The 1940s were a peak time for the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, which is considered to have started in the 1920s and continued through the mid-century era, tapering off through the 1960s. So many stars of the silver screen rose to prominence though the ’40s, and a number of famous, highly influential directors turned out many of their masterpieces during this decade.
You’ll certainly see some well-known names appearing more than once among the directors, actors, and actresses on the list below. The forties also saw Disney emerge as a major storytelling force in the film industry. World War II of course also figures prominently into many of the classic movie tales of the 1940s.
Below we’ve rounded up 30 of the most popular, iconic, enduring, and influential film masterpieces that came out in the 1940s. To create some balance, we chose four films from each year of the decade and made an effort to include a variety of movie genres.
We’re well aware that some amazing movies have been left off. There are simply too many to list, especially from the boom that coincided with the end of the second world war. We do apologize if we omitted any of your favorites.
Top ’40s Movies
- His Girl Friday – 1940; directed by Howard Hawks; starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and Gene Lockhart. A favorite through the ages about a newspaper editor determined to prevent his reporter ex-wife from getting remarried.
- Pinocchio – 1940; directed by Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, and Ben Sharpsteen; starring Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc, and Don Brodie. A Disney classic about a wooden puppet’s journey to become a real boy.
- The Great Dictator – 1940; directed by Charles Chaplin; starring Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, and Reginald Gardiner. In this Charlie Chaplin classic, the legendary actor/director plays a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel, a fairly transparent representation of Adolf Hitler.
- The Philadelphia Story – 1940; directed by George Cukor; starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Ruth Hussey. A romantic comedy in which a wealthy women planning to remarry has to face some hard truths when her ex and a reporter turn up.
- Citizen Kane – 1941; directed by Orson Welles; starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, and Agnes Moorehead. Widely regarded as the greatest film of all time, it recounts the efforts of reporters to figure out the meaning behind a publishing tycoon’s last words.
- Dumbo – 1941; directed by Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen, and John Elliotte; starring Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, James Baskett, and Herman Bing. One of Disney’s several inclusions on this list, this is the story of an elephant overcoming challenges associated with having enormous ears.
- The Sea Wolf – 1941; directed by Michael Curtiz; starring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, and Alexander Knox. A movie based on Jack London’s famous novel about mutiny aboard a sealer captained by a mean-spirited man named Wolf Larsen.
- The Maltese Falcon – 1941; directed by John Huston; starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, and Peter Lorre. This crime thriller classic is about a private detective searching for a priceless statuette along with some questionable characters.
- Bambi – 1942; directed by James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, and Norman Wright; starring Hardie Albright, Stan Alexander, Bobette Audrey, and Peter Behn. Another iconic Disney movie about an orphaned deer growing up in the forest.
- Casablanca – 1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains. One of the most famous films of all time, it tells the intriguing story of a cynical American expat who’s reunited with a former lover in Morocco.
- Miniver – 1942; directed by William Wyler; starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, and Dame May Whitty. A dramatic telling of a British family’s attempts to make it through the outbreak of the second world war.
- Now, Voyager – 1942; directed by Irving Rapper; starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, and Gladys Cooper. The tale of a spinster’s miraculous transformation made possible by getting some needed therapy.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls – 1943; directed by Sam Wood; starring Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Akim Tamiroff, and Arturo de Córdova. A beloved film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece set during the Spanish Civil War.
- Princess O’Rourke – 1943; directed by Norman Krasna; starring Olivia de Havilland, Robert Cummings, Charles Coburn, and Jack Carson. A pilot unknowingly falls in love with a princess, under the impression she’s a maid.
- Shadow of a Doubt – 1943; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, and Henry Travers. A Hitchock classic in which a woman uncovers some surprises about her visiting uncle.
- The Song of Bernadette – 1943; directed by Henry King; starring Jennifer Jones, Charles Bickford, William Eythe, and Vincent Price. A young peasant girl in mid 19th century France has a vision of a beautiful woman everyone assumes is the Virgin Mary.
- Double Indemnity – 1944; directed by Billy Wilder; starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and Byron Barr. The thrilling crime classic about an insurance rep who gets talked into a scheme involving insurance fraud and murder.
- Gaslight – 1944; directed by George Cukor; starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Dame May Whitty. The namesake of a form of psychological abuse and story of a woman and her husband who attempts to drive her crazy to protect a secret.
