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
Arrowsmith (1931)

Arrowsmith (1931), 108 minutes, D: John Ford
An intelligent and faithful film adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel. A small-town, idealistic, young, and dedicated research doctor, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) tried to remain true to his medical ethics - to help humankind rather than quickly have personal wealth. He left his practice to conduct research to help stop bubonic plague in the West Indies with a new serum. He suffered personal tribulations when his pure wife Leora (Helen Hayes) died. Tempted by commercial interests and quick, big money offers, he nearly strayed from his calling, but remained true to his idealism, although tempted by a vampish rich girl's love, Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy).

Bad Girl (1931)

Bad Girl (1931), 90 minutes, D: Frank Borzage
Borzage's last film for Fox Studios, and based on Viña Delmar's eponymous, 1928 autobiographical bestseller - a tale of flapper promiscuity. A simple, slightly dated love story - a touching melodrama of the hardships and disillusionments of a young, lower-income New York couple, Eddie Collins (James Dunn) and shopgirl Dorothy or "Dot" (Sally Eilers), who must impulsively marry when she unexpectedly became pregnant after a pre-wedlock night together in his apartment. Eddie sacrificed his career dream of owning a radio shop to provide for his family - by entering a boxing match for the prize money.

The Champ (1931)

The Champ (1931), 85 minutes, D: King Vidor
A sports-related film and great, sentimental tearjerker (remade in 1979), the story of a down-and-out ex-heavyweight boxing Andy 'Champ' Purcell (Oscar-winning Wallace Beery) and his adoring son Dink (Jackie Cooper). Training in Tijuana for an eventual comeback, the washed-up boxer was also a drinker and a gambler. He was threatened with separation from his boy when the boy's mother Linda (Irene Rich) who had abandoned them, now married to a wealthy husband, returned to regain custody of her son, to raise him in a more favorable environment. In the climactic boxing bout, the Champ won a tough match against a Mexican fighter, but died with his son by his side in the locker room.

La Chienne (1931, Fr.) (aka The Bitch)

La Chienne (1931, Fr.) (aka The Bitch), 91 minutes, D: Jean Renoir
Renoir's second sound film - a social drama that was controversial and banned in the US due to its racy subject matter. It was remade as the dark film noir Scarlet Street (1945) by Fritz Lang. Discontented, middle-class bank office clerk/accountant Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) and part-time painter was unhappily married to domineering, shrewish and difficult Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet). He began a romance with low-class, femme fatale prostitute/streetwalker "Lulu" or Lucienne (Janie Marèze) - the "bitch" of the film, and she became his mistress. Thinking she was vulnerable and abused, he unwisely supported her and gave her an apartment - until he ran out of money. Instead, she was in love with her pimp Dédé (Georges Flamant). Dédé schemed to sell Legrand's paintings with Lucienne posing as the artist and signing Legrand's work. However, the film's love triangle ended violently. When he found out about her monetary conniving and infidelity, he jealously killed her by strangulation, although in the surprise ending, Dédé was convicted of the murder and sent to the gallows. In the final scene, Legrand was a tramp on the streets, ironically watching as one of his self-portrait paintings was profitably sold.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights (1931), 87 minutes, D: Charles Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin's greatest masterpiece, the last of his totally-silent films. As the Little Tramp (Chaplin), he fell in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), and also developed a friendship with a drunken, Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Meyers). Unable to see him, she believed The Tramp was wealthy. He used money from the millionaire for an operation to restore the girl's sight. A moving, eloquent film with a priceless ending, when the girl learned the identity of her benefactor.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), 90 minutes, D: Rouben Mamoulian
From Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel. The heavily-censored film featured themes of sexual abuse, man's dual nature, and repression. The Pre-Code story of a fatally curious doctor, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Best Actor-winning Fredric March) who adventured into the unknown, had more sex and violence than later versions. He self-tested a serum formula that released the uninhibited, subconscious evil in his soul, and developed a monstrous and tortured split personality as Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll had some sexy scenes with Cockney slut "Champagne Ivy" Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) - and as the hideous, simian-like Mr. Hyde, he exhibited sordid, vicious, sexually-decadent and sadistic behavior and eventually murdered her. In the finale, he was hunted and killed by London police, who gasped to see him revert to Dr. Jekyll in death.

Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931), 75 minutes, D: Tod Browning
A film that defined the genre of horror pictures. A creepy, weird, and frightening film with tremendous atmosphere and dialogue. Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) played the Transylvanian vampire, with a lilting Hungarian accent. He moveed from Europe to London to find his true love and satisfy his craving for human blood. He lured and victimized innocent English women, leading them to his underground vaults. In a secondary role, Dracula's insane slave Renfield (Dwight Frye) was unforgettable.

Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931), 71 minutes, D: James Whale
A great horror classic from Universal Pictures (production by Carl Laemmle, Jr. - the head of the studio), although antiquated, of Mary Shelley's horror novel. It was followed by Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In a small Bavarian village, obsessed Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), assisted by a crazed dwarf named Fritz (Dwight Frye), conducted strange experiments in his mad search to create artificial life. They were first seen stealing a body from a fresh cemetery grave and a gallows-hanging at midnight, to provide body parts. The theft of a normal brain from a nearby medical school was botched by Fritz, and a criminal's brain was obtained instead. The tirelessly-working Dr. Frankenstein in his elaborate laboratory in the watchtower of his Victorian manor reluctantly allowed his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), his friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) and his old college professor and mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to visit. During a violent thunderstorm, Frankenstein harnessed the power of lightning to jolt life into his inanimate monstrous cadaver strapped to an operating table. He cried insanely at his hideous creation: "Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive....It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive!" The hideous Monster (Boris Karloff with a superb rendering of the pathetic, innocent figure, without dialogue), created out of body pieces, was truly frightening, and kept locked up in the dungeon of an old mill, where it was tortured by Fritz. Ultimately uncontrollable, the mad doctor's creation (around the time of Frankenstein's planned marriage to Elizabeth), murdered Fritz, strangled Dr. Waldman in the lab, escaped from the tower and terrorized the countryside, including accidentally drowning a young peasant girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris) while throwing flower petals into a body of water. The angry townspeople who had organized into a torch-bearing mob searched for the scorned and lonely creature. During pursuit, the Monster faced his creator one-on-one on a rocky hilltop, dragged Frankenstein to the old milltower and then flung him to the ground (causing injuries), and then was burned alive in the mill that had been set on fire by the villagers. In the epilogue, Dr. Frankenstein was still recovering and not married to Elizabeth.

The Front Page (1931), 101 minutes, D: Lewis Milestone
This visually fast-paced screwball comedy-drama (film-produced by Howard Hughes for UA and directed by Lewis Milestone), contained swift, sharp dialogue and non-static action. It was set in 1920s Chicago and faithfully captured the milieu of unscrupulous newspapermen and politicians. The first film version of the original Broadway 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play (directed by George S. Kaufman) was followed by three remakes: director Howard Hawks' classic His Girl Friday (1940) (with the character of Hildy Johnson played by a female, Rosalind Russell), director Billy Wilder's The Front Page (1974) (with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), and Switching Channels (1988). In this original early talkie version, fast-talking, scheming ruthless editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) battled with his ace reporter Hildebrand "Hildy" Johnson (Pat O'Brien) and with City Hall. Hildy wanted to leave crooked big-city life and the newspaper racket to get married to Peggy Grant (Mary Brian), but was convinced by Burns to stay and cover one last story. Hildy joined other reporters in the Press Room of the Criminal Courts Building to cover the hanging-execution of an accused radical who killed a black cop - a poor clerk named Earl Williams (George E. Stone) who claimed he was innocent. When Williams escaped, Burns schemed to manufacture a story "scoop" that would embarrass the police, and expose the political corruption of Sheriff Peter "Pinky" Hartman (Clarence Wilson), a manipulated puppet of the city's Mayor (James Gordon) who was facing a re-election campaign and was trying to manipulate the black vote. To everyone's surprise, fugitive Williams remained in the building, although a city-wide manhunt was undertaken. Alone in the Press Room, Hildy encountered Williams and persuaded him to hide in a roll-top desk. Meanwhile, the Governor's reprieve for Williams was delivered, and the Sheriff attempted to bribe the messenger to return later. Although temporarily arrested, Hildy and Burns succeeded in revealing the city's administrative corruption when the Governor's messenger returned. The film concluded with Hildy deciding to remain as a newspaperman with Burns. The last line ("son-of-a-bitch") was censored - covered over by the sound of a typewriter.

M (1931, Germ.)

