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
A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Bill of Divorcement (1932), 70 minutes, D: George Cukor
A sensitive performance by John Barrymore. Hillary Fairfield (John Barrymore), who has been living in a mental hospital for 15 years, escapes. He returns home to his wife and family on the day his wife Margaret (Billie Burke) is divorcing him so that she can remarry. His strong-willed daughter Sydney (Katharine Hepburn, in her film debut) had always been told that he had been shell-shocked from the Great War, but now discovers from him a family history of hereditary mental illness, and she starts to believe that she is next.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932), 92 minutes, D: Josef von Sternberg
A camp classic and the most outlandish of the Dietrich/von Sternberg pictures. Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich), a nighclub-cabaret singer, was also a loving mother and wife who prostituted herself to a nightclub owner and wealthy playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) in order to pay for her scientist husband Edward's (Herbert Marshall) expensive ($1,500) medical bills, so that he can go for cancer treatment in Germany. Her husband was an American chemist dying of radium poisoning. Helen (taking the named Helen Jones) began a glamorous career as a cabaret singer on the German stage. She was billed as the "Blonde Venus." The film's highlight was her bizarre, gorilla-suited "Hot Voodoo" number, to the beat of an African drum, in which she first took off her gorilla head and suit to reveal herself. She then sang the throaty song wearing a blonde Afro wig, while surrounded by archetypal 'black' dancers. As the Hays Code required, she would have to suffer the consequences as a 'fallen woman.' Upon her husband's return from treatment, he discovered her liaison with Townsend and filed for divorce and custody of their five year-old son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Forced to surrender Johnny to authorities, she eventually became an impoverished and destitute prostitute. In the end, however, in another turn-around, her estranged husband realized that her sacrifice was for his cure, and they were reconciled.

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932, Fr.) (aka Boudu Sauvé des Eaux)

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932, Fr.) (aka Boudu Sauvé des Eaux), 90 minutes, D: Jean Renoir
Renoir's fourth sound film - an arthouse film of social commentary which shocked and scandalized when first shown. Also a forward-looking, sophisticated and inventive film with several early experiments with deep focus and nonnaturalistic sound. With a plot similar to its Paul Mazursky remake: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). Tramp Priape Boudu (Michel Simon) was rescued from a suicidal drowning in the Seine River by a Parisian bookseller named Édouard Lestingois (Charles Granval). When bum Boudu was provided with shelter in the bourgeois home of benefactors Édouard and Emma Lestingois (Marcelle Hainia), he proved to be ungrateful, loutish, deranged, destructive, lazy, smelly and dirty, rude, disgusting, and salacious. Also involved in the plot was the Lestingois' gold-digging maid Chloë Anne Marie (Sévérine Lerczinska), the husband's mistress. After winning the national lottery by a stroke of luck (finding the winning ticket in a suitcoat given him by Edouard), Boudu married Anne-Marie, but then gave up his comfortable middle-class life and fortune by literally swimming away and reverting to being a tramp.

Cabin in The Cotton (1932)

Cabin in The Cotton (1932), 77 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
A rich, young and wicked Southern woman Madge Norwood (Bette Davis) entrances a poor sharecropper's son Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelemess), who works at her father Lane Norwood's (Berton Churchill) general store as a night clerk. When promoted to bookkeeper, he learns how Norwood is cheating the tenant farmers, caught in the conflict between his loyalty to his employer, his love for Madge, and his roots as a farmer. The film is known for Madge's famous line: "Ah'd like to kiss ya, but ah jest washed ma hair."

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

A Farewell to Arms (1932), 78 minutes, D: Frank Borzage
A romanticized version of Ernest Hemingway's tragic love story. A wounded American ambulance driver Lt. Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) falls in love with British volunteer nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes), while both serving in the war in WWI Italy. They are both brought together and separated by the circumstances of the war, and the manipulations of jealous womanizer Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou). A sentimental, romantic, and moving film.

