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Mike’s Top Ten of 1946

This may be the strongest year of the 40s. At least at the top. I’ll probably also make that case for 1948, but this year feels so strong because quite legitimately, the top four films on my list would be #1 films in just about ANY other year. And they’re also all-time greats. Two of them are legitimately two of the top 50 American movies ever made.

Aside from that, you have a smattering amazing movies. This is the kind of list where you get to a film and just think, “Ohh…. yeah.” And it gives you that feeling of happiness because it’s just so great. I love years like this.

I really don’t have a whole lot more to add. Just… look at these ten films. How great are they?

Mike’s Top Ten of 1946

Beauty and the Beast

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Big Sleep

Great Expectations

It’s a Wonderful Life

A Matter of Life and Death

My Darling Clementine

Notorious

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Yearling

11-20: Angel on My Shoulder, Anna and the King of Siam, Duel in the Sun, Gilda, The Killers, Make Mine Music, The Spiral Staircase, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, To Each His Own, Without Reservations

Tier two: Bedlam, The Captive Heart, Cluny Brown, Decoy, Diary of a Chambermaid, Dragonwyck, The Green Years, The Harvey Girls, Heartbeat, The Hoodlum Saint, The Jolson Story, Night and Day, Night Editor, The Razor’s Edge, Shock, Sister Kenny, Song of the South, Three Strangers, Tomorrow Is Forever, Ziegfeld Follies

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1. It’s a Wonderful Life

“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.”

Just because the film is so ubiquitous around Christmastime and because it’s so highly regarded as a classic does not mean this movie isn’t perfect and isn’t one of the greatest films of all time. Because it is.

Pretty much everyone knows the story. An angel is sent down to help a regular man who is in such despair he’s thinking of taking his own life. The angel shows the man what it would be like if he didn’t exist. It’s absolutely beautiful.

This movie only grows in my estimation each time I watch it. To think that this is overrated is taking an externalist approach. I can tell myself that other movies on this list are “better” films, but if I’m being completely honest with myself, this is my favorite film of the year. Always was, probably always will be.

2. A Matter of Life and Death

“Be careful, doctor Reeves. In the whole Universe, nothing is stronger than The Law.”
“Yes, Mr. Farlan, nothing is stronger than The Law in the Universe, but on Earth nothing is stronger than Love.”

Oh boy, do I love Powell and Pressburger. What is this, their third top ten movie now? We have at least three more to go. They still might be the most underrated directors in cinema. I know their movies are well-regarded now, but I still don’t know if people realize just how good they are.

The film begins with Kim Hunter as a radio operator communicating with David Niven, an airman in a plane that’s going to crash. The rest of his crew is dead, and he’s about to bail out without a parachute so as not to burn up in the crash. The two have a beautifully tragic conversation over the radio (which was completely reused for the end of Captain America: The First Avenger), and he jumps out of the plane to his assumed death.

However, the next morning, he awakens on a beach, wondering how the hell he could have survived that fall. He then realizes, based on his conversation, that he’s over where Hunter lives. The two meet in person and quickly fall in love. Complications ensue when Niven is soon visited by — let’s call him an angel. He’s a Frenchman who works in “upper management.” He was supposed to catch Niven and take him up to Heaven. Only the fog was so thick he slipped through his fingers. So he tells Niven he’s gotta come with him. Niven’s like, “Hell no. It’s your mistake. I’m quite happy where I am.”

So now there’s the issue of Niven having supposed-to-have died, him being in love with Hunter, the angel trying to trick him into (essentially) dying (pictured above), and Niven starting to get these chronic headaches, which we soon find out is a serious medical condition. Everything comes to a head the night of Niven’s surgery to correct his problem, where he ends up on trial up in Heaven, for his life.

This is one of the most beautiful films ever made. The scenes in Heaven are in black-and-white and the scenes on Earth are in color. And it’s all gorgeous. This is one of the greatest romance films ever made. It’s quite nearly perfect. (I’m not crazy about the opening narration, but I can deal.)

This is one of those movies that, while it’s so amazing and so well-regarded, so many people I recommend films to have no idea what it is. Which makes it one of those great movies to show other people, because they’re almost guaranteed to love it. Some movies I love giving to people to watch — this is one I love showing to people. Any excuse to rewatch it, really.

3. My Darling Clementine

“Wide-awake, wide-open town, Tombstone. You can get anything you want there.”

