Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1940s


I have long been under the mistaken impression that the 1940s were a slow decade for film production, at least during the war years. Wrong. Fewer feature films were produced in the United States during this transitional decade than in the 1930s, but more films were produced than in any subsequent decade until the 1980s. And, while there was a noticeable drop in production beginning in 1943, it certainly was not as sharp as I had suspected. There were various reasons for this drop in production, but that’s a topic for other decades. The important point is that, in the 1940s, America was still a nation of moviegoers, and that meant a big market for stories that could be filmed. Adaptation, always a significant source of film material, rose to even greater heights in the wake of the success of Gone With the Wind, riding a wave of technological innovation that perfected the use of sound in the 1930s.

During my time in the ’40s, I watched comedies and tragedies, a western and a gangster film and a war movie, but mostly melodrama. Oh, it was a great decade for melodrama! Noir was born in the 1940s, as well, and I watched some, as it is a style that is dear to me. It is always interesting, as well, to see what period each decade is nostalgic for, through the times it portrays with a rosy hue. The past few years, the 2010s, have looked back fondly on the 1980s, and they looked back to the 1950s. In the 1940s, that love seemed to go to the turn of the century. I assume this nostalgia for 30-40 years in the past has a lot to do with how long ago the producers, directors, and screenwriters who are getting movies made were children themselves. Just a thought.

There is also a new sophistication, a definite feeling of maturity and gravity, that was certainly not there in the previous decade. Some, though certainly not all, of the idealism of the 1930s has been replaced by a healthy dose of cynicism and a sharper, meaner wit. But the emotion behind this more realistic view of the world is still geared toward making the world a better place. If these films are less optimistic about the chance of success, they and their characters certainly haven’t given up trying. But now I’m getting a bit too abstract, perhaps. Time to discuss the films.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin stubbornly continued making silent films for years after the introduction of sound, but one man finally got him to break that silence: Adolf Hitler. Before the United States was at war with Nazi Germany, at a time when the rest of Hollywood was largely maintaining a diplomatic silence, Chaplin’s first talkie was a hilarious and heartbreaking kick in the teeth of the Third Reich. He mocks Hitler relentlessly and mercilessly, but treats the plight of the Jews under Hitler with complete seriousness. It is a powerful balancing act between laughter and tears that perhaps only the talent and passion of a genius like Chaplin is capable of maintaining. And when he breaks character at the end to appeal directly to the audience for peace and goodwill, you’ll wonder what effect he might have had if more people around the world could have seen it, and seen it a few years earlier.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture if 1941 (along with 4 other awards), this was a labor of love for John Ford. He is best remembered for the many westerns he made with John Wayne (see below), but a number of other Ford regulars, like Maureen O’Hara, populate this one. It’s hard to imagine an appropriate role for Wayne in this wistful portrait of turn-of-the-century Wales. The nostalgia inherent to the title inhabits every frame of the film with a longing for a place that no longer exists. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe this film beat out contenders like Citizen Kane, but it is a sentimental adaptation of a prestigious novel by a well-regarded director with a talented ensemble cast. The definition of Oscar Bait has changed very little in 70 years. Watch for a great performance by a very young Roddy McDowall.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Speaking of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles followed his much-lauded masterpiece with a turn-of-the-century adaptation of his own. Famously, he delivered the final cut of the film to the studio and trotted off to Latin America to work on a new project as part of the United States “Good Neighbor Policy” during World War II (Walt Disney engaged in a similar venture). While he was away, the studio, concerned about the film’s dark final act, edited out some 40 minutes and reshot the ending. The result is about what you’d expect: a weird, wonderful American masterpiece for the first hour or so, with an incongruous shift in tone and character for the last 20 minutes. Welles’ original cut will forever remain one of the “lost treasures” of film aficionados, but the film we ended up with is still really good and well-worth seeing. Welles’ flair for character and ambience shows through just fine, and Joseph Cotten is always fun to watch.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

Speaking of adaptations and prestige, they don’t get much bigger than this star-studded version of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War. Gary Cooper throws off sparks as an American saboteur who joins a fractious band of rebels under orders to blow a key bridge and prevent reinforcements from repelling a major offensive. Ingrid Bergman is an amazing actress, but the Swedish blonde is not exactly well-cast as a young Spaniard. The actress to watch is Katina Paxinou as Pilar, whose brilliant performance earned her the film’s sole Oscar win out of 9 nominations. The film is strong, but like the original novel, the story drags heavily going into the third act. That said, this portion takes less time to watch than it does to read, and soon gives way to the tense and action-packed finale. Its status as a classic is as well-deserved as the novel’s.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