Freaks (1932)

Freaks (1932), 64 minutes, D: Tod Browning
A bizarre horror film, but a cult favorite. This is the truly amazing masterpiece about a group of grotesquely deformed circus freaks (the film features many real-life circus sideshow freaks, including "pinheads," the "living torso" Prince Radian, Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and the half-bodied Johnny Eck, and others). A beautiful but heartless high-wire artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) marries a wealthy circus midget Hans (Harry Earles), but then plots with her strongman lover Hercules (Henry Victor) to poison him to death for his money. In revenge, the group of freaks protect the midget from his bride and get even with the high-wire artist. The freaks seek retribution against strongman Hercules by crawling and slithering in the mud under the carnival wagons, with knives in their hands, as they pursue him. They transform (off-screen) the tall and sexy Cleopatra into a legless, feathered chicken with a scarred and bruised face, drooping mouth, and a squawking mouth - she was punished for her greed, cruelty and duplicity toward one of the freaks.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932), 112 minutes, D: Edmund Goulding
An MGM all-star classic film and soap opera - Best Picture-winning film. World War I is over, and Berlin's beautiful, art-deco Grand Hotel is busy with the intersecting lives and destinies of its glamorous guests in a 24-hour period. The dramatic ensemble cast includes a weary, unloved and lonely ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), a financially-destitute nobleman and jewel-thief Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore) who she falls in love with, a sexy hotel stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) who meets a dying clerk Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) searching for a last fling, and a crude industrialist Gen. Director Preysing (Wallace Beery).

Horse Feathers (1932)

Horse Feathers (1932), 68 minutes, D: Norman Z. McLeod
One of the Marx Brother's greatest, most zany films, with numerous one-liners. Groucho is Professor Wagstaff, president of Huxley College, who mistakenly hires Chico, the local speakeasy bootlegger and iceman, and his assistant Harpo, a dogcatcher, as professional football players, so Huxley College can beat their rivals at Darwin. In the big game, Huxley wins through madcap maneuvers.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), 93 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
The powerful, realistic drama of an innocent man, a World War I veteran James Allen (Paul Muni) who has been convicted, and sentenced to ten years of hard labor for a crime he didn't commit. He is trapped in a brutal Southern chain gang. Prisoners are treated inhumanely by the guards. After a prison escape through the swamps, he reestablishes himself in Chicago with a normal life, but is discovered and voluntarily returns to the South, with a promise that he will be pardoned. Upon his return to prison, he is again brutalized. The film is known for its chilling climax, and for its effectiveness in promoting social reform.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Love Me Tonight (1932), 104 minutes, D: Rouben Mamoulian
An adaptation of Rodgers and Hart's Broadway musical, with innovative direction and editing, one of the best musicals. This was a pivotal musical. It shaped the technical language of movie musicals in the sound era, by smoothly integrating the songs into the film's plotline. It also featured the first zoom shot (into a window) and the first asynchronous sound, and also other dazzling special effects such as slow-motion, fast-motion, and split-screens. This is the romantic tale of a Parisian tailor Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier) who tries to win the heart of a princess, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald). Includes the songs "Lover," "Mimi," and "Isn't It Romantic?"

Me and My Gal (1932), 79 minutes, D: Raoul Walsh
In this low-budget, fast-talking, pre-Code streetwise romantic comedy (with crime drama elements), fresh young New York pier beat-cop Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracy) falls in love with sarcastic, strong-minded waterfront cafe waitress Helen Riley (Joan Bennett), while Helen's newly-married sister Kate (Marion Burns) still harbors feelings for an ex-boyfriend - gangster fugitive Duke Castenega (George Walsh, the director's brother), and hides him in her attic. As a pre-Prohibition film (alcohol was outlawed in 1933), it celebrates drinking - one drunken character, the father of the bride, approaches the camera and asks: "Who’d like a drink, huh?"

Night after Night (1932)

Night after Night (1932), 73 minutes, D: Archie Mayo
Mae West's first talking film, full of her notable wisecracks and one-liners in a secondary role. Joe Anton (George Raft), a reformed thug, who has many uncouth, low-life acquaintances from his past (including Mae West), opens up a night club, and attempts to woo Park Avenue, upper-class beauty Jerry Healy (Constance Cummings). During a dinner party, blonde Mandie Triplett (Mae West), one of Joe's former girls, bursts in, and disrupts the proceedings, with her inimitable presence and dialogue.

