Essential Movies – 1940 – 1949

So here’s another one of my fine essential guides! This time, we’re going to cover the movies of the 1940s.

This is another one of those lists where you’re going to know most of the films on it. This was the last decade before television started to cut seriously into the movie industry revenues and it’s also the decade of World War II and the start of the Cold War. It’s a decade that contains some of the best films in movie history! And as always, just because a movie isn’t on here, or a year is left blank, that doesn’t mean the movie was bad or that there wasn’t anything worthwhile that year. It just means I haven’t seen every great movie yet!


Fantasia – For reasons unclear to me, this movie has never been as popular as it should be, even with the animation crowd. It’s a beautiful, amazing movie with some of the most incredible animation ever captured on film. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Just check out this clip from below, which is easily the best in the movie, and remind yourself that it was all done by hand over 70 years ago.

The Grapes of Wrath – What do you get when you take a novel written as a socialist screed by an author who was basically socialist and give it to a filmmaker who was decidedly conservative? You get one of the best films of all time. Shamelessly manipulative? Oh, yes. Propaganda for the New Deal? That, too. But it’s also an incredible movie.

The Great Dictator – Flat-out simply Chaplin’s best film, and probably the best of 1940. With wonderful acting, pointed satire and some of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever seen in a live-action film, this one isn’t just essential viewing, it’s also very enjoyable viewing. Somewhat dragged down by the last two minutes, but, really, how else was the film going to end?

The Mark of Zorro – One of those great swashbuckler films from back in the day! This one features Tyrone Power as the title character with, yes, Basil Rathbone as the bad guy. It’s one of the last of the great swashbuckler films and is very much worth seeing.


Citizen Kane – You knew this was going to be on here, and well it should be. Generally regarded as the best film ever made, it is also one of the most culturally important. As I said in a review I wrote back in the day, watching it for the first time is kind of like watching it again, since if you’ve seen enough TV and movies, you’ve seen elements of this film used, reused and spoofed. But never is it so interesting as it is in the movie itself.

The Maltese Falcon – A great example of nearly film noir, and hugely enjoyable. Humphrey Bogart gives one of the best performances of his career, as do both Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Truly a great piece of film.


Casablanca – Again, a predictable entry. Yeah, there’s parts of it that don’t make sense (letters of transit signed by who, exactly?), but the overall story is beautiful, and everyone in the cast is really at the top of their game. A classic that truly does not disappoint.

The Pride of the Yankees – Arguably Babe Ruth’s finest acting role. Oh, also, Gary Cooper is in it. The story itself (the rise and death of a great baseball player), is simple enough, but the execution is what matters, and that at least is great!


The Ox-Bow Incident – I’m not generally into Westerns. I find them to be overly simplistic and rather silly. That said, this is one of the best, most amazing Westerns out there, and it’s at least in part because it ignores much of the conventions of the genre. Rather than clear good and evil roles, you have a lot of grey, and a great movie!


Arsenic & Old Lace – To describe the plot of this film would be to spoil a whole series of surprises. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. It’s dark, it’s hilarious and it’s a great film!


Gentleman’s Agreement – Ah, the joys of antisemitism. You’d think that having fought a war against a nation which existed to basically murder Jews, we would have learned our lessons about hatred and intolerance. Nope, not so much.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – Another one of those films that proves that Humphrey Bogart really was a hell of an actor. It looks like and feels like a Western, but it’s not. Instead it’s a deeply psychological movie about greed and betrayal. A really excellent film.


The Third Man – The 1940s were, in many ways, bracketed by two great Orson Welles films, though one could also argue them as two great Joseph Cotton films. Regardless, this movie, while not quite as good as Citizen Kane is a fascinating, cynical, really exceptional film.

Up next, the essential movies of the 1950s!


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