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 Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), 106 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
One of the best of Hollywood's swashbuckler adventure films, and one of star Errol Flynn's best portrayals. With many remakes too numerous to mention - and mostly inferior. This was the most expensive Warner Bros. film to date at $2 million, but it turned out to be the studio's biggest money-maker in 1939. It was the second of eight films to pair Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The legendary and infamous hero of Sherwood Forest Robin Hood/Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn), with his 'merrymen', who robs from the rich and gives to the poor. He woos Maid Marian (or Lady Marion Fitzwalter) (Olivia de Havilland) who rides Roy Rogers' future horse Trigger, and confronts his Norman adversaries: evil Prince John (Claude Rains) and his ruthless henchman Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), who attempt to take over England and oppress the Saxon masses during King Richard's (Ian Hunter) absence. With beautiful Technicolor sets, pageantry and costumes, dashing sword fighting, music by Oscar-winning Erich Wolfgang Korngold, lively characters, sparkling dialogue, and exciting action.

Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), 105 minutes, D: Henry King
A nostalgic and lavish 20th Century Fox musical drama (and winner of Best Musical Score) set in the days of vaudeville on Broadway (from 1915-1938), an enjoyable backstage show-biz musical. The fictionalized film followed the career of Alexander/Roger Grant (Tyrone Power), a classical violinist who preferred playing popular ragtime music. He formed a small combo band, and during one gig in San Francisco's Nob Hill, paired up with young contralto singer Stella Kirby (Alice Fay, Fox's studio queen) who sang "Alexander's Ragtime Band" - and afterwards, the band was named Power "Alexander." There were ups and downs in the relationship between the quarreling Roger and Stella, as he intermittently fought for her love over a period of about 25 years and also contended in a love triangle with songwriter Charlie Dwyer (Don Ameche), a romantic rival for Stella. Powerful vocalist Jerry Allen (Ethel Merman) joined the group.
This film included 28 Irving Berlin songs, such as "When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'," "Everybody's Doing It," "I'm Marching Along with Time," "My Walking Stick," "Heat Wave," and "Now It Can Be Told."

Algiers (1938), 95 minutes, D: John Cromwell
A romantic drama, a story of intrigue and romance. A remake of Pépé le Moko (1937, Fr.) with Jean Gabin, an inspiration for Casablanca (1942), and an inspiration for the musical remake Casbah (1948). [Note: Chuck Jones' and Warners' animated cartoon character "Pepe le Pew" was based on the "Pepe le Moko" character. "Come, let me take you to the Casbah," however, was never spoken in this film. In the cartoon The Cats Bah (1954), Pepe le Pew stated the line: "Come with me to the Casbah," reinforcing the idea that the line was spoken by Boyer in the film.] Crafty international jewel thief Pepe Le Moko (Charles Boyer, in his most famous role) fled to the notorious Casbah district (a safe hiding zone with dark twisting alleyways) in French Algiers to escape from pursuing North African police, led by Inspector Slimane (Joseph Calleia). There, he met and fell into a doomed romance with beautiful, bejewelled, sultry Parisian tourist Gaby (Hedy Lamarr in her American film debut) vacationing with her wealthy businessman fiancée Giraux (Robert Grieg). She was used to tempt Pepe out of the Casbah, where he was fatally shot at the dock.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), 97 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
A superb melodrama starring three greats - Cagney, O'Brien, and Bogart. Two kids from Brooklyn grew up together and followed very different paths in life, one becoming parish priest Father Jerry Connelly (William Tracey as youth, Pat O'Brien as adult), the other big-time, hardened gangster/convict Rocky Sullivan (Frankie Burke as youth, James Cagney as adult). Conflict arose when Rocky returnedd to the neighborhood and was idolized by a group of tough boys (future Dead End kids) who were led by the priest. After Rocky was captured and sentenced to death in the gas chamber after murdering local rivals, Father Jerry asked Rocky for a favor - to die like a coward and not appear as a hero to the boys. With an unforgettable movie moment - as an uncharacteristically-fearful Rocky was led to his execution.

