View Full Version : 40s Movies

09-13-2009, 09:40 AM
1) What are your favorite 40s movies? I would prefer American, non-musicals set in the actual 40s.

2) What make movies made in the 40s different from movies made today?

3) Can anyone tell me the name of that documentary that talks about the portrayal of sex in old films?

Thank you!

Mac H.
09-13-2009, 11:13 AM
It is interesting to see how War films differ between now and then.

The 1940s films were for an audiences who had family directly involved in the war, where as the films now are aimed at people who are largely removed from the personal experiences.

For example, a common trope in war films is to focus on a single character and imply that it was this single character who really made a difference in the battle. (eg: Star Wars) However, that wasn't going to work in the 1940s when you'd end up offending most of the audience by implying that their kids died in vain or weren't as important as the hero.

So you would often see a disclaimer at the beginning of the film explaining that it it was a tribute to the many brave men and women who died in battle, and that this was just a small example of the courage found across all services.

This was also due to the evolution of war films ... they were going from a more strictly 'documentary' style (eg: 'Target for Tonight'-1941, 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo'-1943) to a 'let's just make stuff up for the sake of the story'

The 1940s war-films which lionized the Allies and demonized the enemy didn't fare well under the eyes of future generations, though. For example, the 1943 film 'The North Star' was all about the heroic allies (the Soviets) against the Germans. By glossing over the faults of the 'good guys', it basically became a communist propaganda film which in later years the 'Un-American Activities Committee' decided was an indication that Hollywood were communist sympathisers !


There were also some curious homilies aimed at tolerance ... which I suspect was a reaction to the revelation of the Holocaust, and the uncomfortable feeling that many people had when realising that their own small communities had the faint beginnings of similar rules against Jews.

So we ended up with odd films like 'The boy with the Green Hair'. To quote a newspaper in 1947:

When a spectator asked about the plot, an RKO pressagent replied: "It's terrific. This boy wakes up, see, and he's got green hair. Then everyone who sees him knows there ought to be more, tolerance."

But how could a movie possibly be made on that faintly mad kind of a plot? "Well," said the underling, "maybe nobody else could make one out of it. But Dore Schary will pull it off."

It was also an era with fairly clearly defined "A" & "B" movie productions, rather than a spectrum.

For research, check out the pages of Variety - they have archives online.


09-13-2009, 04:20 PM
1) The Best Years of Our Lives was the biggest hit of the decade and very topical in its themes and subject matter. It stands up very well today.

Max Ophuls's Caught and The Reckless Moment and some of the Val Lewton horror films (Cat People) are interesting in that they depict protagonists who have everyday jobs.

2) Leaving aside the obvious, that the films were almost all in black and white with mono sound - pacing is different and films can seem slow because they don't cut every ten seconds. Also, acting styles have changed - the 40s were pre-Method. None of these are bad, but they do take a little getting used to.

3) Not sure about the book title, but it's worth noting that 40s Hollywood was controlled by the Production Code, so any sex was by inference only. Some films from the Pre-Code era (roughly 1930-1934) are surprisingly risqué.

09-13-2009, 04:34 PM
3) Not sure about the book title, but it's worth noting that 40s Hollywood was controlled by the Production Code, so any sex was by inference only. Some films from the Pre-Code era (roughly 1930-1934) are surprisingly risqué.
I have seen a documentary on that, although I can't remember the name of it offhand.

And you're right, they did push the envelope before the Hays Code was in place. There's even one famous scene in a Tarzan movie where Jane is swimming underwater nude. It used to be on YouTube; I'm not sure whether it still is.

09-13-2009, 04:53 PM
3) Not sure about the book title, but it's worth noting that 40s Hollywood was controlled by the Production Code, so any sex was by inference only. Some films from the Pre-Code era (roughly 1930-1934) are surprisingly risqué.

Preston Sturges was, I believe, known for working his way around the code and poking fun of it. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a good example of a small town girl who "compromises" herself at a send off party for the troops and wakes up married and pregnant with no real idea who the father is.

