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
L'Age D'Or (1930, Fr.) (aka The Age of Gold, or The Golden Age)

L'Age D'Or (1930, Fr.) (aka The Age of Gold, or The Golden Age), 60 minutes, D: Luis Buñuel
This was Buñuel's follow-up film to the previous year's short Un Chien Andalou (1929), and was his first feature film. At the time of its showing, this surrealistic, disjointed historically-significant Buñuel film (co-scripted by Salvador Dali) was denounced by the Roman Catholic Church (for a blasphemous castle orgy scene involving a Jesus Christ look-alike rapist), censored or banned by a few governments, sparked riots in theaters, and was considered controversial (pornographic and offensive). The plot was about two passionate yet frustrated lovers, a Man (Gaston Modot), a Goodwill Society delegate, and Young Girl (Lya Lys), a high-society heiress, kept from one another and repressed by the pious bourgeois establishment for fear of them having sex together. Two of its most indelible images were of the lovers in mud attempting to have sex with each other during a cornerstone ceremony performed to celebrate the founding of Imperial Rome, the two lovers expressing their erotic impulses by sucking each other's hands, and of the sexually-frustrated woman performing fellatio on the toes of a religious marble statue in a garden. The opening documentary sequence featured scorpions. Other images were of mitred chanting archbishops perched on coastal rocks who turned skeletal, a milking cow in a young woman's bed, an ox-cart driven by a horse through an elegant drawing room by two drunken peasants, some acts of violence (a dog kicked, a beetle stomped and squished on rocks, a blind man pushed down with a foot to his stomach, a foot crushing a violin on pavement, a punch in the face, the shooting of a young boy by his father - the groundskeeper), and bugs crawling over a party host's face; and most surprisingly, a burning tree, a bishop, a huge wooden plow, the bishop's staff, a giraffe statue, and pillow feathers thrown out of a window by the enraged Man. In the heretical ending, bearded and robed Duke of Blangis (Lionel Salem), a Jesus look-alike, raped a young woman in a castle during 120 days of debauchery, then emerged (without his beard) near a crucifix adorned with five female scalps blowing in the wind.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), 131 minutes, D: Lewis Milestone
Lewis Milestone's powerful, grim and poignant masterpiece was based on the anti-war, pacifistic 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It has always been one of the best anti-war films, although technically dated. The Best Picture award winning epic film was shot with a budget of $1.25 million, and instituted innovative uses of a giant crane to provide sweeping views. Although it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was criticized as being propagandistic and anti-militaristic. For its perceived anti-German message, it was denounced by the Nazi government in Berlin of the 30s and subsequently banned there. In the film's plot, a group of young, patriotic, German schoolboys during the Great War, including the main character - soldier Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), volunteered to serve their country in 1914, fighting in the trenches on the Western Front battlefields. They had been inspired to fight by the encouraging words of their teacher Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). They quickly found that their illusions of glory were shattered. In one of the realistic battle sequences, rows of infantrymen were instantaneously mowed down by machine gun fire as the camera moved sideways across them and showed the remains of one unfortunate soldier (his hands grabbed barbed wire). During an attack on a cemetery, Paul stabbed a Frenchman in a panic and became trapped in the bomb crater with the slowly dying man, and guiltily attempted to give him water to drink. After grim warfare, Paul was furloughed and returned home and to his school to tell the students of his disillusionment with war. Later, he was devastated when he discovered the death of his platoon leader and long-time mentor "Kat" Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim). On the front lines, Paul ultimately also met his own death to the sound of the whine of a French sniper's bullet as his hand reached out to touch a beautiful butterfly from the shell-hole trench. In the film's final image, ghostly soldiers marched away while superimposed over a dark, battle-scarred hillside cemetery covered with a sea of white crosses.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Animal Crackers (1930), 98 minutes, D: Victor Heerman
The second Marx Brothers film, somewhat stagey, was another zany, rapid-fire, anarchic hit based upon their Broadway hit play (by Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman). It was the last of their films to be taken from one of their stage successes and the last to be filmed on the East Coast on Astoria sound stages before they transferred to Hollywood. In the comedy's plot, a valuable painting had disappeared from the sprawling estate home of wealthy dowager Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), and African big-game hunter Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) ("Hooray for Captain Spaulding") was called upon to find it, along with Chico, Zeppo and Harpo.

