The Most Iconic Movies from the Golden Age of Cinema
It was a time when film noir was all the rage. Romances transfixed audiences with a certain simplistic but deliberate artfulness and intimacy. War heroes basked in glory and fell in pride. It was a time of exquisite female heroines like Rita Hayworth and Vivien Leigh, as well as masculine and mysterious leading men like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. Many of the decade’s films are still considered classics to this day, transfixing viewers young and old with music, drama, comedy and most importantly, great storylines. Indeed, the 1940s were truly a golden age for cinema. Here are some of the decade’s most influential films.
The Maltese Falcon
This 1941 film noir perhaps perfected the mystery thriller as we know it. In it, Humphrey Bogart plays a suave and sly detective named Sam Spade, who works tirelessly on a case involving three interesting criminals on their quest for a falcon statuette.
Based on a 1929 novel of the same name, the film has been hailed by Roger Ebert as a “Great Film” and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
The Lady Eve
Opposites attract. Opposites also make for great comedy, which this 1941 expertly demonstrates. The film provides a fascinating setup: she’s a bold, cunning woman who lusts after fortune. He’s a socially awkward scientist.
They unexpectedly fall in love, resulting in many laughs and even some teary eyes. Critics were quick to praise the film for its sharp comedy. British magazine Empire named it one of the Best 500 Movies of All Time.
Charles Dickens classic novel has been adapted to the big screen several times over the years. Perhaps no adaptation has been as hard-hitting as the 1946 film directed by David Lean. Like Dickens’ novel, the film focuses on an orphan named Pip (portrayed by Anthony Wager as a child and John Mills as an adult) whose home situation with his older sister is less than desirable.
One day, he meets an escaped convict who ends up generously providing for Pip. Of the five Academy Awards it was nominated for, it claimed two. Many critics lauded the film as a worthy tribute to Dickens’ work.
The Grapes of Wrath
John Ford directed this 1940 film based on the beloved novel by John Steinbeck of the same name. Like the novel, the film follows the Joad family. They lose their Oklahoma farm during the Great Depression and as a result must make a living elsewhere.
They head to California in search of hope, but the journey takes its toll on the family. The film received an overwhelming amount of praise and was among the first 25 to be included for preservation in the United States Film Registry.
Directed and written by Preston Sturges, this 1941 satirical film revolves around John L. Sullivan (Joel Crea), a confused movie director who takes to the road in pursuit of an artistic purpose beyond making vapid comedy flicks.
The film’s title is a nod to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Like Swift’s novel, Sullivan’s Travels thoroughly examines the process of finding oneself and capitalizing on one’s true destiny. Like so many greats on this list, in 1990 the film found a place in the United States Film Registry.
The Third Man
This 1949 British film dazzled audiences with its gritty but artful and palpable atmosphere. Directed by Carol Reed, the film stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, a man who moves from America to Austria after being offered a job by a friend.
He soon learns that his friend (named Harry Lime and played by Orson Welles) has died. Suspecting foul play, Martins navigates the solemn city of Vienna for answers. Not only was the film hailed as a cinematic masterpiece; its music was as well. Its title piece, “The Third Man Theme” composed by Anton Karas, achieved international popularity with its suspiciously giddy zither song.
The Big Sleep
Humphrey Bogart is at it again, this time as a big-shot detective. Like many on this list, this 1946 film is based on a novel. To add to its literary mystique, the great American novelist William Faulkner himself helped write the screenplay.
The film’s plot is intricate and sometimes snare itself in its own complexity. Nonetheless, it has endured as an iconic film, earning a spot in the National Film Registry as of 1997.
On the next page, read about a popular Christmas movie.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Novels have frequently served as inspiration for great films, but what about short stories? This 1946 film is based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern.
The film follows George Bailey (James Stewart), a man who despite his altruism finds his life too unfulfilling to continue–that is, until he receives some divine intervention from a guardian angel named Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Directed, produced, and co-written by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life is hailed not only as a cinematic treasure but also as a Christmas classic.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Adapted from a novel of the same name, this 1948 film stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as two Americans who head to Mexico in search of gold. The film has been praised for being loyal to the source material, right down to its filming location.
