10 Best Non-War Movies Released During World War II


To say that World War II changed the course of human history would be a massive understatement. One of the many fields the war impacted was, of course, the film industry. Though business was booming, fear and anxiety caused by the war were forcing aesthetic, structural, and financial changes in the world of movies, causing some genres to shift completely and others — like film noir — to be born.

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During this period, as one might expect, many movies whose narratives took place during wartime were made, from Civil War epics like Gone With the Wind to WWII dramas like Casablanca. However, there were also many films released during this time that were not about war at all. From gritty genre-defining classics like The Maltese Falcon to uplifting comedies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, these were the movies that kept the industry going and gave the people at home some escapism from the chaos of the war.

10 ‘Gaslight’ (1944)

Directed by George Cukor

Image via Loew’s, Inc.

Though he was best known for directing comedies and other laidback pictures, George Cukor made in Gaslight one of the greatest psychological thrillers of the ’40s. It’s about a woman returning home from Italy to live with her new husband, who holds a secret that may require driving his wife insane. The term « gaslighting », used to describe the action of a manipulative person driving someone to doubt their own sanity, came from this film.

Ingrid Bergman is incredible in the lead role, for which she won an Oscar (which contributed to making Cukor one of the directors of the most Oscar-winning performances). The narrative is exceptional, too. Its allegorical message about how world leaders abuse their power to manipulate the population’s perception of reality was very relevant in 1944 and remains a timely theme today.

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9 ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1940)

Directed by John Ford

Tom Joad looking to the distance while Ma looks at him concerned in The Grapes of Wrath
Image via 20th Century Studios

John Ford was without a doubt one of the filmmakers who best embodied Hollywood’s Golden Age, making some of the era’s most acclaimed movies. One of his best works is The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck‘s renowned novel, about an Oklahoma family joining the westward migration to California as a result of the Dust Bowl, suffering the misfortunes of the Great Depression on their journey.

The Grapes of Wrath is an extraordinary film with deeply moving performances and a potent script that really lets all its themes have a profound effect on the viewer. The left-wing messaging of the story mixed with the direction of one of Hollywood’s most notoriously right-wing filmmakers results in a fascinating adaptation, with the sentiments toward Communism of WWII adding yet another dimension of complexity to these themes.

The Grapes of Wrath
Release Date
January 24, 1940

Director
John Ford

Cast
Henry Fonda , Jane Darwell , John Carradine

Runtime
129 min

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8 ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ (1940)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart as Klara and Alfred talking in The-shop-around-the-corner
Images via Leow’s Inc.

During the war, many films looking to boost the morale of soldiers and civilians were made. Oftentimes, Hollywood comedies aimed to poke fun at the enemy, but there were certainly exceptions, like The Shop Around the Corner, which has virtually no direct relation to the war. Instead, it’s a rom-com set in Hungary, where two gift shop employees who can barely stand each other don’t realize that they’re falling in love as each other’s anonymous pen pal.

Ernst Lubitsch was best known for his musicals and comedies, and this is one of his best works. Funny and charming, but also with lots of the bittersweetness that permeated most comedies made during WWII, Shop Around the Corner is one of the best romantic comedies not only of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but of all time.

The Shop Around the Corner
Release Date
January 12, 1940

Director
Ernst Lubitsch

Cast
Frank Morgan , James Stewart , Margaret Sullavan , Sara Haden

Runtime
99 minutes

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7 ‘Fantasia’ (1940)

Directed by James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Norman Ferguson, David Hand, Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, and Ben Sharpsteen

Chernabog - Fantasia
Image via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Back in 1940, feature film animation was a medium in its infancy — just barely three years old. Even with the limitations that came with the newness of the art form, however, Walt Disney managed to make one of the best-animated fantasy films of all time, as well as one of the highest points of his studio: Fantasia, a series of eight famous pieces of classical music interpreted in animation.

For classical music fans, for animation fans, and for movie fans in general, Fantasia is a must-see. It remains fresh and exciting even over eight decades later, and even though the closing of European cinemas due to WWII caused it to bomb at the box office, cinephiles today recognize it for what it is: One of the boldest and most creative movies in Disney’s catalog.

Fantasia
Release Date
November 13, 1940

Director
James Algar , Samuel Armstrong , Ford Beebe , Norman Ferguson , Jim Handley , T. Hee
Cast
Leopold Stokowski , Deems Taylor , Julietta Novis , Corey Burton , Walt Disney , James MacDonald

Runtime
120

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6 ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941)

Directed by John Huston

Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), and actors Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet all huddled around the Falcon statue in The Maltese Falcon
Image via Warner Bros.

There is much discussion regarding what exactly film noir is. Some say it’s a genre, others say it’s simply a style of filmmaking, while others argue that it was a momentous film movement much like German Expressionism or Italian Neorealism. Whatever the case, something is certain: The Maltese Falcon, about a Californian private detective taking on a quest for a mysterious statuette, is often referred to as the very first noir.

Based on Dashiell Hammett‘s detective novel of the same name, this film by John Huston draws from the pulpy stories that served as its inspiration, making for an extremely entertaining detective story that never fails to thrill and intrigue. The rugged, gritty nature of film noir came as a direct effect of the war, and The Maltese Falcon is one of its greatest examples.

