Thursday, August 26, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: The '40s

Surprisingly enough, a decade devastated by war still managed to put out some of the most memorable movies of all time. Despite many Hollywood notables enlisting in the great conflict and most of the films made during the war being rubbish, studio output at the beginning and end of the decade almost got back up to the brilliance of the '30s. There were even some good films made along with the propaganda fluff of WWII, though they were fewer and further between.

Please note that there were a lot more famous and really deserving films that didn't make the cut on this list, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate them. I am especially remiss about leaving out all the great Bogart and Bacall films, the best of which is The Big Sleep, and my favorite of which is the oft-overlooked  Dark Passage. My reason for leaving them off is because I tried to include at least one movie from as many genres as possible, though I did allow myself two Hitchcocks. It's also interesting to note that all these films were in black-and-white because not a lot of color films were made until the end of the decade, and

Honorable Mentions: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)/ Holiday Inn (1942)

James Cagney sings and dances? Really?!? Actually the famous tough guy got his start as a hoofer on the vaudeville circuits, and while he's no Fred Astaire--then again, who is, really?--he puts on a good show as the great American Broadway composer George M. Cohan, who gave us such songs as "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Give My Regards to Broadway," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "Over There." Of course the story is completely fictional, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

Meanwhile that very same year somebody had the idea to team up the greatest dancer of his generation Fred Astaire, with the greatest singer of his generation, Bing Crosby. The result was this charmer which introduced the song "White Christmas" to the world. Sadly despite the popularity of this movie Fred and Bing would only make one more picture together because Bing was too busy doing the "Road To" movies with Bob Hope.

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are lost in the Sahara Desert in
the opening to Road to Morocco.
Road to Morocco (1942)

Speaking of Hope and Crosby, "Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco-bound!" in this film which is generally considered the best of their movies, and certainly one of my favorites. These are just some of the most wonderful comedies ever made because the two stars did a lot of improv and had heavy say in the script to start out with. There's no fourth wall, and references are made to things like Bob's lust for an Oscar, which Bing Crosby took home for his performance in Going My Way, another movie that should have made this list, but one that I will ask you to buy in the double feature package with Holiday Inn. Perhaps the most memorable part of this delightful film is the opening song where they sing about being on the road to Morocco and in another "Road To" film in general, with the memorable line, "I'll lay you eight-to-five that we'll meet [their co-star in all of the "Road To" movies] Dorothy Lamour."

And the winners.:

Pegasi frolic through Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony
10. Fantasia (1940)

My goodness! I actually put a Disney movie on this list. Before Disney became an evil empire, the founder Walt was actually capable of inspired thinking. He'd already done some short films in which animation is paired with classical music and no dialog, and spurred by the success of these, he went for a really daring, artistic experiment in which the animation would be inspired directly by the music. The final "Night on Bald Mountain"/"Ave Maria" sequence was so controversial that it was actually banned in several countries. Disney also highly offended classical music buffs by turning Beethoven's "pastorale" symphony into a Greek mythical picnic/orgy led by Bacchus himself. Apparently that was irreverent to the sacred cow of the classical world. I also have to admit that I never liked Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," but the creation of the world/dinosaurs theme works really well with it. I actually think that my favorite sequence is the fairy scene set to the Nutcracker Suite just because I'm overly fond of that piece of music like most ballet devotees.

9. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

What better way for the French to celebrate their independence than to make this spectacular version of the classic fairytale? It has a lot of subtlety in it's storytelling that Hollywood completely lacks. There are no bells, whistles, or amazing special effects. Instead it's just the story of a girl who falls in love with a beast, a story driven entirely by plot and character. Leave it to the French to give us Americans a lesson in beauty.

Gary Cooper as a dying Lou Gehrig gives his "Luckiest
Man" Speech with Babe Ruth (left) looking on.
8. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

There were plenty of sports movies both before and after this, but few can touch our hearts as much as the tragically true story of Lou Gehrig, "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," played by Gary Cooper who greatly resembled the great Yankees slugger in real life. Perhaps what makes this movie so good is that it's more of a biopic than a sports film. Although it does chronicle the career of Lou Gehrig including the '27 Yankees' World Series and his consecutive game record, it also focuses heavily on Gehrig's relationship with his overbearing mother who wanted him to be an engineer and his spirited wife.

Great supporting roles go to Walter Brennan as Gehrig's reporter friend, and Babe Ruth as himself, a treat for all baseball fans. No one but Gary Cooper could have portrayed Gehrig's shy awkwardness in such an endearing light, and by the time he begins to succumb to the fatal disease that now bears his name, we shed genuine tears. Like so many other films on this list, the final scene of The Pride of the Yankees, as Gehrig makes his "Luckiest Man" speech with his wife sobbing in the background, and then he walks off the field painfully alone just as the umpire shouts "Play ball!"

7. Laura (1944)

I've already reviewed this movie, and I refer you to that for a detailed synopsis. Memorable performances by Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and horror king Vincent Price highlight this tale of a detective brought in to uncover the murder of Laura Hunt, a beautiful woman both inwardly and outwardly who had more foes that she deserved. The mystery is baffling, especially when Laura comes back from a long weekend to find the police camped out in her apartment and a dead body that everyone assumed was her.

