When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looked back at 1940, it gave its Best Picture award to Rebecca, a Daphne du Maurier joint. That one is in my top 10 list, but it isn't at the apex:
1. The Philadelphia Story Directed by George Cukor Written by Donald Ogden Stewart and Waldo Salt, from a play by Philip Barry
There's a lot here to admire, but the high point comes with Katharine Hepburn wandering around drunk after dark.
2. His Girl Friday Directed by Howard Hawks Written by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Charles Lederer, from a play by Hecht and MacArthur
"Walter, you're wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way."
3. The Bank Dick Directed by Edward F. Cline Written by W.C. Fields
"Shall I bounce a rock off his head?" "Respect your father, darling. What kind of a rock?"
4. A Wild Hare Directed by Tex Avery Written by Rich Hogan
The ur-text for the Bugs Bunny cycle.
5. They Drive By Night Directed by Raoul Walsh Written by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, from a novel by A.I. Bezzerides
The first great truck-driving movie.
6. Rebecca Directed by Alfred Hitchcock Written by Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, and Michael Hogan, from a novel by Daphne du Maurier
The only Hitchcock movie to win a Best Picture Oscar. That says much more about the Academy's prejudices than it does about the film's place in the director's body of work. But if it isn't Hitchcock at his very best, it's still a fine Gothic romance, always atmospheric and often creepy.
7. Christmas in July Written and directed by Preston Sturges
One of Sturges' sweeter comedies, but it has a sardonic bite.
8. The Grapes of Wrath Directed by John Ford Written by Nunnally Johnson, from a novel by John Steinbeck
Ford made genre films and he made "prestige" films. For the most part, the prestige pictures aren't especially good, but this one's an exception: It may get a little heavy-handed at times -- feel free to wince during Henry Fonda's final monologue -- but it's filled with vivid moments, particularly the stunning dust-bowl sequence at the start.
9. Dance, Girl, Dance Directed by Dorothy Arzner Written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, from a story by Vicki Baum
The flipside of all those Tex Avery cartoons about the Big Bad Wolf. (Someone should screen it with Red Hot Riding Hood as the opening short.) There's more emotional depth here than you'll find in the average low-budget melodrama, with an unexpected feminist edge.
10. Contraband Directed by Michael Powell Written by Emeric Pressburger with Powell and Brock Williams
If Peeping Tom is Powell's Psycho, then this is his 39 Steps.
11. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock) 12. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch) 13. The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan) 14. Pinocchio (Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske) 15. Seven Sinners (Tay Garnett) 16. The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges) 17. Swinging the Lambeth Walk (Len Lye) 18. The Westerner (William Wyler) 19. Tarantella (Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth) 20. The Ghost Breakers (George Marshall)
Brilliant Sequence in an Otherwise Unexceptional Movie: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland kiss in a cab, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante.
Of the films of 1940 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Travelling Actors.