M (1931, Germ.), 117 minutes, D: Fritz Lang
A highly influential film. Fritz Lang's first sound film, an expressionistic psychological thriller about a child molester.
Police in Berlin in the 1930s were unable to apprehend a kidnapper and pedophile serial killer of little girls. The 9th victim had just been found - Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut). Criminals in the underworld joined in the hunt, aided also by the beggars' association. Their first major tip was from a blind balloon peddler (Georg John) who heard a suspicious man whistling Edvard Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" from the 'Peer Gynt' Suite at the same time that the man bought a balloon (to lure the unsuspecting young female victim). The psychopath was identified as Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) - his coat back was marked in chalk with the letter "M" by one of the beggars. Beckert was caught hiding in an attic, and taken to a large abandoned brewery building to stand trial, where he was questioned by a panel of underworld boss-leaders, headed by chief judge Schranker (Gustaf Gründgens). During the kangaroo court hearing, Beckert groveled on the floor, expressed his terror through his bulging eyes, and confessed to his crimes, claiming that he was compelled by an evil voice and uncontrollable inner impulses to kill - and couldn't stop himself. Beckert's defense counsel (Rudolf Blümner) argued that the "insane" Beckert wasn't responsible for his actions, and should be turned over to police and the state - to institutionalize and/or cure him. Although the crowd urged Beckert to be eliminated, the police arrived and escorted him away before a decision was made.

Le Million (1931, Fr.) (aka The Million)

Le Million (1931, Fr.) (aka The Million), 89 minutes, D: René Clair
A technically-groundbreaking, inventive, influential and entertaining French film musical, adapted from a successful stage production. Michel Bouflette (René Lefèvre), an impoverished Parisian artist, was perpetually annoyed by numerous creditors. In the apartment of his long-suffering fiancée, ballerina Béatrice (Annabella) - who was endlessly waiting to get married to her flirtatious boyfriend, Michel's worthless, torn, and tattered jacket ended up in the hands of elderly and eccentric on-the-run thief Grandpa Tulip (Paul Olliver). Michel realized that in the pocket of the jacket was his winning ticket in the Dutch lottery, with a prize of a million guilders. There was a race across Paris with his best friend-rival Prosper (Louis Allibert) to recover the jacket concealing the winning lottery ticket.

Monkey Business (1931), 77 minutes, D: Norman Z. McLeod
This was Marx Brothers' third film - and their first film made in Hollywood (and their first film from an original screenplay). Their two previous films, the musical-comedy The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were essentially recreations of their 1925 and 1928 Broadway stage versions, respectively. All of their films were essentially plotless - but full of non-stop hijinks, sight gags, pratfalls and witty quips and insults. Their next two films for Paramount were Duck Soup (1932) and Horse Feathers (1933). The 'madcap' four Marx Brothers (the mustached, quick-witted Groucho, childlike mute pantomimist and harpist Harpo, piano-playing and Italian-sounding Chico, and straight-man Zeppo), with their anarchistic sense of lunatic humor, were introduced as stowaways on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. They were harmoniously singing "Sweet Adeline" and making breakfast, in barrels located in the forward hatch of an Atlantic-crossing ocean liner - labeled Kippered Herring. Groucho tried unsuccessfully to impersonate the ship's Captain Corcoran (Ben Taggart) by phoning for lunch (and dinner). After being discovered, the remainder of their voyage was mostly composed of chase sequences by naval officers after the four brothers. The sustained pursuit took them up and down stairs, into staterooms, around a swimming pool, into the first class lounge, and onto the orchestra stand. Harpo hid in a Punch and Judy puppet show and entertained the children as the authorities tried to capture him. They became involved with feuding rival gangsters: ex-bootlegger and racketeer "Big Joe" Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes) (with pretty daughter Mary (Ruth Hall)), and Alky Briggs (Harry Woods). Chico and Harpo were hired as bodyguards for Big Joe. As usual, Groucho attempted to romance Briggs' blonde wife, Lucille (played by his frequent foil Thelma Todd), and Groucho was even able to fool Briggs into hiring him and Zeppo to work as bodyguards. On shipboard, one of the funniest skits was the very funny barbershop scene when Chico and Harpo impersonated the barber and shaved off ('snoop off') the entire long handlebar mustache of one of the ocean liner's crew members, who requested: "Give me a once-over." Once the boat docked in NYC, all four brothers stole Maurice Chevalier's passport and at customs attempted to impersonate the well-known French singer/actor by performing "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me." Harpo almost succeeded with a Victrola record player strapped to his back (until the tempo slowed down). They eventually were seen disembarking on a stretcher, taking the place of a passenger who had fainted. When the scene shifted to Big Joe's high-society Long Island estate, Groucho continued to pursue Lucille. Meanwhile, Briggs' men kidnapped Helton's daughter Mary who was held in an old barn, where Groucho presided (and looked for a needle in a haystack), and the other three brothers played a version of 'wheel of fortune' before Zeppo rescued Mary.

