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

Alice Adams (1935), 99 minutes, D: George Stevens
An RKO social drama adapted from Booth Tarkington's 1921 novel. A silent version was released in 1923. A likeable, small-town teenager Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) is from a middle-class background in a midwestern town, but frustrated because she desperately wishes to be accepted by her upper-class peers. She is embarrassed by her family's social status and her father's lack of ambition, so she convinces her friends that she is from a wealthy family. At a high-society party, she meets a wealthy, handsome young man Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) and tells him fanciful tales of her family's fortunes. She invites him into her home and in the memorable scene at the disastrous dinner table, everything goes wrong as it is painfully obvious what her social circumstances really are.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935), 73/90 minutes, D: James Whale
A frightening, but campy, classic horror film, a sequel that betters the original, and precedes the next film with an all-star horror cast, The House of Frankenstein (1944). A masterpiece from Universal horror director James Whale. Remade as The Bride (1985), starring Sting and Jennifer Beals. The delightfully evil but weird scientist Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) compels and convinces Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) to artificially make a female companion/mate (Elsa Lanchester) to placate the lonely Monster (Boris Karloff), who has been terrorizing the countryside. In this version, the monster is more human-like, and can even speak a few words. (The monster had escaped death from the fiery castle at the end of Frankenstein (1931), the previous film). The humorous creation/"birth" scene of the Bride is an unforgettable classic.

Captain Blood (1935), 119 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
A classic adventure film swashbuckler, Errol Flynn's first starring role, and the first of eight romantic pairings with co-star de Havilland. A young 17th century Irish physician/surgeon Dr. Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is wrongly condemned by a judge for participating in the Monmouth uprising and aiding the rebels by treating their wounds. He is sold into plantation slavery in the Caribbean (Jamaica). He is purchased by the beautiful niece Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland) of a brutal plantation owner, but escapes his unfair sentence and becomes a leader of a band of fearsome Caribbean pirates. He launches his own battle against Col. Bishop, the colonial governor of Jamaica (Lionel Atwill) in a number of stirring action sequences including sea battles and bombardments and a fencing duel with rival villainous pirate Capt. Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He also charmingly romances Arabella.

Dangerous (1935), 78 minutes, D: Alfred E. Green
Considered the ultimate soap-opera. An idealistic, aspiring, handsome architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone) attempts to rehabilitate and save an alcoholic former great Broadway star Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) from despair. He sponsors the tempestuous star's comeback in a stage play by bankrolling her efforts. In the process, he loses his heart to her romantically (while breaking off his engagement to his adoring wealthy socialite Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), despite the presence of Joyce's husband Gordon Heath (John Eldredge). When Gordon refuses to give his wife Joyce a divorce, she intentionally runs the car into a tree and paralyzes him for life. Joyce is guilt-ridden after the deliberate accident, vows to take care of Gordon, and sends Don back to Gail. Notable for Bette Davis winning her first Best Actress Academy Award, possibly as a consolation prize because she didn't win for Of Human Bondage (1934) a year earlier.

David Copperfield (1935, UK), 133 minutes, D: George Cukor
The definitive Hollywood/UK film adaptation of the 1850 Charles Dickens novel, the first and possibly the best of all film versions of Dickens' works. It is the story of young David Copperfield's (Freddie Bartholomew/Frank Lawton) growth to manhood in 19th century England. He lives an idyllic life at first with his recently widowed mother (Elizabeth Allan) and his nurse until his mother marries the despicable and mean Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). When she dies while he is away at boarding school, the orphaned David is forced to return home and go to work in his stepfather's sweat-shop warehouse under grim child labor conditions. He runs away to Dover to his eccentric Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) and eventually survives all his trials to become an author, who eventually marries his childhood sweetheart Agnes (Madge Evans). With unforgettably colorful secondary characterizations, especially the impoverished but philosophical Micawber (W. C. Fields) and villainous Uriah Heep (Roland Young).