Anna Christie (1930)

Anna Christie (1930), 86 minutes, D: Clarence Brown
A film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play. One of the earliest talkies, noted as the film in which silent star Greta Garbo first spoke. Her first line of dialogue: "Gimme a viskey..." Garbo played an alcoholic ex-prostitute who returned home from Minnesota to New York after a long absence to locate her barge captain father Chris Christofferson (George F. Marion), the alcoholic skipper of a coal barge, and found a sympathetic ear from gruff Marthy (Marie Dressler). She fell in love with strong Scottish seaman Matt (Charles Bickford), and had to tell him and her estranged father about her past.

The Big House (1930)

The Big House (1930), 84 minutes, D: George W. Hill
This B/W MGM production was one of the earliest and most realistic of Hollywood's melodramatic prison-crime pictures. It became the model for many subsequent dramatic prison films, and was noted for its imaginative staging (with mobile crane and dolly shots, and an early zoom shot into a gun and its long stationary shot of the solitary confinement prison corridor). The film's script by Frances Marion (the director's wife) received the Academy Award for Best Writing Achievement, and a second Award was given for Best Sound Recording. A French-language version of the film, released in 1931, was made with Charles Boyer in Chester Morris' role. The grim prison setting was introduced when 24 year-old rich kid Kent Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) was sent to the prison for a ten-year sentence on vehicular manslaughter charges related to drunk driving. He was placed in a cell with two notorious and veteran hardened prisoners - the first was brutish, violent, dim-witted, condemned, bald-headed (shaven) prison inmate "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt (Wallace Beery) - a murderous cell-block leader, who enjoyed racing cockroaches, cruel pranks and boasting, and cheating. The second cellmate was the more decent petty crook John Morgan (Chester Morris), convicted of forgery and robbery who had reformed, decided to go straight, and was expecting a quick parole. Butch instigated a major mess hall food riot after mumbling under his breath: "I'd like to ram it down their throat...I can't eat that stuff!...I want some food. I don't want any more of this swill" - and tossed his plate of mush onto the floor; the other inmates joined in the protest by clanging and banging their metal cups on the long tables; when the guards reacted, he stood up: "I ain't afraid of guns, I ain't afraid of nobody!"; as Butch was about to be apprehended and taken to solitary confinement, he passed his contraband knife under the table, and it ended up with Kent. To avoid being caught with it, Kent placed the knife in Morgan's bunk bed, and when found, Morgan's next-day parole was denied. He was also placed in solitary confinement along with Butch - and in the film's praised lengthy static shot, only Morgan's and Butch's voices were heard in the corridor. Soon after, the desperate Morgan was released from solitary confinement by feigning sickness and substituted himself for a body in the mortician's morgue wagon to escape. While on the outside, Morgan fell in love with Kent's pretty sister Anne (Leila Hyams), before being recaptured and returned to the prison. The film's highlight (the last 15 minutes) included a Thanksgiving-time jailbreak by angry prisoners - instigated by Butch - to escape from sadistic guards and overcrowded, inhumane conditions. He plotted: "Thanksgiving day. Noon. Most of the screws go to turkey dinner. We'll give 'em a belly full." "Stoolie" Kent knew of the attempt (but without details) and informed the Warden (Lewis Stone) in return for a promise of freedom. When questioned, Morgan refused to rat out the attempt, and declined to participate in the violent and foolish plan. The revolt and riot spread throughout the prison, and ended with a bloody massacre when the prisoners were unable to force their way out - due to the officials being tipped off in advance. As Army tanks approached, Butch threatened to cold-bloodedly shoot the officers-guards, one-by-one with their machine-guns, in order to force the opening of the prison's outer gates: ("Open those gates and let us go through, or we'll send the rest of these screws straight to Hell!"). During the chaos of the riot, Kent tried to escape (after he hysterically confessed in fear to Morgan that he had squealed) and was hit and killed by crossfire. Butch was misinformed and thought that Morgan had tipped off the Warden, especially when Morgan made heroic efforts to help save the lives of some of the prison's officers who had been taken as hostages. The two both engaged in a deadly shootout - Morgan was wounded, but Butch was lethally hit (and died just after learning that it wasn't Morgan but Kent who had snitched): (Morgan: "You know I wouldn't double-cross you, Butch!"). In the film's artificially-happy ending, Morgan was given a full and complete pardon by the Governor for his actions (in the major jailbreak resulting in the deaths of more than 50 guards and convicts), and personally redeemed by being freed and reunited with Anne outside the prison's gates.