This might be my favorite John Ford film. I’m not gonna say it’s his best, but it’s definitely one of his ten best. I could maybe argue for five, but the man made so many great movies, it’s too complex a discussion to get into at this moment.

The film is, essentially, a retelling of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp and his brothers ride into Tombstone (yes, that movie is based on this one too). One of their brothers is killed by cattle rustlers, the Clantons. Earp then takes the job as marshal of the town. He cleans it up, making it a safe place to live. Though pretty soon, he puts himself in direct conflict with the Clantons, leading to the inevitable showdown.

There are great subplots here, and iconic scenes. Victor Mature is great as Doc Holliday, and you have Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, Doc’s girlfriend. She’s also wonderful. There’s the great scene (which has been copied a bunch of times in other versions of this story) where the Shakespearean actor performs in the bar, and all the local idiots shoot at him, but Holliday quotes the scene perfectly.

John Ford is a master storyteller. And there are such great moments in this movie. Like Henry Fonda going to the barber and getting sprayed with a honeysuckle cologne and all his brothers giving him shit for it. Or the dance at the church, where Fonda dances with the schoolmarm, and does the EXACT SAME DANCE HE DID IN YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. Which is such an in-joke, it makes me so happy.

This movie is actually perfect. It’s also the first film Henry Fonda made since The Ox-Bow Incident, since he was essentially gray-listed by Hollywood during the war for his liberal views. There’s a great story about the making of this one, where John Ford went to Fonda to tell him he was thinking of remaking the movie Frontier Marshal, which was directed by Allan Dwan and had Randolph Scott as Earp. Fonda sat down and watched the movie and then turned to Ford and said, “Shit… I can do better than that.”

That’s how you remake a movie.

4. The Best Years of Our Lives

“You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?”

This is the film of 1946. One of the greatest war films ever made, and there isn’t a single battle scene in it.

The film is about the effects of war on three men. The first is Fredric March, father of two, former banker before the war. The second is Dana Andrews, a man who was a teen working in a soda shop who now comes back a man with no real qualifications to get an actual job. The third is Harold Russell, who returns home to a fiancée and a family without his hands. The three must return to society and deal with all the horrors they’ve faced during the past few years.

This movie is absolutely perfect. I love it so much. It might actually be the best film of 1946. Just because I like three films better than it does not make them better than this. This movie is an absolute masterpiece and is one of the greatest 100 American films ever made.

5. The Big Sleep

“Why did you have to go on?”
“Too many people told me to stop.”

Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Philip Marlowe. There’s really not much more you can ask for in a film.

Gonna be honest — I’ve seen this movie like five times and I still don’t know what it’s really about. I just like watching it. A lot. Bogie gets hired by a rich family, and there’s an illegal operation in a bookstore, and there’s blackmail and all this good stuff.

One of the great detective films ever made, and you have Hawks putting his dialogue and his style on top of it. And Bogie and Bacall — it’s the best.

6. The Yearling

This is a beautiful film. And yes, you can probably guess how this one goes just by looking at that photograph.

The boy lives in the woods with his mother and father. All the boy’s other siblings died and he’s the only one left. His father (Gregory Peck) showers him with love, while his mother (Jane Wyman), is cold toward him. She’s afraid to love him, worried he’ll die like the other children have. One day, the boy and his father come across a deer that was bitten by a snake. It dies, leaving its fawn all alone. The boy, not having any other friends, asks to take the deer back to the house with them. He is allowed to, though he is warned he must let the deer go when it gets too big for them to house it. He and the deer soon become inseparable.

It’s the Technicolor that makes me love this so much. And the fact that it’s not entirely about the boy and the deer. I like the dynamic between the boy and his parents. That leads to the best scenes in the film. And it just looks amazing.

7. Beauty and the Beast

Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause the beast shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s open sesame: ‘Once upon a time…'”

I know it’s not Disney. And it’s French. And it’s 70 years old. But fuck, is this great.

You know the story, so we don’t need to get into that. But this is one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. It’s different, so don’t expect the version you know. But it’s still great. It’s gorgeous, and Jean Cocteau creates one of the most beautiful films of all time.

It’s a masterpiece.

8. Notorious

“I guess I’m the girl nobody remembers.”

Hitchcock, baby. I’m not as in love with this movie as others are, but fuck, man, is it great.

Ingrid Bergman is the daughter of a Nazi spy who is recruited by Cary Grant to infiltrate a Nazi group that’s hiding out, post-World War II. To do this, she must get close to Claude Rains, a friend of her father’s who has always been in love with her. And as she does, eventually marrying him, she gets deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, putting herself in more danger.

There’s such great tension here. Claude Rains is tremendous, as are Bergman and Grant. There’s the famous shot with the key to the wine cellar (pictured above), which is just incredible filmmaking by Hitchcock. I always found the dynamic between Bergman and Grant to be really weird — his whole bipolar thing with her, where it’s clear he cares about her but still treats her like shit for no reason. I never quite get it, but it never turns me off enough to dislike the movie.

It’s hard not to enjoy a good Nazi spy movie. And one directed by Alfred Hitchcock is just a cherry on top.

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice

“With my brains and your looks, we could go places.”

One of the most iconic noirs ever made. John Garfield and Lana Turner. Yeah, boy.

Garfield’s an itinerant who stops at a diner and ends up working there. The owner is an older man, and Turner is his much-younger wife. Pretty soon Garfield and Turner are having an affair, and they plot to bump off the old man and start a life together. Though the real interesting stuff happens after they’re successful.

This is one of the great noirs of all time. It’s such a great movie.

10. Great Expectations

“Pip! A young gentleman of great expectations.”

“It’s hard out here for a Pip / When he’s tryin’ to get this money to be a gent.” — Charles Dickens

One of Dickens’ most famous works. A novel so classic that it’s almost impossible to turn it into a great film. Mostly because how do you tell a story in two hours? It’s probably better suited for a BBC miniseries. But in terms of versions of this story on the screen, this one is undeniably the best. (The Cuaron version is good, but that’s way different.)

I think everyone knows this story. Assuming you paid any attention in English class. Young boy encounters a convict in the woods and helps him escape. Then much later, he gets an inheritance from an unknown benefactor who pays for him to become a proper gentleman. Which puts him around the crazy Miss Havisham, who wears the dress she wore on her wedding day when her fiancé jilted her and has all her clocks stopped to the exact time of the wedding. She’s got a protege of her own, Estella, who she teaches to manipulate men and never let them hurt her the way she got hurt. So Pip grows up and becomes a gentleman, and the film is about his journey. It’s awesome.

Davi Lean directs the hell out of it. The film looks great. There’s an early Alec Guinness performance here as well as an early Jean Simmons performance. The cinematography is gorgeous, and honestly — it’s really hard to turn a really famous novel into a classic film. Usually you can get a good one, but it’s hard to actually make a lasting screen version of a novel that will always be more famous than it. But to Lean’s credit, this is the classic screen version of the novel.

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11-20:

Angel on My Shoulder — Awesome fantasy film. The early-to-mid 40s were a great time for fantasy films. Paul Muni is a dead gangster who goes to hell and is given a chance to escape if he helps the Devil (Claude Rains) with a problem. See, Muni looks exactly like a crusading judge. Who just happens to be running for governor. Rains can’t have him cleaning up all the sin in the state. So he sends Muni’s soul into the judge’s body and tells him to destroy the man’s reputation. Though everything he does seems to only make the guy look even better. Then of course he falls in love with the man’s fiancée, which makes him question everything he’s done, and whether or not he should have been a good guy. Really fun film with a nice ending.

Anna and the King of Siam — This is the straight drama version of The King and I. English teacher comes to Siam to tutor the king’s children. She and the king don’t always see eye to eye but soon become friends. It’s a really solid film and is just as good as The King and I, albeit less iconic since it doesn’t have the music. This has Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison as the leads, with nice supporting work by Linda Darnell, Gale Sondergaard and Lee J. Cobb.

Duel in the Sun — A great Technicolor western. Lust in the Dust, as they called it. Jennifer Jones is a half-Mexican woman who goes to live with her father’s first love and her family. Pretty soon she ends up torn between the family’s two sons: Gregory Peck, a handsome outlaw, and Joseph Cotten, the one destined to be the governor of the state. It’s big, it’s gorgeous, it’s sexy, and man is it fun.

Gilda — Classic noir about a gambler who comes to work for a gangster, and finds out his boss’s girlfriend is his ex-lover. They have an immense dislike of each other, which is clearly all a facade for an intense attraction. This is Rita Hayworth’s most iconic performance and a real classic of cinema.

The Killers — A quintessential noir based on the Hemingway short story. Two hitmen enter a small town looking for a man named “the Swede.” One of the townspeople comes to warn the Swede that the men are looking for him, but he refuses to do anything about it. So they kill him. We then flash back to how he got there: he was a boxer who got involved with a femme fatale that gets him into all sorts of trouble. Great performances by Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, and wonderfully directed by Robert Siodmak.