My favourite films from the 40's (Not including All About Eve which was 1950) are The Maltese Falcon, Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Shop Around the Corner.

Kathie Freeman
09-14-2009, 07:37 PM
My Favorites - Arsenic and Old Lace, Harvey. The differences - actual plot lines, special effects only when necessary, bloodless death, sex implied but not shown, no body-function "humor".

09-15-2009, 12:46 AM
I love the movies of the '40s. How can you not be impressed by Casablanca, the best movie love story of all time. I love the fast talk of His Girl Friday, another kind of love story all together.

Back then, there weren't 'chick flick' that no man would be caught dead admitting he liked. Folks also enjoyed musicals without complaining that singing was 'unrealistic.' There was an elegance in a lot of films that seem to be missing in today's movies.

There were movies and everyone went to them. War movies made post war, in the second half of the decade did show the horror of war.

I think that since special effects we pretty primitive, there was more attention paid to plot and the writing in general. Audiences didn't need the constant action of car chases and shoot outs. People in movies actually talked to each other.

There was even attention paid to serious social questions in movies like Gentleman's Agreement, Pinky and The Snake Pit.

I liked The Best Years of our Lives because of the bulldog (see my icon) who had a big part.

Linda Adams
09-15-2009, 05:50 AM
From the Internet Movie Database, the top movies from the 1940s: http://www.imdb.com/chart/1940s. Alfred Hitchcock is probably someone you want to look at since many of his movies are regarded as classics.

One of the differences between then and today was costumes. They had costumer designers like Edith Head design magnificient clothing for the characters to wear on the screen. Today, a lot of the clothes are just bought from stores.

Make up is also done differently. Then, the make up artists sometimes hand applied hair section by section. I remember reading about a veteran makeup artist who complained that the artists today didn't know how to apply hair like that--they used an applique, and if something happened to it, they wouldn't know how to apply it the old fashioned way.

I also have a friend who commented that a lot of the writers from that time came to the movie and TV screens with backgrounds in novel writing. Over time, particularly during the 1980s, the quality of the stories changed in a way that suggested the writers didn't have that same background any more.

I should also note that during the 1940s, they also had the Saturday serial. My father watched a lot of them when they were available on video tape (we had this place called Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee (http://cinema.usc.edu/assets/054/10927.pdf)that had everything imaginable). Each episode was maybe half an hour and would end with something horrifying happening to the hero leaving it on a cliffhanger. When it returned next week, he'd find his way out of the problem (though sometimes they took an awful lot of poetic license). I think a lot of cliches like the car driving off the cliff came out of these films.

09-15-2009, 06:03 AM
The other big difference no one's mentioned is lighting. B&W movies today don't look like 40s films because nobody seems to know how to light them the way it was done back then anymore. Nobody knows how to create and use shadows anymore. Films of the 40s were full of shadows and bits of light strategically placed for effect. It's a lost art. Pathetic little PRC knew more about lighting than the big modern studios will ever know. Modern lighting involves flooding the whole area with as much ambient light as the camera can absorb. In the old days, lights were placed here and there as needed to create the ambience. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is probably the closest to the old ways that a more modern film has come, but it had to be to match the old footage it contained. It's a pity, because B&W can be such an effective story-telling tool, when done right.


The Maltese Falcon
Citizen Kane
Kiss of Death
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Wolf Man
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
The Big Sleep
High Sierra
His Girl Friday
All the Val Lewton horror films from RKO - yes, even poor little Leopard Man
All the radio based movies Columbia did - Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve, the Whistler, Crime Doctor, I Love a Mystery, etc., etc., etc. And Universal's Inner Sanctum films with Lon Chaney, Jr.
And the other series films - Sherlock Holmes, Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Hopalong Cassidy, Nick Carter, Mike Shayne, etc., etc., etc. Fun stuff, all.

09-15-2009, 06:21 AM
I should also note that during the 1940s, they also had the Saturday serial.