Rather than settle for a convincing but inauthentic Hollywood set, John Huston and crew flew to Mexico and shot several scenes in the vibrant city of Tampico. Sure, not all of it was shot on site, but enough to create a memorable and striking atmosphere.
That Casablanca is now considered a cinematic masterpiece came as a surprise even to its director Michael Curtiz. While he took pride in his work, he never imagined it would be both a super financial success and a critical darling.
The 1942 film revolves around Ricky Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American who works at a high-end bar in Casablanca, Morocco. There, he meets former love interest Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Casablanca won three Academy Awards. It also consistently ranks at the very top of Best Films of All Times lists.
Even if you are largely unfamiliar with Citizen Kane, you might have at least wondered from hearing about it in passing, “What in the world is Rosebud?” Orson Welles directed, produced, co-wrote AND starred in this 1941 classic.
The film revolves around the mysterious Charles Foster Kane, a publishing industry giant who mutters those cryptic last words on his deathbed. Even years after its release, critics never struggle to find something to celebrate in Citizen Kane. With its innovative execution, masterful direction, and apt music, Citizen Kane frequently boasts the title of Best Film of All Time.
Sometimes the most suspenseful films take place in just one location. Such is the case with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film Lifeboat. After the devastating shipwreck, several U-boat passengers find themselves stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of a treacherous ocean.
Although now hailed as a Hitchcock classic, some critics at the time–near the end of the second World War–considered the film distasteful, as it appeared to sympathize with German interests. However, it was nominated for four Academy Awards.
In its black and white solemnity, this 1940 film struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. The film follows a young woman who marries a man whose first wife died. When his second wife, the “new” Mrs. de Winters sets foot into her husband’s house, she feels uneasy, the shadow of his first wife Rebecca looming over her at every moment.
Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film endeavor, and it paid off. It was nominated for an impressive 11 Academy Awards, two of which it won. It also currently holds a perfect score (100%) on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Philadelphia Story
In this 1940 romantic comedy, Katharine Hepburn basks in the limelight after a particularly nasty streak of big-screen luck. The film is based on a Broadway play of the same name and follows a well-to-do woman named Tracy Lord.
Lord finds herself caught in a tricky game of love when she rebounds from a divorce and prepares for marriage once more. The film won two of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated. It even inspired a musical called High Society.
When a girl named Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor) wins a beautiful horse in a raffle, she aspires to get him competition-ready. Thus, she is mentored by a poor jockey whose glory days have passed him by (Mickey Rooney).
The film flourished at the box office. Many audiences fell in love with the horse, The Pie. Moreover, National Velvet boasts a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
16. Pride and Prejudice
Based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, this 1940 film brought the famous literary characters to life–by taking some artistic liberties. The film’s time period is somewhat out of sync with that of the novel, and it shows in the characters’ dress. The studio wanted to be a bit more ambitious with the women’s dresses than would be historically accurate–with lots of frills and ruffles.
Moreover, several scenes from the book had been altered for this big screen debut. Nonetheless, the movie was well-received critically, many critics noting the grace with which actresses Maureen O’Sullivan and Greer Garson handled their roles.
It’s gritty, gripping, even a bit risky. It’s everything a good 1940 film noir needs to be and then some. Double Indemnity follows Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman who entangles himself in a messy criminal scheme.
Although it struck out at the Academy Awards (despite its seven nomination), it served as a model for the film noir genre.
Meet Me in St. Louis
If you like to hum along to a catchy tune, then you’ll love Meet Me in St. Louis, a 1944 musical film. Directed by Vincent Minnelli, Meet Me in St. Louis follows the lovable Smith family who reside in St. Louis, Missouri as they excitedly await the great World Fair of 1904.
The film consistently tops Best Musical Movies lists and has been included in the United States National Film Registry.
On the next page, read about a great gangster movie!
When you think gangster films, you very likely think of the iconic Godfather, and rightfully so. However, critics have credited this 1949 film with settling the tone and standard for the gangster films that followed it.