Make Mine Music — A Disney package film, with a bunch of short segments. It’s got a bit about a Hatfields and McCoys type rivalry, a segment straight out of Fantasia, with birds dancing on a lake set to “Clair de Lune,” a great pencil-drawn segment with teens dancing to the pop music of the day, a love song set to gorgeous images, a rendering of Casey at the Bat, a beautiful sequence of two silhouettes dancing ballet across animated backgrounds, a great jazz sequence with anthropomorphic instruments, a romance between two hats who fall in love, a segment about a whale that wants to sing at the opera, and the film’s centerpiece sequence: Peter and the Wolf. The Peter and the Wolf sequence is still reused today a bunch. That’s the one that I’d seen growing up. Disney’s pretty proud of that one, and it’s a wonderful sequence. Overall, I think this is my favorite package film. There’s a lot of cool, unique stuff in here, and I like all the different things they did with the animation.

The Spiral Staircase — An awesome noir/thriller. It’s about a serial killer who murders disabled woman, and a mute girl working as a caretaker to an invalid who becomes his next target. The film takes place over a night, as the mute girl (Dorothy McGuire) cares for the woman (Ethel Barrymore, in her “invalid” period), and deals with all the other people around the house (Kent Smith, George Brent, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Allgood) all while the killer stalks the house, trying to kill her. It’s immaculately directed by Robert Siodmak and holds up as well as some Hitchcock thrillers.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers — Really great noir/drama with Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who killed her aunt years earlier and blamed it on someone else. The only witness to the crime she’s now married to. He loves her, but she’s only married to him because he can implicate her in the crime. Her friend, who she’s always actually loved, is now a drifter and comes back into town. And there’s a bit of a love triangle that ensues. In a fun, noir kind of way. It doesn’t end well for certain people, as it tends to do in these movies. Good stuff. Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott.

To Each His Own — A great melodrama and the film that (rightly) earned Olivia de Havilland her first Oscar. She plays a woman who falls in love with a soldier and gets pregnant by him. Though he dies during the war before they can marry. So, rather than live in shame, she gives the child up for adoption. Though she attempts to arrange it so that she can actually adopt her own son without being caught. She plans to leave the child on the doorstep of a family that already has too many kids. So that way when they decide they can’t keep it, she can come in and take it. Though they soon decide they want the child, and raise it as their own, forcing de Havilland to watch her son grow up from afar. And like all good melodramas, she makes a life for herself and becomes wealthy. Though by that point, her son loves the woman that raised him as his mother, and there’s no chance for her to come into his life. Eventually she meets her son when he’s grown, with him not knowing she’s his mother. Though — I won’t ruin it, but the ending of this movie is so beautiful and so touching. If the ending to this movie doesn’t make you emotional, you have no heart.

Without Reservations — Fun rom com with Claudette Colbert and John Wayne. She’s an author traveling to Hollywood to turn her hit book into a movie. On the train, she meets Wayne, who is the actual spitting image of the hero of her book. They end up traveling the country together, falling in love. It’s a lot of fun.

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Tier two:

  • Bedlam
  • The Captive Heart
  • Cluny Brown
  • Decoy
  • Diary of a Chambermaid
  • Dragonwyck
  • The Green Years
  • The Harvey Girls
  • Heartbeat
  • The Hoodlum Saint
  • The Jolson Story
  • Night and Day
  • Night Editor
  • The Razor’s Edge
  • Shock
  • Sister Kenny
  • Song of the South
  • Three Strangers
  • Tomorrow Is Forever
  • Ziegfeld Follies

Song of the South. Featuring one of the five most famous Disney songs ever written, yet the one film they try to pretend didn’t happen. Because it’s about a young boy who befriends a slave on a plantation who tells stories about Br’er Rabbit and Tar Baby. But, you know, we’ll always have “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Let’s knock out all the noirs first, shall we? I love the genre and all of them are just so fun. Decoy is about a female gangster (which is a nice twist) who tells a story while she’s dying about how she helped “resurrect” her boyfriend after he went to the gas chamber so he could tell her where he hid the money he stole from a bank. Night Editor is told as a “poker” story. A bunch of reporters are sitting around a table and telling stories of all the crimes they’ve seen, and we flashback to this one, which is: a police lieutenant is having an affair with a married woman, and both witness a murder happen. But they can’t tell anyone, because then the affair would become public. Then he’s the one sent to investigate the murder, which complicates things. Shock is about Vincent Price as a psychiatrist treating a woman who had a breakdown after claiming she saw a murder. Little does she know… her doctor is the killer, and he’s gotta shut her up before she recognizes him. And Three Strangers is Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre — along with Geraldine Fitzgerald — as three random people, each with serious problems they want to overcome, who all share in a lottery ticket that could win them huge success. Especially since they wished upon a Chinese idol for it. The movie’s like an extended Twilight Zone episode. It’s pretty great.

