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


Greatest Films of the 1930s
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1933

Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), 88 minutes, D: Frank Capra
A sophisticated, beautifully photographed film, considered non-PC, controversial and provocative at its time due to the inter-racial or cross-cultural romance in the plot. Strong-willed missionary Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) from New England traveled to Shanghai, China in the 1930s, during a war-torn time of civil unrest. After joining her childhood sweetheart and chaste fiancee Dr. Robert 'Bob' Strike (Gavin Gordon), the betrothed couple became separated as they attempted to liberate an orphanage. Megan was taken prisoner (during rescue from a street riot) by ruthless and imposing Chinese warlord General Yen (Danish actor Nils Asther), who was assisted in his country stronghold by financial consultant Jones (Walter Connolly). Megan was presumed dead. To everyone's surprise, they developed an affectionate courtship and relationship, even though he had a mistress (also traitorous) - the lovely Mah-Li (Toshia Mori). However, their forbidden romance was threatened by invading Chinese rebels, and things came to a tragic, bitter end for the general.

Bombshell (1933)

Bombshell (1933), 90 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
A satirical, pre-Code farce with many inside jokes (and rapidly-paced dialogue) about Hollywood (a precursor to Sunset Blvd. (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)), flappers and the hectic movie business - reportedly about star Clara Bow (director Fleming's ex-fiancee). Pampered movie sex symbol Lola Burns (Jean Harlow), the "bombshell" of the title, is thwarted by studio press agents and her demanding director - her divorced ex-lover Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), so she tries to get away by changing her locale and loose-living image. She escapes Hollywood for a desert hotel in Palm Springs, where she falls for wealthy Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), an upperclass effete snob, but leaves him too when her alcoholic father Pops Burns (Frank Morgan) is snubbed by his 'blue-blood' family. When she returns to the movie studio, she realizes that her unscrupulous, unethical, manipulative and overbearing publicity director Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy) (who also loves her) has set her up, hiring Middleton and others in his "family" as impersonators, in order to get her to return to the movies and to him.

Cavalcade (1933)

Cavalcade (1933), 110 minutes, D: Frank Lloyd
Fox's and director Frank Lloyd's over-produced film - a portent of other British costume drama award-winners in future years. The oft-forgotten Fox film, an adaptation based on Noel Coward's dramatic stage play (adapted by Reginald Berkeley), was honored with four nominations and three wins - Best Picture, Best Director, and Art Direction/Decoration. A big budget production, with epochal scenes and an anti-war attitude. The sweeping, episodic film, spanning over thirty years, featured an all-British cast (including Clive Brooks, Diana Wynyard, and young Frank Lawton) and traced the lives of the British upper-class Marryot turn-of-the-century family, from an 1899 New Year's Eve celebration around the time of the Boer War and the death of Queen Victoria through the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the 1920s, the Depression, and up to a second New Year's Eve celebration in 1932. The effects of good and bad times and world events on the family's lives were chronicled (wartime, the death of the Queen, the husband's knighthood, the loss of one son on the Titanic and another in the Great War).

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Dinner at Eight (1933), 113 minutes, D: George Cukor
A star packed classic masterpiece. A Park Avenue snob Mrs. Oliver Jordan (Billie Burke) invites an assortment of guests to come to a formal dinner party, ignoring the ailments of her husband (Lionel Barrymore). From the time of the invitations to the actual dinner party, vignettes tell the story of the invited individuals, including forgotten stage star Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), fading matinee idol Larry Renault (John Barrymore), and the battling Packard couple including brassy blonde Kitty (Jean Harlow) and entrepreneur Dan (Wallace Beery).

Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup (1933), 70 minutes, D: Leo McCarey
An anarchistic, satirical, zany, anti-war film, one of the Marx Brothers' finest. Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), wealthy millionaire supporter of the financially strapped, tiny country of Freedonia, decides to appoint a new president, dictatorial Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). War clouds threaten almost immediately when Firefly insults neighboring Sylvania's ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern). Chicolini (Chico) and Brownie (Harpo) are hired as incompetent spies sent to get war plans. With classic diplomatic blunders, comic combat, terrific one-liners, slapstick gags, and great political humor.