The Informer (1935), 91 minutes, D: John Ford
One of John Ford's greatest films, an Academy-Award winner based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty. A profound study of life in 1922 Ireland, during the time of the violent Irish Sinn Fein civil rebellion. Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), a big, slow-minded, hard-drinking Irish Dubliner, commits the ultimate traitorous act by revealing the identity and betraying his former IRA leader and friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) in order to collect a twenty pound reward from the British - money he hopes will pay for passage to America. Thereby, he begins a downward spiral, especially after his friend dies in custody. He is regretful, devastated and tormented by his decision and his conscience, drinks away his reward money, and is the object of revenge by the IRA.

Les Misérables (1935), 108 minutes, D: Richard Boleslawski
The first (and some consider the best) of the many film adaptations of Victor Hugo's novel of 19th century France, with beautiful cinematography by Gregg Toland. This is the classic story of good and evil in an unforgiving and unrelenting legal system. Jean Valjean (Fredric March), who has stolen a loaf of bread to survive, is captured and given 10 years of hard labor. He escapes prison and rebuilds his life, becoming a respectable mayor of the town where a truly frightening and vengeful Javert (Charles Laughton) is chief of police. Valjean is identified as a wanted criminal, and then tormented by the unimpassioned, obsessed, and single-minded Javert, who will not let the past be forgotten. Not to be confused with the French 1934 version.

The Littlest Rebel (1935), 70 minutes, D: David Butler
One of famous child star Shirley Temple's most well-known 20th Century Fox pictures, although some criticized the film's sequence in which Shirley masqueraded in black face disguise as a "pickinniny," and the film's over-idealized view of slavery. Set in the South during the Civil War, young Virginia "Virgie" Houston Cary (Shirley Temple) is the six-year-old daughter of Confederate rebel officer Capt. Herbert Cary (John Boles), who is jailed trying to sneak back through Union lines with her after visiting his sick wife Helen (Karen Morley) in a rundown slave cabin. She saves her father from being executed as a Confederate spy by charming President Abe Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.), sharing an apple with him. Notable for its tap-dancing duet highlight "Polly Wolly Doodle" by Shirley Temple and Uncle Billy (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson).

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), 109 minutes, D: Henry Hathaway
An escapist, rousing classic adventure film. A tale of the British Empire at the time of its vast colonial holdings, and about three British soldiers serving in the 41st regiment in an exotic land. Set on India's remote rugged Northwest frontier were three British Bengal Lancers: the seasoned and fearless Scottish-Canadian Lt. Alan McGregor (Gary Cooper), gung-ho Lt. John Forsythe (Franchot Tone), and the naive, raw, untested recruit Lt. Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell) - the bitter son of a stern, high-ranking commanding official Col. Tom Stone (Guy Standing). The two soldiers attempt to rescue Stone after he is captured by warring chieftain Mohammed Khan (Douglas Dumbrille), and are captured and tortured themselves. With an exciting conclusion and battle - in which the trio of British soldiers find themselves fighting from inside the enemy's mountain fortress, as the Lancers attack and lay siege. In the end, Lt. Stone redeems himself by killing Khan, although McGregor dies during the fierce assault.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), 132 minutes, D: Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle
A fanciful film version of William Shakespeare's play, with lavish sets, costumes, choreography, and a tremendous all-star cast. It was the first major Hollywood attempt at a Shakespearean play, and won two Oscars - Film Editing and Best Cinematography by replacement film-maker Hal Mohr (a write-in nominee/candidate). It was also the sole sound feature film of German experimental theater director Max Reinhardt. Classical composer Mendelssohn's music was adapted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It told the story of mythical and mischievous forest creatures (fairies and artisans) who planned to put on a play for the amusement of the royal court at a royal wedding. Instead, the tale became one of a battle between the King Oberon (Victor Jory) and Queen Titania (Anita Louise) of the fairies and the misadventures of two couples who were confused and bedazzled. Unforgettable performances by James Cagney cast as Bottom and 15 year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck, and the film debut of Olivia de Havilland as Hermia.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), 133 minutes, D: Frank Lloyd
A classic adventure, Best Picture-winning film based upon Nordhoff and Hall's account of the hardships aboard an 18th century British man-of-war, the H.M.S. Bounty, on a naval sea expedition in 1789 in the remote South Pacific in search of breadfruit. The first (and best) of the filmic versions of the familiar tale, that was two years in the making and over-budget. Heartless, ruthless, sneering, arrogant and sadistic Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) subjects the crew to cruel suffering and degradation during his abuse of power (including a brutal flogging resulting in the death of the ship's sickly doctor), provoking heroic, fair-minded first officer Fletcher Christian (leading man Clark Gable) to lead them into a mutiny on its return voyage, and setting Bligh adrift on the high seas.

