When the first world war broke out, the film industry was still very new, still not even fully based out of California. Many years later when Pearl Harbor was bombed, it was one of the most profitable industries in the country, and throughout the new war only grew more so. 1942 was the first full year of Hollywood in wartime, with their top talent drafted and all kinds of restrictions on production. But amongst all that turmoil, the industry still churned out some top-notch musicals, screwball comedies, complex dramas, and more. Here are the ten best films released in that first war-torn year.
Also, please note that although we reviewed it in November, Casablanca is ineligible for this list. Warner Brothers did not release it outside of New York until 1943, and so the Academy did not consider it until their 1944 ceremony.
With Casablanca disqualified, the title of best romance of 1942 easily goes to the lovely and heartbreaking Now, Voyager. From our review: “…the film did give Davis the actress the rare chance to deliver an outstandingly sympathetic performance. Her most iconic roles were always as antiheroes, women like Margo in All About Eve or Jane in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Here the actress convincingly pulls off both the meek, unattractive version of Charlotte and the strong, powerful woman she turns into—all the way aligning us with her completely.”
Ginger Rogers is delightful in Billy Wilder’s directorial debut. From our review: “Ultimately it isn’t Wilder’s writing or direction but Rogers’ performance that dominates the film. She began shooting right after winning Oscar for Kitty Foyle, but her task here was the far more daunting one. The idea that the 30-year-old actress could ever convince anyone she was pre-pubescent is completely absurd, but she manages to pull it off.”
8. In Which We Serve (Noël Coward and David Lean, United Artists)
The first film by Noël Coward and David Lean, this episodic tale of life during wartime is affecting and grounded in a way few war films of the era are. From our review: “In one [of many vignettes], a sailor (John Mills) is forced to inform an officer (Bernard Miles) of some bad news—while they’ve been off at war, the officer’s wife has been killed in the blitz. Reacting to the news, Miles plays the scene with a kind of simple, quiet, very British dignity that is absolutely crushing, while Mills just stands there, unsure what to do or how to act, never able to form the right words.”
Gene Kelly made his film debut in this part war drama, part musical also starring Judy Garland. From our review: “With Berkeley in the director’s seat, the film does not feature any of the complex, geometric choreographies that elevated his films during his prime in the 1930s, like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. But Berkeley frequently employs real war footage, tightly edited montages, and dynamic camera movements to make his film compelling.”
Bing Crosby is one of the worst movie stars of the era, but Holiday Inn is the rare film where the effective formula of it all is able to far surpass his blandness. From our review: “…the film is consistently fun and inventive, all the way up to the meta–third act that takes the narrative to Hollywood. The success of the film and its soundtrack led to a semi-remake over a decade later, White Christmas, also starring Crosby. Today, that film is better known and viewed by many as a holiday classic, but the follow-up is vastly inferior to Holiday Inn, which still remains completely charming and captivating.”
Preston Sturges’ second film of the year (look for the other later on in this list) has all the elements of the filmmaker’s best, including a rare but revelatory comedic performance from Mary Astor. From our review: “Though it also doesn’t always manage to keep up its wild pace, the way characters are able to frankly discuss the practicalities of money and marriage is so refreshing that The Palm Beach Story still feels leagues above most other Hollywood comedies of the era.”
The best film noir picture of the year, This Gun For Hire is a key early film in the sub-genre with some especially moody cinematography from John F. Seitz. From our review: “Alan Ladd spent a decade as a bit actor working around Hollywood, appearing briefly in films like Citizen Kane or in supporting parts like in Joan of Paris. In 1942, he finally scored the right role as the hitman Raven in film noir staple This Gun For Hire, which transformed him into the leading man he was for the rest of his career. Yet the film is remarkable not just for his star-making performance, but how it reckons with the morality of its protagonist, a hired killer.”
Orson Welles followed up his debut Citizen Kane with another outstanding piece of drama, even after being re-edited by RKO. From our review: “Unsurprisingly, the technical craft on display is exceptional. Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland was not available to bring his signature deep-focus look to the film, but Stanley Cortez uses similar techniques in his distinct way. The camera often moves slowly in long takes, be it one extensive tracking shot cut up for the final release, or a surviving very lengthy dolly shot. Cortez captures Albert S. D’Agostino’s outstanding production design effectively, as well; they render the staircase of the Amberson mansion more memorably as a character in the film than any of the human ones.”
While The Palm Beach Story is classic Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels is where he tried something new, mixing comedy and drama while poking fun at the film industry. From our review: “Sturges’ most obvious form of genius is his writing—after all, he spent a decade as a writer before he started directing in 1940. The dialogue crackles here in a way few other writers today can match, and his balancing of comedy and drama puzzled critics because it was so ahead of its time. There’s also the ways he pokes fun at the industry, with references to Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra, and his understanding of the entire town’s perception of their superiority.”
Ernst Lubitsch made his boldest and best film in 1942, with career-best performances from Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. From our review: “While most of Hollywood began its resistance against the Nazis by creating big, propagandistic war pictures to show the American public how terrifying the Third Reich was, director Ernst Lubitsch had a different idea: mock them. That idea resulted in To Be or Not to Be, the crowning achievement of the filmmaker’s illustrious career.”