Greatest Films of the 1930s
Greatest Films of the 1930s

Greatest Films of the 1930s
1930 | 1931 | 1932 | 1933 | 1934 | 1935 | 1936 | 1937 | 1938 | 1939


Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description
Arrowsmith (1931)

Arrowsmith (1931), 108 minutes, D: John Ford
An intelligent and faithful film adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel. A small-town, idealistic, young, and dedicated research doctor, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) tries to remain true to his medical ethics - to help humankind rather than quickly have personal wealth. He leaves his practice to conduct research to help stop bubonic plague in the West Indies with a new serum. He suffers personal tribulations when his pure wife Leora (Helen Hayes) dies. Tempted by commercial interests and quick, big money offers, he nearly strays from his calling, but remains true to his idealism, although tempted by a vampish rich girl's love, Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy).

Bad Girl (1931)

Bad Girl (1931), 90 minutes, D: Frank Borzage
Borzage's last film for Fox Studios, and based on Viña Delmar's eponymous, 1928 autobiographical bestseller - a tale of flapper promiscuity. A simple, slightly dated love story - a touching melodrama of the hardships and disillusionments of a young, lower-income New York couple, Eddie Collins (James Dunn) and shopgirl Dorothy or "Dot" (Sally Eilers), who must impulsively marry when she unexpectedly gets pregnant after a pre-wedlock night together in his apartment. Eddie sacrifices his career dream of owning a radio shop to provide for his family - by entering a boxing match for the prize money.

The Champ (1931)

The Champ (1931), 85 minutes, D: King Vidor
A sports-related film and great, sentimental tearjerker (remade in 1979), the story of a down-and-out ex-heavyweight boxing Andy 'Champ' Purcell (Oscar-winning Wallace Beery) and his adoring son Dink (Jackie Cooper). Training in Tijuana for an eventual comeback, the washed-up boxer is also a drinker and a gambler. He is threatened with separation from his boy when the boy's mother Linda (Irene Rich) who had abandoned them, now married to a wealthy husband, returns to regain custody of her son, to raise him in a more favorable environment. In the climactic boxing bout, the Champ wins a tough match against a Mexican fighter, but dies with his son by his side in the locker room.

La Chienne (1931, Fr.) (aka The Bitch)

La Chienne (1931, Fr.) (aka The Bitch), 91 minutes, D: Jean Renoir
Renoir's second sound film - a social drama that was controversial and banned in the US due to its racy subject matter. It was remade as the dark film noir Scarlet Street (1945) by Fritz Lang. Discontented, middle-class bank office clerk/accountant Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) and part-time painter is unhappily married to domineering, shrewish and difficult Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet). He begins a romance with low-class, femme fatale prostitute/streetwalker "Lulu" or Lucienne (Janie Marèze) - the "bitch" of the film, and she becomes his mistress. Thinking she is vulnerable and abused, he unwisely supports her and gives her an apartment - until he runs out of money. Instead, she is in love with her pimp Dédé (Georges Flamant). Dédé schemes to sell Legrand's paintings with Lucienne posing as the artist and signing Legrand's work. However, the film's love triangle ends violently. When he finds out about her monetary conniving and infidelity, he jealously kills her by strangulation, although in the surprise ending, Dédé is convicted of the murder and sent to the gallows. In the final scene, Legrand is a tramp on the streets, ironically watching as one of his self-portrait paintings is profitably sold.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights (1931), 87 minutes, D: Charles Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin's greatest masterpiece, the last of his totally-silent films. As the Little Tramp (Chaplin), he falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), and also develops a friendship with a drunken, Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Meyers). Unable to see him, she believes he is wealthy. He uses money from the millionaire for an operation to restore the girl's sight. A moving, eloquent film with a priceless ending, when the girl learns the identity of her benefactor.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), 90 minutes, D: Rouben Mamoulian
From Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel. The heavily-censored film features themes of sexual abuse, man's dual nature, and repression. The Pre-Code story of a fatally curious doctor, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Best Actor-winning Fredric March) who adventures into the unknown, has more sex and violence than later versions. He self-tests a serum formula that releases the uninhibited, subconscious evil in his soul, and develops a monstrous and tortured split personality as Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll has some sexy scenes with Cockney slut "Champagne Ivy" Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) - and as the hideous, simian-like Mr. Hyde, he exhibits sordid, vicious, sexually-decadent and sadistic behavior and eventually murders her.
In the finale, he is hunted and killed by London police, who gasp to see him revert to Dr. Jekyll in death.

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931), 75 minutes, D: Tod Browning
A film that defined the genre of horror pictures. A creepy, weird, and frightening film with tremendous atmosphere and dialogue. Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) plays the Transylvanian vampire, with a lilting Hungarian accent. He moves from Europe to London to find his true love and satisfy his craving for human blood. He lures and victimizes innocent English women, leading them to his underground vaults. In a secondary role, Dracula's insane slave Renfield (Dwight Frye) is unforgettable.

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931), 71 minutes, D: James Whale
A great horror classic, although antiquated, of Mary Shelley's novel. An obsessed Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) creates the hideous monster Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) out of body pieces, including a criminal brain. Karloff's rendition of the pathetic, innocent figure (without dialogue) is superb. When the mad doctor's creation accidentally drowns a little girl, the angry townspeople attack the scorned and lonely creature. Followed by Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

The Front Page (1931), D: Lewis Milestone
The first film version of the original Broadway Hecht-MacArthur play, followed by three remakes: His Girl Friday (1940) (with the character of Hildy Johnson played by a female, Rosalind Russell), The Front Page (1974) (with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), and Switching Channels (1988). A fast-paced comedy with swift, sharp dialogue set in 1920s Chicago, in which fast-talking, ruthless editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) battled with his ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien) and with City Hall. Hildy wanted to leave big-city life and get married, but was convinced to stay for one last story - about an escaped prisoner, a cop-killing radical (about to be executed) claimed he was innocent. The last line ("son-of-a-bitch") was censored - covered over by the sound of a typewriter.

