The 1940s was an influential time in Hollywood in which some of the most lauded classic comedies made their debuts. Tinsel Town’s most sensational leading ladies and men were featured in these beloved hits, with legendary stars like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, and Veronica Lake all bringing these hilarious tales to life. Even the iconic comedy duo Abbott and Costello uproariously faced off against iconic movie monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man, further cementing their status as comedy gold.
From marriage-phobic men finding love to a big-wig director going method for a movie to Chaplin performing dual roles, the decade was jam-packed with iconic pictures inspired by the rise of the screwball comedy. Let’s take a peek at some of the best classic comedy movies of the 1940s.
11The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Hepburn stars as a socialite caught in a messy love triangle in the uproarious 1940 romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story. The legendary actress stars as Tracy Lord, a wealthy young woman whose impending nuptials become far more complicated with the arrival of her dashing ex-husband (Cary Grant) alongside a gossip magazine reporter (an excellent James Stewart). Hepburn’s character was based on the life and antics of famed Philadelphia socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott.
The Philadelphia Story further served to propel the status of its dazzling lead actors upon its release. This amusing flick went on to win two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Stewart. The beloved picture remains a knockout example of the rom-com genre to this day.
10Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
In what would become the first in a legendary series, the comedy dream team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello combined their wild hijinks in the 1948 horror farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In it, the hilarious duo faced off against Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr), though they never did cross paths with the good doctor himself. Costello’s Wilbur Grey drew the short end of the stick when he became the target of the villainous Dracula, who believed he possessed the ideal brain for transplant into Frankenstein’s monster.
While their onset antics were far from an ideal work environment, this exciting comedy went on to become a critical and commercial success that soon inspired the famous pair to meet up with even more monsters, including the Mummy and the Invisible Man.
9His Girl Friday
Howard Hawks directed the 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday. Easily one of the funniest films ever made, the movie stars Cary Grant as a powerful newspaper editor whose about to lose his protégé and ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) to a second marriage. He soon devises a scheme to distract the normally savvy woman from her rapidly approaching nuptials. Will dangling a juicy story about a convicted murderer on death row be intriguing enough to convince her to abandon her ‘wifely duties’ and stay?
Behind the scenes, Hawks encouraged his lead stars to embrace spontaneity on screen. Because of this, the picture became known for its rapid-fire dialogue and playful comedy, as well as its breaking of the fourth wall on camera. Lauded by critics, His Girl Friday has gone on to have a profound effect on American cinema. It is widely regarded as the standard for the screwball comedy genre and has even been noted as one of the earliest successful dramedies of all time.
8The Great Dictator
Years ahead of America’s involvement in World War II, iconic cinema star and worldwide sensation Charlie Chaplin delivered one of the finest performances of his career in the 1940 anti-war black comedy satire The Great Dictator. Chaplin was compelled to make The Great Dictator to address the deepening violence inflicted by the Nazis and the offensive repression of the Jews at the time.
In it, the legendary performer pulled double duty as both a war veteran/Jewish barber and a brutal fascist dictator hellbent on spreading his anti-Semitic beliefs. Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the Oscar-nominated film, which critics have since deemed one of the greatest and most historically significant comedies ever created.
Silver screen siren Veronica Lake appeared alongside Joel McCrea In the 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels. The story centered around a Hollywood director John L. Sullivan as he embraced a decidedly method approach to filmmaking. While spending time on the streets as an unhoused person in order to better understand what the downtrodden face day to day, he meets a beautiful, struggling actress played by Lake.
Sullivan’s Travels has been described as one of the finest movies about movies ever made. This celebrated comedy classic currently holds a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score and remains a knockout picture featuring leading lady Lake.
6To Be or Not to Be
In 1942’s To Be or Not to Be, Carole Lombard and Jack Benny play married theater trope members stuck in a Nazi-occupied Warsaw. The film follows the couple as they attempt to disguise themselves via their acting skills while trying to figure out if there is a Nazi spy among them.
Though moviegoers were initially uneasy due to the film’s heavy subject matter, this Oscar-nominated farce premiered to positive praise, with appreciation going towards Lombard and Benny’s amusing performances as well as to its scathing commentary of the Nazi regime. In more recent years, To Be or Not to Be has been recognized as a prominent classic comedy of immense cultural significance, one that has gone on to inspire both stage and film remakes alike.
5Arsenic and Old Lace
The 1944 black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace featured leading man Cary Grant as a marriage-phobic writer who, in spite of everything, falls for the girl-next-door (Priscilla Lane). Upon returning home to break the news, the pair discovers that his seemingly sweet aunts are actually chronic, if not well-meaning, serial murderers. Nothing like a Halloween nuptial and a dead body to set their marriage off on the right… foot?
This film is nothing if not endearingly quirky. Based on the popular Joseph Kesselring play of the same name, it was a smash hit with audiences, with fans adoring Grant’s what-just-happened performance alongside some truly uproarious meet-the-family antics that makes Meet The Parents look like child’s play.
4Ball of Fire
Howard Hawks’ 1941 screwball comedy Ball of Fire chronicled an encyclopedia writers’ efforts to understand modern American slang. The film stars Gary Cooper as grammarian professor Bertram Potts. The good doctor becomes infatuated by sultry nightclub singer Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) and her colorful vocabulary. He soon takes in the snarky singer, who is on the lam from her mob-adjacent boyfriend.
The sensational chemistry between Cooper and Stanwyck was praised by critics in addition to its sharp script and clever humor. In the end, the film walked away with five whole Oscar nominations.
3The Lady Eve
The Lady Eve also features Barbara Stanwyck, only this time alongside Henry Fonda. The story turns the trope of the swindler who falls in love with their mark completely on its head. In this version, Stanwyck successfully seduces a woman-shy snake expert with a brewery fortune, only to fall in love with him in the process. After being unmasked, she tries it again, this time as the posh Lady Eve Sidwich, with nothing but an accent as her disguise. Surely this doppelgänger that has Fonda’s character falling all over himself can’t be the same, right? No one would be so brazen… except, perhaps for a woman scorned… and, quite possibly, in love.
Written and directed by Preston Sturges, his writing partner, Monckton Hoffe, was later nominated for his work on the film. Noted as a sparkling romantic affair at the time, years later Roger Ebert would advise viewers that the single funniest and sexiest scene in all romantic comedy happened here in this film at just “six seconds past the 20-minute mark.” That’s some high praise indeed!
2The Shop Around the Corner
In 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan are two at-odds employees at a Budapest leather goods shop who, unbeknownst to them, are actually falling in love via a series of anonymous letters. These secret pen pals clash every chance they get in real life, but, it turns out, they have far more in common than they realize. It should come as no surprise when soon enough they’re absolutely smitten with each other.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. The plot of this successful comedy went on to serve as the basis for the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan stapleYou’ve Got Mail, which is also widely regarded as a masterpiece of the genre. The original, meanwhile, has a near-perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Not too shabby for a nearly 85-year-old masterpiece!
Advertised as the “hilarious answer to who wears the pants,” 1949’s Adam’s Rib starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a married couple pitted against each other in the courtroom. The case? A wife that allegedly shot her husband. Their job is to serve as opposing members of counsel. What could go wrong?
This early battle of the sexes was inspired by the real-life case of husband-and-wife lawyers William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney. The story, which was directed by George Cukor and written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, was nominated for both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes alongside supporting actress Judy Holliday.