The Blue Angel (1930, Germ.) (aka Der Blaue Engel)

The Blue Angel (1930, Germ.) (aka Der Blaue Engel), 99 minutes, D: Josef von Sternberg
Exotic German actress Marlene Dietrich's stardom was launched by von Sternberg's sexy drama, with her role as the leggy Lola Lola, a sensual cabaret striptease dancer, and her singing of "Falling in Love Again." It was Germany's first all-talking picture. Her performance in the first major German sound film led to a contract with Paramount in the US. The film told about a meek, authoritarian and repressed teacher Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) who was tempted, seduced and destroyed by a sensual, carefree, and carnal top-hatted entertainer named Lola Lola Frohlich (Marlene Dietrich) at the Blue Angel nightclub in Weimar Germany - as he watched her. There, she sang a throaty rendition of "Falling in Love Again" astride a barrel on stage. She tilted her head to the side, leaned backwards, and grasped one gartered-stockinged leg on bare thighs with her arms. In her dressing room, the strait-laced Professor was seduced, charmed and humiliated by the cabaret singer - he knelt before her and was commanded to slip black stockings over her legs. Ultimately, he lost his teaching position and his dignity as he became obsessed and slavish to her.

The Devil's Holiday (1930)

The Devil's Holiday (1930), 78 minutes, D: Edmund Goulding
A manipulative, flirtatious, gold-digging, big-city manicurist Hallie Hobart (Nancy Carroll) schemed to marry a millionaire's son David Stone (Phillips Holmes) from a family of wealthy wheat farmers, but was opposed by the young man's father Ezra Stone (Hobart Bosworth) and brother Mark (James Kirkwood). The country rube married her for all the wrong reasons, and continued to smother her with his love. Then, she offered to divorce him if given a fat payoff of $50,000. After leaving, her conscience began to take over and she took solace in parties and drink. Meanwhile, David was seriously ill as a result of a fall suffered in a fight over her with his brother. She returned to the side of her seriously-ill ex-husband, realizing she really loved him, and she also returned the $50,000.

The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee (1930), 83 minutes, D: Robert A. Leonard
A melodrama that was regarded as hot and racy in its day. Jerry (Norma Shearer) married newspaperman Ted (Chester Morris), but then when he became a flirtatious philanderer with an ex-girlfriend, the recently divorced Janice (Mary Doran), Jerry decided to divorce him and live the adventurous single life as a wayward wife, matching his behavior. After a series of sexual escapades and two weeks on a yacht in the summer with married (but separated) former beau Paul (Conrad Nagel), she selflessly returned and was reconciled to her husband on New Year's Eve in Paris.

Earth (1930, Soviet Union) (aka Zemlya, or Земля)

Earth (1930, Soviet Union) (aka Zemlya, or Земля), 75 minutes, D: Aleksandr Dovzhenko
An expressionistic, pro-collectivism propaganda story (a lyrical "film poem") about agricultural progress, and the class-warfare struggle between socialist peasants and villainous capitalist kulaks. It told about wealthy landowners (or kulaks) in the Ukraine who refused to give up land to a group of poor tenant-farming peasants, with the coming of collective farming. The collective farmers united to purchase a tractor, opposed by power-seeking landowners who disliked or felt threatened by any form of united front.