Serials are fun. I've got over a hundred of them in my collection. You can find maybe a dozen at the Internet Archive. Try here:
http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=serial%20AND%20collection%3Amovie sandfilms

Most are pretty cheesy, but only a few are truly so bad as to be unwatchable. My favorites are Flash Gordon, Spy Smasher, the Masked Marvel, Secret Service in Darkest Africa, Zorro's Fighting Legion, The Purple Monster Strikes and the Adventures of Captain Marvel.

09-17-2009, 09:50 AM
Movies were more like their roots in the theatre: Actual writers, so lots of plot and dialogue, 'special effects' were a novelty and tricky, so films clung more firmly to reality. Now, film-makers study other film-makers, flashy editing and relatively inexpensive CGI make visual novelty easier than good writing. 'The Three Stooges' is just an ancestor of those 'bodily function/punch in the crotch' comedies that some actors specialise in. I'm surprised with all the remakes around that more of the older movies aren't remade, what is 'Pretty Woman' but a 40's film, only the MC is a hooker instead of a secretary or shopgirl? And 'My Best Friend's Wedding'? One of those comedies where the scheming ex-girlfriend tries to break up the lovers, only told from the schemer's point of view. Julia Roberts should have stuck to take-offs on the old comedies, she had the touch.

09-17-2009, 11:00 AM
40s is my second favorite film era (after the 30s), so I'll try to narrow this down. ;)

film noir:
1. Double Indemnity (the quintessential noir)
2. Laura
3. Leave her to Heaven

1. Ball of Fire
2. The Lady Eve
3. The Man who came to Dinner
4. Adam's Rib
5. George Washington Slept Here
6. Woman of the Year
7. Harvey
8. Arsenic and Old Lace
9. His Girl Friday
10. To be or Not to Be
11. Sullivan's Travels
12. I Married a Witch

1. Cat People
2. Curse of the Cat People
3. Seventh Victim
4. Isle of the Dead
5. Sorry, Wrong Number
6. Now Voyager
7. Dark Victory
8. Suspicion
9. Lifeboat (very underrated Hitchcock)
10. Shadow of a Doubt
11. Spellbound
12. Notorious
13. Key Largo
14. Treasure of the Sierre Madre
15. Maltese Falcon
16. High Sierra
17. Casablanca
18. Pride of the Yankees (and this comes from a Red Sox fanatic!)
19. Uninvited- called the first ghost story film for adults
20. Gilda
21. The Spiral Staircase
22. Enchanted Cottage
23. Portrait of Jennie
24. Rebecca
25. And then there Were None

09-17-2009, 11:35 AM
To the magnificent list Gypsyscarlett produced, I'd add:

Mildred Pierce.

Noir classic, very well adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, also author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

09-17-2009, 11:53 AM
The other big difference no one's mentioned is lighting. B&W movies today don't look like 40s films because nobody seems to know how to light them the way it was done back then anymore.

Also, films in the 40s were printed on nitrate stock, which gives a different look and "feel" than acetate stock, which replaced it in the 50s. Unfortunately nitrate was dangerously inflammable - a plot point in Inglourious Basterds, by the way.

There's also the issue that most modern b/w films (not all - Schindler's List was an exception) are actually shot on colour film stock and printed in black and white. This is because:

1) colour film is far more sensitive to light today than it was in the 60s (which is the decade when b/w more or less died out as a continuing medium) and probably more sensitive now than b/w film stocks

2) As Sir Otter says, there are fewer companies these days who know how to handle and process black and white.

3) If you shoot on colour stock, there's the possibility of having a colour version if that's considered more desirable for certain markets.

In the right hands, this can look very good. Control (the biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis) is very clearly lit and designed for b/w though it was shot on colour stock - I'm sure a colour version would look very strange. But it certainly doesn't look like a 40s film.

Also, the cinematographers who have had experience with shooting in black and white in the 60s and earlier are now almost all retired or dead.

09-17-2009, 07:25 PM
I can't believe I forgot to mention the delightful Man Who Came to Dinner. That's one of many movies my wife will catch me watching for the hundredth time and ask, "Good grief, are you watching that again?!?!?!"

And Uninvited is bar none the best ghost story ever filmed.