DISCLAIMER: All film criticism is extremely subjective and there is no such thing as the definitive list of the Greatest (English-language) Films. Great Films can't be measured scientifically because greatness is extremely subjective. Just because we like a film doesn't mean that you will like it as well. Please feel free to leave us a comment with the films that you think are the greatest which we have not included on our list.
Last week we wrapped up the 1930’s and so that means this week we start the 1940’s. A big factor in the films made during the 1940 is World War II. Many “big name” actors were in the military and therefore not making movies which allowed other films and actors to come to the forefront in their absence.
Not only was 1940 a big year for Disney with the release of Pinocchio and Fantasia but it was also a big year for actors making their film debuts and the birth of future actors and directors and the deaths of some truly great talent. Here is a snap shot of the American film industry in 1940.
Making Their Credited Film Debuts:
- Dana Andrews – Lucky Cisco Kid;
- Ruth Gordon – Abe Lincoln in Illinois;
- Robert Ryan – The Ghost Breakers,
- Gene Tierney – The Return of Frank James,
- Forrest Tucker – The Westerner
Among Those Born In 1940:
John Hurt, English actor (died 2017); James Cromwell, American actor; Katharine Ross, American actress; George A. Romero, American director, producer and screenwriter; Ralph Bates, English actor (died 1991); Peter Fonda, American actor; Chuck Norris, American actor and martial artist; James Caan, American actor; Al Pacino, American actor; Lainie Kazan, American actress and singer; Rene Auberjonois, American actor; John Mahoney, English-born American actor; Karolyn Grimes, American actress; Ringo Starr, English drummer (The Beatles); Patrick Stewart, English actor; James Brolin, American actor; Martin Sheen, American actor; Jill St. John, American actress; Raquel Welch, American actress; Brian De Palma, American director, producer and screenwriter; John Lennon, English singer-songwriter and musician (The Beatles) (assassinated 1980); Cliff Richard, English singer and actor; Michael Gambon, Irish-born British actor; Elke Sommer, German actress; Sam Waterston, American actor; Bruce Lee, Chinese-American martial artist and actor (died 1973); Richard Pryor, American comedian and actor (died 2005);
|1||Rebecca||United Artists||Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine||$6,000,000|
|2||Boom Town||MGM||Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy||$5,000,000|
|3||The Great Dictator||United Artists||Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard||$5,000,000|
|4||Strike Up the Band||MGM||Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney||$3,494,000|
|5||The Philadelphia Story||MGM||Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart||$3,259,000|
|6||Northwest Passage||MGM||Spencer Tracy, Robert Young||$3,150,000|
|7||Andy Hardy Meets Debutante||MGM||Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Judy Garland|
|8||The Grapes of Wrath||20th Century-Fox||Henry Fonda||$2,500,000|
|9||Kitty Foyle||RKO||Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan||$2,385,000|
|10||Comrade X||MGM||Clark Gable, Hedy Lamarr||$2,079,000|
|11||My Favorite Wife||RKO||Irene Dunne, Cary Grant||$2,057,000|
|12||The Sea Hawk||Warner Bros.||Errol Flynn||$2,000,000|
|13||Down Argentine Way||20th Century-Fox||Don Ameche, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda||$2,000,000|
|14||Road to Singapore||Paramount||Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour||$1,600,000|
|15||Virginia City||Warner Bros.||Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins||unknown|
|16||I Love You Again||MGM||William Powell, Myrna Loy||unknown|
|17||All This, and Heaven Too||Warner Bros.||Bette Davis, Charles Boyer||unknown|
|?||Fantasia||Walt Disney Studios||Deems Taylor and Leopold Stokowski||unknown*|
At the time, box office numbers were reported as a percentage of business for each theater in comparison to ‘normal’ business. For example, Boom Town performed at 232% and Pinocchio at 130%. This is why exact dollar grosses for films are unreliable at best.