The Baker's Wife (1938, Fr.) (aka La Femme du Boulanger), 133 minutes, D: Marcel Pagnol
A charming comedy/drama, adapted from Jean Giono's novel Jean Le Bleu. In a small Provencal town in the late 19th century, popular new (and rotund) baker Aimable Castanier (Raimu) was married to the beautiful and much younger Aurélie Castanier (Ginette Leclerc), and everyone loved his bread-making. When the unfaithful Aurélie soon ran off with a handsome shepherd named Dominique (Charles Moulin) for a romantic rendezvous, the distraught Aimable stopped baking, became suicidal, and started drinking heavily. The town's three leaders: the Marquis Castan de Venelles (Fernand Charpin), the Schoolteacher or L'Instituteur (Robert Bassac), and the Curate or Le Curé (Robert Vattier),
planned to find Aurélie and return her to Aimable, so that they could reconcile their marriage and he could begin baking again.

Boys Town (1938), 96 minutes, D: Norman Taurog
Director Norman Taurog's and MGM's esteemed, heart-warming biographical drama presented a portrayal of real-life, pious and dedicated Catholic Father Edward Flanagan (Best Actor-winning Spencer Tracy with his second consecutive win, after receiving an Oscar for Captains Courageous (1937)). It also featured a formulaic and simplistic approach to the rehabilitation of teenaged criminals. In the film's opening sequence, bitter and condemned convict Dan Farrow (Leslie Fenton), shortly on his way to the electric chair, asked Father Edward J. Flanagan in his cell: "How much time do I got?" and he heard the reply: "Eternity begins in 45 minutes, Dan." Farrow confessed his horrible and wayward upbringing, including how he had become corrupted within a state institution or reformatory. While riding on a train back to Omaha, Flanagan recalled the haunting (and echoing) words of Dan Farrow: "12 years old. One friend. Starving kid. Never had a chance. Reformatory." As a result, he became committed to developing a model community project known as Boys Town near Omaha, Nebraska. It would bring wayward orphans and juvenile delinquents from reform schools or gangs to an environment for a second chance where they could be truly educated in school and reformed. Father Flanagan pitched his idea for a home for boys, first to skeptical Jewish pawnbroker and friend Dave Morris (Henry Hull), who offered him some financial assistance of $100 for a rented house and furniture; Flanagan's main message and philosophy to prospective donors was: "There's no such thing as a bad boy," although some doubted him and refused his naive expectations. Skeptical, begrudging newspaper magnate John Hargraves (Jonathan Hale) also spoke with Flanagan when he was requesting funding and support for expansion: ("I want your help for homeless boys. I want you to let the world know what I'm trying to do"); Hargrave expressed opposition and some doubt about his ability to run a facility full of delinquents: "No, I'm afraid I can't do that....Because I don't believe in what you're trying to do. The very foundation is false. 'No such thing as a bad boy.' That's just a catch phrase, sentimental nonsense. Of course you know you're flying in the face of the very best of public opinion...A whole lot of good people feel just as I do and we're not un-Christian monsters." Flanagan persuasively continued: "I want a home for them where they can stay and where they can learn. A town for boys governed by boys. It's worth a shot, isn't it?" - Hargraves reluctantly agreed to support Flanagan's sincere and "unselfish" plan - to build a boys home for troubled teens in Omaha, Nebraska, known ultimately as Boys Town. A montage illustrated the building of Boys Town - including the collection of funds, architectural blueprints, staking of the property, the digging of the foundation and the use of heavy machinery, carpentry, concrete mixing and brick-laying, all culminating in a view of the finished product - FATHER FLANAGAN'S BOYS HOME. A ceremony marked the completion of three buildings (using the boys' labor), a US flag was raised, a band played, and boys cheered and devoured a food table. Flanagan's business partner, benefactor and financier Dave Morris reminded that there were three mortgages on the property that threatened its survival; he worried about the mounting debt: ("Look at the sweating you've done to raise nickels, dimes, quarters, penny contributions. Now you've got to get dollars, hundreds, thousands!"). Father Flanagan was initially challenged when he came up against one of the new arrivals - rebellious, cocky, tough-talking wise-guy punk teen and poolhall shark Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), the volatile kid brother of convicted and imprisoned gangster-murderer Joe Marsh (Edward Norris), who had requested that Flanagan care for him, for $280. Whitey was a loveable but difficult and disruptive bad boy delinquent. He was found playing cards and smoking with his gang of friends. After dismissing the others, Flanagan removed Whitey's feet from the top of the table, knocked the cigarette out of his mouth, pulled him up by the collar and introduced himself: "I'm Father Flanagan. I saw your brother Joe just a little while ago. We had a long talk about you, Whitey. Joe wants you to come with me to Boys Town" - when Whitey refused and mouthed off, Flanagan struck back: "Now, look, Whitey, in a pinch I can be tougher than you are, and I guess maybe this is the pinch. You're coming with me to Boys Town because that's the way your brother wants it. And that's the way I want it" - he then reprimanded Whitey who was faking an arm injury: "Now, why don't you stop acting like a kid, Whitey?" Whitey remained at Boys Town but then suffered a number of setbacks to his ego - he lost an election for the high position of the community's Mayor (with his campaign slogan: "Don't be a sucker!") to handicapped Tony Ponessa (Gene Reynolds), and was defeated in a boxing match against Freddie Fuller (Frankie Thomas). Spitefully, Whitey left Boys Town, and was involved in a car accident that injured his pal Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) who had followed after him. Whitey also came into contact with his older brother who had escaped custody and was robbing a bank in Omaha (and Whitey was accidentally shot in the leg). Whitey promised to not squeal and refused to give up vital information that might incriminate his brother - something that threatened to close Boys Town forever: (Flanagan: "You're shielding someone. Are you going to see these boys turned out into the streets, into the alleys, into reformatories, and worse, lose their home?"). Whitey was ultimately reformed and redeemed by Flanagan's patient efforts, when he helped in the recapture of his brother and was returned to Boys Town, where he was acclaimed as the new Mayor.