Footlight Parade (1933)



Footlight Parade (1933)
, 104 minutes, D. Lloyd Bacon
One of the three most spectacular musicals in 1933 from Warner Bros. and legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley, alongside 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) - with this entry often considered the best of all three. The film is also notable for its suggestive pre-Hays Code dialogue and scenes. It stars James Cagney in his first, big singing-and-dancing musical role as unemployed yet enterprising Broadway theatrical producer Chester Kent, with Joan Blondell as his loyal secretary Nan Prescott. Its familiar plot, a backstage tale about putting on a lavish show, revolves around the production of live music numbers (called "prologues") for movie theatres to present before features, to give stage performers work who had been rendered unemployed by the advent of the "talkies." The thin plot is basically an excuse to show off the elaborate and extravagant Berkeley production numbers, especially the three showstoppers at the end of the film: "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall" with gorgeous bathing beauties, and "Shanghai Lil" (providing commentary on Paramount's Shanghai Lily character (Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932) from the year before)).

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street (1933), 89 minutes, D: Lloyd Bacon
The quintessential backstage musical, a terrific song and dance Busby Berkeley choreographic extravaganza. Berkeley made screen history in this milestone-grandfather of spectacular musicals, with scores of chorus girls, large extravagant musical 'production numbers' and sumptuous art deco sets, surrealistic imagery, optical effects, zoom lenses, escapist musical numbers, fast-paced timing and rhythmic editing, and wise-cracking dialogue. The lively musical drama chronicled the hard work of a manic, ailing Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) behind the making of a musical comedy - where life (whether as a director or chorus girl) depended upon the success of the opening show. The Warner Bros.' 'putting on a show' film (with two Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound, with no wins) also featured two fresh new juvenile stars, Ruby Keeler (as a chorus girl) and tenor Dick Powell, and it starred Ginger Rogers as veteran showgirl Anytime Annie. Marsh was putting one last effort into a Broadway musical. But at the last minute right before opening night, it appeared doomed when the leading dancer Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) broke her ankle. The show was saved when inexperienced chorus girl and understudy Peggy Sawyer (Keeler) dream is realized, and she was trained in a marathon rehearsal.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), 96 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
Mervyn LeRoy's blockbuster (a remake of the Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) which itself was a remake of the silent film Gold Diggers (1923) about chorus girls), was a hugely-successful follow-up to Warners' 42nd Street (1933). It was one of choreographer Busby Berkeley's purest fantasies for the Depression Era, with spectacular numbers. The simple plot was the story of a Broadway show and intrigue surrounding its financial backing. It featured a young, coin-clad Ginger Rogers in the opening production number leading a chorus line of showgirls garbed in more gold-coin costumes singing "We're in the Money" (with one verse in Pig Latin). In another scene, Berkeley undressed his pretty chorus girls entirely behind screens, backlighting them so that the audience could see all they had to offer in silhouette. In another romantic scene "The Shadow Waltz," neon-lighted violins formed geometric designs on the screen with girls dressed all in white. The film ended with the social commentary of the finale's downbeat number: "Remember My Forgotten Man" accompanied by the singing of Joan Blondell - a tribute to unemployed WWI veterans.

I'm No Angel (1933)

I'm No Angel (1933), 87 minutes, D: Wesley Ruggles
One of Mae West's funniest films (with lots of double entendres), and one of only two films in which West co-starred with Cary Grant. The star of a carnival side show act is dancer and lion tamer Tira (Mae West). When not performing, she fleeces many of her prospective suitors during numerous dalliances - she pursues playboy Jack Clayton (Cary Grant), but later the spurned Tira sues him for breach of promise. In the hilarious madcap courtroom scene that ends the film, he counters by assembling all her ex-lovers, but then allows her to win the case.