Among Those Who Died In 1940:
- Flora Finch, 72, American actress, A Cure for Pokeritis, The Cat and the Canary, Quality Street, Her Crowning Glory;
- George Periolat, 66, American actor, The Mark of Zorro, One Rainy Afternoon, Morning Glory, What Price Hollywood?;
- Maxine Elliott, 66, American actress, Fighting Odds;
- Mrs. Patrick Campbell, 75, English actress, Riptide, One More River;
- Joe De Grasse, 67, Canadian-born American film director, Heart o’ the Hills, The Scarlet Car, The Girl of the Night;
- Ben Turpin, 70, American actor, Saps at Sea, Mr. Flip, A Clever Dummy;
- Donald Calthrop, 52, English actor, Scrooge, Blackmail, Murder!, Major Barbara;
- Marguerite Clark, 57, American actress, Scrambled Wives, Easy to Get, All of a Sudden Peggy, A Girl Named Mary;
- Berton Churchill, 63, Canadian actor, Stagecoach, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, In Old Chicago, Heroes for Sale;
- Tom Mix, 60, American actor, The Miracle Rider, Riders of the Purple Sage, Sky High,
- Wilfred Lucas, 69, Canadian-born American actor, screenwriter, director, Modern Times, A Chump at Oxford, The Girl and Her Trust
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The Greatest Films of 1940
***POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT FOR ALL***
Abe Lincoln in Illinois
D: John Cromwell
A screen adaptation from Robert E. Sherwood’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. A historically accurate and realistic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln’s (Raymond Massey, reprising his 1938 Broadway stage impersonation and future signature role) life as small-town resident, suitor, lawyer, legislator, and as the 16th President (and Great Emancipator) beginning in 1860. The film opens with Lincoln’s poor childhood in the backwoods of Illinois, through his early career as a clerk in a shop in New Salem, Illinois, his ill-fated love for Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard) who was already engaged and then died tragically in 1835, his reluctant decision to run for political office for the first time as a Whig Party state assemblyman (and serve a single term), his short stint as a self-educated lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, his on-again, off-again relationship with ambitious Mary Todd and their eventual marriage in 1842, his election to a single two-year term in Congress (1846-48), his memorable debates (the highlight of the film) as a Republican candidate against political rival Senator Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart) who defeated Lincoln and won the Senate seat in 1858, and Lincoln’s election to the Presidency.
All This, And Heaven Too
D: Anatole Litvak
An elaborate, overly-long melodramatic, 19th century period production from Warner Bros., set in France, and based upon Rachel Lyman Field’s novel about a scandalous and tragic real-life murder case in Europe. A philandering French nobleman Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) enters into a loving relationship with the governess of his children, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes (Bette Davis). His sultry and cold wife Duchesse de Praslin (Barbara O’Neil) is insanely jealous and resentful of the kindly and loving Henriette and the affair that was occurring, although she is uncaring about her own four children. Henriette is fired from her governess position, due to the Duchesse’s vindictive nature, and denied a letter of recommendation, leaving Henriette unemployed. The debonair Duke and his governess become prime suspects after the Duchesse is murdered by the enraged Duc – and Henriette is considered his accomplice. To save her and the French government (because of his associations with the French king Louis-Philippe) from further embarrassment, the Duke takes poison and assumes full responsibility for the crime. Henriette is released from prison without evidence to hold her, and she emigrates for refuge to the US (where she told her story in flashback) as a French teacher in NY’s Miss Haines School.
The Bank Dick
D: Eddie Cline
A great classic W. C. Fields comedy, with wonderful sight gags and one-liners. Fields (in his last major film role) credits himself as screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves (similar to “My hat, my cane, Jeeves!”). A drunken, unemployed no-account, henpecked husband in Lompoc, California – Egbert Souse (W. C. Fields) (pronounced “Soo-zay”) – inadvertently foils a bank robbery in town, and is rewarded for his accidental heroism with an in-bank position as a guard (or “dick”-detective) by grateful bank president Mr. Skinner (Pierre Watkin). Egbert’s most frequent visits are to the Black Pussy Cat Cafe for stiff drinks. Egbert is conned by J. Frothingham Waterbury (Russell Hicks) to fund a flimsy mining operation, Beefsteak Mines. He convinces bank clerk Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton), the dim-witted fiancee of his daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel), to embezzle $500. And then he has to avoid having auditing bank examiner J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Franklin Pangborn) discover his crime by slipping him a drink. Hilarious, bumbling antics ensue, concluding with another bank robbery and a classic car chase sequence, with Egbert taken as hostage.
