Despite being enthralled in World War II, Hollywood put out legendary films that still influence filmmaking today.
Welcome to Debate Week, the first of what we hope to be many weeks in which we open up a topic of a discussion to our entire team. This week: What was the best year in movies, ever? Throughout the week, our team will each make the case for their chosen year. Follow us on Twitter to place your votes on Saturday, April 7.
The Best Year in Movies is a title that should be given to a year that made revolutionary movies. It should be given to a year that had great films across all genres. It should be given to a year that represents a historical time in filmmaking. It should be given to 1944.
While the world was at war, Hollywood was tasked with entertaining the country and giving them an escape from the atrocities happening overseas. World War II had a huge influence on the films of 1944 but took many different forms. Some filmmakers responded with lavish musicals and goofy comedies. New genres came into play. Dark dramas held themes of the war underneath their great storylines. Hollywood stars and directors brought the effects of the war to the big screen. The war may have influenced film in 1944, but the filmmakers made sure their movies would last long after the war was over.
Musicals and Comedies
One staple of the Hollywood studio system was the extraordinary musicals created during its reign. 1944 saw the first collaboration between two of the biggest names in Hollywood musicals, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli in Meet Me in St. Louis. Minnelli had only made two credited musicals before directing the film, but his star Garland was a seasoned actress by the age of 21 when they filmed the movie. Immediately, it was clear that Minnelli was a talented director and worthy of working with such a (difficult) star. His attention to detail paid off, bringing this colorful period musical to life in the bleakest of times. Their offscreen love is present in the film and Minnelli’s care in presenting Garland on screen with the grace and beauty she longed for in real life. With its beautiful style, remarkable songs, and memorable performances from everyone in the cast, Meet Me in St. Louis is one of Minnelli and Garland’s best films of their careers. Below is one of my favorite musical numbers of all time “The Trolley Song,” which Garland recorded in just one take.
Another legendary musical from 1944 is Esther William’s Bathing Beauty. Heavily focused on lavish dance numbers and enormous set pieces both in and out of the water, Bathing Beauty showcased the unusual talent of one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars. As the third highest-grossing films from MGM at the time, the movie represents the huge and entertaining productions that came out of the studios.
Despite being involved in the war effort with the government, Frank Capra still had time to direct one of Cary Grant’s best comedic performances for Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944. Full of ridiculous dark comedy, the movie follows Grant as the nephew of two old ladies with an odd and murderous hobby. It’s a perfect example of the comedies both director Capra and star Grant are known for today. It’s silly, which is why Capra wanted to make it in a time of war. It held the unpretentious escape the country desperately needed from a comedy at the time. The screwball nature had a lasting effect on the genre, making Arsenic and Old Lace more memorable than Grant probably wanted, as he considered his performance to be over the top.
Completely contrasting the escapist productions that came out of 1944 were the film noir movies of the year. These movies better reflected the pessimism people felt during the time, but certainly didn’t shy away from style in the process. They lacked color but made up for it in the careful use of lighting and shadows that better fitted the darker tone of the crime thrillers typical in the genre. This style became iconic thanks to easily the most famous film noir movie Double Indemnity, which came out in 1944. Directed and adapted by Billy Wilder, with the help of legendary detective fiction author Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity was destined to be a hit. Add talented stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson and you have one of the best crime dramas in history. It shows untrustworthy characters acting out of pure malice unlike any story had done before. The story is shocking, even though it foreshadows its unhappy ending from the very beginning. No questioning; Double Indemnity influenced the many film noirs that followed and crime movies forever.
While Double Indemnity is undeniably the best film noir, it is not the only one to come out of 1944. That year Fritz Lang also made The Woman in the Window starring Edward G. Robinson and perhaps the best femme fatale, Joan Bennett. Dana Andrews fell in love with Gene Tierney while solving her murder in Laura, a legendary fantasy of the dead girl trope long before Twin Peaks. Raymond Chandler’s Murder, My Sweet was adapted into a film noir, giving Dick Powell a chance to step into detective Philip Marlowe’s shoes. All of these lesser-known noirs still created a lasting effect on filmmaking and each of them was great in its own way. 1944 didn’t just give us the best film noir, but several other good ones that built a genre out of the harsh reality of wartime pessimism. Below is a colorized (boo) clip from Lang’s The Woman in the Window, showing the perfect example of a charming femme fatale.
War Documentaries and Dramas
The war influenced many films in a subtle way, but filmmakers still felt accurately representing the reality of the situation on screen was just as important as giving audiences an escape. In 1944, William Wyler’s documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress helped bring the fighting overseas to the big screen at home. The war doc was revolutionary at the time, but it was also a quality documentary made by one of Hollywood’s best directors. His work in Germany helped Americans see what was happening in WWII while making filmmaking a huge part of the war effort. Wyler’s techniques were incredibly influential, even for documentaries today.
As the war was going on, Hollywood tried to boost morale as best as they could by offering their talents to those who fought for America. A group of performers created the Hollywood Canteen, where soldiers could dance and drink coffee with stars like John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. Davis made sure the joint was open to all servicemen of any race, despite several protests. The 1944 film The Hollywood Canteen created characters and a typical Hollywood story out of the real-life war effort. Davis, The Andrew Sisters, Ida Lupino, and many other stars were in the film to showcase how Hollywood was helping the soldiers. Exploiting the star power of its performers and basking in its own glory, The Hollywood Canteen is a perfect representation of classic Hollywood. Here’s a clip featuring Barbara Stanwyck talking to a soldier in the film.
Hollywood also found a way to use the war stories many women were experiencing at home as a gold mine for romance movies. Dramas featuring soldiers and their love lives were common during the war, but one of my favorites is I’ll Be Seeing You, which came out in 1944. Featuring Ginger Rogers and a grown-up Shirley Temple, the movie presents the perfect melodrama for the time. It also gives modern viewers a good picture of how the war changed domestic life. The story addresses the loneliness experienced by the women at home with a romantic and cozy story during Christmastime. I’ll Be Seeing You shows how Hollywood used the real stories of Americans during the war for fictional dramas that validated their pain in glossy stories on the silver screen.
Many more wonderful films came out in 1944, Gaslight, To Have and Have Not, Covergirl, The Uninvited, and The Curse of the Cat People just to name a few. This year in cinema shows the power of film even in the worst parts of our history. Filmmakers chose to use moviemaking to combat the evil happening in war and better understand it. These films have a lasting effect on American film and international film alike with revolutionary style, new genres, and inventive storytelling. Movies from this year deserve your viewing, whatever genre you enjoy. The influence and perseverance of Hollywood in 1944 earns the title of Best Year in Film because it didn’t just give us great movies, but also an important moment in film history.