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

Babes in Arms (1939), 93 minutes, D: Busby Berkeley

Beau Geste (1939), 114 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
The best of three screen versions (also 1926 and 1966). The brothers Geste, including Michael "Beau" Geste (Gary Cooper), John (Ray Milland), and Digby (Robert Preston) serve in the Foreign Legion together, and must persevere against Arab attacks and their tyrant Sgt. Markoff (Brian Donlevy). The story, in flashback, centers around "Beau," who admits to the theft of a fake jewel, "the Blue Water" sapphire, to save the honor of the brothers' impoverished Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher). He leaves and joins the Foreign Legion, and is later joined by his brothers. The film begins with the unforgettable opening sequence of the desert sand dunes and Fort Zinderneuf with dead soldiers propped up against the parapets, lending an air of mystery and drama to the adventure tale.

Dark Victory (1939), 105 minutes, D: Edmund Goulding
A melodramatic tearjerker with Bette Davis in one of her most powerful roles. A high-living Long Island socialite/heiress Judith Traherne (Bette Davis) whose eyesight is starting to dim is diagnosed as having a brain tumor. After a seemingly successful operation by her surgeon, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), she falls in love with him and finds happiness, only to discover that she actually has only one more year to live. First resorting to more meaningless parties, rejection of the doctor, and despair, she then finds true meaning and happiness in her life and adds great substance to her final days and dies with dignity.

Daybreak (1939, Fr.) (aka Le Jour Se Lève), 88 minutes, D: Marcel Carné
One of the great works of 1930s poetic realist cinema.

Destry Rides Again (1939), 94 minutes, D: George Marshall
The wild Western town of Bottleneck is corrupt and out of control, run by saloon owner Kent (Brian Donlevy), who features in his wild saloon the lusty, sexy singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich). The son of a famous brave lawman, Tom Destry (James Stewart) is summoned to the town to tame it - but he is a milk-drinking, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, gunless sheriff. Despite his shortcomings, Destry is able to keep the peace, in between his attempts to resist the charms of Frenchy, who dies a heroine's death protecting Destry from a bullet. Memorable for Frenchy's rendition of "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" and for the roughest female fight in film history.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), 103 minutes, D: John Ford
An action epic drama set in the pre-Revolutionary War era, highlighting the harshness of survival and Indian attacks in the Mohawk Valley wilderness of upstate colonial New York. Lana "Magdelana" Martin (Claudette Colbert), a young, frightened cultured bride from an Eastern city, joins her newlywed loving husband Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) to live on the frontier. She watches and assists her husband and other neighbors, including feisty frontier matriarch Sarah McKlennar (Edna May Oliver), in the struggle against marauding Indians, and grows to learn a new way of life. With exciting battle scenes and a last-minute fort rescue preventing an Indian massacre.

The Four Feathers (1939, UK), 130 minutes, D: Zoltan Korda
A classic adventure story, in striking Technicolor, set in the year 1898. A young British army officer Harry Faversham (John Clements) from a family with a strong military tradition, remains at home as a dangerous British military expedition/campaign leaves for the Sudan. He resigns his commission, disappointing his family, friends, and sweetheart Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez). Disgracefully, he receives four white feathers from three officers of his regiment (and one from his fiancee), Capt. John Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Lt. Willoughby (Jack Allen), and Peter Burroughs (Donald Gray). The feathers are regarded as symbols of cowardice and shame. To redeem his name and prove his courage, he travels to Egypt and ultimately to the Sudan, disguises himself as a mute, dark-skinned native warrior, courageously fights alone for his country, and rescues his army comrades in the Sudan. One by one, he surreptitiously returns the feathers to the presenters.

Gone With the Wind (1939), 220 minutes, D: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and Sam Wood
From Margaret Mitchell's great novel about the Civil War, David O. Selznick's majestic production. One of the greatest films ever made, a landmark epic film and Best Picture. It is a stunning Civil War panoramic story of the transformed lives of leading families as the Southern aristocracy crumbles and the South is defeated. From the stories of the lives of a number of memorable characters including a pampered, spoiled, headstrong beautiful young woman Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), a dashing cavalier Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a loyal black slave Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Scarlett's saintly cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), and the ineffectual character of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the story is told through great spectacle, romance, despair, conflict and travail. With a terrific, lyrical musical score by one of the greatest film composers of all time, Max Steiner.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939, UK), 114 minutes, D: Sam Wood
A sentimental romantic drama, the portrait of a caring, well-meaning, but shy and proper Latin schoolmaster Mr. Chipping ("Chips") (Robert Donat) at an English boys school, Brookfield School, in the late 1800s who devotes his life to his students. On a vacation, he finds romance with Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson in her American debut), his future wife, and she transforms his life. With her gentle and kind love and humanity, she is one of the few individuals who truly understands him, and helps him to overcome his shyness and rigidity. Although she passes away during childbirth, her lessons endure and he becomes a popular institution at the school until his retirement and death in his eighties.