Bringing Up Baby (1938), 102 minutes, D: Howard Hawks
Director Howard Hawks' classic film was one of the greatest of Hollywood's and RKO Studios' fast-paced screwball comedies, noted for the director's ability to helm any film genre. This was the second of four films pairing Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn, and reportedly the first film with the word "gay" in the dialogue. Unbelievably, the film bombed at the box-office and as a result of the commercial failure, Hawks lost his RKO production contract, and Hepburn bought out her film contract (and continued to be labeled "box-office poison"). Many years later, it was loosely remade as What's Up, Doc (1972) starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal. In the fast-paced, inventive, and sometimes lunatic comedy, absent-minded, mild-mannered, shy bespectacled paleontologist Professor David Huxley (Cary Grant) was soliciting a $1 million dollar museum donation from wealthy, gift-giving philanthropist-sponsor Mrs. Elizabeth Carlton Random (May Robson), aka Aunt Elizabeth. (He was also scheduled to marry Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) in a day or two.) While playing golf with Mrs. Random's lawyer Alexander Peabody (George Irving), he happened to encounter fast-talking, flighty, eccentric heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), Mrs. Random's niece. She wrongly claimed that David's golf ball was hers, before driving off in his battered automobile. The Professor kept running afoul with her during absurdist encounters - in a restaurant, for example, he slipped on an olive that she had dropped on the floor, and afterwards, he used his torn tuxedo to cover up her torn evening gown as they exited, and then confessed to her that he was fixated on her: "I'm strangely drawn toward you..." before sprawling face-first onto the ground. Comic, chaotic situations continued to arise when she set her sights on him and sent his life into turmoil because of her accident-prone nature. When she offered to drive him to her Aunt Elizabeth's farm in Westlake, CT on the day of his marriage, he wasn't aware that she had a music-loving, 3 year-old tame pet leopard named Baby that she planned to bring along in the car. He was also forced to bring along a package containing an important "intercostal clavicle bone" for a brontosaurus reconstruction that he was working on. When they arrived at the farm, he had no choice but to wear a frilly, fur-trimmed negligee, due to Susan's meddling. And when greeted by Susan's Aunt, he had to blurt out: "I just went gay all of a sudden." Further upset arose when David's dinosaur bone was stolen by Susan's aunt's dog George (Asta of The Thin Man series) and buried somewhere on the grounds. To chase after an escaped Baby into the woods, Susan carried a butterfly net while David was prepared with a rope and croquet mallet. They found Baby sitting on a neighbor's roof, and to calm the tame leopard and attract him down off the roof, they serenaded Baby with his favorite and fondest song, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby." (Complications arose when a real, murderous escaped leopard from the circus was also on the loose.) After causing a disturbance, the two were reported by the home owner Dr. Fritz Lehman (Fritz Feld) and thrown in the local jail by Constable Slocum (Walter Catlett). They occupied adjacent jail cells in the Westlake City Jail where Susan fancifully pretended to be a gangster moll (a member of the 'Leopard Gang,' infamous for robberies and other criminal activities). After everything was cleared up, and Alice broke up with David, Susan came (to return the missing dog-buried bone) to visit David at the museum where he was high up on a platform working on the brontosaurus skeleton. The zany film concluded with her toppling the entire platform and skeleton to the ground - as David grabbed onto Susan's dangling hand to rescue her.

