ostracized at school. The girl soon meets the ghost of the guy’s dead ex-wife (which I won’t get into if you haven’t seen the original) and befriends her. She also befriends an aging actress whose daughter hates her. It’s a really weird movie, yet actually good. It’s more of a childhood fantasy movie and not a horror movie, and I love it. Wilson is a solid, Technicolor biopic of Woodrow Wilson. Obviously heavily fictionalized, but it’s a classy drama. Those are nice, especially when in color.

The Seventh Cross is an awesome thriller about seven men who escape from a concentration camp. Six of them are caught and killed, but the final one, Spencer Tracy, remains uncaught. And the film is about him sneaking around, trying to get to safety. And it’s awesome. The Lodger is a film that’s been remade a bunch. Hitchcock made it as one of his first films. It’s about a landlady who suspects her new tenant is actually Jack the Ripper. Always interesting, and this may be the best version of it. The Suspect is another noir with Charles Laughton. Laughton’s an unhappily married man who meets a young woman and becomes great friends with her. He loves her, but would never leave his wife for her. Then his wife finds out and threatens scandal with an affair. And then she suddenly dies… and it sure doesn’t seem like an accident. Great story.

It Happened Tomorrow is a really cool fantasy movie about a newspaper reporter who wishes he could get tomorrow’s paper so he’d have all the scoops on the news. Eventually he finds he can get a hold of tomorrow’s paper. So he starts getting all the scoops on the news. It seems strange to people (especially the cops, wondering how he knew certain murders and things would happen), but it certainly makes him a star reporter. Complications arise when he looks at the next day’s paper one day and sees his own death in there. Dragon Seed is based on a Pearl S. Buck novel and about a Chinese village invaded by the Japanese. It’s a really solid film as long as you can get over the fact that the entire cast is full of white people. I mean, they are Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Akim Tamiroff, Agnes Moorehead and J. Carrol Naish, so there’s that, I guess.

Hail the Conquering Hero is Preston Sturges. Eddie Bracken again, as a guy trying to live up to his family legacy and be a good soldier. Though he gets kicked out of the army almost immediately after getting hay fever. He meets a bunch of a marines in a bar, and they feel bad for him, so they concoct a story that he got discharged for a medical reason because he’s a hero. Pretty soon everyone starts to believe it, and the whole thing spirals out of control. You can never go wrong with Sturges. Christmas Holiday is a movie starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. And when you hear the title and those stars, you assume some kind of light, fluffy musical, right? Nope. This is a straight noir. Kelly’s a charming, but unstable guy and Durbin is a femme fatale of sorts. And he charms and marries her, though pretty soon the marriage is on the rocks because he’s a no good gambler and he murders his bookie. It’s a really fascinating movie with some nice casting against type. Without that, it would just be another decent noir. Because it’s Kelly and Durbin, it makes it so much more of a must-see.

The Keys of the Kingdom is a solid drama with Gregory Peck as a priest trying to bring Christianity to China. Really solid film, which says something, since I’m usually very anti films about religion. Buffalo Bill is about the western guy, not the ‘put the lotion in the basket’ guy. Joel McCrea, Maureen O’Hara, Linda Darnell, Thomas Mitchell, Anthony Quinn and directed by William Wellman. The Canterville Ghost is about a guy who flees from a duel and is forced to haunt his house until one of his relatives does a good deed. A fun comedy. Charles Laughton plays the ghost. Ministry of Fear is a fun noir with Ray Milland as a guy getting out of an asylum who stumbles on a Nazi plot. Fritz Lang directs. Very solid. Mrs. Parkington is a drama with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. She starts as the daughter of a boarding house owner who marries the owner of a mine. And we follow them over their lives. My favorite thing about the movie is Agnes Moorehead’s performance.

The Three Caballeros is a Disney package film. Some fun segments, like the penguin that gets tired of the cold and moves to the Galapagos. Or all the Jose Carioca segments. There’s some weird, crazy stuff here, but it’s all fun as hell. Passage to Marseille is a fun war movie about five convicts who escape prison and join the war effort. Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre are among the group. And you get Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet in here too. Fantastic story and a solid film. The Story of Dr. Wassell is a Cecil B. DeMille Technicolor film starring Gary Cooper as a doctor who risks his life to save those injured in battle, despite the order to retreat. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is about pilots on a bombing mission over Tokyo. Really solid war film. Mervyn LeRoy directs and Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson star. The War Ahead is a bunch of hopeless soldiers who get whipped into shape by a steadfast commanding officer.

Once Upon a Time is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. Here’s the story: Cary Grant is a failing theater owner. He needs some obscene amount of money to keep himself in business. He’s trying real hard to find something that will work. By chance, he meets a young boy with a pet caterpillar. But not just any caterpillar. One that dances when a certain song is played. He becomes enamored with it and becomes partners with the boy to turn it into a sensation. I’m not kidding, that’s what this movie is about. I really enjoyed the film, but it’s just so odd.

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