Naughty Marietta (1935), 106 minutes, D: W.S. Van Dyke II
The very first film teaming of the famous romantic and singing duo Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald - a major box-office hit at the time. Based upon Victor Herbert's 1910 operetta, set in 18th century France. An orphaned French Princess Marie de Namours de la Bonfain ("Marietta Franini") (Jeanette MacDonald), refusing an arranged marriage to Don Carlos, a Spanish man she doesn't love, escapes to colonial America (New Orleans, Louisiana) by exchanging destinies with her maid. When pirates attack the ship bound for America, she is rescued and falls in love with Indian scout Capt. Richard Warrington (Nelson Eddy). Although he leaves her when she plays hard-to-get, he returns to locate his true love and take her with him into the frontier. With songs including "The Italian Street Song," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," "I'm Falling in Love," and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life."

A Night at the Opera (1935), 92 minutes, D: Sam Wood
The first of five Marx Brothers films at MGM, a polished Marx Brothers comedy classic (their first film without Zeppo), one of their biggest hits, with famous routines and non-stop one-liners. Groucho plays crafty promoter Otis B. Driftwood who woos millionaire dowager Mrs. Claypool (perennial Margaret Dumont) and cons her into supporting an opera company with an investment of $200,000, so she can become a high-society member. With Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo), they all but destroy and then eventually save an operatic production. Memorable scenes include the crowded stateroom scene and the climax during the opening night performance of the grand opera.

Peter Ibbetson (1935), 88 minutes, D: Henry Hathaway
Based on the 1891 published novel by George du Maurier. A story about a surreal, metaphysical, and transcendent romance between two who were separated as children and reunited by destiny years later - and also spiritually after death. The two were: Parisian architect Peter Ibbetson (Gary Cooper), commissioned to design stables on the property of British Duke of Towers (John Halliday), and the Duke's lovely wife Duchess Mary of Towers (Ann Harding). During his work, Ibbetson recognized Mary as his long-lost childhood friend named Mimsey that he had played with in the same garden, when his name was Gogo. The Duke's jealousy led to the accidental death of the Duke during a struggle with Ibbetson, and he was unjustly sentenced to life in prison (although it was self-defense). Incarcerated, he had many surreal visions and dreams of his lover Mary - and a promise of eternal happiness with her - fulfilled with her after they both died and had a final rendezvous together.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), 76 minutes, D: Leo McCarey
One of the best (and funniest) screen comedies ever made. Most noted for Laughton's reading of the Gettysburg Address - while drunk. The Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young), an English nobleman, loses his valet butler Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton) to a wealthy, visiting American ranching couple Effie (Mary Boland) and Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) during a poker game. Accompanying his rough-and-ready, uncouth new employer from Paris back to his new home in the Wild Western town of Red Gap, Washington in 1908, the stiff, upper-lipped Ruggles has trouble, at first, adjusting to this informal, rowdy frontier town. He is able to break his indentured bonds of servitude and free himself from class restructions. He romances and marries Mrs. Judson (ZaSu Pitts), and opens a restaurant with her.