A Nous La Liberte (1931, Fr.) (aka Freedom For Us)

À Nous la Liberté (1931, Fr.) (aka Freedom For Us), 104 minutes, D: René Clair
A satirical, fantasy comedy about dehumanizing industrialization and mass production (and an inspiration for Chaplin's Modern Times (1936)). Its story was told through the lives of two cellmate convicts: Émile (Henri Marchand) and Louis (Raymond Cordy), incarcerated in a French prison. After escaping to the outside world, ex-prisoner Louis became a gramophone salesman, and then opened up his own successful phonograph manufacturing company, with his workers reduced to robotic automatons on an assembly line. Later, Émile was released from prison, and became a low-level worker in Louis' factory - but was not aware that Louis was the owner/director. Fearing discovery and pursuit by the authorities, Louis gave his factory over to his workers, and with Émile, took to the open road of freedom as tramps.

The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931), 83 minutes, D: William A. Wellman
A powerfully stunning, Pre-Code gangster film about 1920s hoodlums (alongside another major gangster film, Little Caesar (1930)), the film that launched James Cagney as a typecast star. Two young Chicago street toughs on the South Side, Irish boys (Cagney and Eddie Woods as Matt Doyle) who grew up during Prohibition became small-time thieves, bootleggers and then murderous gangsters. This was a larger than life portrayal of one of the kids, who became a vicious, brutal, arrogant Irish gangster, Tom Powers (James Cagney). The film was memorably known for the infamous scene of his nagging mistress Kitty (Mae Clarke) having a grapefruit smashed in her face. He also cavorted with other molls, including Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow).

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), 74 minutes, D: Edgar Selwyn
A sentimental tale of motherly sacrifice, a tearjerking melodrama (filmed eight times between 1915 and 1981) scripted by the title star's husband Charles MacArthur. It told about French rural girl Madelon Claudet (Oscar winnng-Helen Hayes in her first sound film) who had an illegitimate son after being seduced by American artist Larry Maynard (Neil Hamilton). He soon after abandoned the family and married someone else. Her next affair with Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone) ended with him arrested for a jewel robbery and a suidice. Charged as Carlo's accomplice (and sentenced to 10 years), she was forced to give up her son, lost her social standing, and became a haggard streetwalker who also performed robberies. She secretly devoted her entire life to her son Lawrence Claudet (Robert Young), even financially supporting him in medical school.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), 102 minutes, D: Ernst Lubitsch
This early, pre-Code Ernst Lubitsch musical set in Vienna told about a love triangle and changing sexual mores. The main three characters in the Best Picture-nominated light musical were: Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier), a charming officer in the Viennese Royal Guard, Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a cute beer garden violinist and conductor of an all-female orchestra, and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), the sexually-repressed princess of Flausenthurm. In the comedy, Niki left his mistress Franzi for the visiting Austrian Princess, and by the film's final scene, the Lieutenant was forced to marry the Princess. However, Niki refused to romance her, while he continued to have a 'stepping out' affair with Franzi, until Anna discovered their indiscretions. The sexually-liberated Franzi was called to the palace where she gave the Princess a lesson on sexiness by wearing modern lingerie and fashions. She also advised her on her unconsummated marriage. As a result of Franzi's romantic self-sacrifice at the film's end, the randy Lieutenant sang suggestively toward the film audience before he closed his bedroom door - he saved his marriage and renewed his love-making interest in the Princess.

Tabu (1931) (aka Tabu: A Story of the South Seas)

Tabu (1931) (aka Tabu: A Story of the South Seas), 84 minutes, D: Robert J. Flaherty, and F.W. Murnau
A visually-beautiful, expressionistic, quasi-documentary, and poetic piece of filmmaking with an all-native cast. It told of native South Seas love and Tahitian island life (with flower-garlanded, bare-breasted native dancers). It was a tale of ill-fated romance (a star-crossed love a la Romeo and Juliet style) and the breaking of a sacred tabu. South Sea island beauty Reri (Anne Chevalier) was outcast and considered 'taboo' to all men by the islanders, because she was named as the successor to the island's sacred virgin. A romance developed between her and a pearl diver (Matahi) - but their relationship ended tragically. During production of this documentary-styled film, co-scriptwriter and documentary film-maker Flaherty left mid-way through, and then just days before the film was released, director Murnau was killed in an auto accident.

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