Dance, Girl, Dance
D: Dorothy Arzner
An early feminist-minded film, and a critical and commercial box-office failure, from the pioneering Dorothy Arzner (and regarded as her best) – one of the few female Hollywood directors at the time, and featuring one of Lucille Ball’s better film roles. Not to be confused with the 1933 film of the same name. This backstage musical was taglined: “Heartbreak Behind Gayety of a Girly-Girl Show!” and pitted the two dichotomous female leads against each other – a good girl vs. bad girl representing two opposite styles of dance (burlesque and ballet). Aspiring ‘serious’ but poor ballerina Judy O’Brien (young Maureen O’Hara in her third Hollywood film), an Irish redhead, and her outrageous, gold-digging, ambitious friend Bubbles (Lucille Ball) are introduced as two chorus girls stranded in Akron, Ohio before they travel separately back to New York City to find work. Bubbles (renamed “Tiger” Lily White) become a cheap burlesque stripper in a live show, while Judy struggles in dance school with her Russian dance teacher/mentor Madame Lydia Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya). With a cruel and cutthroat gesture, Bubbles hires the desperate Judy to dance ballet immediately after her own act, knowledgeable that “stooge” Judy will be greeted with hostile jeers, boos, and laughter from the voyeuristic dirty-old-man audience, and would – of course – demand an encore by Bubbles (who only strips to a hula skirt and bra). Besides an on-stage catfight, the film’s most remarkable sequence is Judy’s celebrated lecture-speech delivered to the males of a jeering burlesque audience who are mocking her classical dance act.
D: Ben Sharpsteen and Walt Disney
An innovative and revolutionary animated classic from Walt Disney (his third feature animation), combining classical music masterpieces with imaginative visuals, presented with conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the first commercial American film to use stereophonic sound as well as the first and only film recorded in pioneering Fantasound. An updated version was created almost 60 years later, Fantasia/2000 (1999) – the first feature length animated film to be presented in IMAX, with additional animated interpretations of classical works, including Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of Animals,” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite.” The eight animation sequences in this film, corresponding to classical music selections, were colorful, impressive, free-flowing, abstract, and often surrealistic pieces. They include the most famous of all: Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with Mickey Mouse as the title character – the wizard’s disobedient assistant battling brooms carrying endless buckets of water. Also Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” with sugar plum fairies and dancing mushrooms, prehistoric dinosaurs and volcanoes in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” with mythical Greek centaurs, cupids, and fauns, Ponchielli’s delightful “Dance of the Hours” with dancing hippo ballerinas, crocodiles, ostriches, and elephants, and Mussorgsky’s darkly apocalyptic “Night on Bald Mountain” with evil creatures.
D: Alfred Hitchcock
A thrilling and suspenseful espionage masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock, his second American film. A naive American police reporter, Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock (Joel McCrea), the foreign correspondent of the title (loosely based upon real-life reporter Ed Murrow), was sent to Europe in 1939 just prior to World War II, to cover the unfolding story. He met peace activist Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), falls for his attractive daughter Carol (Laraine Day), accidentally becomes involved chasing spies, and begins to suspect that Fisher is part of a Nazi spy ring (masquerading as an international peace organization). Memorable scenes include the faked Amsterdam assassination scene of Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) in a crowded sea of umbrellas, the mysterious Dutch windmills (Nazi hideouts), a murder attempt in Westminster Cathedral Tower, and a spectacular trans-Atlantic Ocean plane crash. The film concludes with a memorable radio speech/plea for neutrality-leaning America to join the war effort.
The Grapes of Wrath
D: John Ford
A powerful, classic masterpiece, adapted from John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It is the epic, but heartbreaking story of the perilous, Depression-Era migration of a drought-stricken, Oklahoma Dust Bowl family to the promised land of California, seeking migrant farm work during the fruit harvest. Cinematography by Gregg Toland duplicated images immortalized by documentary photographer Dorothea Lange. When they reach California, they are met with violence, prejudice, and fear, moving from one squalid campsite to the next, and being mistreated as migrant laborers. With magnificent performances of the family members who are poor but honest people struggling for dignity and a better way of life, especially the idealistic son Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and his loving matriarchal Ma Joad (Jane Darwell).