Gunga Din (1939), 117 minutes, D: George Stevens
A classic, rousing adventure film, partly based on Rudyard Kipling's poem. In 19th century colonial India, three frontier veteran comrades-in-arms, British Sergeants in the Queen's Indian Regiment, Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and a loyal native water carrier with soldierly ambitions Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) put down an uprising and rebellion by a savage fanatical religious cult, the Thugs, devotees of the goddess Kali. A film with spectacle, action, and battle scenes, and comic touches as well.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), 115 minutes, D: William Dieterle
Probably the best film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic tale of a tragic love story set in 15th century medieval Paris. A hideously deformed, grotesque, outcast hunchback Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) lives as the bell-ringer in the towers of Notre Dame's Cathedral. The hunchback is scorned by an angry mob one day, but is shown pity and kindness by a beautiful Gypsy dancer girl, Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara). He develops a tragic fondness for the girl, and rescues her from being hanged in the public square for being a witch, taking her back into the bell tower and claiming sanctuary.

Love Affair (1939), 87 minutes, D: Leo McCarey
A romantic comedy/soap opera, remade years later with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as An Affair to Remember (1957). A couple, playboy artist Michael Marnet (Charles Boyer) and nightclub singer Terry McKay (Irene Dunne), each engaged to others who are wealthier, meet on board a transatlantic voyage and begin a shipboard romance. They vow to rendezvous again six months later on their return to the US atop the Empire State Building. On the way to the meeting, Terry has an automobile accident and is reluctant to reveal her paralysis. She misses their meeting, and he assumes that she has been married in the meantime, although they are reunited again by chance by film's end.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), 129 minutes, D: Frank Capra
One of Frank Capra's time-honored classic comedy/dramas about the triumph of the ordinary man over the corrupt political elite, restoring faith in democracy. An idealistic, naive Boy Rangers leader Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is drafted by his state's governor to the Senate in Washington as a freshman senator to complete the remaining term of a dead Senator. The corrupt "political machine," led by his state's senior Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) believes he will easily be controllable, but when Jefferson discovers the land-scam plans of his supporters, he becomes stubbornly determined to not forsake his dreams and to do what's right against the corrupt, greedy forces running his state. With the support of his secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur), he delivers a powerful, rousing and passionate filibuster on the Senate floor in the final climactic moments.

Ninotchka (1939), 110 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
A very enjoyable romantic comedy. A stern, austere, icy-cold Soviet commissar Lena Yakushova "Ninotchka" (Greta Garbo) is sent to Paris to check up on and chastise three over-indulgent fellow comrades who have been seduced by Western capitalism in Paris. They have failed to negotiate the sale of a former Grand Duchess Swana's (Ina Claire) imperial jewels for the Soviet Union. She is met by a suave, Parisian playboy Count Leon Dolga (Melvyn Douglas) who eventually seduces and charms the rigid, no-nonsense Russian, and she falls victim to the same traps - capitalism and romance in the City of Light. A film most known for being advertised as the one in which "Garbo Laughs."

Of Mice and Men (1939), 107 minutes, D: Lewis Milestone
A film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Depression-era classic novel, a bittersweet, tragic story of two ranch hands traveling together in California's Salinas Valley. Two migrant field workers, Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.) a large, physically-strong but dim-witted individual with a great passion for soft furry things, and George (Burgess Meredith), Lenny's protector, only want to live peacefully on their own small ranch. But Lenny's innocence, feeble-mindedness, his clumsy misuse of his physical strength, and finally a brutal set of circumstances kills their dream.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939), 121 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
A classic Howard Hawks adventure film and character study. Cargo pilots who hazardously fly air freight and mail over the rugged and dangerous Andes Mountains for a small company in South America are led by chief pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Stranded showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) sets tensions on edge with her affection for him. Carter hires another pilot Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess), still guilt-ridden by a fatal accidental crash years earlier and attempting to prove himself. He is accompanied by sexy wife Judy (Rita Hayworth), an old flame of Carter's who attempts to seduce him. One of the older pilots, Carter's close friend Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell) volunteers to co-pilot a dangerous mission and is killed.

