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May 12, 2023

Top 25 Actresses of the 1940s

The early years of the 1940s decade were not promising for the American film industry, especially following the late 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and the resultant loss of foreign markets. However, Hollywood film production rebounded and reached its profitable peak of efficiency during the years 1943 to 1946 – a full decade and more after the rise of sound film production, now that the technical challenges of the early 1930s sound era were far behind. Advances in film technology (sound recording, lighting, special effects, cinematography and use of color) meant that films were more watchable and ‘modern’. Following the end of the war, Hollywood’s most profitable year in the decade was 1946, with all-time highs recorded for theatre attendance.

The world was headed toward rearmament and warfare in the early to mid-1940s, and the movie industry, like every other aspect of life, responded to the national war effort by making movies, producing many war-time favorites, and having stars (and film industry employees) enlist or report for duty. The US government’s Office of War Information (OWI), formed in 1942, served as an important propaganda agency during World War II, and coordinated its efforts with the film industry to record and photograph the nation’s war-time activities. Tinseltown aided in the defensive mobilization, whether as combatants, propagandists, documentary, newsreel or short film-makers, educators, fund-raisers for relief funds or war bonds, entertainers, or morale-boosters. Films took on a more realistic rather than escapist tone, as they had done during the Depression years of the 1930s.

The 1940s witnessed the rise of many Hollywood actresses. Among them were Ginger Rogers, who won an Oscar for her role in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle, and Lana Turner who became one of the highest-paid actresses during the 1940s. The decade also witnessed the rise and fall of actresses like Veronica Lake whose career flourished in the 1940s but began to wane towards the end of the decade. Below is a list of top 25 Hollywood actresses of the 1940s:

1. Lana Turner

Widely regarded as a legend of classical Hollywood cinema, Lana Turner was one of the most prominent and highest-paid actresses in the mid-1940s. Also considered a popular culture icon of Hollywood glamor, Turner also achieved success as a pin-up model. Her life and career have inspired several works across art, literature, music, and film.

2. Gene Tierney

Gene Tierney is best remembered for her Academy Award-nominated role of Ellen Berent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven. She also starred in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Laura, and The Razor’s Edge, and performed on Broadway, too. Her personal life is said to have inspired an Agatha Christie novel.

3. Cyd Charisse

Cyd Charisse was an American dancer and actress best remembered for playing important roles in films that highlighted her dancing skills, although she stopped dancing in films later in her career. In 2006, Cyd Charisse was honored with the prestigious National Medal of the Arts and Humanities.

4. Lauren Bacall

Known for her sultry looks and distinctive voice, Lauren Bacall was an important actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. As part of a publicity stunt, Bacall was asked to sit on the piano that was being played by Vice President Harry Truman at the National Press Club. The picture of Bacall sitting on the piano remains an iconic photograph.

5. Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn served as the leading American actress for over six decades. She is regarded as an influential cultural figure and was included in the popular book Women Who Changed the World. Katharine Hepburn is also named in lists like 300 Women Who Changed the World, 100 Icons of the Century, and 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons of All Time.

6. Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American actress whose early career was defined by her performance in the controversial Czech erotic film Ecstasy. Apart from gaining popularity as a beautiful Hollywood actress, Hedy Lamarr became known as an inventor after co-inventing frequency-hopping spread spectrum. Her career has inspired several works of art. She was also the inspiration behind the iconic character Catwoman.

7. Vivien Leigh

British actress Vivien Leigh gained popularity with her award winning performance in films Gone With the Wind and A Street Car Named Desire and her musical Broadway Tovarich. The beautiful actress, who went on to feature in films like That Hamilton Woman and Ship of Fools, had a troubled personal life and suffered from physical and mental health issues.

8. Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth was one of the most glamorous Hollywood actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. Her filmography includes 61 films among which the most notable ones are The Strawberry Blonde, Gilda and Cover Girl. The personal life of the actress, who was also known as the Love Goddess, was marked by a series of failed marriages.

9. Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake is best remembered for playing the quintessential femme fatale in various film noirs, pairing up with Alan Ladd. She popularized the peek-a-boo hairstyle but changed it to encourage simpler hairstyles during World War II. She suffered from alcoholism and eventually died due to hepatitis and kidney ailments.

10. Ingrid Bergman

One of the greatest Swedish actresses ever, Ingrid Bergman is the only Triple Crown winner with three Academy Awards under her belt. Such is her impact that her character Ilsa Lund, which she portrayed in Casablanca, inspired the character of Ilsa Faust in the Mission Impossible franchise. An actress with a deep sense of freedom, Bergman voiced her views against racial segregation.

