The 1940s was one of the most innovative times in cinema. Despite the decade being marred by a world war and tragedy, cinema managed to flourish. From black-and-white noir films to Disney’s animated classics, the ‘40s were a magical time for film. Too often, people write old films off due to their style, lack of color, or any other myriad of reasons, but they shouldn’t. The ‘40s is a crucial part of cinema history, and these nine films are a great place to start. If we missed your favorite film from the 40s, be sure to let us know in the comments below.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Arguably one of the most iconic films of all time, it seems everyone knows the famous line “Rosebud,” yet barely anyone has seen it. Orson Welles’ film focuses on the fictional life of Charles Foster Kane and his dying word.
As reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) tries to decipher and uncover the meaning of “rosebud,” the intricacies of the man’s life are revealed. Citizen Kane is a must-watch film in general due to the fact that it has stood the test of time for decades, let alone due to the fact that it’s one of the best films of the ‘40s.
Starring the legendary Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, this romantic drama is a culturally significant part of cinema. Set during World War II, it focuses on Rick Blaine (Bogart), an American expatriate forced to choose between a romance with Isla Lund (Bergman) and helping her husband escape from Casablanca to lead the Czechoslovak resistance against the Nazis.
At this point, there are a number of lines from the film that are ingrained in people’s minds, from “Play it, Sam” to “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Like Citizen Cane, Casablanca is routinely at the top of the best films of all time, making it a must-watch if you’re interested in the best films from the ‘40s.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
After watching It’s a Wonderful Life, you’ll have a new annual Christmas movie to watch around the holidays. Based on a novel (which is loosely based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol), It’s a Wonderful Life is about a man who gave up on his dreams in order to help those around him. When he encounters suicidal thoughts on Christmas Eve, a guardian angel appears and shows him what life would be like in the world if he did not exist.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a touching, heartwarming story that shows how our actions affect those around us, even if we feel that we don’t matter at the end of the day. Even if you don’t feel like watching it every holiday, it’s certainly a film we should all see once to remind us of our place in the world.
The Third Man (1949)
Talk about peak noir; The Third Man is a British film from the end of the ‘40s that was at one point declared the greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute. The Third Man is set in post-war Vienna and focuses on Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American who arrived in the city to accept a job alongside his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).
After Lime unexpectedly dies shortly before his arrival, Holly becomes more intrigued and suspicious about his death after hearing conflicting accounts of what actually happened. The situation is made even more suspicious after another person of interest is killed, leading Holly on a wild goose chase as he tries to get to the bottom of everything.
The Lady Eve (1941)
The screwball comedy genre is all but dead, having been made popular during the Great Depression and petering out after the 40s. If you’re interested in discovering a long-gone genre of film, there’s no better place to start than The Lady Eve. A satire of typical love stories, The Lady Eve is about a couple who meet aboard an ocean liner—with a twist.
Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist sailing aboard an ocean liner, looking for her next victim. With her sights set on the extremely shy Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), she begins to close in on her prey only to begin falling in love.
With the live-action Pinocchio releasing not too long ago, it might be a good idea to go revisit the animated film that started it all. Well, technically, the 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio started it all, but you can’t exactly watch a book.
The original animated film was Disney’s second animated film overall and was an immediate hit, still considered to be the best animated film by some to this day. The plot of Pinocchio should be known by all at this point, but if you are unaware, it’s about a woodcarver named Geppetto who carves a wooden puppet that wishes to become a real boy. Eventually, Pinocchio’s wish comes true, but to keep his wish, he must prove to be a genuinely brave, unselfish boy.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Winning seven Academy Awards, The Best Years of Our Lives depicts an emotional and confusing period for people around the world. Released just a year after the end of the Second World War, The Best Years of Our Lives centers on three returning American servicemen and their trouble re-adjusting to civilian life and societal changes.
The third animated film produced by Disney, Fantasia has since become a massive franchise beyond its 1940 release. Rather than be one feature-length story, Fantasia is a series of eight animated stories paired with classical music conducted by the great Leopold Stokowski. The film is considered a landmark moment in animation history, but make no mistake, this isn’t a children’s film. Fantasia is meant for all audiences, particularly adults, making it just as enjoyable now as it was over 80 years ago.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
If you had a hard time reading the John Steinbeck novel of the same name in high school, you might want to give the 1940 film a try. If you don’t remember the plot from English class (or skipped reading it completely), the story focuses on a sharecropper family in Oklahoma named the Joads.
After losing their farm due to the increase in mechanization in the 30s, the Joads become migrant workers and end up in California. The story focuses on their trials and tribulations as they make their way across the country in search of opportunity. The Grapes of Wrath, just like many other films on this list, is considered to be one of the best films of all time, thanks to its exceptional storytelling and historical significance.