M (1931, Germ.)

M (1931, Germ.), 117 minutes, D: Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang's first sound film, an expressionistic psychological thriller about a child molester named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) who terrorized the German city of Berlin. As he approached his targets, he compulsively whistled Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King, and was later marked by underworld members with the letter M on his back, until caught and tried in a kangaroo court, and then by a conventional court. A highly influential film.

Le Million (1931, Fr.) (aka The Million)

Le Million (1931, Fr.) (aka The Million), 89 minutes, D: René Clair
A technically-groundbreaking, inventive, influential and entertaining French film musical, adapted from a successful stage production. Michel Bouflette (René Lefèvre), an impoverished Parisian artist, is perpetually annoyed by numerous creditors. In the apartment of his long-suffering fiancée, ballerina Béatrice (Annabella) who is endlessly waiting to get married to her flirtatious boyfriend, Michel's worthless, torn, and tattered jacket ends up in the hands of elderly and eccentric on-the-run thief Grandpa Tulip (Paul Olliver). Michel realizes that in the pocket of the jacket was his winning ticket in the Dutch lottery, with a prize of a million guilders. There's a race across Paris with his best friend-rival Prosper (Louis Allibert) to recover the jacket concealing the winning lottery ticket.

A Nous La Liberte (1931, Fr.) (aka Freedom For Us)

À Nous la Liberté (1931, Fr.) (aka Freedom For Us), 104 minutes, D: René Clair
A satirical, fantasy comedy about dehumanizing industrialization and mass production (and an inspiration for Chaplin's Modern Times (1936)). Its story was told through the lives of two cellmate convicts: Émile (Henri Marchand) and Louis (Raymond Cordy), incarcerated in a French prison. After escaping to the outside world, ex-prisoner Louis became a gramophone salesman, and then opened up his own successful phonograph manufacturing company, with his workers reduced to robotic automatons on an assembly line. Later, Émile was released from prison, and became a low-level worker in Louis' factory - but was not aware that Louis was the owner/director. Fearing discovery and pursuit by the authorities, Louis gave his factory over to his workers, and with Émile, took to the open road of freedom as tramps.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931), 83 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
A powerfully stunning, Pre-Code gangster film about 1920s hoodlums (alongside another major gangster film, Little Caesar (1930)), the film that launched James Cagney as a typecast star. Two young Chicago street toughs on the South Side, Irish boys (Cagney and Eddie Woods as Matt Doyle) who grow up during Prohibition become small-time thieves, bootleggers and then murderous gangsters. This is a larger than life portrayal of one of the kids, who becomes a vicious, brutal, arrogant Irish gangster, Tom Powers (James Cagney). The film is memorably known for the infamous scene of his nagging mistress Kitty (Mae Clarke) having a grapefruit smashed in her face. He also cavorts with other molls, including Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow).

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), 74 minutes, D: Edgar Selwyn
A sentimental tale of motherly sacrifice, a tearjerking melodrama (filmed eight times between 1915 and 1981) scripted by the title star's husband Charles MacArthur. It tells about French rural girl Madelon Claudet (Oscar winnng-Helen Hayes in her first sound film) who has an illegitimate son after being seduced by American artist Larry Maynard (Neil Hamilton) who soon after abandons the family and marries someone else. Her next affair with Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone) ended with him arrested for a jewel robbery and a suidice. Charged as Carlo's accomplice (and sentenced to 10 years), she is forced to give up her son, loses her social standing, and becomes a haggard streetwalker who also performs robberies. She secretly devotes her entire life to her son Lawrence Claudet (Robert Young), even supporting him financially in medical school.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), 102 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
This early, pre-Code Ernst Lubitsch musical set in Vienna told about a love triangle and changing sexual mores. The main three characters in the Best Picture-nominated light musical were: Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier), a charming officer in the Viennese Royal Guard, Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a cute beer garden violinist and conductor of an all-female orchestra, and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), the sexually-repressed princess of Flausenthurm. In the comedy, Niki leaves his mistress Franzi for the visiting Austrian Princess, and by the film's final scene, the Lieutenant is forced to marry the Princess. However, Niki refuses to romance her, while he continues to have a 'stepping out' affair with Franzi, until Anna discovers their indiscretions. The sexually-liberated Franzi is called to the palace where she gives the Princess a lesson on sexiness by wearing modern lingerie and fashions. She also advises her on her unconsummated marriage. As a result of Franzi's romantic self-sacrifice at the film's end, the randy Lieutenant sings suggestively toward the film audience before he closes his bedroom door - he saves his marriage and renews his love-making interest in the Princess.

Tabu (1931) (aka Tabu: A Story of the South Seas)

Tabu (1931) (aka Tabu: A Story of the South Seas), 84 minutes, D: Robert J. Flaherty, and F.W. Murnau
A visually-beautiful, expressionistic, quasi-documentary, and poetic piece of filmmaking with an all-native cast. It told of native South Seas love and Tahitian island life (with flower-garlanded, bare-breasted native dancers). It was a tale of ill-fated romance (a star-crossed love a la Romeo and Juliet style) and the breaking of a sacred tabu. South Sea island beauty Reri (Anne Chevalier) was outcast and considered 'taboo' to all men by the islanders, because she was named as the successor to the island's sacred virgin. A romance developed between her and a pearl diver (Matahi) - but their relationship ended tragically. During production of this documentary-styled film, co-scriptwriter and documentary film-maker Flaherty left mid-way through, and then just days before the film was released, director Murnau was killed in an auto accident.

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