The Maltese Falcon
Release Date
October 18, 1941
Cast
Humphrey Bogart , Mary Astor , Gladys George , Peter Lorre , Barton MacLane , Lee Patrick

Runtime
101

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5 ‘Rebecca’ (1940)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

 Mrs.de Winter and Maxim de Winter embracing and looking in the same direction in 'Rebecca'
Image via United Artists

For a long time before the start of the war, the legendary master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, had been making movies in his native England. It wasn’t until 1940 that he made the jump to the Hollywood studio system, where (perhaps unsurprisingly) he found immediate success. It was with his psychological thriller Rebecca, about a woman struggling with her new role as an aristocrat’s wife while avoiding being intimidated by his first wife’s spectral presence.

The film won two Oscars, including Best Picture, making it the director’s only movie to achieve such an honor. Even if Hitchcock wasn’t particularly fond of Rebecca, modern audiences think it’s a timeless classic with a gripping atmosphere full of tension and suspense, striking visuals, and a pair of outstanding performances by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

Rebecca
Release Date
April 12, 1940

Cast
Laurence Olivier , Joan Fontaine , George Sanders , Judith Anderson , Nigel Bruce , Reginald Denny , C. Aubrey Smith , Gladys Cooper

Runtime
130 Minutes

4 ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939)

Directed by Frank Capra

james-stewart-jefferson-smith-mr-smith-goes-to-washington-1939
Image via Columbia Pictures

Two years before he put his successful career on hiatus to join the United States Army as a major following the Pearl Harbor attacks, Frank Capra made in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most beloved classics of the ’30s. It stars Jimmy Stewart as a naive youth leader appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, where his idealistic plans clash with corruption in Washington.

As idealistic as its main character without ever coming off as cheesy or naive, Mr. Smith does a great job at balancing comedy with political drama. Due to its rousing messages that celebrate democracy, freedom, and justice, fascist regimes like Italy’s and Nazi Germany’s banned the movie. Its themes remain relevant even today, and Capra’s direction and Stewart’s charming performance have aged wonderfully.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Release Date
October 9, 1939

Director
Frank Capra

Cast
James Stewart , Jean Arthur , Claude Rains , Edward Arnold

Runtime
129 minutes

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3 ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Barbara Stanwyck standing next to Fred MacMurray looking over a shelf in Double Indemnity.
Image via Paramount Pictures

The film noir by excellence, Double Indemnity is about a Los Angeles insurance representative who’s seduced by a rich housewife into a scheme of insurance fraud and murder. Directed by the incredibly versatile Billy Wilder, who made some of classic Hollywood’s biggest classics across multiple genres, it’s a delightfully grim and entertaining drama that all movie fans should watch at least once.

Full of the same pulpy greatness that made Maltese Falcon a hit, Double Indemnity features terrific directing by Wilder, one of the best scripts of the WWII era, and one of cinema’s most iconic femme fatales. Though Wilder directly denied that the war had any effect on the writing or production of the movie, it’s still interesting to evaluate its dark tone in conjunction with the general American sentiment toward the times.

Double Indemnity
Release Date
July 6, 1944

Director
Billy Wilder

Cast
Fred MacMurray , Barbara Stanwyck , Edward G. Robinson , Byron Barr

Runtime
107 minutes

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2 ‘Children of Paradise’ (1945)

Directed by Marcel Carné

Children of Paradise - 1945
Image via Pathé Consortium Cinéma

Not many well-known French films were shot during the war, but Children of Paradise is certainly the most famous of the ones that did get made. Not only that: this drama about the life of a beautiful courtesan in 1830s Paris and the four men who love her has built itself a name as one of the greatest French movies of all time, and rightfully so.

Though one can definitely feel its admittedly long three-hour runtime, audiences are sure to spend every minute of that time in awe of what director Marcel Carné was able to achieve: A towering epic that’s grand yet intimate, beautifully performed and visually alluring. Although the movie was shot under extremely complicated conditions during the German occupation, Carné and his team were able to dodge all obstacles thrown at them to tell one of the most enthralling masterpieces of the era.

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1 ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

Directed by Orson Welles

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

In the history of cinema, there’s a before Citizen Kane and an after Citizen Kane. Orson Welles‘s revolutionary mystery drama about reporters scrambling to uncover the meaning of a tycoon’s dying words broke all the aesthetic and structural rules of Classic Hollywood, offering innovative camera techniques and a script unlike anything else the public had ever seen before. The art of filmmaking wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for Welles’s magnum opus.

There are those who still consider Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made, so it’s no wonder why it’s so easy to call it the greatest movie made during WWII. Without studio interference (a rarity at the time), Orson Welles was able to craft a riveting character drama that changed the way movies were made.

Citizen Kane
Release Date
April 17, 1941
Cast
Orson Welles , Joseph Cotten , Dorothy Comingore , Agnes Moorehead , Ruth Warrick , Ray Collins

Runtime
119

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KEEP READING:

The Best World War Movies That Won Best Picture

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