Let me take you back 87 years to the year 1930. Sound films or “talkies” were becoming more of a commodity, and silent films were basically extinct. The Great Depression was just becoming an immense problem in America. The stock market collapsed, unemployment rose, and homelessness increased. Americans were suffering socially, economically, and emotionally. Films were more important than ever, not only for pleasure, but for escapism. Films were a way for people to take their minds off reality, and the cruel, new civilization that was currently taking place.
Over the next ten years, from 1930-1939, Americans would see what is now considered the greatest technological improvement in film over the span of a decade. In the start of the decade, sound films were still a work in progress. Color films weren’t prominent yet, the quality of the film was lackluster, there were few set-pieces, and most films didn’t even have a memorable musical score. However, by the end of the decade, Hollywood gave birth to what are now considered some of the greatest films ever made like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind for example. Two films that are perfect on every level on a technical basis. Not bad for only ten years in an economic climate that was extremely weak.
The 1930s are responsible kickstarting great directors careers like Howard Hawks and Frank Capra, but also for introducing some legendary actors and actresses. Actors like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and James Stewart all got their start in this decade, including many great actresses like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. The best films of the 1920’s were pretty much all silent movies, but some of the greatest and most early sound pictures took place in the 1930s. That is what I would like to focus on with this post. I will be counting down twenty special films that are ranked, not necessarily by how “great” they are, but how much they mean to me personally. These are all films that together really define the decade as a whole, I personally really enjoy, and still think they hold up and are relevant 80-something years later. So, let’s begin!
Honorable mentions: All Quiet on the Western Front, Bride of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Trouble in Paradise
20. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Why? In what is now considered possibly the greatest year in cinema, only one film rained supreme and got the Best Picture Oscar and the biggest sales at the box office. That film is Gone With the Wind. A crowning achievement on almost every level. A supreme musical score, breathtaking visuals, and some fantastic, layered characters. The film may be super long, and might be a little dated in todays standards, especially with its use of African American characters, but it’s hard to ignore all the other great things about this wonderful piece of art. A must watch for all movie buffs!
Fun Fact: Hattie McDaniel, the actress who portrayed house servant Mammy, became the first African-American to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award. However, she was tragically segregated at the Academy Awards and forced to sit away from her co-stars at the actual ceremony.
19. Dark Victory (1939)
Why? Bette Davis is a powerhouse. There’s just something special about her that whenever she appears on screen, you immediately lock eyes with her. It could be those luxurious, big eyes she has that she uses for her advantage. Dark Victory just might be her best film in this decade. About the tragic story of a young socialite who develops a serious brain tumor and struggles to fight it and still live her life to the fullest.
Fun Fact: This was actually Bette Davis’ favorite role she ever portrayed on screen. Not bad for all the great roles she had over a long, expansive career.
18. L’Atalante (1934)
Why? A wonderful and highly underrated French gem, L’Atalante brilliantly shows a honest portrayal of a struggling newly wedded couple dealing with life on their own. Roger Ebert said it best: “The movie’s effect comes through the way it evokes specific moments in the life of the young couple, rather than tying them to a plot.” This film feels so real that it is almost like watching an actual documentation of real people in this suddenly unfamiliar stage in their lives.
Fun Fact: For director, Jean Vigo, this was the last film he would ever make before his tragic death from tuberculosis at only twenty-nine. L’Atalante is now considered one of the greatest films ever made, but Vigo never got the chance to see his film grow in time. He died shortly after the film was made.
17. Frankenstein (1931)
Why? James Whale’s horror masterpiece Frankenstein is a perfect example of a film that probably couldn’t have been made as well later in the decade. Before the PCA (aka the Production Code Administration) was official in 1934, filmmakers had more freedom to get away with sexuality, violence, drug-use, and other bad behavior shown in films. Frankenstein is not only a great horror film that still holds up today because of the wonderful visuals and iconic performance by Boris Karloff, but also a fascinating look at a pre-code film that couldn’t have been made just three years later.
Fun Fact: Legendary make-up artist, Jack P. Pierce, might just be the true MVP in how this film got made. His highly influential make-up designs that created the look of Frankenstein’s monster came not from the original source material, but from is brain. Anything that remotely resembles Karloff’s monster in the future is just further proof of how influential Pierce was as a make-up artist.
16. King Kong (1933)
Why? With yet another King Kong film currently in theaters as I speak, it’s just further proof of how popular and influential the original Kong film was. Way back in 1933, this film might just have been the first true “blockbuster” in American Cinema. The amazing special effects, a combination of stop-motion, miniature models and rear-projection, really changed the game for how films could be represented. This film really blew people’s minds way back in 1933, and if you put yourself in their shoes, you can see just how great this film was. It’s visual effects would be used for many other classic films in the future, and it all began with the original King Kong.
Fun Fact: King Kong’s roar was a lion’s roar and a tiger’s roar combined and run backwards but more slowly.
