Essential movies of the '30s and '40s

1939 was Hollywood's 'greatest' year

By Brian Lowry, CNN
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

1933: The film "King Kong" opens at New York's Radio City Music Hall. The movie, filmed with then-groundbreaking stop-motion animation, received universal acclaim and the title character, a colossal gorilla, became one of the world's most…

(CNN) - The year 1939 alone -- considered perhaps the best in cinematic history -- provides an exhaustive list of "essential" movies, although the 1930s and '40s offer a target-rich environment of titles whose influence and impact have rippled across the decades.

As Turner Classic Movies (CNN's sister network) detailed in the documentary "1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year," the studios were clicking on all cylinders before World War II intervened, yielding "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Gunga Din," "Stagecoach," "Wuthering Heights," "Ninotchka," "Dark Victory," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Destry Rides Again." OK, and let's not forget "Young Mr. Lincoln," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the first of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes movies.

Some of those movies made this list -- how could they not? -- while others were left off. That also meant giving what could be considered short shrift to, among others, the movies of director Alfred Hitchcock and those starring Humphrey Bogart (see "The Big Sleep," "The Maltese Falcon," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "To Have and Have Not"), in pursuit of a more varied and representative roster.

Nor was there space, alas, for the great Universal monster movies -- "Dracula," "Frankenstein" (and his bride), "The Wolfman" -- Charlie Chaplin and the Marx brothers, but then again, the last group probably wouldn't want to be on any list that would have them as members.

So again, in chronological order, here is a by-no-means-complete list of "essentials" from those decades.

 

"King Kong" (1933)

 

The stop-motion animation was revolutionary at the time and has held up across the decades, influencing generations of filmmakers and special effects in the process.

 

"It Happened One Night" (1934)

 

Frank Capra's signature romantic comedy/road movie paired Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, setting the standard for the genre.

 

"The 39 Steps" (1935)

 

Hitchcock frequently returned to this formula of an ordinary guy (Robert Donat) forced to go on the run, here literally handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, with spies and peril around every corner. The writing and twists elevated this to a spot among the master of suspense's best.

 

"The Grand Illusion" (1937)

 

Set during World War I, this great French drama from director Jean Renoir explores the futility of war and class distinctions through French officers captured by German forces.

 

"Lost Horizon" (1937)

 

Ronald Colman stumbles (or does he?) upon the mythical city of Shangri-La in Frank Capra's epic mix of fantasy, drama and romance.

 

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)

 

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland starred in other swashbucklers, but the glorious color and perfect casting (Rathbone never won a sword fight, but looked great losing) hit the bull's-eye just like its archer hero.

 

"The Wizard of Oz" (1939)

 

There's no place like home, and nothing quite like that first shot of Dorothy (Judy Garland) stepping from the black and white of Kansas into the shimmering colors of Oz.

 

"Gone With the Wind" (1939)

 

Not everything about the movie has aged well, but for sheer melodrama and sweeping spectacle there's no topping Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara, or the impact the movie had on audiences at the time.

 

"Wuthering Heights" (1939)

 

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon were Heathcliff and Cathy in William Wyler's lush adaptation of Emily Bronte's novel, the standard against which all tearjerkers are measured.

 

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)

 

Capra's stirring patriotism found the perfect vehicle in James Stewart's wide-eyed senator, who learns a powerful lesson about the corrupt workings of politics without losing his heart and idealism.

 

"Pinocchio" (1940)

 

Not the first of the classic Disney animated films, but arguably the best, both in terms of its beautiful animation, signature song "When You Wish Upon a Star" and journey to becoming a real boy.

 

"The Philadelphia Story" (1940)

 

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart headlined director George Cukor's elegant mix of comedy, romance and a whole lot of heavy drinking.

 

"Citizen Kane "(1941)

 

Orson Welles' towering debut as director and star remains in the conversation as the greatest film of all time, and makes any trip to Hearst Castle a lot more interesting.

 

"Casablanca "(1942)

 

Bogart and Ingrid Bergman will always have Paris, and film fans will always have this stirring tale of an American finally choosing duty over love in the midst of World War II. Here's looking at you, kids.

 

"Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Laura" (1944)

 

Film noir was a thriving genre in the '40s, and there are plenty of great examples, but none better than these two: director Billy Wilder's thriller in which Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck discover it's not easy getting away with murder, especially if Edward G. Robinson's on the case; and Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney in a murder mystery with a big surprise and a haunting musical score.

 

"The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)

 

The definitive movie about soldiers returning home from war, filled with touching moments.

 

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

 

Stewart and Capra teamed up again on this perennial Christmas favorite, which has been imitated so frequently (albeit never as well) as to earn its wings many times over.

 

"Notorious" (1946)

 

Another Hitchcock classic, this time with Cary Grant at his debonair best as a spy who has the misfortune to fall for a woman (Bergman) recruited to infiltrate a Nazi ring by marrying one of its leaders (Claude Rains), who's also in love with her. Plus, the best ending, perhaps, of any Hitchcock film.

 

"Miracle on 34th Street" (1947)

 

The second best Christmas movie of the 1940s is still one to watch year after year, reminding us that you don't have to be a kid (an adorable Natalie Wood) to believe in Santa Claus.

 

"The Heiress" (1949)

 

Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift were all sensational in this drama about a demure heiress, her distant, disapproving father and the suitor with dollar signs in his eyes.

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