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The Best Discoveries of 2020: The 1940s

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

I frequently tell people who ask that my favorite decade for movies is the 1940s (followed closely by the 1970s). Having said that, you may be surprised to find so few first-time watches from the ‘40s on my Best of 2020 list. That’s because I’ve decided to make three different genre lists this time, and many films from the 1940s will appear on those lists: film noir, westerns, and science fiction/fantasy/horror.

At least one of the films on this list could be thought of as film noir and another one as horror. It’s a matter of personal taste and how you define the genre. So don’t be alarmed at the scarcity of films on this general list. But I do hope you’ll find something here to explore.


Dragonwyck (1946) Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Twilight Time Blu-ray)

Vincent Price is likely to emerge as my most-watched actor in 2020. This gothic period drama stars Gene Tierney as Miranda Wells, a Connecticut farm girl who comes to live with her rich cousin Nicholas van Ryn (Vincent Price) at Dragonwyck manor in New York, where Miranda’s storybook new life soon turns into a nightmare. As you would expect, Price is outstanding.

The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin (Criterion Channel, Kanopy)

This was one of the first films we discussed in our virtual library movie group, Chaplin’s most commercially successful movie. Chaplin plays dual roles: a fascist dictator and a Jewish barber in one of the greatest satires of all time. Read up on this one to discover just how risky this production was in so many ways.

Great Expectations (1946) David Lean (Criterion Channel)

One of my favorite discoveries of the year. I don’t care how faithful or unfaithful this film version is to Dickens’s original, I loved every minute of it, even if John Mills is far too old to play Pip. If you think only of broad, sweeping epics when you hear the name David Lean, go look at his early stuff. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Larceny, Inc. (1942) Lloyd Bacon (Warner DVD)

How can you not have a great time with Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, and Edward Brophy? After their release from prison, “Pressure” Maxwell (Robinson) and his slow-witted partner Jug Martin (Crawford) decide to go straight and turn down a shady offer from fellow inmate Leo Dexter (Anthony Quinn). Joined by Jug’s friend Weepy Davis (Brophy), the trio decide to buy a luggage shop, which is right next door to a bank. Irresistible fun!

The Major and the Minor (1942) Billy Wilder (Universal DVD, Arrow Blu-ray)

What an absolutely delightful romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers trying to pass for a 12-year-old girl in order to secure a half-fare train ticket. On board she meets Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland) and acts like a frightened child, hopefully long enough for her to reach her destination. Never once does the film feel creepy, mostly because Billy Wilder (as co-writer with Charles Brackett, and as first-time director) was a genius. Highly recommended.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) Preston Sturges (Kanopy)

Another library virtual discussion, this time focusing on one of Preston Sturges’s greatest (and most hilarious) films starring Betty Hutton as Trudy, who discovers after a send-off for U.S. troops that she’s not only married, but also pregnant and abandoned by a soldier. Who comes to the rescue (if you can call it that) but her longtime worshipper Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken).

Not Wanted (1949) Elmer Clifton, Ida Lupino (Ida Lupino: Filmmaker box set, Kino Lorber)

I’m not sure how much of Not Wanted belongs to Ida Lupino or Elmer Clifton (who had to stop directing after suffering a heart attack), but since Lupino co-wrote and co-produced this independent film, much of the credit must go to her. This story of an unwed mother (Sally Forest) packs a real punch, made more realistic without any studio gloss whatsoever. This is the kind of movie mainstream Hollywood was terrified to make, but Lupino was fearless.

A Ship to India (1947) Ingmar Bergman (Criterion Blu-ray)

I didn’t get as far along on my Ingmar Bergman project this year as I would’ve liked, but it’s also a journey that I purposefully did not want to rush. It seemed to me that Bergman must have directed at least two or three other films between his feature debut Crisis (1946) and his third, A Ship to India. Further thoughts here.

So Proudly We Hail (1943) Mark Sandrich (Universal Cinema Classics DVD)

Patriotic to the hilt, So Proudly We Hail gave 1943 audiences something unique: a look at the work, sacrifice, and courage of American military nurses in the Pacific during WWII. For maximum enjoyment (and impact), you simply must try to put yourself in the time and mindset of audiences of the time. No, the film’s not perfect by any means, but it’s what was needed at the time and is still powerful. The cast includes Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, and a pre-Superman George Reeves.

Weird Woman (1943) Reginald Le Borg (Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Mill Creek Blu-ray box set)

Okay, Weird Woman is not a good movie, but I include it because (1) it’s better than the Calling Dr. Death (1943), the first film in the Inner Sanctum box set, and (2) I had a great time, knowing it wasn’t going to be very good. Lon Chaney Jr. is in all of the six Inner Sanctum films, playing a different character each time. Here, Chaney plays a professor who returns from a trip to the South Seas with new wife Paula (Anne Gwynne), who refuses to put away her beliefs in voodoo and other supernatural elements. When weird things (including murders) begin to happen, Paula is the most likely suspect. Again, I was expecting nothing but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe you will be as well?

Again, look for more 1940s films in my genre posts coming soon. And let me know what movies from the ‘40s you enjoyed most this year.

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