15. The Public Enemy (1931)
Why? When talking about iconic screen legends of the 1930’s one must not forget to mention the great James Cagney. Cagney would go on to star in many other great films like Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties at the end of the decade, but there’s no question what his most iconic role was. That would be as fierce crime-lord Tom Powers in the hit gangster film The Public Enemy. It came out in the pre-code era were films were allowed to be more violent, which every-bit benefited this film and it’s interpretation of the causes and effects of becoming a gangster. A brilliant gangster film that really helped define a new genre and a new film star in Cagney.
Fun Fact: Cagney was originally set to play the best friend of Tom Powers, but the director liked him as an actor so much that he switched Cagney to the lead role.
14. M (1931)
Why? Fritz Lang’s German masterpiece is widely considered the first “serial killer” film ever made. Not only was it about the man hunt of a local serial killer, but a person who murdered innocent children! This was an incredibly dark film that miraculously got made way back in 1931. It also just so happens to be brilliantly acted, written, and directed. It was Lang’s first sound film and he completely takes advantage of the use of sound. It’s a difficult watch, but very rewarding at the same time.
Fun Fact: Fritz Lang’s cruelty to his actors was legendary. Peter Lorre, the actor who portrayed the child murderer, was thrown down the stairs into the cellar over a dozen times. When Lang wanted to hire Lorre for Human Desire over two decades later, the actor refused.
13. The Only Son (1936)
Why? Another legendary filmmaker, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, also released his first sound picture in this decade. This was of course the great family drama The Only Son which told the story of a poor, widowed mother who risked everything she had to get her son an education. It also shows the aftermath years later that ensued between this mother and son. It’s brilliantly humane and realistic. Anyone can relate to this story, and even though is slow-paced, never drags at all.
Fun Fact: Roger Ebert considered Yasujiro Ozu to be one of the three greatest filmmakers of all time and the one who brought him the most serenity.
12. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Why? Can you believe this film came out 80 years ago? This is where it all began. Disney’s first full-length animated feature, that still remains a triumph and a great animated feature all these years later. Yes, the story may be simple, and the characters may not be completely fleshed out, but the animation is just so good. It’s a perfect staple that inspired many other Disney features down the road, and honestly a lot of modern Animated films could learn a thing or two from.
Fun Fact: At the time, was the highest grossing motion picture ever. It held that claim for only a year or two until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939.
11. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Why? The “screwball comedies” were very popular in the mid-to-late 30s, and Bringing Up Baby was probably the most unique and certainly the most crazy. The premise is simple. A paleontologist, played by Cary Grant, tries to secure a million dollar donation for his museum with the help of a clumsy heiress, played by Katharine Hepburn. However, what ensues is total “anything goes” wackiness. The plot somehow gets more and more insane, and when a real leopard is thrown in the mix the film takes these big, unexpected turns that are very amusing to behold.
Fun Fact: Grant’s famous line “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” is considered by many to be the first time the term “gay” was used in the modern sense compared to the other sense used to mean happy and carefree.
10. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Why? If someone told me a movie about an elderly couple forced to separate during harsh economic times in the Great Depression would be one of my ten favorite movies of the 1930’s I would have thought they were crazy. Well, it turns out that Leo McCarey’s dramedy-romance Make Way for Tomorrow is one of the most charming and tender films of the entire decade. A lot of American films in this era were made to block out the harsh reality of the Great Depression and used for escapism. Make Way for Tomorrow not only exposes the truth that people had to through in this decade, but also creating something that is not too depressing and sentimental.
Fun Fact: Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, the two actors who portrayed the elderly couple, were only 61 and 49, respectively, when this film was made. The make-up and acting by the leads are top-notch.
9. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Why? Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t making films in America at this time, but he still delivered some fantastic work in Britain. The 39 Steps is another great film, but the one I think is his best in this decade is The Lady Vanishes. The film follows a young woman who notices that an elderly lady has disappeared on a train, and nobody believes her. It has classic Hitchcock suspense, some witty British dialogue, and a story that continues to get darker and darker. And the film mainly takes place just on the train!
Fun Fact: In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Alfred Hitchcock revealed that this film was inspired by a legend of an Englishwoman who went with her daughter to the Palace Hotel in Paris in the 1880s, at the time of the Great Exposition. The woman was taken sick and they sent the girl across Paris to get some medicine in a horse-vehicle, so it took about four hours. When she came back she asked, “How’s my mother?” “What mother?” “My mother. She’s here, she’s in her room. Room 22.” They go up there. Different room, different wallpaper, everything. And the payoff of the whole story is, so the legend goes, that the woman had bubonic plague and they dared not let anybody know she died, otherwise all of Paris would have emptied.
8. It Happened One Night (1934)
Why? Considered by many to be the first “screwball comedy” of all time. It inspired many more comedies in the decade afterwards and even more romantic-comedies over the next 80 years. It’s part screwball part romantic and part road trip comedy. Features Clark Gable at his absolute best and has a great story that never feels too cliché even all these years later.