The Great Dictator
D: Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin’s first full talking feature film in which he delivered spoken lines – a full 13 years after the advent of sound in the movies. The film is a slapstick political satire on world conditions and fascism at the start of World War II, and it was soon detested by Hitler’s Third Reich. Chaplin plays a dual role: as a poor and kind, unnamed Jewish ghetto barber with amnesia, and as a Hitler look-alike, the ruthless tyrannical dictator Adenoid Hynkel of the European country of Tomania – a persecutor of Jews. The crisscrossing stories of the barber and the dictator eventually end in a case of mistaken identities. The barber wins the admiration of pretty neighbor girl Hannah (Chaplin’s ex-wife Paulette Goddard). Hynkel’s rival is Mussolini-like Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) of the neighboring country of Bacteria. With the funny pudding-coin scene, the memorable scene of Hynkel dancing (“pas de deux”) with an inflated world globe balloon to the tune of the Overture of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, and a comedic cream-cake fight between Hynkel and Napaloni and their competition in adjoining, ascending barber chairs. The film concludes with a lengthy and impassioned humanistic monologue by the barber (impersonating Hynkel) about hope and human rights, and the end of tyranny.
The Great McGinty
D: Preston Sturges
The classic film that debuted the talents of screwball comedy director and screenwriter Preston Sturges (with an Oscar-winning original script). A witty, satirical, and cynical look at corrupt American politics and society, told with a stock cast of comical characters. In flashback, a banana republic bartender, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) tells the story of his rise from obscurity to the state governor’s mansion as the result of a crooked election and lots of dirty tricks. Starting out as a dumb and homeless hobo in Chicago, he is admired by the Boss (Akim Tamiroff), head of the political machine, for his feisty nature and for stuffing the ballot box with phony votes. By crookedly playing the game, he is appointed collector of protection money, alderman, and through charm and more appointments, becomes mayor and eventually governor (the Great McGinty). Along the way, when he cleans up his act and becomes honest – there were reverse consequences. He marries his divorcee secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) – and then falls in love with her and her ready-made family of two children, develops a social conscience, and loses it all. He suffers a political demise when he tries to go straight, fight corruption and promote real reform as governor – opposed by the Boss – and has to flee the country.
His Girl Friday
D: Howard Hawks
One of the earliest and best of Howard Hawks’ madcap comedies with fast pacing, whirlwind, rapid-fire dialogue, and sped-up action. A funny and witty remake of the 1929 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur stage play hit The Front Page (and the subsequent The Front Page (1931)), but switching gender roles so that the reporter is played by a woman. Newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) wants to leave the paper, find a more domestic and less frantic life style, and marry a mild-mannered, stuffy mama’s boy insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). But her suave, scheming newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), her ex-husband, wants to keep his star reporter. When a hot-breaking escaped convict/manhunt story develops and she is called upon to cover the story and write the front-page headline scoop, he attempts to win her back in a battle of the sexes.
D: Sam Wood
RKO’s acclaimed romantic melodrama features dancer Ginger Rogers in her first serious acting role in one of the best “women’s pictures” of the 40s. A touching and poignant love story, told mostly in flashback. Adapted from a screenplay, based on Christopher Morley’s popular novel (which contained more racy material, including explicit sexuality and an abortion). An ambitious, attractive white-collar working girl-secretary, Kitty Foyle (Best Actress-winning Ginger Rogers) finds herself in a love triangle with a noble, but poor, idealistic and struggling doctor Mark Eisen (James Craig), and her wealthy, still-married philandering ex-husband, rich Philadelphia socialite Wynnewood ‘Wyn’ Strafford VI (Dennis Morgan) whom she is strangely drawn to. Her reflections on her choice of men (wealth vs. poverty) are told through flashback. The film also uses a technique of a ‘mirror-image’ conscience to show two sides of Kitty’s personality (the rational vs. the emotional and impulsive) during her dilemma. Caught in a difficult love triangle, she must choose in the final scene: (1) should she go with Wyn who is on the dock ready to sail for South America? or (2) should she join Mark at the hospital? She decides to marry Mark after she said to herself: “You’re no longer a little girl, you’re a grown woman now.” She leaves a note with the doorman regarding her choice of life’s path.
Knute Rockne All American
D: Lloyd Bacon
A sentimental, inspirational sports biography-drama of Notre Dame’s legendary and dedicated football coach, who became known for rousing pep talks to his players, exhorting them to greatness. One of the best sports movies of all-time. The film began with Knute Rockne’s (Pat O’Brien) boyhood, his schooling and football days at Notre Dame, graduation, marriage to Bonnie Skiles (Gale Page), and the start of his coaching career for the Fighting Irish. The film contains actual newsreel footage of Notre Dame football games, and is most-remembered for Rockne’s stirring words to his team during half-time in a game against Army to “go out there with all you got and win just one for the Gipper” – to play in memory of superb ND grid-iron half-back player George Gipp (Ronald Reagan) who died at the early age of 25 from a “disease” – pneumonia (and complications from strep throat). The film concludes with the tragic plane crash in 1931 that took 43 year-old Rockne’s life, and his funeral with a eulogy by university president, Father Callahan (Donald Crisp).