The Roaring Twenties (1939), 104 minutes, D: Raoul Walsh
A film adaptation from journalist Mark Hellinger's realistic story about 1920s gangsterism and Prohibition days. Three WWI doughboys return from the battlefields, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn) and George Hally (Humphrey Bogart). Eddie, one of the returning veterans, a former taxicab mechanic, cannot find work. New York speakeasy gal Panama Smith (Gladys George) suggests he turn to bootlegging, and he flourishes in the business in a partnership with Hally, until rival gangs and the law attack his enterprise. Wartime buddy Lloyd Hart has become a city district attorney, married to Eddie's ex-girlfriend and love Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), and Hally has become a ruthless crime boss, under attack by prosecutor Hart. Eddie returns to the taxicab business, and when it fails, he must save Jean, her husband, and himself from the sinister mobster Hally. With an extremely memorable final scene.

The Rules of the Game (1939, Fr.), (aka La Regle du Jeu), 110 minutes, D: Jean Renoir

Stagecoach (1939), 96 minutes, D: John Ford
A classic Western from John Ford filmed in the majestic Monument Valley of the Southwest, considered a landmark quintessential film, elevating westerns to a serious genre. Passengers traveling on a stagecoach together to Lordsburg through dangerous and hostile Apache Indian land are each representative character types. They include a saloon dance-hall girl - a shunned prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), a drunken Dr. Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a pregnant woman Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) on her way to meet her husband, a shady Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine), a whiskey salesman Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), and a banker Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) with his wife (Brenda Fowler). Along the way, the driver Buck Rickabaugh (Andy Devine) and his "shotgun" assistant Sheriff Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) stop to arrest an escaped prisoner outlaw, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne in his first major role, the role that made him famous), who is seeking revenge for the deaths of his brother and father, with three men in Lordsburg. The Kid is being taken back to jail by the Sheriff, and in the face of a savage Indian attack he defends the passengers' safety with his heroic self-sacrifice and courage.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum(s) (1939, Jp.) (aka Zangiku Monogatari), 148 minutes, D: Kenji Mizoguchi

The Wizard of Oz (1939), 103 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
One of the most popular films of all time, a children's fantasy classic, based on Frank Baum's novel. A farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) from Kansas (Kansas sequences are in sepia-tone) is transported with her dog Toto in a twister to the magical fantasy land of Oz (Oz sequences are in Technicolor). There she meets delightfully colorful characters including the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and three companions - the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). With them she sets off on the yellow brick road to seek the Wizard's (Frank Morgan) help to get home. The Wizard grants all of their wishes when they subdue the Witch. In the land of Oz, she discovers that things aren't always better somewhere else. With the well-known theme song, "Over the Rainbow."

The Women (1939), 132 minutes, D: George Cukor
With an all-woman, all-star cast of more than 125 strong-minded women, from Clare Boothe's (Luce) play. A comedy/drama full of biting wit, fast dialogue, and superb performances. The complex story line about matrimony and men and women is full of twists and diversions, almost unimportant. One of the socialite women Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) learns that her husband is having an affair with an amoral perfume sales clerk Chrystal Allen (Joan Crawford). She seeks a divorce with a six-week stay in Reno. The cast of women engages in cat-fighting and bitching, vicious gossip and cattiness, husband-stealing, and back-stabbing, while the film provides insight into female bonding and the role of women in society.

Wuthering Heights (1939), 104 minutes, D: William Wyler
One of the greatest romantic love stories ever filmed, from Emily Bronte's tragic Victorian novel. An abandoned orphan Gypsy boy Heathcliff (Rex Downing as child, Laurence Olivier as adult) is taken in by a well-to-do 19th century English family, the Earnshaws (Cecil Kellaway as the father) on the isolated moors. He becomes their stable boy and falls in love with the family's spoiled young daughter Catherine Earnshaw (Sarita Wooten as child), his childhood friend. The beautiful Cathy (Merle Oberon as adult) is desperately in love with Heathcliff, but because of his low birth begins seeing a wealthy neighbor's son. Heathcliff leaves during a misunderstanding and with driving ambition later returns moderately wealthy, discovering that she has married rich Edgar Linton (David Niven), in spite of her passionate love for him. In revenge, he spitefully marries Edgar's naive sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and then neglects her. The long-suppressed passionate feelings that they have had for each other continue to torment them as haunted, star-crossed lovers.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), 100 minutes, D: John Ford
A remarkably realistic period piece and historical drama, from Lamar Trotti's original story, a recreation and character study of the early years of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda), the 16th President of the US. A rough-hewn, Kentucky log cabin-born young Abe experiences the loss of his love Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), and then struggles to make it as a country backwoods lawyer. He stops a lynching and defends two brothers Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam Clay (Eddie Quillan) accused of murder in the final dramatic courtroom sequence. Includes a log-splitting and a tug-of-war scene.

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