Hell's Angels (1930)

Hell's Angels (1930), 135 minutes, D: Howard Hawks, Luther Reed, James Whale
The legendary war film and aviation epic from mogul producer/director Howard Hughes, nominated for Best Cinematography. With sensational aerial photography and dogfight sequences. At $3.8 million, the most expensive film to date. Originally, it was to be a silent film, but Hughes discarded two years worth of footage (and its first leading lady Greta Nissen) and began filming again as a talkie in 1929. Two brothers, Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall) left Oxford to join the British Royal Flying Corps and become fliers during World War I. Both brothers were rivals for the love of beautiful "Platinum Blonde", sexy siren Helen (an 18 year old Jean Harlow), who had fickle, two-timing affections - Harlow launched her career with the famous line: "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" Most memorable wartime scenes: the beautifully photographed aerial dogfight skirmishes, German zeppelin raids over London, and the red-tinted and two-color Technicolor scenes.

Little Caesar (1930)

Little Caesar (1930), 79 minutes, D: Mervyn LeRoy
Considered as a milestone film that launched the first great cycle of the gangster film genre (from Warner Bros.), along with The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932). Cesare Enrico Bandello/"Little Caesar" (Edward G. Robinson in a great star-making performance that stereotyped him), a small-time, street-tough hood and merciless killer (based loosely on the career of Al Capone), rose to power at the top of the mob in the underworld, followed by a quick downfall. A fast-paced crime story, with lots of gunfire, robberies, killings, and implicit violence. Known for one of the most memorable closing lines in films, at Rico's death scene: "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

