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When I started looking into the Best Picture winners of the 1940s, I saw the decade divided in half.  The first half of the decade was dominated by war films intended to whip up popular support for the fight.  The second half appeared to comprise films indicative of a culture struggling to come to grips with the changes that necessarily come with and immediately after a major war and its necessary national effort.

Now that I’ve watched all ten of the 1940s winners, though, the decade appears different.  Instead of being divided neatly in half, the break is uneven. The first eight films, from REBECCA to GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, are a progression from pre-war to post-war culture.  In spite of the different styles and different topics, they all fit together.  My division by decades is of course arbitrary – there is no actual dividing line between decades’ film styles – but it provides a way for me to tackle this project in chunks.  However, if I were to write chapters in a book about these films, dividing them into logical sections, I would separate 1948 and 1949 from the rest of the 1940s.  HAMLET and ALL THE KING’S MEN do not fit in with the rest of the decade, though it is difficult to say why or how.

It could be argued that the wartime progression of films are representative of a culture looking outwards, while HAMLET and ALL THE KING’S MEN are more inward-looking.  MRS. MINIVER and CASABLANCA are not very subtle demonstrations of the impact of World War II on European territories.  I suppose I’m dancing around the term “propaganda film,” but that’s basically what they are, MRS. MINIVER in particular.  CASABLANCA wanders into greater study of human frailty, and thus has a more layered set of meanings.  However, the outward-looking film trend cannot be applied to REBECCA or HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.  REBECCA is claustrophobic and intensely personal, while HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is not so much a looking outwards as a looking back to an idealized and semi-fictional world that is now permanently gone.

I have not lived through any major war that required a national effort.  The closest I have come is the recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from what I’ve experienced, the national effort appears to be restricted to protesting the war or protesting the protestors.  But I have studied history at an undergraduate and a graduate level, and I flatter myself I can make some reasonable assumptions.  A conflict of the scale of World War II must necessarily serve as a jarring pivot point in national and international culture.  The sudden changes and new requirements of American life can be clearly seen in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.  Servicemen had a very difficult time readjusting.  In some cases, they suffered from what we now call PTSD, in others, it may have been that civilian life seemed sleepy and trivial in comparison with the vivid life-or-death existence of the past few years.  Still others had to come to grips with physical disabilities, like the double-amputee sailor Homer.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES also shows the difficulties of the women in readjusting to having the men at home.  Homer’s girlfriend, Wilma, has great difficulty in convincing Homer that she still loves him, hands or no.  And soldier Al’s wife and daughter clearly demonstrate the ways in which women had to assume new levels of responsibility and acceptance.  They are unruffled by the drunkenness of the men around them, they take the night terrors in stride, and they have had to take on everyday domestic responsibilities because the maid went off to work in a more lucrative job outside domestic service.  The title of the film itself is nebulous.  Are these post-war months the best years of life, or were the war years the best years? Perhaps the war took the best years of life. It’s left unresolved.

One of the remarkable trends in the 1940s films that I noticed is a turning away from the predictable story.  I was surprised by nearly every film.  If they took the predictable route, films like CASABLANCA, MRS. MINIVER, and so forth would have been perfectly good, but the sudden unexpected turns in the stories make them the classics they are.  We all know Ilsa will end up going away with Lazslo, leaving Rick behind, but we don’t know how it will take place.  In MRS. MINIVER, we all expect to hear of the death of the RAF pilot son, not the death of his young wife, a casualty of an air raid.  I was greatly startled by the willingness to tackle upsetting and inflammatory topics like alcoholism, anti-Semitism, and post-war readjustment.  One thinks of 1930s and 1940s films as somewhat saccharine, showing an idealized version of the world.  The Hays Code has morality clauses that make it difficult to honestly show the less-good sides of human interaction and experience.

But perhaps it is unfair to blame the Hays Code for everything – societal interaction in the 1940s would probably be considered restrained and even a little false by our standards.  Problems like alcoholism, divorce, and psychological upset were shameful and shocking, to be spoken of only in whispers.  The culture of restraint that kept personal problems deeply personal pervades the films, and makes them that much more powerful.  I’ve said this in several of my reviews of the 1940s winners, but I’ll say it again.  These films, if done in the modern style, would be nowhere near as good, nowhere near as powerful.  The restraint of 1940s culture gives these films their impact by showing how much is unsaid, how much is hidden.

And now, to end the 1940s on a light note. The 1940s Best Picture winners include what is one of the most famous films in all of American entertainment history.  Perhaps CASABLANCA’s immediate impact and popularity can best be demonstrated with the following video.


Up Next: All About Eve (Best Picture, 1950) and An American In Paris (Best Picture, 1951)