D: William Wyler
A superb melodrama from Warner Bros., adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham play. Director Wyler is again paired with Bette Davis, after their success with Jezebel (1938).
On the grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation one evening, bored and restless wife Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots and kills old family friend Geoffrey Hammond (David Newell) on the porch and front steps of her home with her husband’s gun – in the striking opening scene. She explains to her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), who was away on business at the time of the murder, and their hired respected lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), with cold calculation and manipulation, that it was self-defense to protect her honor. Her husband faithfully believes her. She claims that Hammond had tried to rape her when in fact she kills him because as her lover, he threatened to leave her.
She is to stand trial in Singapore for murder. During the proceedings, clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) presents Joyce with a copy of an incriminating letter written from Leslie to Geoffrey on the day of the shooting, desperately asking to see him. The letter is in the possession of Hammond’s widow, who blackmails them by offering to sell it for $10,000 (Robert’s savings). Leslie tearfully admits her affair with Hammond. During the subsequent court trial, Leslie is found innocent of murder charges, because the incriminating evidence wasn’t produced. Stephenson told the jury it is “a simple, uncomplicated case” – after she again claims she shot Hammond in self-defense. However, on the night of the acquittal, Leslie suffers a fateful retribution in the conclusion, when she is knifed in the dark by Mrs. Hammond. According to the Hays Code, she had to pay and be punished for her indiscretion.
The Long Voyage Home
D: John Ford
Adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill that were condensed into one screenplay. This was Ford’s first war film – and first WWII film. Set in pre-World War II year of 1939. In a series of vignettes, the gripping film looks at the lives and loves, hopes, dreams, and comradeship of working-class Merchant Marine seamen. Their British freighter, the S.S. Glencairn, is transporting dynamite in a dangerous mission-convoy from America to England, and is threatened by bad weather at sea, German U-boats and strafing plane attacks, the death of beloved crew member Yank (Ward Bond), and suspicions of treason against Smitty (Ian Hunter), one of the sailors. With effective performances by John Wayne as young Swedish sailor and farm-boy Ole Olsen returning home to his mother’s farm-home, and Thomas Mitchell as fellow sea mate Aloysius Driscoll. Includes atmospheric, high-contrast, black and white cinematography by the famous Gregg Toland. An epilogue ended the film: “So men like Ole come and go, and the Driscolls live and die, and the Yanks and Smittys leave their memories – but for the others the Long Voyage never ends.”
The Mark of Zorro
D: Rouben Mamoulian
A swashbuckling adventure story from 20th Century Fox capitalizing on the adventure tale craze following the success of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
Cavalry officer Diego de Vega (Tyrone Power), the son of an early 19th century California aristocrat Don Alejandro Vega (Montagu Love), returns home after an education in Spain. He finds power had been usurped from his father by corrupt oppressors led by Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his tax-collecting henchman led by Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Pasquale is also having an affair with Quintero’s greedy wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard). By day, nobleman-aristocrat Diego is considered a carefree and harmless fop, but at night he dons a black outfit, a mask and a sword, and rides to avenge the tyrants, carving the letter Z signifying his name: Zorro. The film includes some of the best dueling scenes in cinematic history, between Zorro and Capt. Pasquale. In the end, the cruel regime is overthrown, and Zorro’s father is reinstated as governor or Alcalde (leader of the community). Zorro’s love interest is provided by Quintero’s pretty daughter Lolita (Linda Darnell).
