best film:  The Grapes of Wrath from John Ford . First off, it is gorgeously photographed. Ford is working with Gregg Toland one year before Kane. Henry Fonda also gives a transcendent performance- his best. With Grapes of Wrath as my choice here it also puts into perspective what a drop-off 1940 is at the top after 1939 (no slight to 1940, this is a compliment to 1939 as a year). Stagecoach is John Ford’s second best film and I have Grapes of Wrath as his fifth best. But I have Grapes as the best film of 1940 but Stagecoach doesn’t come out on top for 1939.

one of the great shots in the towering career of John Ford

the quiet echoes of the opening of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath

most underrated:   William Wyler’s The Letter belongs somewhere in the top 1000 yet the TSPDT consensus omits it completely—even when getting to their 1001-2000 overspill from the top 1000 list. This is incorrect.

a stunner– Venetian blinds in The Letter

it is important for Wyler’s resume to prove he could produce images like this without Gregg Toland

most overrated:  Charlie Chaplin is a magnificent performer. I admire aspects of The Great Dictator but the speech at the end is hard to get past—what bitter pill to swallow to end the film. The TSPDT consensus has it in their top 200 at #173 which is certainly at the level of masterpiece. I’d have this closer to #1000 of all-time.

one of Chaplin’s signature sketches- from The Great Dictator

gem I want to spotlight:  The Shop Around the Corner from Lubitsch is what everyone should watch (especially around the holidays) instead of You’ve Got Mail (which is a fine film but can’t match Lubitsch’s classic). Jimmy Stewart is clearly one of the all-time greats. He won the Oscar here in 1940 but for another film (The Philadelphia Story). He’s actually better here.


trends and notables:

  • Sadly, with the outbreak of war Renoir’s incredible run comes to a complete halt. Renoir had at least one Must-See top 5 of the year quality film in 1939, 1938, 1937, 1936, and 1935—five straight years- unreal. It seems unlikely that wouldn’t have continued if world events hadn’t tragically intervened. One of the great “what-ifs”
  • With much of the globe in the war we had a slow down after 1939 (even without the war how can you expect to match the golden year- 1939?).
  • You may think with the success of Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, The Four Feathers and others in 1939 that the floodgates would open as far as color films, but that really isn’t the case in 1940—just a few here including the animation films of course and The Thief of Bagdad. Certainly no significant uptick
  • Many of the great auteurs from around the world were traveling to Hollywood if they hadn’t already (Lang). Rebecca is Hitchcock’s first American/Hollywood film.

one of the great single shots of 1940- from Hitchcock’s Rebecca— his first Hollywood film, best picture Oscar winner

  • You’ll notice below how many auteurs/directors gave us more than one archiveable film in one year. Ford, Walsh, Hitchcock Wyler, Sturges and Wood all had two films in the archives from 1940. That just doesn’t happen anymore—it’s very rare for a director to deliver in back to back years now.
  • With Stagecoach and Grapes of Wrath in back to back it is hard not to look at this window as Ford’s peak if you were forced to single out a single stretch during his illustrious career
  • 1940 is also a banner year for Disney with both Pinocchio and Fantasia

1940 is a banner year for Disney with both Pinocchio and Fantasia

  • 1940 brought us the first archiveable films for the great Preston Sturges (and the beginning of his great five year run between 1940-1944)—The Great McGinty and Christmas in July. Carol Reed’s first archiveable film lands in 1940– Night Train to Munich. Reed would close the decade with The Third Man (1949) one of the best films of the era. It is the sort-of first archiveable film for Michael Powell as well as he co-directed The Thief of Bagdad
  • On the acting side- George Sanders- one of cinema’s great villains and gentleman cads has his archiveable debut with both Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent– thank you Hitchcock- what a discovery


best performance male:   Henry Fonda is the choice here.  He gives an all-time performance as Tom Joad. His delivery of the speech at the end will give you chills. If Fonda wasn’t so brilliant the choice could easily be Cary Grant who is wonderful in both The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday. Jimmy Stewart also has a pair of brilliant performances in top five films with The Shop Around the Corner and his Oscar win (which many believe was a make-up for not winning in 1939 with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) for The Philadelphia Story. I have to give some love to the great Frank Morgan for his work in 1940 as well. He’s a character/supporting actor- best known for his roles in The Wizard of Oz (as the Wizard). He’s in four archiveable films in 1940: Boom Town, Broadway Melody of 1940, The Mortal Storm– and of course as his greatest role (sorry Wizard)- The Shop Around the Corner.


best performance female:  It is a breakthrough here in 1940 on the female acting side. It is the greatest single year for this category to add in cinema’s history. There may be more here than in years 1930-1938 combined which is exciting. Rosalind Russell is hard to argue against. He takes the male role of The Front Page, and along with Hawks, gets credit for successfully flipping it to a female part and battling toe to toe with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. If it isn’t Bringing Up Baby– this is Katharine Hepburn’s greatest work here in 1940 in The Philadelphia Story. It may be Fonda’s film but Jane Darwell steals her scenes in The Grapes of Wrath. Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson are sublime in Rebecca. Lastly, just below these five but still worthy of mention are Margaret Sullavan (The Shop Around the Corner) and Bette Davis (The Letter). As I said, an all-time year for actresses.


Russell here of course from His Girl Friday– but also some nice character blocking from Hawks– not exactly Visconti or Kurosawa still very nicely done

one of the quiet (few) moments from The Philadelphia Story–it is a special film when it is essential viewing when talking about the careers of Cary Grant, Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart

a haunting dissolve edit in Hitch’s Rebecca


top 10

  1. The Grapes of Wrath
  2. Pinocchio
  3. His Girl Friday
  4. The Philadelphia Story
  5. The Shop Around the Corner
  6. Rebecca
  7. The Letter
  8. The Thief of Bagdad
  9. They Drive By Night
  10. The Great Dictator


Archives, Directors, and Grades

All This And Heaven Too- Litvak R
Boom Town- Conway R
Broadway Melody of 1940- Taurog R
Brother Orchid – Bacon R
Christmas in July- P. Sturges R
Dark Command- Walsh R
Fantasia HR
Foreign Correspondent- Hitchcock R
Gaslight- Dickinson R
His Girl Friday- Hawks MS/MP
I Love You Again-  Van Dyke R
Kitty Foyle- S. Wood R
My Favorite Wife- Kanin, Grant R
Night Train to Munich – C. Reed R/HR
Northwest Passage- Vidor R
Our Town- S. Wood R
Pinocchio- Sharpsteen MS/MP
Pride and Prejudice-  Leonard R
Rebecca- Hitchcock HR/MS
Remember the Night- Leisen R
Stranger On the Third Floor-  Ingster R
The Bank Dick- Cline R
The Grapes of Wrath- Ford MP
The Great Dictator- Chaplin HR
The Great McGinty- P. Sturges R
The Letter- Wyler HR/MS
The Long Voyage Home- Ford, Wayne R
The Mark of Zorro- Mamoulian R
The Mortal Storm- Borzage R
The Philadelphia Story- Cukor MS
The Sea Hawk- Curtiz HR
The Shop Around the Corner- Lubitsch MS
The Thief Of Bagdad- Powell HR
The Westerner-Wyler R
They Drive By Night- Walsh HR
Waterloo Bridge- LeRoy R



*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives