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

Anthony Adverse (1936), 141 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
Based on Hervey Allen's bestseller novel. A naive but ambitious youth Anthony Adverse (Fredric March) travels through early 19th century America, Europe, and Africa, and matures to manhood from his experiences. A grandscale film, with 98 speaking parts, thousands of Warner Bros. extras, and over 130 different sets. Notable as the first film to be honored with the newly-created Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (awarded to Gale Sondergaard).

Camille (1936), 109 minutes, D: George Cukor
The film version of Alexander Dumas' novel, with Greta Garbo's greatest performance in one of the best romantic films of all time. Marguerite, "lady of the camellias" (Greta Garbo), a lovely Parisian courtesan (prostitute) is a kept woman by wealthy Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell). She falls in love with Armand (Robert Taylor), a young innocent man, but then sacrifices herself for him when his father (Lionel Barrymore) asks her to give him up. With a classic, tearjerking death scene conclusion.

A Day in the Country (1936, Fr.) (aka Partie de Campagne), 40 minutes, D: Jean Renoir
A short, unfinished feature film based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, and set in the French countryside. A romantically-tinged, impressionistic, lyrical, sensuous and idyllic work of art. In the captivating story in the year 1860,
hardworking Parisian shopowner Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello) takes his family for their annual summer country picnic, near Poulain's riverside inn. The group includes his wife Madame Juliette Dufour (Jeanne Marken), pretty young daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), the old grandmother (Gabrielle Fontan) and a young apprentice shop boy Anatole (Paul Temps), the dimwitted fiancee of Henriette. They have an afternoon meal under a cherry tree, fish, and boat. The young girl leaves the group and is briefly attracted to Henri (Georges D’Arnoux, or Georges Saint-Saens), although she is engaged and soon regretfully marries buffoonish Anatole. Years later, she returns to the spot of their picnic and has a rendezvous with lovesick Henri - lamenting what happened.

Dodsworth (1936), 101 minutes, D: William Wyler
Based upon the Sinclair Lewis novel. A self-made millionaire American auto tycoon, middle-aged businessman Samuel Dodsworth (Walter Huston) goes from the midwest on a retirement trip to Europe with his frivolous, vain wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), who is afraid of growing old. In Europe, their lives and relationship are changed irrevocably when they realize they have grown apart. She is entranced with the cosmopolitan lifestyle and has romantic flings with three Europeans, announcing that she wants a divorce to marry an impoverished Austrian nobleman. He meets and finds peace and love with a beautiful American divorcee Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) and by film's end, leaves his wife to be with her. A mature and intelligent adult drama.

Follow the Fleet (1936), 110 minutes, D: Mark Sandrich
Two Navy sailors Bake Baker (Fred Astaire) and Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) who are on leave romance two sisters Connie (Harriet Hilliard, later Harriet Nelson) and Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers) in this delightful song/dance classic. With an Irving Berlin score, including "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," "We Saw the Sea," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," and "Let Yourself Go."

Fury (1936), 94 minutes, D: Fritz Lang
The first American film by expressionistic German director Fritz Lang, a realistic study of mob rule, injustice and revenge. Innocent Joe Wheeler (Spencer Tracy) is accused and convicted of a kidnapping that he didn't commit in an American small town. An angry, hysterical lynch mob wrongly suspects that he is the cold-blooded murderer, and sets the jail where he is held on fire. Twenty-one people are indicted on charges of murder when it is believed that he died in the fire. However, an embittered and vengeful Wheeler has survived the fire and returns, and in hiding, watches the torment of the would-be murderers during the trial. A precursor to the film noir classics of the 40s and 50s.

The General Died at Dawn (1936), 93 minutes, D: Lewis Milestone
An exotic adventure/melodramatic film. An American soldier of fortune O'Hara (Gary Cooper) smuggles gold across China to Shanghai to help finance arms purchases for a peasant uprising against a savage warlord General Yang (Akim Tamiroff). The cunning and evil Yang, who is interested in controlling all the northern provinces of China, attempts to have him assassinated, and when that fails, lures him onto a train en route to Shanghai. He is set up for an ambush and abduction when he falls in love with the daughter of one of Yang's agents, the beautiful Judy Perrie (Madeleine Carroll).

The Great Ziegfeld (1936), 170 minutes, D: Robert Z. Leonard
With lavish dance production numbers, a Best Picture winner. The story is the fictionalized musical biography of the career of the flamboyant show business impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell), including his relationships with wives, Anna (Luise Rainer) and Billie (Myrna Loy) and co-workers. The film shows his rise from a sideshow barker to his world-famous New York "Follies." Filled with memorable cameos of the stars who actually appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies (Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Ann Pennington, Harriet Hoctor, and others.) With huge sets, especially for "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody," and other memorable songs including "Look For the Silver Lining," and "Rhapsody in Blue."

Libeled Lady (1936), 98 minutes, D: Jack Conway
One of the best classic screwball comedies of the 1930s. The newspaper of managing editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) prints a libelous, false story about wealthy heiress Connie Allenbury's (Myrna Loy) affair with another woman's husband. She sues the paper for $5 million, just as Haggerty is preparing to marry fiancee Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow). The wedding is postponed. The scheming editor hires ex-employee Bill Chandler (William Powell) to marry (in name only) Gladys, so he can be free to seduce Connie, to trap her and prove the truth of the adultery story so the lawsuit can be dropped. But the perfect plan falls through when Chandler falls in love and marries Connie. With a clever, fast-paced script, and another comic pairing of Powell/Loy from The Thin Man series.

Modern Times (1936), 85 minutes, D: Charles Chaplin
One of the last great "silent" comedy masterpieces, with music, sound effects, and very limited gibberish dialogue/singing, and the last screen appearance of Charlie Chaplin's memorable character, The Little Tramp. A factory worker (Charles Chaplin) goes beserk and suffers a nervous breakdown, induced from the effects of working at a dehumanizing machine. He also suffers the effects of a labor strike, a jail sentence, and other problems of the modern age. Unemployed, he joins up with and falls in love with a young orphaned girl, the Gamine (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's real-life wife).

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), 115 minutes, D: Frank Capra
A charming Frank Capra comedy classic, contrasting small-town "little people" values with those of the cynical big city. An unassuming, small-town New Englander from Mandrake Falls, Vermont, a greeting-card poet and tuba player, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), inherits a fortune of $20 million from his late uncle. He moves into an enormous New York City mansion, but quickly finds that his world has been shaken, so he attempts to give it all away to struggling farmers and needier people. A cynical newsreporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) exploits the situation and follows his story, trying to figure out how he can be so generous, and ends up falling in love with him. He is accused by his relatives who cannot understand his generosity of being simple-minded, and they try to commit him on insanity charges. A courtroom trial is held and he must defend himself against charges that he is insane or "pixilated."

My Man Godfrey (1936), 94 minutes, D: Gregory La Cava
One of the first and best of the screwball comedies, a very zany, humorous classic. A group of extremely wealthy Park Avenue socialites holds a scavenger hunt, and one of the participants, ditzy blonde Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) finds a "forgotten man" at the dump for her list of odd items. The down-and-out, unemployed and homeless bum Godfrey Parke (William Powell) is in fact a blueblood who has had a run of romantic bad luck, a product of the Depression. Back at the party in the hotel, he speaks to the crowd about the insensitivity of their quest. She gives him a job as the family butler and brings him home. In the wealthy, snobbish household, he attempts to set things straight, teaches them a few lessons, and ultimately marries Irene.

The Petrified Forest (1936), 83 minutes, D: Archie Mayo
A screen adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's play. Vicious killer gangster Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart, in his first major movie role), flees from the authorities with his gang, and holds out with a group of hostages at an Arizona desert roadside service station cafe, the Black Mesa Bar B-Q. Hostages include an idealistic, but disillusioned intellectual/writer Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) and the diner owner's daughter/waitress/poet Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), who dreams of a better life and falls in love with him.

Rembrandt (1936, UK), 84 minutes, D: Alexander Korda
A colorful, unromanticized, complex biographical portrait of the last three decades of the life of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton). The film follows the decline of his fortunes and artistic integrity, and his financial burdens following the death of his first wife. When female companionship with his housekeeper Geertje Dirx (Gertrude Lawrence) is unsatisfactory, he marries his maid Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester). The film then follows his sorrow when his wife dies, and his transition into senility and old age.

Romeo and Juliet (1936), 127 minutes, D: George Cukor
One of the best filmed versions of Shakespeare's tragedy/romance play, a grand MGM production. The star-crossed lovers from feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, are 13-year old Juliet (Norma Shearer, 31 years old) and the teenage Romeo (Leslie Howard, 49 years old).

Rose-Marie (1936), 112 minutes, D: W.S. Van Dyke
An engaging musical pairing the famous singing duo Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Opera star and singer Marie de Flor (Jeanette MacDonald) goes in search of her escaped prisoner/fugitive brother John Flower (James Stewart, his second film early in his career) high in the rugged mountainous woods of the Canadian Rockies. There, she meets Canadian Mountie Sgt. Bruce (Nelson Eddy) who is in pursuit too. In the wilderness, he assists her and they fall in love, eventually reunited together in the finale. Includes their famous "Indian Love Call."

Sabotage (1936, UK), 76 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
AKA as A Woman Alone, and an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. The film's tagline described the mystery thriller's plot simply: "...A Bomb Plot ...A Killing ...Justice." Foreign terrorist and subversive saboteur Mr. Carl Verloc (Oskar Homolka) is married to young American Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney, or Sidney) - both are the struggling owners of a London BIJOU cinema-theater. He was paid to be part of a plot to set off a bomb (hidden in a canary cage) in the Piccadilly Circus station - "the center of the world," while being investigated by undercover Scotland Yard detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder). Unfortunately, the bomb killed her unwitting younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester) because he was unexpectedly delayed delivering the package with the bomb. Afterwards, in a memorable, mostly silent scene at a dinner table, she finds retribution and revenge by stabbing her husband in the stomach with a carving knife, and escapes having to confess to the crime when the theater burns down.

San Francisco (1936), 115 minutes, D: W.S. Van Dyke
An MGM lavish, big-star production, most noted for its spectacular special effects, the first big budget disaster film. Set on San Francisco's Barbary Coast in 1906, Paradise Saloon owner Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) falls in love with one of his recently-hired singers, beautiful Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald). She is also in great demand by operators of the city's opera house and wealthy Nob Hill socialite Jack Burley (Jack Holt). Priest Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy) of St. Anne's Mission is one of Blackie's boyhood friends who has followed a different path in life. The film ends with the famous 20-minute earthquake sequence.

The Story of a Cheat (1936, Fr.) (aka Le Roman D'un Tricheur), 81 minutes, D: Sacha Guitry
A mostly-silent life story, told stylistically and with charm, of a cheat (portrayed by writer/director Sacha Guitry), related by voice-over narration as a series of witty flashbacked 'memoirs' spoken by the cheat himself at an outdoor cafe. During his youth, he escaped death at 10 years of age when everyone in his large family ate poisonous mushrooms - he was being punished (forbidden to eat) after a petty act of stealing. He concluded that it doesn't pay to be honest, and began a career as a cheat and scoundrel.

The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), 85 minutes, D: William Dieterle
One of the best screen biographical dramas of the period. A strong character study and historical portrayal of the famous 19th century French scientist and founder of bacteriology Louis Pasteur (Paul Muni). He dedicates his life to develop the revolutionary, lifesaving anthrax vaccine and the toxin/antitoxin to cure rabies (hydrophobia), defying and challenging disbelieving doctors, conventional wisdom, ridicule, and skeptical Medical Academy colleagues.

Swing Time (1936), 103 minutes, D: George Stevens
A film classic, with dancing/acting/singing from the greatest dancing couple ever, Astaire and Rogers. A young professional dancer and groom-to-be John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) is engaged to his long-time girlfriend back home Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). He has come to New York to dance and earn $25,000 to prove himself, but is sidetracked when he falls in love with a beautiful dance academy instructor Penelope "Penny" Carrol (Ginger Rogers), and does everything he can to avoid earning the money. Includes the classic "Bojangles of Harlem" number, plus "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," "Pick Yourself Up," and "Never Gonna Dance."

Things to Come (1936, UK), 100 minutes, D: William Cameron Menzies
An early sci-fi 'apocalyptic' visionary disaster film based on scripter H.G. Wells' novel, and basically asking the taglined question: "What will the next hundred years bring to mankind?" This talky landmark film predicts the future - from 1940 to 2036, and is set in the fictional British city of 'Everytown' (a stand-in for London). Global wars for 66 years beginning in 1940 (prophetically predicting WWII), anarchy and tyranny, a plague (the Walking Sickness), and then a period of reconstruction of a societal Utopia (with a white, Art Deco futuristic wonder city) is led by a scientific group calling itself Wings Over the World. One of the group's accomplishments is a giant Space Gun to propel humans into space and around the moon, yet they are opposed by dissident artists led by master sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) - the mob's revolt fails, however. Noted for its production design (by William Cameron Menzies) and symphonic score.

Three Smart Girls (1936), 86 minutes, D: Henry Koster
14-year-old soprano singer Penny Craig (Deanna Durbin in her feature film debut) plays one of three daughters ("smart girls"). Penny is a successful matchmaker for her two sisters Joan (Nan Grey) and Kay (Barbara Read) by film's end. All three girls plot to reconcile, rekindle the romance, and reunite their father Judson (Charles Winninger) with their mother Dorothy (Nella Walker) before he marries a new love, golddigger Donna Lyons (Binnie Barnes) who is assisted by her scheming mother Mrs. Lyons (Alice Brady).

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