The Best Movie Discoveries of 2019: The 1940s



As I mentioned in last year’s post from this same period, the 1940s is my favorite decade for movies. I’m not sure I really understood why (other than the production of so many film noir titles) until I read David Bordwell’s book Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. If you love movies from the ‘40s, Bordwell’s book (the best book I read on movies this year) is essential reading.

If you think the list below looks pretty light, that’s because you’ll see more movies from the ‘40s in my upcoming Film Noir Discoveries post. I won’t comment on each of the non-noir movies below, but I’ll offer a few things I discovered about the films and myself.



My good friend Tom dropped by early in the year and noticed an old Preston Sturges box set that I’d just picked up at the used bookstore. “How many of these have you watched?” he asked. Just a couple, I told him. “Let’s watch Hail the Conquering Hero,” he suggested.



In the film, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) leaves his small town to join the Marines to fight in World War II. Before he can really get started, a medical discharge ends Woodrow's military career, but he finds work at a San Diego shipyard. To keep from embarrassing his family and hometown, he writes letters to his mom about his fictitious wartime adventures. Upon returning home, thinking him a war hero, his hometown puts on a massive welcome. The comedy is first-rate, yet the film is also a biting satire, the kind only Preston Sturges could pull off.


After we finished All Hail the Conquering Hero, Tom said, “Let’s watch another one. Here’s The Great McGinty.” Sturges - one of Hollywood’s first writer/directors - is so good it’s astounding. I’d already seen (and loved) Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), and The Palm Beach Story (1942), and can’t wait to watch the rest of his filmography. But I want to make them last.



You could call The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) a film noir (and some do), but so few people talk about the artistry and power of this film, which is much more than a cautionary tale, but it certainly is that. Timing is everything, and soon after I watched this film, Cole and Ericca discussed it on The Magic Lantern podcast. I can’t wait to see this one again and would love to see it on Blu-ray.


I greatly enjoyed one of the first performances by Robert Mitchum to receive wide acclaim, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which earned him an Oscar nomination (amazingly, his only Oscar nomination).



As soon as I finished watching The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), I wanted to watch it again. This gorgeous, atmospheric ghost story/love story is absolutely spellbinding. (My love for this film also transcends my disdain for Rex Harrison.)



Hellzapoppin’ (1941) is the craziest movie I’ve ever seen from the 1940s and possibly the craziest movie I’ve ever seen period. If you can imagine the Marx Brothers on steroids and triple shots of espresso, you at least have a starting point for the wonderful madness that awaits you. The basic plot (and it’s a stretch to call it such) involves the comedy team Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson as they try to adapt a play into a movie for their company Miracle Pictures, whose tagline states, “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle.” (Hellzapoppin’ actually was a stage production before it was a movie.) With the exception of a couple of songs, the movie is absolute non-stop mayhem with several running gags, some of which were inspirations for later movies and shows such as Airplane!, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and others. You absolutely must see it.



I bought the BFI Region B Blu-ray of They Came to a City (1944) on a whim and loved it. I know many people who are disappointed with this fantasy of a group of random people who find themselves on the threshold of their “ideal city,” yet are - for various reasons - reluctant to walk through its gates. Maybe it’s because I tried not to overthink the film and simply go with it, but I loved it. (Of course I tend to love any film starring Googie Withers.)


Those were my non-film noir highlights from the 1940s, but here’s the complete list of the movies from that decade that I enjoyed most:


Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) Preston Sturges

The Great McGinty (1940) Preston Sturges

The Woman in White (1948) Peter Godfrey

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) William Dieterle

Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) Irving Pichel

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) William A. Wellman

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book, 1949) Anthony Mann

Boom Town (1940) Jack Conway

Hellzapoppin’ (1941) H.C. Potter

House of Frankenstein (1944) Erle C. Kenton

They Came to a City (1944) Basil Dearden


Please let me know the movies you enjoyed from this decade.


Next time: the 1950s


Photos: The Magic Lantern Podcast, Mubi, The Retro Set, The Church Times, Smum County

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