The Citadel (1938, UK), 110 minutes, D: King Vidor
A film adaptation from A. J. Cronin's best-selling novel. A poor, but idealistic, dedicated Scottish doctor Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) treated Welsh mining town miners who were infected with work-related TB, caused by silica dust in the anthracite mines. He dismissed his ideals and noble goals, however, when he began a more lucrative practice by treating aristocratic, rich London hypochondriacal patients instead, and cast aside his faithful, equally-idealistic schoolteacher wife Christine (Rosalind Russell) and his best friend Denny (Ralph Richardson). When his friend died (due to medical incompetence from high-priced surgeon Charles Every (Cecil Parker) after a car accident) and his wife convinced him to restore his true goals in life (and restore faith in himself), he reformed himself. Following an impassioned plea to the General Medical Council to save his career, he returned to minister to the people of the poor village.

Four Daughters (1938), 90 minutes, D: Michael Curtiz
A tearjerker and soap-opera-ish romantic drama from a story by Fannie Hurst, with three real-life Lane sisters playing three of the four daughter roles. A music professor and widower Adam Lemp (Claude Rains), the Dean of the Briarwood Music Foundation, raised his four daughters: Thea (Lola Lane), Kay (Rosemary Lane), Emma (Gale Page), and the youngest Ann (Priscilla Lane) in a small town with the help of his sister - their elderly, no-nonsense Aunt Etta (May Robson). Romance-minded Emma was courted by boy-next-door neighbor florist Ernest Talbot (Dick Foran), while Thea wished to marry wealthy banker Ben Crowley (Frank McHugh), and Kay was busy with her singing career. The youngest, fun-loving Ann, vowed not to marry. Then, all four daughters became enamoured with boarder and pupil Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn), a popular music conductor and composer, who chose to be engaged to Ann. On the eve of their wedding, realizing that Emma was really in love with Felix, Ann sacrificed her love and ran off with surly, tough, cynical, reckless and bitter musician Mickey Borden (John Garfield in his film debut). When poverty made their relationship difficult and he committed suicide, Ann returned home to be reunited with Felix.

Holiday (1938), 93 minutes, D: George Cukor
A film adaptation from a Broadway play written by Phillip Barry, about two marriages - one wrong and one right. Considered a New Years' Eve classic, and another romantic comedy wonderfully pairing Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, the third of four instances. In this year of 1938, both of their films flopped. A non-conformist, poor, free-spirited young man Johnny Case (Cary Grant) was pressured to please his rich socialite fiancee Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) and her stuffy privileged family and join her blueblood Park Avenue father Edward's (Henry Kolker) banking firm. He refused to conform to the family's rigid demands, and then realized that Julia's more free-thinking, eccentric sister Linda (Katharine Hepburn) was the only one who understood and loved him for his independent ways - and was a much better soul-mate and marital match. Linda's alcoholic and depressed brother Ned (Lew Ayres) was proof that it wasn't good to be a slave to earning money.