- Laura – 1944; directed by Otto Preminger; starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price. This big hit of the day tells the unlikely story of a detective falling in love with a woman whose murder he’s investigating.
- To Have and Have Not – 1944; directed by Howard Hawks; starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Walter Brennan, and Dolores Moran. During WWII, an American expat helps get a French resistance leader and his wife to Martinique.
- Mildred Pierce – 1945; directed by Michael Curtiz; starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and Eve Arden. An enduring drama about a divorcee who starts a restaurant to provide for her spoiled daughter.
- Pride of the Marines – 1945; directed by Delmer Daves; starring John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, Dane Clark, and John Ridgely. A marine hero who’s blinded in service goes back home and learns to cope with new struggles and readjust to civilian life.
- Rhapsody in Blue – 1945; directed by Irving Rapper; starring Robert Alda, Joan Leslie, Alexis Smith, and Charles Coburn. A biopic covering George Gershwin’s incredible and somewhat destructive drive to create and to become a success.
- The Lost Weekend – 1945; directed by Billy Wilder; starring Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, and Howard Da Silva. This story follows a desperate alcoholic on a four-day-long bender.
- It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946; directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Thomas Mitchell. Indisputably one of the most famous Christmas films of all time, an angel shows a businessman what the world would have been like without him.
- Great Expectations – 1946; directed by David Lean; starring John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Tony Wager, and Jean Simmons. A movie version of the Charles Dickens masterpiece about a poor orphan’s transformation into a proper gentleman.
- The Big Sleep – 1946; directed by Howard Hawks; starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, and Martha Vickers. The wild and crazy ride experienced by a private detective when he’s hired by an affluent family.
- The Razor’s Edge – 1946; directed by Edmund Goulding; starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, and Anne Baxter. A man wanders off in search of adventure, losing his fiancee, who goes on to marry someone else and then attempt to win him back 10 years later.
- Miracle on 34th Street – 1947; directed by George Seaton; starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, and John Payne. Another of the most famous Christmas movies of all time, this one is about the defense of an institutionalized man claiming to be Santa Claus.
- Monsieur Verdoux – 1947; directed by Charles Chaplin; starring Charles Chaplin, Mady Correll, Allison Roddan, and Robert Lewis. Another Charlie Chaplin classic for the list about a man who supports his family by marrying and murdering rich women.
- Mourning Becomes Electra – 1947; directed by Dudley Nichols; starring Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Raymond Massey, and Katina Paxinou. A movie adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s popular play based on the Oresteia, set in New England following the Civil War.
- The Lady from Shanghai – 1947; directed by Orson Welles; starring Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, and Glenn Anders. A seaman hops on a strange yacht cruise and becomes entangled in a crazy murder plot.
- Bicycle Thieves – 1948; directed by Vittorio De Sica; starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, and Gino Saltamerenda. With the help of his son, a man tries to track down his stolen bike in postwar Italy.
- Rope – 1948; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, and Edith Evanson. Another famous film from horror master Hitchcock, about two men who murder one of their classmates.
- The Pirate – 1948; directed by Vincente Minnelli; starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Walter Slezak, and Gladys Cooper. A traveling singer pretends to be the famous pirate a woman is fascinated by to win her heart.
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – 1948; directed by John Huston; starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, and Bruce Bennett. Two Americans in Mexico team up with an old prospector to search for gold in the mountains.
- The Heiress – 1949; directed by William Wyler; starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins. A young, naive woman falls for a guy who her not-so-nice father mistrusts and disapproves of.
- On the Town – 1949; directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly; starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, and Ann Miller. A musical comedy about three sailors on shore leave for a day in New York City.
- The Third Man – 1949; directed by Carol Reed; starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, and Trevor Howard. A pulp fiction novelist gets wrapped up in a real mystery when he travels to postwar Vienna.
- Twelve O’Clock High – 1949; directed by Henry King; starring Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, and Millard Mitchell. A tough general takes command of a bomber unit to turn around its low morale and poor performance.
We Won’t Leave You Hanging!
The fun doesn’t end at 1949… the ’50s introduced us to lots more iconic mid-century movies! Now take a look at our list of 30 classic 1950s films.
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