The Mortal Storm
D: Frank Borzage
A propagandistic MGM melodrama that was a flop at the box-office. It was based upon Phyllis Bottome’s best-selling, pre-war 1938 novel, about ideological differences dividing up a family. The strong anti-fascist and anti-Semite message of the anti-Nazi film (one of the first Hollywood films of its kind, released a few months before Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) caused it to be banned by the Aryan supremacist Nazis in Germany, led by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
It tells about the Roth family living idyllically and peacefully in the early 1930s in a small fictional Alpine village in Southern Germany – and the repercussions after Adolf Hitler came to power as Chancellor in the Third Reich in 1933 and Nazism slowly pervaded the country. The family is led by outspoken, respected, “non-Aryan” (or Jewish) 60 year-old teacher of biology Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) at a Bavarian educational institution. Pretty daughter Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is courted by young fascist Fritz Marberg (Robert Young), one of her father’s students, but then rejects him in favor of more sensitive rival Martin Brietner (James Stewart), a long-time family friend, and Roth’s protege as a pacifist veterinary student. Two Roth stepsons, Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich (William T. Orr), both supported the rise of Hitler and the Hitler Youth Organization, causing more friction and a rift in the family. When Professor Roth opposed the Nazi doctrines about racial segregation and a master race of Aryans, he was removed from his position, arrested and sent to a hard labor concentration camp, where he died under mysterious circumstances. In the grim conclusion, Martin aided Freya in an attempt to escape from Germany by crossing the border into Austria – by skiing through a mountainous snowy pass, where they were spotted by a Nazi platoon patrol led by Fritz. Although they were able to cross the border successfully, Freya was mortally wounded and died in Martin’s arms.
My Favorite Wife
D: Garson Kanin
One of the classic marital screwball comedies of all time – an attempt to repeat the success of director Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) (featuring the same two stars and producer McCarey). It was the second of three films which paired Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, followed by Penny Serenade (1941).
Taglined: “The funniest, fastest honeymoon ever screened!” with all the characteristics of screwball comedy – fast paced dialogue, absurd and wacky circumstances, and some slapstick. Ellen Arden (Irene Dunne), the wife of a young attorney was shipwrecked on a South Seas voyage during a typhoon and presumed lost. In reality she was alive, marooned on a desert island with another survivor, a handsome young scientist Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott). Declared legally dead after seven years, she happens to arrive back on the day of her husband Nick Arden’s (Cary Grant) remarriage to Bianca (Gail Patrick) and their honeymoon night. He is stunned by her reappearance – what will he to do, and what about the other man who may have compromised her?
D: Sam Wood
An innovative film presentation of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a much-loved classic, dramatic story of human life, love, tragedy and conflict, set in the simple, small New England town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The story was told in three sequences depicting the years before WWI (1901, 1904, and 1913). With a great musical score by composer Aaron Copland, and production design by William Cameron Menzies. In contrast to the play that was performed without scenery and only a few props, the film included realistic scenery. The film was given down-home commentary by the omniscient Narrator or Stage Manager, drugstore owner Mr. Morgan (Frank Craven), who profiles the lives of the town’s residents. It centers around young teenaged Emily Webb (Martha Scott), the hard-working daughter of the town’s newspaper editor Mr. Webb (Guy Kibbee), who falls in love with high-school student George Gibbs (William Holden), son of the local doctor, Dr. Gibbs (Thomas Mitchell). They court and eventually marry, but she dies during childbirth of her second child. In a ghostly afterlife existence, Emily is given special permission to go back and re-live just one day of her life – the day of her 16th birthday, and learns how little the quiet, every day, fleeting moments of life are precious – and under-appreciated. In the twist ending epilogue (a severe modification from the play’s original downbeat ending), Emily wakes up from the temporary coma resulting from childbirth – and realizes it was just a dream.
The Philadelphia Story
D: George Cukor
A classic romantic comedy, a witty adaptation of Phillip Barry’s Broadway hit. Hepburn financed the play (with financial help from Howard Hughes) that she starred in (with Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin) in 1939-1940, then picked the director, screenwriter, and other co-stars for the movie.
Set among the upper-class society in Philadelphia, a spoiled, wealthy heiress, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is about to be married to a stuffy executive, millionaire George Kittredge (John Howard). She divorced her dashing first husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) because he drank excessively and was irresponsible. He still loves her and shows up for the wedding. As does Spy Magazine’s tabloid reporter Macauley “Mike” Connor (Best Actor-winning James Stewart) and a photographer. Dexter is there to prevent them from publishing a scandalous expose about the womanizing reputation of Tracy’s father Seth (John Halliday), his ex-in-law. Things get complicated when the inquisitive, cynical Connor falls in love with Tracy the night before her wedding.
