Best Discoveries of 2021: The 1940s
Last year's list from the 1940s
Please note that all genre films will have their own postings later in this journey.
You’d think from this list that I hate the 1940s. Just the opposite. 2021 was just one of those years that I didn’t see that many non-genre films from that decade. Maybe 2022 will be my Parade of the ‘40s, we’ll see. But I enjoyed these films from that decade, and maybe you will also.
Kings Row (1942) Sam Wood (Warner Bros. DVD)
This late 19th/early 20th century melodrama is a movie I wanted to love. The acting is generally good, but no one gives top-billed Ann Sheridan enough credit for trying to overcome the script and keep it somewhat restrained. Of course we understand this is melodrama, but the melodramatic comes dangerously close to running the picture into the ditch. The ending is far too rushed, but Erich Wolfgang Korngold makes the best of it with a score that's tremendous throughout. (Maybe Hal Wallis was on the set with a stopwatch during the last 10 minutes. It sure feels like it.) I kept thinking that this could've made a better television or mini-series, then discovered that it *was* a television series in 1955. I want to revisit this one in a couple of years. I enjoyed it, but felt like I should’ve enjoyed it more. I rarely say this, but I would love to see this film remade.
The Gay Falcon (1941) Irving Reis (The Falcon Mystery Movie Collection, Volume 1, Warner Bros. DVD)
The first movie in a 16-film series introduces us to Gay Lawrence* (George Sanders), a successful amateur detective and ladies’ man whose fiancée Elinor (Nina Vale) wants him to give up both ventures, become a stockbroker, and settle down to a nice, quiet, boring life. Nothing doing. When a socialite named Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper) gives a party where one of her diamonds is stolen, Wood asks for Gay’s help. Of course, when Wood’s lovely secretary lovely Helen Reed (Wendy Barrie) offers to help, Gay and his sidekick Jonathan “Goldie” Locke (Allen Jenkins) simply can’t refuse. Of course, Elinor isn’t too happy about this… The Gay Falcon is a fun start to a series I’m looking forward to exploring, even though Gay Lawrence (Sanders) hands the series over to his brother Tom (Tom Conway, Sanders’s real-life brother) in the fourth film, The Falcon’s Brother (1942) for nine more films. (The last three in the series star John Calvert as Michael “The Falcon” Waring. Confused? Here’s the whole history of the series.) If The Gay Falcon is any indication, the series probably contains limited noir interest, but it does promise a good bit of fun.
*I’ve seen both spellings, Lawrence and Laurence.
Les parents terribles (The Storm Within, 1948) Jean Cocteau (Kanopy)
The masterful director Jean Cocteau delivers again with Jean Marais and Josette Day returning from their appearance in Cocteau’s classic La Belle et la Bête (1946). Based on a Cocteau play, Maris plays Michel, who informs his parents Yvonne (Yvonne de Bray) and Georges (Marcel André) that he’s in love with a wonderful girl. Calling Michel a mama’s boy just scratches the surface of his relationship with mom, but there’s more: Michel’s true love Madeleine (Josette Day) is the mistress of his father Georges. You may think you know what’s going to happen when Madeleine comes to meet the family (which includes Michel’s Aunt Léo, played by Gabrielle Dorziat), but don’t expect a traditional French sex comedy.
Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) Roy Rowland (Warner Bros. DVD)
If the story of the simple life of a Norwegian immigrant farmer (Edward G. Robinson) and his family in Wisconsin sounds like a snoozer, it’s not. There’s so much life packed into this film, particularly by its two child actors, Margaret O’Brien and Jackie “Butch” Jenkins. A powerful, sweet film that never gets too sentimental.
Murder, He Says (1945) George Marshall (Universal/TCM DVD, also available on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Accurately describing Murder, He Says is difficult, but perhaps a cross between The Old Dark House (1932) and the Ma and Pa Kettle films comes close. Fred MacMurray stars as Peter Marshall, a pollster who takes to a backwoods town looking for his missing coworker. Instead of his friend, he finds the Fleagle family, consisting of Mamie Fleagle Smithers Johnson (Marjorie Main, speaking of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies), husband (Porter Hall), sons Bert and Mert (both played by Peter Whitney), and not-so-bright daughter Elany (Jean Heather). They’re all waiting for Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige) to finally reveal where she’s hidden the $70,000 stolen by relative Bonnie Fleagle. After capturing Peter and leaving him alone in Grandma’s room, the other Fleagles figure the old woman has disclosed to him the location of the stolen loot. There’s no way I can adequately describe the madness that follows, but somehow it works and (mostly) works brilliantly.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) Dorothy Arzner (Warner DVD)
After watching Dance, Girl, Dance, I immediately want to know more about Dorothy Arzner. In the film, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) Judy (Maureen O’Hara) are dancers with very different personalities: Bubbles is sassy, Judy reserved; Bubbles does burlesque shows, Judy ballet. They each have relationships (or would-be relationships) with men of varying degrees (or lack) of integrity, played by Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy. The film is enormously entertaining, but successfully aims at deeper themes. I look forward to revisiting this and examining more of Arzner’s work soon. (I also looked at Arzner's Dinner at Eight in my 1930s post.)
Tales of Manhattan (1942) Julien Duvivier (Supply Media DVD, UK)
This episodic story of a tailcoat that carries a curse for all who wear it features an all-star cast including Rita Hayworth, Charles Boyer, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Fonda, Cesar Romero, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lancaster, Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, George Sanders, and more. This film predates Duvivier’s other anthology film Flesh and Fantasy by one year.
That's it for the 1940s. I'm already seeking out more films for next year's '40s viewing, but your suggestions are always welcome.
Next time: The 1950s