The Green Years is a fun coming-of-age film about an Irish boy in Scotland growing up with his grandparents. Charles Coburn plays the boy’s grandfather and absolutely steals this movie. He’s so good. He’s a drunk who tells these crazy stories. Absolutely amazing. Bedlam is Val Lewton again. About the awful conditions in a mental hospital run by Boris Karloff. The Captive Heart is about a guy who escapes from a concentration camp, assumes the identity of a British officer… and then gets caught and thrown in a POW camp. He now has to figure out a way out before his real identity is discovered. Diary of a Chambermaid is Renoir, about a woman who becomes a maid to a wealthy family, determined to seduce a rich man. Only it works a little too well. She ends up getting a neighbor interested in her, the family’s valet, and the family’s son. Great movie. Great Paulette Goddard performance.

Cluny Brown is Ernst Lubitsch, Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones. She’s a free-spirit who is really good at plumbing and doesn’t care for the norms of society, which are prim and proper. She ends up becoming a maid, and comedy ensues. A great early comedy that’s nearly forgotten today. The Jolson Story is a biopic of Al Jolson, complete with blackface. It’s a fun musical. Night and Day is a biopic of Cole Porter, as played by Cary Grant. The fun thing about both biopics is — not even remotely trying to be realistic. For example, the Cole Porter one is ultimately about his romance with his wife. (Porter was gay.) Sister Kenny is a biopic of an Australian nurse who helped people fight polio. A big Oscar bait kind of role from Rosalind Russell. I love her and I’m a sucker for that Australian accent, especially in studio-era movies.

Dragonwyck is a gothic romance with Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Anne Revere and Vincent Price. Price is a distant cousin of Tierney’s, and he invites her to be a governess at his mansion. And she gets there to find a gloomy house, odd servants, and some sinister, vaguely murderous things at work. If you like movies like Rebecca, you’ll enjoy this. Really strong drama. Heartbeat is a romance with Ginger Rogers playing a young girl who runs away from reform school to become a pickpocket. She joins a group of thieves and is told to steal from a diplomat. Though, when she goes to, she ends up actually meeting him and falling in love with him.

Ziegfeld Follies is a musical revue meant to evoke the actual Follies shows on Broadway. A bunch of different directors worked on this, like Vincente Minnelli, Roy Del Ruth, Charles Walters and George Sidney, and it’s got about any major actor you’d want to see in it. The cast includes: Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Victor Moore, Red Skelton, Esther Williams, William Powell, Edward Arnold, Cyd Charisse, Hume Cronyn and Keenan Wynn. How can you turn down an all-star musical revue? The Razor’s Edge is a classy literary adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel. Tyrone Power is a guy who comes back to high society after fighting in the war and finds he doesn’t like it. So he disappears to become a bohemian and when he returns, he gets swept up in all the social bullshit he can’t stand. The most interesting parts are the supporting characters. Clifton Webb is a guy who wants nothing more than to hobnob with the rich, and Anne Baxter is a woman who marries her childhood sweetheart and then loses him to tragic circumstances and becomes a drunk. They’re the most interesting part of the film.

Tomorrow Is Forever is one of those movies — I didn’t love it, but there’s one part of it that made me sit up and go, “Oh my.” It’s a melodrama with Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles. They’re married and he goes off to fight in the war. She soon gets word that he died. So she marries another man. Though a few years later, he returns, unrecognizable after being disfigured and having to get major plastic surgery, along with an adopted daughter from Germany. He comes back and sees his wife happily remarried with a child (that is actually his), and wonders whether or not he should tell her the truth of who he is. The story’s fine, but what really surprised me is the performance of Natalie Wood. She was 8 in this movie and it was her first film. There’s a scene where she gets freaked out (because the idea is she lost her family in the war and Welles adopted her), and while she’s screaming and crying, she starts speaking really fast and slips from English to German out of nowhere. It’s so seamless it actually made me go, “Holy shit.” Because she’s eight! I was so impressed by that moment.

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