The 1940s were a turbulent time, filled with world war, the dregs of a depression, and changing social times. Beginning with Rebecca, a dark look into lies and secrets, and ending with All the King's Men--which I suppose deals with the same material. It would seem that not much changes during this decade. But a look at the films show an interesting arc in the popular ideology and interests of American people
1940--The winner is a dark Hitchcock picture, Rebecca, where a young ingenue is sucked into her new husband's dark mansion, which is still haunted by the specter of his ex-wife. Mr. de Winter is secretive, moody, and foreign. The heroine is naive and foolish, but despite herself is drawn into the terrible mystery of Manderlay, her new home. She survives the eventual fire, but the horror of it still lingers. At the time this film won its award, the war was becoming increasing desperate, with America less than a year away from Pearl Harbor. Like Mrs. de Winter, Americans were trying to stick their heads in the sand, but were still being drawn inextricably towards the fire.
1941--With How Green Was My Valley, you get the story of a Welsh mining family attempting to overcome oppression. They aren't entirely successful, but there is a message of hope flickering, despite it all. Even so it is again, a European tale, with a murky outcome and a depressingly disparate house and home. America has been in the war for only a few months, but it has begun to take its toll.
1942--Mrs. Miniver is the story of, again, a British family. It follows them as they attempt to survive World War II, while it is still years from ending. This film has an uncertain ending, with some truly sad moments, but it is as a whole is hopeful. It is more of a generic, crowd pleasing film than the other two, and shows there is starting to be some hope (or desire for hope) in the American psyche.
1943--Casablanca: the ultimate tale of unrequited love and heroism. The film is about war, redemption, and the will to fight an oppressor. The tide of war is turning.
1944--The strangest winner of the group, Going My Way is about a priest who saves a struggling parish by teaching the young boy's choir how to sing. Wholesome, fictional, and filled with images of home and hope, this is the dream to show both to the young people fighting for their country, and the people who want them home. The priests, the children, even the baseball----this is the dream of home.
1945--Coming on the heels of such an angelic film is The Lost Weekend, a film about a struggling alcoholic finally left along for a weekend by his family and friends. He goes on a bender that almost destroys him, only to survive on a thread. It's the end of the war, but this marks a darker time for returning vets.
1946--The Best Years of Our Lives explores the lives of returning veterans, who are having a difficult time settling back into their lives. While it has the upbeat emotion (and ending) similar to Mrs. Miniver, there are darker scenes that reflect the sentimentality of The Lost Weekend. When an airline pilot sits in an abandoned plane, he suffers the same hallucinations that an alcoholic might. There are good times promised ahead, but the transition is a little rocky.
1947--In Gentleman's Agreement we see a man crusading for justice in a disillusioned world. He wins out at the end, but at great cost personally, without a clear knowledge that he really changed things. Like a few of these later 1940s films, it is depressing and confused, with a murky ending. It depicts a morerealistic view of the world than the earlier, Capracorny films of the 1930s.
1948--Hamlet, the story of a confused prince, fighting for his father but constantly questioning himself and others. While Shakespeare may not at first seem to fit with the flood of disillusioned veterans filling the movie theaters, the story of Hamlet--bloody, fearsome, and battle-filled while being psychologically disturbing--seems to fit right in. These men and women are turning from the easy melodies of Going My Way and turning towards a more realistic approach to life as a coping mechanism.
1949--And lastly, All the King's Men, a story of a crusader who finds himself disillusioned as the man he thought would be the politician for the people turns out as corrupt as the rest of them.
Well, if anything All the King's Men puts a cap on the later half of the 1940s, a time when Americans were looking at more realistic films, versus the panoramas and epic dramas of the earlier years. These movies, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, center around the war happening at home and abroad. They arc from frightening, to hopeful, to peaceful, to disturbed, and finally to a reality fighting against a new society. The end of the 1940s is a dark one, but with perhaps a silver lining. We're left with a reality that may be different, but is at least real. These aren't showy theatricals in glittering technicolor. They are real, at times gritty portrayals of average, unlikable men. Well--and one prince.
Who knows what the stability of the 1950s will bring?
PS-My favorite? The Best Years of our Lives