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

The Awful Truth (1937), 90 minutes, D: Leo McCarey
A classic screwball comedy of the 1930s. After an argument and a series of false accusations, married couple Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) agree to a 90 day interlocutory divorce. He pursues singer Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton) and socialite Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont) and she sees both her voice teacher Armand Duvalle (Alex D'Arcy) and a wealthy oil heir Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy). With rapid-fire, witty and sophisticated dialogue, they each try their best to thwart each other's romances and marriage plans with others, and bicker over who gets custody of their pet terrier Mr. Smith (Asta of The Thin Man). By the end, they both discover the awful truth that they still love each other.

Captains Courageous (1937), 115 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
Rudyard Kipling's tale of adventure, an MGM classic. A spoiled young heir Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew) falls overboard from an ocean liner and is rescued by a simple Portuguese fisherman Manuel (Spencer Tracy). He is brought on board a New England fishing schooner, and immediately demands to be brought to shore. He is forced to remain onboard for the remaining part of their 3-month fishing trip and taught a love of the sea and a valuable series of lessons on life, humility, work, trust, love, and courage. Gradually, he is transformed into a different lad.

A Day at the Races (1937), 109 minutes, D: Sam Wood
One of the best Marx Brothers films, made during their peak years. Horse doctor veterinarian Dr. Hugo Hackenbush (Groucho Marx) pretends to be a psychiatrist and is hired by a wealthy hypochondriac Mrs. Upjohn (Margaret Dumont) to run a sanitarium that she is financing. Instead, he goes to the horse races, where he gets racing tips from Tony (Chico Marx) in the famous "tootsie-frootsie" ice cream scene. With other memorable scenes and wild comedy routines, a follow-up film to their successful A Night at the Opera a year earlier.

Dead End (1937), 92 minutes, D: William Wyler
Adapted from Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play, set in the Depression, about the harsh realities of the ugly, oppressive environment of New York City slums and tenements, with poverty and crime. A cold-blooded career gangster Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns to his boyhood neighborhood for a visit, a dead end street in a lower East Side slum. This plot vignette is intercut with two other stories: the plight of a struggling young architect Dave (Joel McCrea) who opposes his boyhood friend Martin, and dreams of rebuilding the depressed waterfront area, and the story of working girl Drina (Sylvia Sidney) whose brother Tommy (Billy Halop), one of the neighborhood kids known as the Dead End Kids, idolizes Martin and is being negatively influenced by him.

The Good Earth (1937), 138 minutes, D: Sidney Franklin
MGM's beautiful film production of Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a peasant couple in rural China. A simple, poor Chinese rice farmer Wang Lung (Paul Muni) weds O-Lan (Luise Rainer) in an arranged marriage. They must endure hard labor, poverty, and a severe drought and famine. During government strife and a revolution that sweeps through the land, their lives are transformed and he becomes the wealthiest landowner in the province. Their efforts and their family disintegrate from his all-consuming greed for money and the devastating effects of a swarm of locusts. In the end, he learns too late that his long-neglected, self-sacrificing wife was the one who had held everything together.

Grand Illusion (1937, Fr.) (aka La Grande Illusion), 114 minutes, D: Jean Renoir

The Hurricane (1937), 103 minutes, D: John Ford
A spectacular disaster film set in the South Seas. A native named Terangi (Jon Hall) from the island of Manakoora, marries his childhood sweetheart Marama (Dorothy Lamour). Terangi is convicted of attacking a white man and imprisoned. He is repeatedly sentenced to longer and longer terms of imprisonment for making failed escape attempts. His case is appealed to the island's new white governor Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey), who is a strict by-the-book disciplinarian, although his wife is sympathetic to Terangi's plight. The film ends with a climactic hurricane sequence.

In Old Chicago (1937), 115/95 minutes, D: Henry King
A disaster film that was designed to take advantage of the success of the previous year's film San Francisco. The story of the rivalry of the three sons of widowed Mrs. Molly O'Leary (Alice Brady), the one whose cow kicked over a lantern and started the Chicago fire. The good son, a reforming lawyer Jack (Don Ameche) is in conflict with her bad son, a corrupt politician Dion (Tyrone Power). The quasi-historical film climaxes with a spectacular 20-minute sequence of the Chicago fire of 1871.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937), 123 minutes, D: William Dieterle
The Best Picture-winning film biography of the famous 19th century French intellectual and novelist Emile Zola (Paul Muni), tracing his life from his youth, as a friend of Cezanne starving in a Parisian attic, to the peak of his career. He is celebrated as France's greatest author and the champion of the oppressed. However, on the eve of membership to the French academy, with great personal cost, he defends a Jewish officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) - the Dreyfus Affair - who is unjustly accused of treason, and then banished to Devil's Island for a life term.

Lost Horizon (1937), 138 minutes, D: Frank Capra
Escapees from a Chinese revolution crash-land, and five survivors are led through the icy Himalayans to a magical enchanted paradise, a hidden Tibetan utopia named Shangri-La, where war and death are unknown, people live almost forever and everyone follows the law "Be kind." Shangri-La's wisest man is the High Lama (Sam Jaffe) who wishes to have one of the group's members Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) be his successor. Conway is a romantic dreamer who believes he has found a new home and a new romantic interest when he falls in love with Sondra (Jane Wyatt). He is convinced, however, to leave in the haunting final sequences.

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), 91 minutes, D: Leo McCarey

Marked Woman (1937), 99 minutes, D: Lloyd Bacon
An urban melodrama, based on the real-life story of NYC vice lord Charles "Lucky" Luciano. It is the story of a nightclub hostess ("prostitute") Mary Dwight (Bette Davis), who works at the Club Intime, owned and operated by a notorious gangster Johnny Vanning (Edward Ciannelli). Special prosecutor, district attorney David Graham (Humphrey Bogart) tries to convince Mary to testify against her crooked boss - first for murdering one of the debt-owing customers Ralph Krawford (Damian O'Flynn) and then for killing her innocent sister Betty (Jane Bryan). To threaten and scare her, Vanning scars Mary's face, making her a "marked woman." This convinces her to finally testify in court with other hostesses to convict him.

Maytime (1937), 132 minutes, D: Robert Z. Leonard
The third film pairing MacDonald and Eddy. In 1906, an aged opera singer Marcia Morney (Jeanette MacDonald) relates in flashback the story of her life forty years earlier. She tells of her love for singer Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) and their idyllic time together at a May Day festival, but instead marries impresario Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore). After several years, she co-stars with Paul in an American opera production and their love is rekindled, leading to tragic consequences for the two lovers. Concludes with a magnificent sequence of the spiritual images of the doomed lovers meeting together on a flower-strewn path and reprising "Will You Remember?"

Nothing Sacred (1937), 75 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
A screwball comedy from former newspaperman and scriptwriter Ben Hecht (who also wrote the play The Front Page made into the film His Girl Friday). An incompetent Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) diagnoses a simple Warsaw, Vermont woman Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) as having only six weeks to live due to radium poisoning. A small-town newspaper and its cynical ambitious reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) exploit and sensationalize the story of her imminent death by creating publicity, writing a series of pathetic stories, and sending her to New York City, where she becomes a national hero. She wants to tell the truth that her diagnosis has been changed and that she is not dying, but is not allowed to.

One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), 85 minutes, D: Henry Koster
A young girl Patricia Cardwell (Deanna Durbin) pesters a great conductor (Leopold Stokowski playing himself) to form an orchestra comprised of her unemployed trombonist/musician father John (Adolphe Menjou) and ninety-nine of his closest friends.

Pépé le Moko (1937, Fr.), 94 minutes, D: Julien Duvivier

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), 101 minutes, D: John Cromwell
The best version of the many remakes and versions. This is the masquerade story of an Englishman Rudolph Rassendyl (Ronald Colman) on holiday in a small central European country, Ruritania. He thwarts a rebel assassination plot by sitting in for his cousin and lookalike, the kidnapped King Rudolf V (also Ronald Colman). Behind the plot is the crown prince's evil brother Black Michael (Raymond Massey) and his dashing villain henchman Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr). Includes swashbuckling sword fights and a romance between the commoner/king and beautiful Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll).

