Best films from the 1930s

CRAWFORD, JOAN Joan Crawford

The Golden Age of Hollywood. Forget modern special effects. Actors performed their own stunts. The focus was on the script (and plenty were terrible) but so many scripts were great, and the chemistry between the actors is what made the film a classic.

images James Cagney, The Public Enemy (1931)

There’s nothing more sinister than black and white films–the fog in the streets, the fedoras and the overcoats. The glamour of the dresses and the handsome men were art in motion whether it was a musical, drama or comedy. Without the airbrush. Without tricks of editing. Not only could many of the stars act, they could also sing and dance. Morays were clearly defined about the expecations of males and females. Of course, that makes for breaking the mold in the 50s and 60s, but it is fun to go back in time and view the Hollywood star in front of the curtain. Scandal behind? You bet. Nothing has changed there. What price did the stars pay to become the legend on the screen?

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Have you noticed how drinking was fashionable and everyone had a cigarette in their hands?

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William Powell, Lyrna Moy, Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia Farrow’s mom) The Thin Man (1934), six martinis later….

The energy of the actors in classic films are fresh today as they were eighty years ago. I marvel at the synchronicity of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936). They made it look effortless.

Silent films transitioned out of use by the end of the 20s. By 1930, going to the movies was a great escape from the worries of the Depression. Some of my all-time favorite films come from this decade. There was an interesting post I read about the transition of silent films to “talkies”. I recommend:  http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept12/2012/10/28/the-end-of-an-era-from-silent-film-to-talkies/

Here are my favorite 1930s films:

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King Kong (1933) Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. With Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher.

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M (1931).  Written and directed by Fritz Lang, this Weimar production was distributed in the states by Paramount Pictures. It starred Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, and Otto Wernicke. Suspensful and great cinematography using mirrors and reflections of glass.

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(1931) Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale. Starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff, John Boles. And when you finish watching this, then you should see Gods and Monsters (1998) directed by Bill Condon and starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, and Lynn Redgrave. 

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(1934) Directed by Frank Capra and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The chemistry between these two is why it’s worth watching. It’s fast paced and fun. I can see why those suffering from the Depression found escapism in the troubles of a spoiled socialite and the reporter who steals her heart.

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Another Frank Capra favorite of mine is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains. It’s a political drama/comedy and where I learned about the filibuster. It is the film where I thought of Jimmy Stewart as more than a mere actor but something truly exceptional.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). A great crime mystery set in London about a man accused and on the run. Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, and Lucie Mannheim. I like Rebecca even more, but that came out in 1940.

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Well, you know I had to. It is the best film ever made. (1939) The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger,  Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, and Billie Burke.

I sure left a lot out. Which are your favorite films from the 1930s?

31 thoughts on “Best films from the 1930s

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    1. Beyond the nostalgia, they are rare jewels and fine stories that grab your sensibilities. The hard part is remembering to put away your present perceptions of filmmaking and looking at the film from a 1930s set of eyes. They are a perfect watch, late night, on the couch. Thanks, James. Oh! Try M. Great suspense and Peter Lorre is wonderful.

      1. One of my friends actually recommended it very recently. I thought he meant Dial M for Murder at first, as I’d never even heard of M, but now that you’re recommending it, too, it is definitely on the list of classics I will soon see.

        And that’s the trick with many classics, right? Though my favorites are the ones that translate even through the years.

  1. There are sooo many movies I’ve missed from this era. The only one I’ve seen is King Kong from this list, though I’m hoping to see It Happened One Night fairly soon for an upcoming blogathon! 🙂

    1. Howdy Ruth. Surely you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz? You will like the chemistry between Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night. The formula for a 1930s Romcom: slapstick with a fast-talking couple who find themselves in zany situations. Their love is begrudging and they both dress amazingly well. I love the smirks and smiles of Clark Gable in this one. Looking forward to reading your upcoming post!

      1. You may think I’m crazy but no, I haven’t seen The Wizard of Oz.

        I’ve only seen Gable in Gone With the Wind so I’m curious to see the tender side of him in It Happened One Night!

  2. My favorites are “Way for a Sailor” (starring John Gilbert), “Gentleman’s Fate” (starring John Gilbert), “Fast Workers” (starring John Gilbert), “Gone With the Wind,” “Of Human Bondage,” “Sadie Thompson,” and “The Captain Hates the Sea” (another John Gilbert film)

      1. Yes, I’m rather nuts about John Gilbert. Was president of the JG Appreciation Society for 10 years. I haven’t seen the 39 Steps, but I’m glad you mentioned it. I have it here at home. I want to watch it now. I’m a big Hitchcock fan too. And, of course, any film that features Joan Crawford is on my list. People seem to either love or hate her. I think she was a great actress. Her silent films are wonderful too. Thanks for posting that list and bringing back memories of those timeless films.

    1. Thanks, Chris, for mentioning Charlie. That’s one I have yet to see, but I reckon I will like it. Another multi-talented artist whose body language and energy seems childlike but oh, how difficult were his moves.

  3. Goodness, I’m sure I’m forgetting some obvious ones. KK of course, A Farewell to Arms, Katherine Hepburn in Little Women, The Dawn Patrol, Errol Flynn in Robin Hood [looks v cheesy now], the Lady Vanishes, GWTW, Mr Smith goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr Chip, The 39 Steps, Hound of the Baskervilles. I didn’t realise what a year 1939 was! SD

      1. Whoa! there were so many classics of the ’30s, but here’s a stab at it:
        Of course – All Quiet is on the list; we’ve got James Cagney as the Public Enemy (and basically anything he did); Wallace Beery in the Champ; The Thin Man had class; Clark Gable of Mutiny on the Bounty; Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (and the rest- strong personality) Spencer Tracy & Mickey Rooney for Boys Town; Tyrone Power for Alexander’s Ragtime Band; James Stewart for everything he ever did; Cary Grant – Gunga Din and everybody who worked on Gone With The Wind!!
        How about that for a mouthful, Cindy? Aren’t you “thrilled” you asked! (Just joking with you – I love the old movies.)

        1. You were the only one who mentioned Gone with the Wind 🙂 I am really coming around to Barbara Stanwyck. I want to see more of her films including Stella Dallas. Clark Gable’s Mutiny is a great pick, too. I am always thrilled when people comment. You made my day!

  4. Great mentions Cindy! Love many of the films you mentioned. I would add The Petrified Forest, Duck Soup, Stagecoach, and Bringing Up Baby. Then again there are so many films from that era.

    1. Hello there, Keith! I hoped someone would mention Duck Soup. Just rewatched Bringing Up Baby the other day. I love Grant and Hepburn together. It was such a zany, fast-paced film. Too many from that decade. Not suprised you mentioned a Humphrey Bogart film 😉 Thanks.

  5. Argh It Happened One Night – one of my favourites!! Pre Code Films (up until 1934) are a bit of an obsession for me – they are incredibly (and almost terrifyingly, given how they shot backwards after 1934) adult, complex and feminist. Check out Garbo’s Queen Christina if you can, and Norma Shearer’s The Divorcée. The latter isn’t the greatest film ever (the former is though!), but is worth seeing just to show how damaging the code was.

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