6. Sullivan's Travels (1941)

One of my favorite underrated actors Joel McCrea stars with Veronica Lake in this gem of a comedy by Preston Sturges. McCrea plays a Hollywood director of light comedies that takes a pretentious turn and decides to make a film about the downtrodden and poor--something he knows nothing about. To learn about it, though, he sets off on an adventure to live as a hobo and experience it first-hand. Along the way he meets the charming and goofy Veronica Lake with whom he falls madly in love, as they struggle down the road together.

But things don't go exactly as Sullivan plans them, and he ends up in a pit of misery and despair with seemingly no hope until it comes to him from an unexpected source. Surprisingly deep and a great affirmation of the genre we all love, Sullivan's Travels is easily the best comedy of the decade.

5. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart and a whole assortment of shady characters including Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet hunt for "the stuff dreams are made of," in this adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel. Bogart plays a San Francisco detective with a shady past who finds himself in a tight spot when his partner is murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Spade because he was having an affair with his partner's wife. In addition Spade must deal with a slick, lying damsel-in-distress who asks for his help and the men chasing her, trying to find the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon, a treasure of the Knights Templar that has been missing for hundreds of years.

This film is the quintessential film noir detective story as done by two masters of the genre, novelist Dashiell Hammett and actor Humphrey Bogart. It's also the film that made Bogart into a legitimate leading man despite his less-than-glamorous looks, so it's safe to say that without this film, it's safe to say that there would have been no Casablanca the following year nor would there be the great films he made with Lauren Bacall late in the decade.

4. Notorious (1946)

Ingrid Bergman risks her life when she marries a Nazi in
order to spy on him in Notorious.
I only intended to put one Hitchcock on this list, but I found I simply couldn't choose between them because they are such different films. While Rebecca bears the marks of Hitchcock's genius direction, it's essentially a movie by its producer David O. Selznick, and while a great movie, one in which Hitchcock had very little artistic control. Notorious, on the other hand, is a quintessential Hitchcock film. It also has the further distinction of featuring the great director's favorite actor, Cary Grant, along with Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.

Ingrid Bergman plays the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is hired by a handsome CIA agent (Cary Grant) to spy for the US against Nazi defectors in Rio. Although she is madly in love with Cary Grant's character and determined to give up her drinking and misbehaving for his sake, she doesn't get the chance to make good on her promise because the government wants her to seduce the leader of the Nazis in Rio. Claude Rains plays her victim who becomes so besotted with Bergman that he asks her to marry him. But a marriage between a spy and her target, especially when that target is the leader of a dangerous organization, is a ticking time bomb, and Cary Grant soon has his hands full extricating Bergman before the Nazis uncover her secret and deal with her treachery.

3. Rebecca (1940)

This movie also made my top film adaptations list because it sticks close to the book, which is one of my all-time favorites. Joan Fontaine captures our pathos as the young bride who gets in way over her head when she finds that her husband's estate is being psychologically haunted by the spirit of his first wife Rebecca. Joan Fontaine gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the second wife. Laurence Olivier is incredibly handsome and brooding as Maxim de Winter, whom--like Elizabeth Bennett with Mr. Darcy--I would definitely marry for his house except that it burns down at the end of the novel. The character who really steals the show, however, is Judith Anderson as the evil Mrs. Danvers, plotting for Rebecca to defeat the  newlywed couple from beyond the grave. For that performance she ranked #31 on the villain side of AFI's Heroes and Villains list.

James Stuart learns how wonderful life is with the help of his
guardian angel Clarence.
2. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

The late '40s boasted a slough of memorable Christmas movies, but this one tops them all, probably because Christmas is only a secondary concern to good storytelling. Only Frank Capra can tell a heartwarming American story like this, and he's at the top of his form using his good friend and favorite actor James Stuart as the lead.

If you haven't seen either this movie or the next one on my list, go shoot yourself or spend the next few hours amending that effrontery to good taste. Yes, I know that people have legitimately faulted the special effects in this movie and the spotty theology in the portrayal of angels, but those are minor concerns in my book. For  those of you who have been living in a cave all your lives, the story centers on a small-town businessman  named George Bailey who spends his whole life sacrificing his personal ambitions for the sake of others. On Christmas Eve one year a calamity occurs, and he finds himself about to his little all and contemplating suicide. Fortunately a novice guardian angel gives him a reason to keep on living by showing him how much worse off the world would be had he never been born.

The line that always gets me at the end of this movie is when George's younger brother comes in and gives a toast, "To my brother George, the richest man in town." I cannot keep a dry eye at that. Just to show the iconic status of this film, not only is it #11 on AFI's Top 100 Films of all time, but George Bailey is #9 on the Heroes list, and Mr. Potter is #6 on the Villains list.

The iconic picture from the greatest film of all time. "Well
always have Paris." And we'll always have Casablanca.
1. Casablanca (1942)

I strongly believe in the case for this movie being the greatest of all time. It certainly has the highest rating on IMDb of any movie, and the most famous quotes of any movie by a long shot. Apart from the memorable quips, however, this movie succeeds because of the very human dilemma faced by the three main characters, and the willingness of all three of them to be noble and sacrifice for each other. Humphrey Bogart's character Rick Blaine ranks #4 on AFI's Heroes list, behind only James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Atticus Finch.

There's also a slough of great performances by famous character actors like Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, my favorite of which is Rains's show-stealer as the lascivious Captain Renault. And of course the ending, which took scriptwriters forever to get right, is probably the greatest of any movie ever. Really, this film has everything: action, romance, comedy, a jaded hero looking for a reason to fight, and of course the ultimate bad guys in the Nazis. Do I even need to mention "As Time Goes By"?

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