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), 82 minutes, D: Disney Studios (David Hand)
Disney's first full-length animated feature, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The film is the story of a young, beautiful servant girl Snow White who is brought up by her evil stepmother, the vain queen. When told that the "fairest of them all" is Snow White, the queen has her huntsman take Snow White to the forest to kill her and return with her heart. The huntsman cannot carry out the gruesome task, and frees Snow White, who runs into the forest, and finds the cottage of the loveable seven dwarfs. When the wicked, jealous queen learns from her Magic Mirror that Snow White is still alive, she transforms herself into an old hag beggar woman, and offers Snow White a bite from a poisoned apple. Snow White enters into a deep sleep until she is awakened by Prince Charming's kiss. A timeless classic.

Song at Midnight (1937, China) (aka Ye Ban Ge Sheng), 113 minutes, D: Weibang Ma-Xu
The first Chinese horror film, and a variation on The Phantom of the Opera.

Stage Door (1937), 83 minutes, D: Gregory La Cava
A film adaptation based on the Edna Ferber/George S. Kaufman play about a New York boarding house filled with hopeful theater actresses (many are soon-to-be famous stars of the 30s and 40s). An entertaining backstage, behind-the-scenes comedy/drama of the lives and ambitions of aspiring actresses and stage hopefuls who live together in a theatrical boarding house. They include the privileged and wealthy debutante Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) who is trying to make it on her own without the help of her family's money, her rival and sarcastic roommate Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), and high-strung depressed actress Kaye Hamilton (Andrea Leeds). Jean allows leering producer mogul Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou) to take her out only to insure getting a part, but Terry gets the lead because her father has backed and financed the production without her knowledge. With great dialogue and a realistic, almost all-girl cast.

A Star is Born (1937), 111 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
The first of three film adaptations (also in 1954 and 1976), a non-musical version, and one of the best behind-the-scenes Hollywood dramas. A successful but alcoholic, self-destructive superstar actor Norman Maine (Fredric March) meets, falls in love with, and marries a charming, talented young newcomer/hopeful Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor). With his influence, she is introduced to powerful Hollywood figures including producer/director Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou). After being discovered, her career blossoms and she enjoys a meteoric rise to stardom, contrasted with Norman's slow decline and self-destruction, sinking deeper into alcoholism.

Stella Dallas (1937), 105 minutes, D: King Vidor
A classic and popular dramatic tearjerker/soap-opera, the best version of three attempts (also in 1925 and 1990). The film is the touching portrayal of an upwardly mobile small-town woman Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) who marries an upper-class husband Stephen Dallas (John Boles) and enters into money, but is never able to escape her vulgar and coarse middle-class ways. She loses her husband when he leaves her for a former love, the widowed Helen Morrison (Barbara O'Neil). She then gives up their daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) to her wealthy father, in a supreme act of self-sacrifice and selflessness, so she will not be in the way of her daughter's happiness or her social and romantic aspirations.

Topper (1937), 98 minutes, D: Norman Z. McLeod
A delightful comedy/fantasy about a free-spirited, wealthy, fun-loving couple George (Cary Grant) and Marion Kerby (Constance Bennett) who are killed in an auto accident. Before they are granted entrance to heaven, however, they must perform a good deed for their bank president - to teach mild-mannered, stuffy and proper Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) to relax and enjoy life's pleasures. They appear at will as haunting ghosts, often at awkward moments, but only to Topper, taking pleasure at embarrassing him in humorous predicaments.

Way Out West (1937), 65 minutes, D: James W. Horne
Possibly the best Laurel and Hardy comedy, in a western setting. Stan Laurel (Himself) and Oliver Hardy (Himself) agree to deliver a gold mine deed and map for a deceased prospector friend/partner. They travel west to Brushwood Gulch to give the rightful inheritance to the prospector's daughter Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), but along the way, a crooked bartender Mickey Finn (James Finlayson) learns of their mission and persuades his floozy barmaid/girlfriend Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne) to pose as an imposter and accept the map and deed. When the two learn they were deceived, they must get the map back and rescue the girl.

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