Morocco (1930), 92 minutes, D: Josef von Sternberg
Josef von Sternberg's and Paramount's melodramatic, escapist, exotic romance with a love triangle - his US debut film - was adapted by Jules Furthman from the play "Amy Jolly" by Benno Vigny. It told about a love affair in the exotic French protectorate of Morocco in W. Africa in the late 1920s during the 2nd Moroccan War, between a cabaret singer and a Legionnaire. The expressionistic film that embodied the "Dietrich mystique" was the director's second of seven films with his favorite actress Marlene Dietrich (Best Actress-nominated in her first American film). He had previously filmed her in The Blue Angel (1930, Germ.). In this film's story, Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) was introduced as a sultry, sensual, independent-minded, world-weary steamer-ship passenger bound for the coastal town of Mogador, Morocco (now known as Essaouira), traveling in a dense fog. She was thought to be a vaudeville actress by the ship's deck officer, who described her as doomed: ("We call them suicide passengers. One way tickets. They never return"). On board, Amy had already stirred interest in wealthy painter Monsieur Kennington La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou). After arriving, she took a job as a headlining chanteuse in a local cabaret-cafe, Lo Tinto's. Many patrons were officers and soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. The androgynous seductress-singer was first booed by the audience for appearing in a gender-challenging, tuxedo-clad, cigarette-smoking cabaret act. The bisexual chanteuse was encouraged to proceed by admiring, womanizing French Foreign Legionnaire Pvt. Tom Brown (a young Gary Cooper) clapping in the audience. She then sang "Quand L'amour Est Mort" ("When Love Dies") with smoky, world-weary eroticism, and afterwards, she longingly looked at young lady Anna Dolores (Juliette Compton) in the audience, and took a flower from her hair (after asking: "May I have this?"). She inhaled it suggestively, and then stole a kiss from the woman that was full on the mouth - one of the earliest (if not the first) female-to-female kisses on screen. The woman blushed behind her hand-held fan, as Amy tipped her hat. After wild applause, the bisexual chanteuse playfully tossed the flower away into the hands of Pvt. Brown, who had stood up to applaud her. During a second song, the seductive Amy reappeared wearing a skimpy black dress and with a feathery boa draped over her shoulders and carrying a basket of apples, to perform: "What Am I Bid for My Apple?" After selling Pvt. Brown one of her apples, she discreetly passed him her room key when she gave him change. During their later "hot" rendezvous in her place, they were both obviously bitter, "tired of life," and melancholy. He cooly turned her down ("I wish I'd met you ten years ago") before handing back her key and leaving. On his way back to the barracks, he saw that his Adjutant Caesar's (Ullrich Haupt) cheating wife Mme. Caesar (Eve Southern) had followed him and was standing in the shadows - (the Adjutant was Pvt. Brown's commanding officer). The Adjutant had good reason to suspect his wife of infidelity with Brown. At the same time, La Bessiere was able to convince his friend, the Adjutant, to reassign Pvt. Brown to depart in his company's detachment the next morning (for a suicidal march through the Amalfa-Pass and into the Sahara). A complex love triangle developed between Amy, Tom, Monsieur La Bessiere, and Mme. Caesar. La Bessiere offered an expensive bracelet and marriage to Amy: ("I'd like to take you away from here...My offer is highly respectable: marriage") but she initially was put off and politely declined: "You're a strange man...I don't think I care to take advantage of your tempting offer" - La Bessiere suspected that she loved the Foreign Legion Private instead. Before leaving, Pvt. Brown visited Amy's nightclub dressing room, and was initially intent on telling her that he was thinking of deserting and running away with her. She knew of his imminent departure, kissed him, and whispered in his ear: "Don't go!" He speculated that he could desert the Legion and board a freighter for Europe to escape with her that evening, and when he stated: "I would in a minute if you'd go with me" - she replied that she would join him. But then, while she was performing, he learned of La Bessiere's marriage proposal and her bracelet gift, and wrote on her dressing room mirror: "I changed my mind. Good luck!" (he believed she would be better off with a rich man such as Bessiere). Before the return of Tom's detachment from a deadly desert mission, Amy was bitter, disconsolate and drinking heavily - and decided to accept Bessiere's insistent proposal to be engaged to marry. During an elegant engagement dinner party, she learned about Tom's company's return, and expectantly rushed out from the party to greet Tom in the street. Not finding him, she returned to the party and announced: "I must go to him. They left him at Amalfa...I'm going now" - believing that he had been injured. In the conclusion, Amy found out that Tom had actually faked an injury to avoid further combat, and was in a canteen at Amalfa. The heartbroken Tom first thought she didn't care for him anymore, and he challenged Amy in the canteen where she had found him. He asked if she wanted to be with him rather than marry La Bessiere: ("Aren't you gonna marry that rich friend of yours?"). When she said she would: ("Of course"), he asked again: "Are you sure?" and she affirmed: "I don't change my mind." He then dismissed her: ("Well then, I wish you all the luck in the world, Mademoiselle") - although he invited her to see him off for his departure - " a thirsty march" with his column that was now leaving at dawn: ("We leave at dawn. Come and see us off, will you?"). After he left, she realized that he had drawn a heart with her name - carved with his knife into a wooden table. He had also admitted to one of the native Moroccan women that he loved Amy very much. In the concluding send-off scene the next morning, Amy decided to remove her high-heeled shoes and run after him (joining other ragged Moroccan prostitutes and native women with heavily-laden donkeys who would be following their men) across the windblown desert sands through many hardships to uncertainty and possible death.

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, Fr.) (aka Sous Les Toits de Paris)

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, Fr.) (aka Sous Les Toits de Paris), 96 minutes, D: René Clair
A bittersweet romantic comedy set in Paris - the first sound film and first French musical, from French director René Clair. The story told of a romance between poor street musician (singer and song-writer) Albert (Albert Préjean) and pretty, curly-haired, sensuous dream-girl - Romanian immigrant Pola (Pola Illéry). He met her when returning money to her, stolen by his pickpocket friend during his street-singing performance. The thief was a lecherous rogue and bullying petty gangster-thief named Fred (Gaston Modot). Another Pola admirer in a love triangle was Albert's inseparable, clever friend Louis (Edmond T. Gréville). In the meantime, Albert was wrongfully arrested and jailed for robbery, and sought to be hastily released so he could declare his true love for Pola in the bittersweet ending - and have her join him in a duo-singing act.

Previous Page Next Page