Fun Fact: The first movie to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Only two films have achieved this feat since: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest & Silence of the Lambs.
7. Top Hat (1935)
Why? One of the best acting pairs in cinema history, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers put out many films together in this decade. Some were ok, and others were great. Their two best were probably Swing Time and Top Hat. My personal favorite is Top Hat. The plot may be a little silly, but it’s hilarious, offers some fantastic musical numbers, and Fred Astaire dances A LOT. Fred Astaire believed dancing numbers should never be filmed in multiple takes. Just like a great action scene, it looks more realistic and is easier and more impressive to watch when it is all done in just one take. That’s what makes Astaire and Rogers so great to watch. You can tell they put a lot of time and effort into their craft and it shows.
Fun Fact: In the famous dancing number “Cheek to Cheek” Rogers is wearing an elaborate, blue dress that is actually made out of ostrich feathers. Astaire reportedly did not like it and found it very hard to dance with. You can actually see some of the feathers coming off the dress at the very end of the number in the actual film.
6. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Why? C’mon who hasn’t seen and loved this 1939 masterpiece? The Wizard of Oz has it all. It’s funny, scary, dramatic, charming, has great musical numbers, great characters, and is shot in both black and white and color! It’s a timeless tale that resonates with both children and adults. At the time, The Wizard of Oz was a technical triumph and to this day continues to touch people’s hearts.
Fun Fact: The Scarecrow face makeup that Ray Bolger wore consisted, in part, of a rubber prosthetic with a woven pattern to suggest burlap cloth. By the time the film was finished the prosthetic had left a pattern of lines on his face that took more than a year to vanish.
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Why? The beneficial Frank Capra political masterpiece that launched the career of the great James Stewart. Stewart was born to play the role of the boy-scout leader turned US Senator. His boyish charm and naive nature are what helped define Stewart’s whole career, and when he finds out just how corrupt the political system is, it is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. Especially when he decides to do something about it. The story is still very relevant and is very inspiring.
Fun Fact: To make his voice hoarse, as if he really had been filibustering for 23 hours, Capra wrote that, “Twice a day Jimmy’s throat was swabbed with vile mercury solution that swelled and irritated his vocal cords. The result was astonishing. No amount of acting could possibly simulate Jimmy’s intense pathetic efforts to speak through real swollen cords.”
4. Modern Times (1936)
Why? The title is so fitting, because in a sense, Modern Times will always be, well modern. This is a perfect example of a piece of art that will stay the test of time always. It’s central theme and message will always be relevant just like a true Chaplin masterpiece typically is.
Fun fact: Lead actress of Modern Times, Paulette Goddard, was actually the first choice to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, and it came down to her and Vivien Leigh, but the makers of the film decided to go with Leigh at the very last moment.
3. City Lights (1931)
Why? By just the width of Charlie Chaplin’s mustache I have City Lights over Modern Times. But that could change at any time. They are both masterpieces. It’s always the ending of this movie that I look back at when I think of City Lights. Possibly my favorite ending ever in a film. The story of Chaplin’s Tramp trying to help a poor blind girl just never seems to get old. It’s funny, charming, and very sweet. A great film in the pinnacle of Chaplin’s glorious career.
Fun Fact: Charlie Chaplin’s personal favorite film he ever made. Also Orson Welles’ favorite movie of all time.
2. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Why? I love me some Cary Grant films, and he seems to be at his best when collaborating with the great American director Howard Hawks. Together they made this highly underrated adventure drama that mainly takes place on a remote South American trading port. It tells the story of a manager of an air freight company, played by Grant, who is forced to risk his pilots’ lives in order to win an important contract. This is one of those films where you immediately feel immersed in the atmosphere, in this case the atmosphere of the South American environment. It also has a thrilling story, great romance, some big twists and turns, and a perfect ending to cap it all off.
Fun Fact: Howard Hawks remembered that when the movie was released, “a certain critic said ‘It’s the only picture Hawks ever made that didn’t have any truth in it.’ I wrote him a letter and said, ‘Every blooming thing in that movie was true.’ I knew the men that were in it and everything about it. But it was just where truth was stranger than fiction.” Hawks was a part of the United States Army Air Service during World War I.
1. Stagecoach (1939)
Why? Man, 1939 was a freakin’ great year for movies. Stagecoach was John Ford’s first sound western, and first collaboration with John Wayne, and boy was it a great way to begin. Ford and Wayne would go on to make 13 more films together. This just might be their best though. Stagecoach is in a way a big epic (filmed at Monument Valley), but also a small character study. It’s thrilling, romantic, dramatic, humorous, pretty much everything you would want in a film. It’s a great introduction to Ford and Wayne for those who have not seen one of their westerns together.
Fun Fact: Orson Welles actually watched this film 40 times in preparation for filming Citizen Kane.