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933), 71 minutes, D: James Whale
H.G. Wells' novella tale, beautifully executed as a classic, Universal horror thriller. An obsessed mad scientist Jack Griffin (Claude Rains in his film debut) creates a chemical formula compound that makes him irreversibly invisible (with spectacular special effects), without any counter-agent. At first, the effects are comedic, but the serum slowly turns him into an insane megalomaniac lusting for power, and he wreaks havoc on a British country village.

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (1933), 100 minutes, D: Merian C. Cooper
One of the greatest adventure and monster classics of all time, from RKO. Nature documentary filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) finds destitute and beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and hires her to join a chartered ship expedition to the mysterious and remote Skull Island. He discovers and captures a giant ape, King Kong (a marvel of stop-motion animation), using Ann as bait. The scenes between the blonde, screaming maiden and Kong are bristling with fear and sexual overtones. A terrific scene includes Kong's island battle with a Tyrannosaurus. Kong is transported to New York City and put on display. Tormented by crowds, he escapes and creates havoc in the city. After breaking free, Kong seeks out Ann, and takes her to the top of the Empire State Building in the thrilling climax.

Land Without Bread (1933, Sp.) (aka Las Hurdes, or Terre Sans Pain)

Land Without Bread (1933, Sp.) (aka Las Hurdes, or Terre Sans Pain), 28 minutes, D: Luis Buñuel
Filmed as a black and white travelogue with mordant narration. A short, landmark documentary film banned from being shown in Spain by the Spanish government from 1933-1936. Its subject matter was troubling - the impoverished conditions of around 6,000 indigent farming inhabitants in the NW coastal region of Spain (near Portugal) known as Las Hurdes, cut off by a massive mountain range. Poverty, lack of hygiene, pestilence, malnutrition of children and contaminated water sources were rampant, as were the crude and primitive houses.

Little Women (1933)

Little Women (1933), 117 minutes, D: George Cukor
Regarded as the best and most incomparable of all versions (also in 1949, 1978, and 1994), especially Hepburn as Jo. A delightful and faithful screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic American story of the teenaged March sisters and the sorrows and joys of the New England family. Father March has gone off to fight in the Civil War, so the family is left with four very independent sisters who are all coming of age, including an outstanding Katharine Hepburn as coltish tomboy Jo who wants to be a writer. Each of the sisters finds independence and strength, and some find romance.

Morning Glory (1933)

Morning Glory (1933), 74 minutes, D: Lowell Sherman
Adapted from a Zoe Atkins play, and remade by Sidney Lumet as Stage Struck (1958) with Susan Strasberg. A headstrong, starstruck, yet naive small-town girl from New England (Vermont), Eva Lovelace (Katharine Hepburn in her third film) wishes to be a stage actress in the big city of New York, and make it big on Broadway. She shows incredible will and determination following disappointments, until she finally gets her big break - after being recognized for a drunken Shakespearean soliloquy of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene delivered at a cocktail party. She also becomes involved in a love triangle between Broadway manager Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou) and playwright Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). Whether her quick success will be long-lasting or withering like a "morning glory" remains to be seen. Hepburn's role parallels her real-life career experience. Notable as the film in which Hepburn won her first Oscar for Best Actress (the first of four career Academy Awards).

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933, UK)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933, UK), 97 minutes, D: Alexander Korda
The well-known historical drama (or biopic), the chronicling of the life of the famous 16th century ruler, the eccentric, spoiled, despotic, corpulent, bawdy and much-married King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton), notoriously known for his gluttony scene and frequent beheading of his wives. The film centers on the succession of many wives, with a terrific performance by Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's real-life wife) as Henry's wily fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Merle Oberon was on-screen briefly in the opening scene as Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, awaiting execution for alleged adultery. Boleyn was executed on the same day as King Henry's third marriage to Boleyn's maid Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie) (who soon dies in childbirth), while Henry already has his sights on Lady Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), an opportunist courtesan involved in a private affair with Henry's courtier Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat), who eventually becomes his fifth wife.

Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina (1933), 97 minutes, D: Rouben Mamoulian
A classic, romantic, ethereal performance by Greta Garbo, in a lavish, well-produced costume-drama story that stretches historical truth - a story about the choice between love or duty. The lovely yet controversial 17th century (bisexual?) queen of Sweden, Queen Christina (Greta Garbo), rather than being forced into the possibility of a political marriage to military hero cousin Prince Charles (Reginald Owen) to give her country an heir to the throne, restlessly escapes dressed in a young man's clothes to a country inn during a snowstorm. She accidentally meets and finds love with the new Spanish (and Catholic) ambassador to Sweden, Don Antonio de la Prada (John Gilbert, Garbo's silent era leading man and lover). She reveals her true self and has a passionate love affair with him in their shared inn room. She shocks all of Europe by abdicating her throne for love, to follow Don Antonio to Spain. Unfortunately, ambitious and jealous courtier and ex-lover Count Magnus (Ian Keith) destroys her dream by demonizing her lover. The final image of the film as she sails away while standing pensively at the bow of the ship is most famous.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong (1933), 66 minutes, D: Lowell Sherman
A lusty Gay 90s spoof, with lots of clever innuendo, witty and irreverent one-liners, and bold carnality. The film deeply worried censorship officials and helped to speed the enforcement of the Code in the next year. Her main goals were to demolish the double standard, to be sexually frank, and to end prudery on screen. It was Mae West's star-making, most famous film role as a liberated, racy woman who enjoyed her sexuality. Buxom Mae West portrayed Bowery saloon owner and madame Diamond Lil. She romanced handsome and dashing Salvation Army mission director Captain Cummings (actually an undercover cop (Cary Grant)). Included West's singing of "Frankie and Johnny," "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone," and "I Like a Man What Takes His Time," and her most famous line of dialogue to the Captain: "Why don't you come up sometime 'n see me? I'm home every evening."

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Sons of the Desert (1933), 68 minutes, D: William A. Seiter
A classic, hilarious comedy - the funniest full-length feature from Laurel and Hardy. The two boys Stan Laurel (Himself) and Oliver Hardy (Himself) deviously plan to fool their wives by claiming to have gone on a prescribed ocean voyage to Hawaii (to cure Ollie's illness), while instead attending the national convention of their fraternal Sons of the Desert lodge members in Chicago, with mad-cap conventioneer Charley Chase (Himself). Their plan fails miserably when the ship is reported sunk, and Mrs. Hardy (Busch) and Mrs. Laurel (Christy) discover the truth, viewing their husbands in the fraternal parade in a movie newsreel. The pair must explain how they have returned one day ahead of all the other survivors. In revenge, the two wives plot to test their exposed mates.

Zero De Conduite (1933, Fr.) (aka Zero For Conduct)

Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes Diables au Collège (1933, Fr.) (aka Zero For Conduct), 41 minutes, D: Jean Vigo
A satirical, semi-autobiographical film with slapstick banned by French censors until after WWII. The main characters were three rebellious students at a repressive French boarding school with authoritarian, corrupt, inept, and oppressive teachers (known as "monitors" or Surveillants), led by a long-bearded, tyrannical midget principal (Delphin). Only one new teacher was amusing - Huguet (Jean Dasté) - mimicking Charlie Chaplin and walking on his hands on his desk during class. "Zero for Conduct" grades and detention were often awarded to three students in particular: Bruel (Constantin Goldstein-Kehler), Caussat (Louis Lefebvre), and Colin (Gilbert Pruchon), joined by a fourth who proved himself - Tabard (Gerard de Bedarieux). They plotted to destroy the school during its annual Commemoration/Alumni Day celebrations, with a messy, slow-motion feather pillow fight in the dorm, a mock regal Catholic procession, and a liberating finale when the boys pelted teachers with debris from the rooftop (an inspiration for Lindsay Anderson's If... (1968)).


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