Monday, May 27, 2024

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My Top Ten of 1940

These were the 82 films screened:

Abe Lincoln in Illinois
All This, and Heaven Too
American Matchmaker
Angels Over Broadway
Arise, My Love
Behind the News
Bitter Sweet
Black Friday
The Blue Bird
Boom Town
The Boys from Syracuse
Brigham Young
Broadway Melody of 1940
Captain Caution
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum
Charlie Chan in Panama
Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise
Christmas in July
Comrade X
The Dark Command
Destry Rides Again
Dr. Cyclops
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet
Down Argentine Way
Edison, the Man
The Fight for Life
Foreign Correspondent
Go West
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Dictator
The Great McGinty
Green Hell
His Girl Friday
Hit Parade of 1941
The House of the Seven Gables
The Howards of Virginia
The Human Monster
The Invisible Man Returns
Johnny Apollo
Kitty Foyle
The Letter
Lillian Russell
The Long Voyage Home
The Mark of Zorro
The Mummy's Hand
Murder Over New York
Music in My Heart
My Favorite Wife
My Little Chickadee
My Son, My Son!
New Moon
North West Mounted Police
Northwest Passage
One Million B.C.
Our Town
The Philadelphia Story
Pride and Prejudice
Primrose Path
Remember the Night
Rhythm on the River
Road to Singapore
The Sea Hawk
Second Chorus
The Shop Around the Corner
Spring Parade
Strike Up the Band
Swiss Family Robinson
They Drive By Night
They Knew What They Wanted
The Thief of Bagdad
Tin Pan Alley
Too Many Husbands
Waterloo Bridge
The Westerner
Women in War
You'll Find Out

Of those 82 films, I whittled it down to 18, including Brigham Young, Christmas in July, Destry Rides AgainJohnny ApolloThe Long Voyage Home, The Mark of Zorro, The Shop Around the Corner. and, my #11 pick, The House of the Seven Gables.

Here are my alphabetized Top Ten films of 1940:

Dr. Cyclops

I can't help it, I may have described it as "dull but not unpleasant," which sounds like faint praise indeed, but Dr. Cyclops hits a sweet spot for me. Thank Kino's restoration, which makes the green-centric Technicolor photography pop deliciously, but also thank the original filmmakers who made the decision for that look in the first place! A film full of left-turn choices, self-aware enough without feeling sloppy, its imagery so surreal it straddles neatly the line between weirdly funny and strangely horrifying. A unique cinematic experience - I wish I saw it on the big screen!

The Grapes of Wrath

Five times I've posted about this one, if you don't know my feelings about it by now, you're not reading. It's a great movie from a great book, completely its own but maintaining the spirit of the source material even as it navigates structure and theme to appeal to a broader audience. That's true artistry, isn't it, being able to light a fire with matches provided by the guy about to burn? I do love a film that's passionate about social issues but doesn't rest on that alone: it's still carefully written, beautifully photographed, convincingly performed, and oh-gosh entertaining. John Steinbeck himself loved this movie and watched it multiple times! If it's good enough for the author...

The Great Dictator

Oh, how do you have a soul and not include this? Paulette Goddard alone is worth its inclusion, she's the secret behind what makes the scenes in the Ghetto work. Broad, sure, but she is playing a broad, and she finds that heart that Chaplin needs to balance the comedy and plant the seed to get us to the last speech. I love the contrast between the barber's dusty barbershop and shared courtyard, and the dictator's immense, polished office, complete with a globe that's lighter than air. Moving, marvelous.

The Letter

Great drama where colonials closing ranks to maintain their status quo suddenly remember that they're actually visitors within a society that already has its own established social order. I remain impressed with how Wyler and his team pull this off, it's atmospheric, perfectly written, and, weeks after seeing it, still leaves much to discuss, debate, consider. Such a triumph!

North West Mounted Police

No one does it like de Mille, the man makes history feel like now. Everyone gets their chance to shine, to break your heart or make you shake your fist, and they do it all convincingly, earnestly: the sensuality between the M├ętis girl and the Mountie, the friendship between the soldier and the rebel, the uneasy alliance between the Texan and the Canadian, it all feels real. This is history, with all the friendships and romances and bitter feelings about the past that shaped our present, that reverberate far into the future. And it's all set against gorgeous backdrops beautifully photographed, on detailed sets that feel lived-in, within costumes worn like clothes (you know the difference when you see them walk). 

The Philadelphia Story

Come on, make a list of the best of 1940 and not put this film? That'd be moronic. It was clinched the moment Virginia Weidler put on her pointe shoes to impress the reporters from Spy magazine, effortless in its quirk and comedy. Besides, this movie is gorgeous. The house is gorgeous, the cinematography is gorgeous, and especially the actors are gorgeous: Hepburn and Hussey, Stewart and Grant, hubba-hubba-hubba! In there is a nice story about opening up to people and their flaws, their flaws being the things that give people character, distinction, personality. And remember, folks: "The course of true love gathers no moss."

Primrose Path

The year's great discovery, unheard-of by me and a pleasant surprise. Deals with sex work without straight up saying the thing but you'd have to be Mr. Magoo to misunderstand, and it doesn't treat those in the profession as 100% vulgar, opportunistic, stupid broads; what I like, actually, is that it treats the profession like any film would about the tension between The Family Business and The Child That Pulls Away. It's also pretty fair and smart about, well, everyone's flaws and hypocrisies, the good guys and the "bad" gals, the lies they tell to get to the truth of themselves, the insistence on understanding without bothering to do so themselves. It's a human film, dealing in extremes, but relatable to all.


If you love Fiddler on the Roof, you must watch this non-musical Yiddish-language drama. This is the story of the tragedy of assimilation and the disintegration of tradition, the story of a Jewish family torn apart by love...and, yes, of the Gentiles' continuing Crusade of conversion. It is the tragedy of people who live among each other yet refuse to mix, neighbors who don't understand each other and don't want to. And we have writer-director-star Maurice Schwartz at the center, experiencing the highs of comedy and tragedy: yes, this Tevya still mutters to God about the old horse, but he also cries in aguish at the loss of his children, his home. Really lovely outdoor photography.

The Thief of Bagdad

I am here for spectacle, and this was the film giving 1940 American audiences that in spades. It looks like it's come right out of a storybook, with those fanciful colors and incredible effects and makeup - the djinn is impressive, the silver maiden a terror. But it doesn't work if the stars don't convince you. Fortunately, Sabu leads the film, and his sincerity and wonder are infectious, matched by Conrad Veidt's full commitment to playing villainy. It's as wondrous for adults as it is for children.

You'll Find Out

Part of an odd cycle of films featuring bandleaders, but this one makes the odd choice of allowing its bandleader, Kay Kyser, to be the star. And it works! Every joke gets laughs, every song entertains, and even the spooky stuff is eerie enough to unsettle, visually and aurally. It's not reaching for the heights of human experience or emotion like The Grapes of Wrath nor is it the perfect example of its particular subgenre like The Philadelphia Story. But I had a good time and I want to watch it again and again. If there's no room for pure fun in my movie-watching, I may as well not bother with it at all.

Next time, my nominees for the 1940 Retro Hollmann Awards!

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