1942 Ten Best Movies

The best film of 1942 is The Magnificent Ambersons, the second feature directed by Orson Welles. It is probably the most famous of all wrecked films, having been cut from an original length of nearly two-and-a-half hours to 88 minutes, including the addition of new scenes shot without Welles’ participation or consent. That the movie is this wrecked but still great leads fans of the film to imagine what it might have been, but all we have is what it is now, and that’s enough. I will post something longer about the film tomorrow.

The failure of Ambersons spreads out in other interesting ways throughout the decade: Welles had to struggle to get his career going again (you want to play the “imagine” game, try imagining what Welles might have done in the Forties if he’d had a hit in 1942, instead of a snafu that ended his business with the studio that gave him free rein to make Citizen Kane). Ambersons also exerts a ghostly presence in the films produced at RKO by Val Lewton, whose low-budget horror unit utilized the elaborate set that Welles left behind.

And speaking of Lewton, his unit’s first offering came in 1942: Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cat People is one of my favorite films, and creates a spell like few others (except maybe Lewton pictures such as I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim). Its financial success probably justified the building of the Ambersons sets on the same studio lot, but that didn’t help Welles any.

The rest of the year is marked by war, including the sophistication and boldness of To Be or Not to Be and the glory of Casablanca (which was seen by limited audiences in ’42 but is often credited as a 1943 picture) – films distinguished by their timeliness. The Magnificent Ambersons, however, is timeless. The ten best movies of 1942:

1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

2. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)

3. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

4. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)

5. Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh)

6. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)

7. The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)

8. In Which We Serve (Noel Coward/David Lean) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

9. Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Road to Morocco (David Butler)

I have a soft spot for the Hitchcock title; it’s not one of his top-tier films but it has some real doozies in it. Road to Morocco, the third of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedies, I argue for because it seems to help define a certain kind of escapist wartime movie – and I happen to like Hope and Crosby together, and this is probably my only chance to sneak a Road picture on to a Top Ten list. And if you’ve never seen Gentleman Jim, well, you have to seen Gentleman Jim, an Errol Flynn vehicle both boisterous and tender.

Just missing: Bambi, a circle-of-life Disney feature that trumps The Lion King; two George Stevens comedies, Woman of the Year and The Talk of the Town; and The Glass Key, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a tough pre-noir.

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