D: Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske and Disney
Walt Disney’s second full-length animated feature film, a brilliant classic based on the story by Collodi, is a masterful, animated achievement. Released the same year as Disney’s Fantasia (1940). The tale is told by a chirpy cricket named Jiminy Cricket (voice of Cliff Edwards), who serves as the narrator and guiding conscience of the story. The plot is about a lonely, poor, toy shop woodcutter Geppetto (voice of Christian Rub) who created an inquisitive marionette wooden boy named Pinocchio (voice of Dick Jones). His wish that Pinocchio will become a real boy is made true by a blue fairy, although the boy is still made of wood. If he proved himself to be brave and unselfish (challenged by life’s coming-of-age dangers), he will be changed into a real flesh-and-blood boy. Pinocchio quickly runs afoul by associating with bad company, including the unforgettable characters of two devious crooks (J. Worthington Foulfellow (a fox) and a cat), the evil stage showman/puppet master Stromboli, and influential juvenile delinquent Lampwick on Pleasure Island where temptations are everywhere. The film contains some truly frightening sequences, including Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey, and scary Monstro the whale.
D: Alfred Hitchcock
Adapted from British writer Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of gothic romance and mystery, a compelling and intriguing romance-mystery with intense psychological suspense. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s debut American film – a winning Best Picture.
Following a rapid courtship, a shy, naive young woman becomes the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) by marrying a dashing, but brooding British nobleman ‘Maxim’ de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The new wife is taken to live at his huge Manderley mansion-estate, where she is haunted by the memory and shadow of her husband’s beautiful first wife, Rebecca, who died under mysterious circumstances. The icy-cold, creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) taunts and frightens her, as do the other servants, while she hears about how adored the dead woman remains. The untold secrets of the past are slowly unraveled, when the remnants of Rebecca’s intentionally-sunken boat wash ashore, and Mr. de Winter confesses that Rebecca tormented him. The ending reveals important findings: (1) Rebecca was not pregnant with another man’s child, but terminally ill with cancer, (2) Rebecca intended to goad Maxim into killing her, (3) When Maxim wouldn’t kill her as she wished, she planned to commit suicide, but fell and hit her head on some boat tackle in the beach house. (4) Maxim covered up her accidental death by putting her in a boat and deliberately sinking it. The second Mrs. de Winter is finally free from her fear and uneasiness when Mrs. Danvers kills herself while burning down the estate.
Santa Fe Trail
D: Michael Curtiz
An action-filled, but historically-inaccurate adventure tale from Warner Bros. Studios, a misnamed a Western. This was the seventh of nine movies co-starring the romantic coupling of Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn.
The film follows the military life of the future great Confederate general, Virginian Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn). He begins his military career as a West Point student, where he forms a strong friendship with George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan) (completely inaccurate historically), and other future military leaders. There, a rival cadet Rader (Van Heflin), who supports fanatical abolitionist activities, is dismissed for agitation – their paths will cross again later. Cavalry officer Jeb is assigned to a Kansas post (Ft. Leavenworth) with other Point graduates, to keep the peace (due to a war over whether Kansas would be slave or free) and quell any uprisings. On the train to Kansas, Stuart meets and begins a romance with ‘Kit Carson’ Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), whom he will eventually marry. The film ends with Stuart capturing fanatical abolitionist John Brown (Raymond Massey) at Harper’s Ferry arsenal at the Maryland-Virginia border, leading to the agitator’s hanging.
The Sea Hawk
D: Michael Curtiz
An exciting and spirited swashbuckler (with great swordplay and sea battles), one of the best of its kind, adapted from the 1915 novel by Rafael Sabatini. With a tremendous score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. This film reprisal solidified the image of star Errol Flynn as a dashing action character (after his appearance in Michael Curtiz’ earlier film Captain Blood (1935), also from another Sabatini novel written in 1922).
Set in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I of England (Flora Robson) suspects that Spanish King Phillip II (Montagu Love) and his crafty ambassador Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains) are planning to spread their influence over the continent. The Spaniards are getting ready to launch a naval attack with their armada against England. The Queen secretly commissions swashbuckling privateer, British sea captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn), “the Sea Hawk,” to raid Spanish settlements and ships. While threatening the Spanish, the beautiful daughter of the ambassador Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall) falls in love with buccaneer pirate Thorpe. He and his crew are ambushed and imprisoned by Spanish forces. With Maria’s aid, he escapes slavery aboard a Spanish galleon slave ship, and helps alert the Queen to the impending Armada attack.