The Old Dark House (1932)

The Old Dark House (1932), 70 minutes, D: James Whale
Notable as one of James Whale's bizarre horror films, with Boris Karloff in his first film role. A theatrically creepy story of a group of stranded travelers who take shelter in the mysterious, haunted dark old house of the Femm family. The assorted collection of guests include Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart), their friend Roger Penderell (Melvyn Douglas), Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his companion Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). The residents of the house include 102 year old bedridden Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon), a son Horace (Ernest Thesiger), daughter Rebecca (Eva Moore), and a psychotic mute butler (Boris Karloff).

Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust (1932), 83 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
A steamy classic drama, with hot-blooded chemistry between the two stars. The film was remade as Mogambo (1953), starring Clark Gable (21 years older), Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly. Dennis Carson (Clark Gable), head of a Indo Chinese rubber plantation, takes in a female house guest - a flirtatious, glib, and earthy platinum blonde Saigon hooker named Vantine (Jean Harlow), running from the authorities. His lusty relationship with the wisecracking Vantine is put to the test when a boat arrives with newlyweds, an engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his cultured, upper-class attractive wife Barbara "Babs" (Mary Astor), and Carson turns his attentions toward Barbara. Eventually torn between the two in a love triangle, he returns into the arms of his bawdy girlfriend Vantine, when wounded by a shot-gun blast from a jealous "Babs."

Scarface (1932) (aka Scarface, the Shame of the Nation)

Scarface (1932) (aka Scarface, the Shame of the Nation), 90 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
A violent, fast-paced, intense crime/gangster melodrama, the 'first' of the great gangster films, although its release was delayed due to censorship battles. One of the boldest, most potent, raw and violently-brutal gangster-crime films ever made. Based on Al Capone's life, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Roaring 20's tough Chicago gangster and bootlegger Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Tony is a brutish, primeval character, and the film portrays scandal, violence, and 28 on-camera murders, as he confronts both his rivals led by Johnny Lovo and associates such as Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). The film was also considered controversial because of hints of incest between Tony and his sexy sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak).

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932), 80 minutes, D: Josef von Sternberg
A romantic adventure film. While on the Shanghai Express train traveling through civil war-torn China, a couple fall into the hands of revolutionaries led by a cruel war lord Henry Chang (Warner Oland). Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), the mysterious and erotic temptress, meets her ex-lover army surgeon, Captain Donald "Doc" Harvey (Clive Brook), and they rekindle their relationship when they are interrupted by rebels who attack the train. With Shanghai Lily's famous line of dialogue: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932), 104 minutes, D: W.S. Van Dyke
The first sound Tarzan film, and one of the best renditions of Edgar Rice Burrough's classic jungle tales. An expedition searching for elephant ivory treasures in a graveyard is met in the wilds of Africa by ape man of the jungle, Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller). He kidnaps English girl Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), the daughter of the leader of the British expedition, and the two discover their love for each other. Includes some great action sequences.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932), 83 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
A sophisticated, witty, comedy farce. The story of two jewel thieves Gaston Monescu/LaValle (Herbert Marshall) and Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins), who work together to fleece a widow Mme. Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) of her fortune, by posing as her secretary and maid. Their obviously unmarried association was fueled by illicitly-acquired possessions that served as an aphrodisiac during foreplay. However, things don't go as planned, as Gaston falls in love with Mariette, and is recognized by a former victim.

Vampyr (1932, Germ.) (aka The Vampire)

Vampyr (1932, Germ.) (aka The Vampire), 83 minutes, D: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Danish writer/director Carl Theodor Dreyer's dreamlike, atmospheric, seminal horror film (his first talkie) was loosely based on the 1872 lesbian vampire short story Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. It was alternatively titled The Strange Adventure of David Grey - and it told the story of an occult researcher named Allan/David Grey (Baron Nicolas de Gunsburg, played by Julian West) in a remote country inn in the village of Courtempierre who was given a vampire combat book - "The History of Vampires". He slowly believed he was surrounded by vampires - and dreamt of his own death and glass-lidded coffin burial (filmed with a double-exposure) during a blood-loss induced fever dream.

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