11. Judy Garland

American actress and singer, Judy Garland, was one of the most iconic artists of Hollywood’s Golden Era. In a career that spanned forty five years, her exceptional talent shone brightly, especially in movies like The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born. The personal life of the superstar though, was full of struggles including drugs, alcohols and unsuccessful marriages.

12. Betty Grable

Betty Grable was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. She starred in numerous big-budget movies and was at one point the highest-salaried American woman. She began her career as a preteen and gained prominence as a young woman. A celebrated sex symbol, she was the number-one pin-up girl of World War II.

13. Greer Garson

Greer Garson was an MGM star and remains the fourth-most-nominated lady for the Academy Award for the Best Actress, with her seven nominations and her win with the film Mrs. Miniver. She is also remembered for her Golden Globe-winning role in Sunrise at Campobello. She also received the CBE honor.

14. Donna Reed

Donna Reed was an American actress whose career spanned over four decades. She is best remembered for her performance in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, which earned her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Donna Reed is also remembered for her TV work and received the Golden Globe Award for her role in The Donna Reed Show.

15. Teresa Wright

Teresa Wright was an American actress best remembered for her portrayal of Carol Beldon in the 1942 romantic war drama film Mrs. Miniver, which earned her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Teresa Wright worked with top directors like Alfred Hitchcock, who admired her professionalism.

16. Bette Davis

Two-time Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, a prominent figure from the Golden Age of Hollywood, was known for playing unlikeable characters and her addiction to cigarettes both off and on screen. Fans loved her in All About Eve and Human Bondage. Bette was also the first female AFI Lifetime Achievement Award-winner.

17. Olivia de Havilland

The veteran actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Olivia de Havilland shot to fame with Gone With the Wind and later established her cinematic career with movies like To Each His Own and The Heiress. Her rivalry with her sister and the court battle against a powerful studio also made headlines.

18. Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine was a prominent Hollywood actress during the Golden Age. In a career that spanned more than 50 years, she won an Academy Award, becoming the only actor to win the award for a Hitchcock film – Suspicion. Apart from working as an actress, Joan Fontaine was also a licensed pilot, Cordon Bleu-level chef, and well-known interior decorator.

19. Anne Baxter

Anne Baxter is best remembered for her Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning performance as Sophie MacDonald in The Razor’s Edge. Her other notable projects were the film All About Eve and the series The Name of the Game. She also actively participated in Republican campaigns.

20. Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons is best remembered as Ophelia from the 1948 movie Hamlet, a role that fetched her an Oscar nomination. She won an Emmy for The Thorn Birds and a Golden Globe for Guys and Dolls. She was also known for her association with the anti-drug charity Release.

21. Ruth Roman

Ruth Roman got her big break when producer Dore Schary cast her in the RKO thriller The Window (1949). That same year, she successfully auditioned for Stanley Kramer’s boxing drama Champion (1949) as the dependable wife of the fighter (Kirk Douglas). After this turning point in her life, the shapely, smoky-voiced brunette secured a contract with Warner Brothers. During the next phase of her career, she moved effortlessly from glamorous and seductive to demure and wholesome in films opposite stars like James Stewart, Errol Flynn, and Gary Cooper. Look Magazine billed her as the “Big Time Movie Personality of 1950”, and by the following year she was receiving some 500 fan letters per week.

22. Maureen O’Hara

Maureen O’Hara was an Irish singer and actress. Dubbed The Queen of Technicolor due to her long and successful career throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Maureen O’Hara was popular for playing passionate, but sensible characters. In 2014, she received an Honorary Academy Award. In 2020, she was ranked first on Ireland’s greatest film actors list published by The Irish Times.

23. Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead is best known for her Emmy-winning performance in the series The Wild Wild West and her Golden Globe-winning roles in the films Mrs. Tarkington and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She was also famous as Endora from the series Bewitched. She was the first female to host the Academy Awards.

24. Natalie Wood

Amongst the top child artists of her generation, Natalie Wood garnered fame at the age of eight with the movie Miracle on 34th Street. Later, as an adult, she successfully established herself as a talented and sought after actress with movies like Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story. Her vibrant life came to an end after she died of drowning.

25. Virginia Mayo

One of the first to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Virginia Clara Jones was possibly Warner Brothers’ biggest box-office money-maker in late 1940s. Beginning her career with vaudevilles, she quickly signed contracts first with Goldwyn and later with Warner Brothers, giving out numerous hits, including Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat.


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