The Shop Around the Corner
D: Ernst Lubitsch
A brilliant and charming romantic comedy about everyday people in a “shop around the corner,” with all the right elements (deception and mistaken identities in a love-hate relationship) to create the right “Lubitsch touch.”
A Budapest notions/gift shop head sales clerk, bookish bachelor Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and newly-hired shop girl Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) mutually dislike each other and bicker constantly. They are unaware that they were each other’s anonymous pen pals writing each other very literate correspondence. On paper, they are romantically compatible, and correspond with affectionate “lonely-hearts” letters. On the same night that the two pen pals agree to meet, Alfred is fired by his employer Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), wrongly suspected of having an affair with his wife. Alfred seeks solace with his pen-pal sweetheart in a cafe, in a memorable sequence, but doesn’t reveal his identity to her as her pen-pal until later, stringing her along. In the end, Alfred is rehired, and he finally reveals his identity to Klara.
The Thief of Bagdad (UK),
D: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan
Subtitled: An Arabian Fantasy. One of the best, most enchanting fantasies ever made – with an Arabian Nights theme, including spectacular special effects (a mechanical horse, a huge spider, an All-Seeing Eye (ruby jewel), the 6-armed Silver Maid statue, etc.), amazing Technicolor photography, a memorable musical score, and wonderful performances.
The film’s story begins, in flashback, told by an elderly and deposed blind King Ahmad (John Justin) of the city of Bagdad, now a beggar. He explains how he was tricked out of his kingdom by an oppressive, evil magician-sorcerer named Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), his treacherous Grand Vizier. A mischievous young urchin named Abu (Sabu), who is thrown in a dungeon for theft, helps the good-hearted, prince Ahmad escape. In the city of Basra, he falls in love (at first sight) with the sultan’s daughter, the Princess (June Duprez). Unfortunately, the two are captured – Ahmad is blinded, while Abu is magically turned into Ahmad’s seeing-eye dog by a black magician. The two are promised they will be restored if they rescue the Princess. In the end, they save Ahmad’s kingdom and throne and his love. Abu and Ahmad are helped by a giant yet jovial genie Djinni (Rex Ingram) who emerges in black smoke from a bottle, and a magical flying carpet.
D: Mervyn LeRoy
A classic, sentimental, romantic tearjerker, Vivien Leigh’s first film following her success in Gone With The Wind (1939).
Middle-aged British colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) paces on the famous Waterloo Bridge in the city of London during World War II, and in flashback, remembers when he was a handsome Army Captain ready to depart for the trenches in World War I. He fell in love with naive young ballerina Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), but was called off to war and their plans to wed were postponed. Bidding him farewell at the Waterloo train station, she abandoned her dance performance and was fired from the ballet company. Desperate, Myra soon descended into poverty, became destitute, and turned to prostitution, walking the Waterloo Bridge for clients. She falsely learned that Roy had been killed in the war, but in a memorable scene, accidentally meets him when he returns, while she was soliciting business from returning soldiers. During their reunion, Myra doesn’t reveal her occupation to him. They renew their romance and lives, but she becomes distraught and suicidal, feeling degraded by her indiscretions and deception, and fearing that her secrets will resurface and prevent them from marrying. In the downbeat conclusion, Myra walks in front of a truck.
D: William Wyler
An entertaining western saga, with Walter Brennan (who won a record-setting third Academy Award for his supporting role) and Gary Cooper. The story is told in the era of vicious range wars between cattlemen and homesteaders in the post-Civil War period. Includes an impressive Gregg Toland-filmed prairie fire sequence.
Drifter cowboy and saddle tramp Cole Hardin (Gary Cooper), on his way through Texas to California, rides into a town (named Langtry) run by notorious, self-appointed, despotic hanging Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), who calls himself “the Law west of the Pecos.” Hardin is falsely accused of stealing a horse after buying a horse from a horse thief and is taken before the infamous justice of the peace for a mock trial, and sentenced to hang. He talks his way out of being hanged by convincing the judge of his friendship with the judge’s obsessive idol, English stage star Lily Langtry (Lilian Bond). Later, he gives the judge a lock of her hair, convincing him it is real. Hardin ends up defending homesteaders on the opposite side from the judge in a bloody and violent range war and land dispute. In the final showdown scene, Hardin confronts the judge in a gas-lit opera theatre in Ft. Davis, Texas with guns drawn before a Langtry performance.
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