The Scoundrel (1935), 76 minutes, D: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur
Won an Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story (by directors Hecht and MacArthur) for its witty script and great lines of dialogue, and its theme of redemption. Both Hecht and MacArthur had cameos as bums in the flophouse scene. Also includes the film debut of Burgess Meredith as a minor uncredited character. The American League of Decency banned the film. A manipulative, unpleasant and ruthless New York publisher/writer Anthony Mallare (Noel Coward in his first starring film role) survives by using everyone he comes into contact with. He destroys the career and life of aspiring young author Paul Decker (Stanley Ridges) who soon loses his career and self-respect. As a cold-hearted, love 'em and leave 'em womanizer, he loves naive young poetess Cora Moore (Julie Haydon), Decker's fiancee and then abandons her after 6 months for a new lover, a concert pianist. Cora curses him - hoping his plane crashes and that he might die, and thinking that no tear would be shed for him. When he actually perishes on a Bermuda-bound airplane flight, his ghostly spirit is allowed to return to the world for one month to wander the Earth to atone for his actions, if he can find anyone who mourns his passing.

A Tale of Two Cities (1935), 120 minutes, D: Jack Conway (and Jacques Tourneur for second-unit sequences)
A lavish MGM film adaptation of Charles Dickens' monumental classic novel of the French Revolution, and a blockbuster film for David O Selznick. Filmed twice in the silent era, in 1911 and 1922, and also in the sound era in 1958 and 1980. Dissolute Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), an aimless and carefree London lawyer, finds his purpose in aiding beleaguered and downtrodden victims of the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution. He heroically sacrifices his own life to save another man Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) from the guillotine and for the love of the woman Lucie Manette/Darnay (Elizabeth Allan) that they both love. With Carton's haunting and famous last words before his execution: "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known."

The 39 Steps (1935, UK), 87 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
One of the all-time great thrillers, Hitchcock's first great masterpiece. In London, a visiting/vacationing Canadian rancher Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) attends a Palladium vaudeville act. When a shot rings out, he ends up in the company of a frightened woman, a female British agent Miss Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). He is given a map of Scotland and told about an international spy ring (with vital national security secrets) run by a man missing part of one finger. Sheltering her for the night, she is murdered, and he finds himself as an innocent man who must avoid police authorities (who suspect him of the murder) and avoid pursuit by spies (who want to silence him). He takes on her mission, and following the only clues he has, ends up in Scotland. On the way, he is handcuffed by the spies to a strange woman Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who at first hates him believing he is a criminal, but ends up in love with him and helping him solve the case.

Top Hat (1935), 101 minutes, D: Mark Sandrich
From RKO Studios, the fourth film teaming the dancing pair Astaire/Rogers, possibly their best (and most successful) work, with choreography by Hermes Pan and Astaire, beautiful Art Deco sets, and integrated music from Irving Berlin. American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) pursues the romantic love of his life Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) from London, England to Venice, Italy. In London, he first met her in the hotel when his loud tap-dancing awakened her in the room below. In a complicated and comical case of mistaken identity, she thinks he's married to her best long-suffering friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). Despite Dale's marriage to a rival Italian fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), in anger, Astaire and Rogers were reconciled and reunited in a gondola by film's end. Memorable Irving Berlin songs/dances include: "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Piccolino," and "Cheek to Cheek."

Triumph of the Will (1935, Germ.) (aka Triumph Des Willens), 114 minutes, D: Leni Riefenstahl
Nazi Fuhrer leader Adolf Hitler commissioned dancer/actress-turned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to make this notorious documentary to record and celebrate the sixth Nazi Reich Party Congress held in September 1934 in Nuremberg. This spectacular propagandistic film glorified and praised the might of the unjust and evil Nazi regime and state with masterful images, rapid cuts, a Wagnerian score, and ingenious camera angles and compositions. This infamous, extravagant two-hour film is still considered the most powerful propaganda film ever made, with grandiose opening shots of Messianic Hitler's arrival by plane, his heroic entrance and adulation by saluting ("Sieg Heil") multitudes and uniformed party members and soldiers (and Hitler Youth), and his charismatic exalted character during rousing speeches.

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