If you just look at the highest grossing films of 1941, you can probably just throw it in the garbage. I’ve never heard anyone care about or even heard of any of these movies. Hokey musicals, attempts to duplicate the success of Gone With the Wind, and a lot of comedies that I’m sure were zany at the time. Sometimes it lasts but for the most part comedy doesn’t age well. Out of the top 17 movies 10 of them had either Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, or Abbott and Costello.

Who knew among all that mess rested three big film nerd favorites? They conveniently scale down from “dismiss people who haven’t seen this” to “namedrop frequently” to “silently appreciate”. Also before I get into these I should note that How Green Was My Valley is apparently The King’s Speech of the 1940s. It’s probably great but I’ve only seen it referenced as the movie that inexplicably stole Citizen Kane’s Academy Award for Best Picture. The lesson here apparently is to never overachieve.

Citizen Kane

When a newspaper industry titan dies, his confusing last words send reporters on a search for some unknown part of the man’s life. Interviews with those who knew him best paint a picture of the impressive and turbulent life of Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on William Randolph Hearst.

After possibly the most famous radio broadcast ever (War of the Worlds) and an innovative Broadway run (Caesar), Hollywood wanted in on 25-year-old Orson Welles. He secured a contract with total creative control, allowing him to produce, direct, and star, and to be unafraid to hire any young innovators he attracted. It introduced production techniques Welles borrowed from his experience in radio and theater, but for the most part it consolidated the best the film world had into one place for the first time. Basically he shot it like German horror, did all the sound like a radio broadcast, used special effects like experimental French fantasy films, and used the Soviet strategy of editing to create meaning, all because he didn’t know you shouldn’t bother to do all that just for a biographical drama.

It’s virtually impossible to judge Citizen Kane in any normal way since it’s the most critically acclaimed movie ever. So with that in mind I think it rules. You start watching and you want to keep looking and listening to every frame and sound until it ends. Orson Welles especially crushes it as an actor, which I’m sure I’ll write more about in the future. He revels in each aspect of his character from charismatic young world-killer to delightfully evil old coot. And he was only 25! Orson Welles was probably a time traveler. It’s the only way to explain how he could be so much better than all of us.

The Maltese Falcon

Private investigator Sam Spade and his partner agree to help a beautiful woman find her sister. When Spade’s partner and a man he was tailing both are killed, Spade must prove their deaths were committed not by him but as part of a plot to acquire a valuable falcon statue.

I mentioned film noir in a previous post, but The Maltese Falcon is pretty much THE film noir. It’s considered the first major release within the genre. When Bugs Bunny pretended to be a detective, he was pretending to be Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. I can see how so many people liked it and copied it. It’s intriguing, creepy, intense, and pretty fun. It, along with Citizen Kane, gave American cinematography a big artistic boost. Unfortunately there are so many pessimistic crime mysteries on TV today that I can’t picture someone really being blown away by The Maltese Falcon. If you’re curious about where all these classic archetypes and homages come from you’ll probably enjoy yourself while you learn.

Sullivan’s Travels

John Sullivan, successful director of fluff comedies, decides his next picture will be an adaptation of the socially conscious novel “O Brother Where Art Thou?” He forms a plan to travel the country as a hobo to understand real problems Americans are facing. When a struggling actress (who remains nameless and is credited as The Girl) buys him a meal just out of Los Angeles, he can’t resist helping her, revealing his true identity.

Sullivan’s Travels moves in a lot of directions. It starts as a comedy and adds drama and romance, so the story definitely holds your interest. Sullivan’s earnest and overbearing need to be legit makes him a great character, and when Veronica Lake shows up as The Girl you really understand why he’s drawn to her. I can’t say if her character or her acting skills are any good but she has an intoxicating look and manner.

The whole fast-talking, extra-witty style of old comedies can be kind of weird to us today but I think Sullivan’s travels holds up pretty well on comedy. Even if you don’t laugh out loud it all is used to create characters and forward the plot. Where it holds up the best is its dramatic parts later in the film, and its philosophy on suffering. Sullivan thinks movies should unflinchingly show the world its problems, and what he learns is maybe something we can learn today. Instead of wallowing in other peoples’ problems, maybe we can do what we can to help and then enjoy the good times in our lives while they last.

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