In praise of 1940s Hollywood cinema

‘the films of Hollywood constituted a world, with recurrent faces more familiar to me than the faces of all the places I have lived.’ Stanley Cavell

Recently I’ve watched, among other things, a little cluster of films made in Hollywood in the 1940s (Christmas in JulyChristmas in Connecticut, and It’s a Wonderful Life), and it brought back to the surface (it’s never far below) my love of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Decade divisions are of course ultimately arbitrary, but if I had to choose a single decade of Hollywood filmmaking to watch exclusively for the rest of my life, I’m pretty sure it would be the 1940s. The only decade that would give it a run for its money would be the 1950s (probably Hitchcock’s best decade of filmmaking, plus the decade of the Technicolor, widescreen melodramas of Minnelli, Ray and Sirk), though I would be equally sad to lose  the films that Capra and Hawks made in the 1930s.

It was when Ed Gallafent devoted a portion of his ‘Hollywood Cinema’ module to a cluster of 1945/6 releases (It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Best Years of Our LivesThe Clock, and…?) that I really began to feel comfortable with this period of filmmaking. Until then, its types and storytelling rhythms and devices had kept me at something of a distance – an experience I always try to bear in mind when I introduce students to this period of filmmaking. The teaching method of showing a tightly-clustered group of films was a good one because, as the Cavell quote at the top of this post eloquently attests, a crucial part of the experience and the pleasure of classical Hollywood cinema  is the way that the same actors, and also the same types, plots, genres, settings, and even turns of phrase, activate for the aficionado an intricate web of associations, inflections and possibilities, so that after a while, you’re never just watching one film, but simultaneously inhabiting and sending little pulses out across your whole history of viewing. Whenever I try to come up with screening lists for introductory film modules that observe balance and variety with respect to year of production and country of origin, it’s usually 1940s Hollywood that I find myself have to cut back most stringently. (How can you teach It’s a Wonderful Life without also teaching The Reckless Moment and Shadow of a Doubt? If you see Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt, maybe you should show him in Ambersons too? If you’ve got Collinge and Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, shouldn’t you show them together in  The Little Foxes too – especially as that allows you to bounce Wyler and Welles off each other. And then, moving to the 1950s, maybe if you’ve shown so much domestic entrapment and a James Mason film, you should include Bigger than Life too. And if you’re showing one film about an unhinged man turning a trip to buy expensive frocks into something rather threatening, surely you have to show Vertigo too? And on and on.)

So, in the spirit of end-of-year list-making, here is a list, in no particular order (but I’ve put asterisks next to my very favourites), of some of my most-loved 1940s Hollywood movies.

Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942)
**Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948)
*The Reckless Moment (Ophuls, 1949)
Caught (Ophuls, 1949)
Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
Laura (Preminger, 1944)
*The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946)
The Little Foxes (Wyler, 1941)
*Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1942)
Gaslight (Cukor, 1944)
Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock, 1943)
*It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946)
His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
Lifeboat (Hitchcock, 1944)
My Darling Clementine (Ford, 1946) [I had to check to see whether I could include Wagon Master too, but IMDb lists it as 1950]
The Woman on the Beach (Renoir, 1947)
The Southerner (Renoir, 1945)
*The Woman in the Window (Lang, 1944)
Scarlet Street (Lang, 1945)
Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947)
Rope (Hitchcock, 1948)
Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940)
Meet John Doe (Capra, 1941)
Christmas in Connecticut (Godfrey, 1945)
Cluny Brown (Lubitsch, 1946)
*The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, 1940)
*The Clock (Minnelli, 1945)
Meet Me in St Louis (Minnelli, 1944)

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