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Great Films From The 1940s

The 1940s is truly the pinnacle of the Golden Age of filmmaking. Some of the greatest directors, greatest writers, and greatest actors came together within the studio system to make the greatest films. This list could be repeated over and over again with different titles – so consider this just a beginning!

The Philadelphia Story (1940) – dir. George Cukor – The greatest of all the screwball comedies, with exceptional acting, dialogue, and directing – perhaps a perfect romantic comedy. Starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. When a rich woman’s ex-husband and a tabloid-type reporter turn up just before her planned remarriage, she begins to learn the truth about herself.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – dir. Ernest Lubtisch – Another delightful romantic comedy starring Jimmy Stewart, two employees at a gift shop can barely stand one another, without realizing that they’re falling in love through the post as each other’s anonymous pen pal. Remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail.

Citizen Kane (1941) – dir. Orson Welles – Often ranked as the greatest film of all time, a 25-year old Orson Welles co-wrote, directed, and starred in this dark, semi-biopic of newspaper magnate William Randolf Hearst. A film loved by filmmakers and film-buffs the world over for its extraordinary use of the medium of film.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) – dir. John Ford – A moving, tragic film based in a Welsh mining village where the Morgans raise coal-mining sons and hope their youngest will find a better life. Starring Maureen O’Hara, won the best picture for 1941.

Casablanca (1942) – dir. Michael Curtiz – The most iconic American film ever made. In Casablanca, Morocco in December 1941, a cynical American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Still one of the greatest films.

Laura (1944) – dir. Otto Preminger – A film noir mystery with many curious and odd twists. A police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating. Starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.

Hail, the Conquering Hero (1944) – dir. Preston Sturges – One of my favorite comedies. Screenwriter/director Sturges was at the top of his game with exceptionally sharp dialogue and crazy situations. Young Woodrow is discharged from the Marines for hay fever, but is forced by fellow Marines to fabricate an heroic honorable discharge before returning home. Hilarious.

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) – dir. Vincente Minnelli – One of Judy Garland’s greatest musicals. In the year before the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, the four Smith daughters learn lessons of life and love, even as they prepare for a reluctant move to New York.

They Were Expendable (1945) – dir. John Ford – John Wayne and Robert Montgomery pay tribute to the American PT boats that helped defend against the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. A great WWII film.

Notorious (1946) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock – Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains, a woman is asked to spy on a group of Nazi friends in South America. How far will she have to go to ingratiate herself with them? One of Hitchcock’s best.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – dir. William Wyler – The greatest soldier-return film ever made. Three WWII veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed. Incredible acting, directing, and writing. An exceptionally-moving and inspiring film that every American should see.

The Bicycle Thief (1948) – dir. Vittorio De Sica – One of the first Italian realist films, made in documentary style using real people. Set in Post-WWII Italy, a working class man’s bicycle is stolen. He and his son set out to find it. A beautiful film.

Red River (1948) – dir. Howard Hawks – A powerful John Wayne western. Dunson (Wayne) leads a cattle drive, the culmination of over 14 years of work, to its destination in Missouri. But his tyrannical behavior along the way causes a mutiny, led by his adopted son.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – dir. Frank Capra – One of the greatest films of all time. Most people watch it around Christmas, but it is a delight anytime. An angel helps a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed. Starring Jimmy Stewart.

The Third Man (1949) – dir. Carol Reed – Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles star in this extraordinary film noir classic set in post-war Vienna and written by novelist Graham Greene. Filmed on location in the remaining rubble, it is an oblique approach to a dark and mysterious story. (Recommended for ages 13+)

Filmmaking from the First Directors teaches the basics of filmmaking and early film history. It takes students through a unique journey starting in the late 19th century when film was invented, then guides them through the steps first directors took in creating the modern language of film.