The film centers mostly around a ruthless gang leader and his daring jailbreak. It has been praised for its swift pace and palpable conflict.
The Best Years of Our Lives
This 1946 film follows three men home from serving in World War II. It was a box office success, raking in $23.7 million against a $2.1 million budget.
What’s more, the film also triumphed with seven Academy Award wins. It even performed well overseas; today, it ranks as the 6th best-attended film in the United Kingdom.
The Sea Hawk
If you enjoy high-sea adventures, sword fights, and suspense, this 1940 film is for you. It may be in black-and-white, but that doesn’t stop it from being a vibrantly acted and written film.
Perhaps even more beloved than the film itself is its music. Eric Wolfgang Korngold composed the score, which evokes a sense of immediacy, grandeur, and adventure.
On the next page, read about a movie for meant for ballet enthusiasts.
The Red Shoes
Based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, this 1948 British film follows Vicky Page (Moira Shearer), an budding ballet star who struggles to balance her dream with her love life.
The film scored five Academy Award nominations, two of which it won. Today, the film continues to be lauded for its passion and vibrant cinematography.
Directed and produced by Otto Preminger, this 1944 film noir masterpiece was inspired by the 1943 novel of the same name. It focuses on Mark McPherson, a detective who investigates the murder of a woman, only to fall hard for her.
Critics have praised the film for attempting a fresh take on murder mystery genre. They also noted its sparse but biting writing and its distinguished melancholy atmosphere. In 1999, Laura was added to the United States National Film Registry.
Kind Hearts and Coronets
Inspired by Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, this 1949 British film managed to resonate with audiences worldwide.
It is about a ruthless man from a family of power who thirsts after authority so intensely that he resorts to murder. The film is told primarily through flashbacks, and its title is a nod to a Lord Alfred Tennyson poem. It consistently ranks high in Top 100 movie lists, most notably Time‘s 100 and BFI Top 100 British Films.
The Fallen Idol
Inspired by a short story by British writer Graham Greene (who also co-wrote the screenplay), this 1948 film follows a young boy named Philippe (Bobby Henrey) who forms a special bond with his father’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson). Baines entertains the boy by weaving gripping tales of faraway lands and exemplary heroism. One day, however, tragedy strikes, and suddenly Baines is a suspect of murder.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards. Although it did not win in either category, it did earn a British Academy Film Award for Best British Film.
The Lost Weekend
In this 1945 film, Ray Milland stars as a brooding writer whose alcoholism gets the best of him. It is based on a novel written by Charles R. Jackson.
Of the seven Academy Awards the film was nominated for, it claimed four. It was also a commercial success, raking in $11 million against a $1.25 million budget.
Don’t expect any cute, cuddly tabbies from this 1942 horror film based on Val Lewton’s short story The Bagheeta. The movie follows Irena, a Serbian woman who repels all domestic house cats with her mere presence. Soon she learns that she’s more than simply “not a cat person” and unravels a deep and dark family mystery about herself.
Although it received mixed reviews upon its release, Cat People is now considered a significant contribution to the horror genre. In 1993, it was added to the United States Film Registry for preservation.
Miracles on 34th Street
Like It’s a Wonderful Life, this 1947 film has become something of a Christmas classic. It focuses on a man who portrays Santa Claus at a department store and who, despite his friendly nature and infectiously delightful personality, is institutionalized when he insists that he is in fact Santa Claus.
A kindly lawyer (John Payne) works diligently to defend him in court, proving once and for all that he is the real deal. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, three of which it won. Critics appreciated its good-natured whimsy and festive spirit.
We talk about an Orson Welles’s classic on the next page.
The Magnificent Ambersons
Although written, directed and produced by the legendary Orson Welles, this 1942 film underwent some heavy editing before being released theatrically. Nonetheless, it has endured as a cinematic classic and giant feat for Welles.
The film was inspired by a novel by Booth Tarkington and follows a well-to-do family from Indianapolis whose wealth risks running dry. It scored three Academy Awards and is considered one of the greatest films of all time, right up there with Welles’s debut classic, Citizen Kane.