What can I say about Preston Sturges? I love his films, particularly his comedies, slight as they often are. This may be my favorite, an uproariously funny screwball comedy of life on the homefront while the nation is at war that will make you wonder how on earth it slid past the censors. Betty Hutton plays Trudy Kockenlocker, a girl who is adored by the mousy Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken). Unfortunately, Trudy is fascinated by men in uniform, and Norval can’t get into the army. Matters are complicated further when, after a night of hard partying to see the boys off to war, Trudy ends up married to a soldier she can’t remember and pregnant, but her father (Sturges regular William Demarest) thinks Norval is to blame. Hilarity ensues, but I’ve said too much already. The laughs and surprises fly thick and fast from start to finish, and I watched this movie three times before moving on.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

This is probably most notable as the first film directed by Elia Kazan, who would go on to win an Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement a few years later, and then produce a decade-defining string of great films throughout the 1950s. It is an adaptation of a best-selling novel from 1943, depicting the ups and downs of a poor family in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, told through the coming-of-age eyes of daughter Francie Nolan. A pleasant enough film, mixing warmth and humor and a tempered nostalgia, populated with familiar (but not mega-famous) faces playing likable characters, it is very much of its time. I have read the novel, and even seen this film many years ago. The book has proved more memorable, but the movie is worth seeing, too.

Gilda (1946)

I filled another disgraceful gap in my film knowledge with this one. I knew the Rita Hayworth shot, of course (you know the one, this one). But somehow I didn’t know that this was grand hard-boiled postwar noir. Hayworth is as electrifying in every scene as she is in that famous shot. It’s one of the few femme fatale performances I’ve seen that renders the actions of the men around her entirely believable. Glenn Ford is the classic noir protagonist, a cynical cipher of dubious moral rectitude, and George MacReady’s patron/villain is a fascinating third wheel not quite like any character I’ve seen in other noirs. After having seen it, my biggest question was why I hadn’t heard more about it. It is obvious even on first viewing that this is essential noir, and very, very good.

Black Narcissus (1947)

This is a weirdly mesmerizing film that made me want to read the novel it’s based on. Deborah Kerr stars as an English nun tasked with leading a group from her order to establish a school and hospital high in the Himalayas in an ancient building that once housed concubines. The mission implodes, however, as the nuns begin to mentally and emotionally unravel, succumbing to the wild, sensual spirit of their surroundings. Matters come to a head in explosive fashion, and the ending is nothing short of perfect. The real star of the film (the magnificent Kerr notwithstanding) is the cinematography, which, along with the spectacular art direction, won the film its Academy Awards. The movie is shot in rather glorious technicolor, and the vistas are really quite breathtaking. The camera succeeds admirably at making the atmosphere of the place another character in the film, which is (obviously) essential to the story.

Fort Apache (1948)

The first of John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” stars John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Temple (in one of her last film roles, as the improbably named Philadelphia Thursday). Fonda plays Colonel Thursday, a proud officer who regards his appointment to a remote fort out West as a slap in the face. His new second-in-command, the more experienced Captain York (Wayne), feels the same way, having expected the command himself. The two men lock horns over how to deal with the local Indians while Thursday’s daughter falls in love with a young officer. The movie more or less balances romance and action as Thursday’s stubborn foolishness results in an Indian uprising, and it is left to York to stop it. This is certainly not Ford’s best Western (nor is any of the cavalry trilogy), but it’s an entertaining bit of genre fluff.

White Heat (1949)

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” Maybe you’ve heard that famous James Cagney line from this movie’s fiery climax. The title aptly describes Cagney’s energetic performance. Well, “energetic” is understating it a bit. Cagney, here as always, lights up the screen. Watching how he plays murderous gangster Cody Jarrett, you really don’t know what he’ll do next. He embodies a man who might do just about anything, not just out of desperation, but out of something violent and twisted inside himself. Gangster films often depend on their central performance (think of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and Al Pacino in Scarface), and certainly Cagney is the reason to see this movie. I’m not sure that there’s another reason, but this isn’t really my genre.

Next up, the Nifty Fifties!


~ by Jared on December 10, 2012.

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