Portrait of Jennie
Based on Robert Nathan’s novella of the same name, this 1948 film follows a painter who finds unending artistic inspiration in a unique-looking girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones).
Although the film floundered at the box office upon its release, it is today highly valued by critics and currently boasts a score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Mark of Zorro
Based on Johnston McCulley’s novel The Curse of Capistrano, this 1940 film revolves around a mysterious masked man called Zorro (Tyrone Power) who strives to mend a corrupt 19th century California.
The black-and-white film has been lauded not only as an ambitious and masterful film. It has also been recognized for its musical score, for which it received an Academy Awards nomination.
Even today, it’s hard to deny the magic of a good Disney movie. In 1940, Fantasia stunned audiences not only with its colorful animation but also with the skillful execution of an ambitious concept. You might instantly recognize the tutu-clad hippos who starred prominently in a Disney-fied rendition of Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours.
The idea of Fantasia started with the short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which features a wizardly Mickey Mouse testing out his shaky magic skills. Producing the short ended up costing much more than planned. As a result, Disney figured it may as well make the most of the exorbitant expenses and pursue a full-length film brimming with classical music and visual whimsy.
This 1945 film directed by David Lean follows Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a British woman who has already settled down with a husband and children. One day, she falls hard for Alec (Trevor Howard), a man she met just briefly in public.
Not only was it a box office success, it also scored several Academy Award nominations. Today, many critics consider it among the best British films of all time. It currently holds a score of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.
On the next page, read about a war film that struck a chord with many audiences.
The Great Dictator
Satirical films can be difficult to pull off, as they risk being too gimmicky at best and horribly controversial for the sake of controversy at worst. Fortunately, this 1940 film directed, produced, and written by Charlie Chaplin succeeded.
On top of all that, Charlie Chaplin stars in the film as well–as two separate characters: a Jewish barber with a poor memory and a ruthless dictator. The film scored five Academy Award Nominations. All this is pretty impressive for the director-producer-writer-actor’s first sound film.
On the next page, we look at a gigantic Disney classic.
This adorable Disney classic follows Jumbo Jr., a floppy-eared elephant who is ruthlessly taunted for his unusual appearance, which earns him the titular nickname of Dumbo. Clocking in at a mere 64 minutes, it is one of the shortest animated film ever put out by Disney.
Even so, it was a hit both at the box office and with critics. Many fell in love with the genuine heartfelt nature of the film, especially the strong friendship between Dumbo and Timothy the mouse. It currently holds a score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
This 1942 follows a simple but poignant and sobering premise: how one British woman and her family find hope and safety during World War II.
The film was inspired by a novel of the same name. It boasts six Academy Awards wins, and critics frequently hail it as one of the most important films of its kinds, showing the harsh realities of war without resorting to melodrama or artsy gimmicks.
My Darling Clementine
If you want to know what a successful western film looks like, search no further. Because the film was largely inspired by Stuart Lake’s fictional biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, the film is not totally loyal to history even though it is based on the very real O.K. Corral shootout that took place in 1881.
Many critics consider it one of director John Ford’s greatest works. It even boasts a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes.
This 1942 musical film follows two men as they battle for the affection of a stunning New York musical performer. The film is perhaps best known for introducing the now famous holiday song “White Christmas.”
The song earned the film an Academy Award, although it had been nominated for two others. Moreover, Holiday Inn came in 8th place on the 1942 list of top grossing films in the United States.
Based on the children’s story The Adventures of Pinocchio by Italian author Carlo Collodi, Disney’s Pinocchio wasn’t exactly a commercial success upon its theatrical release.
Even so, the tale about the naive and spritely puppet who just longs to be a boy resonated with critics and the Academy. It was the first animated film to score a win in a major Academy Awards category. In fact, it won two, both for its music.
Most of the films on this list have been of British or American origin; however, Italian director Vittorio De Sica brought us this renowned 1946 film.
Many critics credit Shoeshine for sparking the Golden Age of Italian Cinema. Moreover, after receiving an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards, the Academy soon after created an award category for Best Foreign Language Film.
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