Jezebel (1938), 104 minutes, D: William Wyler
In William Wyler's drama, Bette Davis gave a magnificent performance - often compared to Gone With The Wind (1939). The role was offered to her as consolation by Warner Bros. because she was denied the role of Scarlett O'Hara. Davis won her second Best Actress Award for her performance. In the plot, headstrong, spoiled, self-centered Southern belle daughter Julie Morrison (Bette Davis) of a Southern aristocratic family in pre-Civil War New Orleans lost her fiancee Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) when she stubbornly defied the convention of the day by wearing a scandalous red dress to the Olympus Ball. Embarrassed, he left and unbeknownst to her married Northerner Amy (Margaret Lindsay). When Preston returned three years later, she begged forgiveness but it was too late, and she suffered hurt and rejection, and felt she faced life alone. When an epidemic of yellow jack struck, she begged Amy to accompany the mortally ill Preston to an island for quarantine and care for him ("Help me make myself clean again as you are clean") - it was the ultimate sacrifice. The final view was of a resolute Julie riding off in a quarantined wagon-load of yellow fever victims (including Pres) to the hellish, condemned Lazarette Island.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, UK), 97 minutes, D: Alfred Hitchcock
This was a highlight among Hitchcock's British films - a cleverly-contrived and intriguing mystery story. It was remade as The Lady Vanishes (1979) - a British comedy-mystery with Elliott Gould and Cybill Shepherd. Set just before WW II, young socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) was traveling on an express train from Mandrika and moving through Europe to return to England (for her impending marriage). A charming elderly lady, English governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), suddenly disappeared and it was discovered that no one was willing to believe or accept that the lady had disappeared or that she even existed. With the help of fellow passenger-musicologist Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave in his film debut), Iris sought to locate Miss Froy. The suspense increased when Iris and Gilbert were pulled into the beguiling and strange incident - with the only proof being Miss Froy's name written in fog/frost on the train window. Iris' memory and veracity were questioned, since she was hit over the head with a flowerpot while boarding the train, suffered a concussion, and might be delusional. During the quest for Miss Froy (who was eventually discovered alive and safe), there were thoughts of a sinister, mysterious conspiracy to kidnap her. Her disappearance was linked to an espionage plot, and she was ultimately identified as a British agent-spy who had memorized a musical tune (with a secret encoded message) desired by the enemy - Hitchcock's trademark "MacGuffin." Miss Froy had first heard the tune being sung by a Tyrolean street folk singer outside of her hotel just before he was strangled, and she was to deliver the message to the Foreign Office in Whitehall.

Olympia (1938, Germ.), 118 and 107 minutes (in two parts: Festival of the Nations, and Festival of Beauty, aka Olympia 1. Teil: Fest der Volker, and Olympia 2. Teil: Fest der Schonheit), D: Leni Riefenstahl
Innovative German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics (famous for American track star Jesse Owens who won four gold medals for his sprint racing) in this stunning film - with graceful and beautiful images of 'Aryan' athletes in competition. The film's innovations directly influenced future televised sports coverage. It opened with a beautiful, silent prologue sequence with views of ancient nude Greek statues (that seemingly came to life), nude dancers, and near-nude male athletes. The images artistically captured the movement of beautiful human bodies to perfection.

Pygmalion (1938, UK), 96 minutes, D: Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard
A delightful romantic comedy, the first (non-musical) film version of George Bernard Shaw's 1912 stage play and screenplay, and a Broadway opening in 1914. It was a socio-economic drama based on the Cinderella story, but actually taken from the Greek myth of Pygmalion - about a sculptor who fell in love with a marble statue of his own making. A bullying, stuffy and smug bachelor, Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) - a teacher of phonetics and linguistics, made a bet with his friend Colonel George Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he could educate and transform a common, coarse and impetuous Cockney 'guttersnipe' flower seller from Convent Garden, Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller in her first screen role) into being able to speak in proper English and pass as a captivating British lady/duchess of upper class breeding - within six months - at the Ambassador's Ball.
To do so, he must transform her thick-accented voice, by coaching her to speak proper English with elocution lessons, teaching her manners, and drilling her so that she will be educated. "We were above that in Convent Garden...I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me; I'm not fit to sell anything else." "I'm a good girl, I am." At a tea party, in her first public testing, she blurted out, "Not bloody likely." However, she made a spectacular debut at the Ambassador's reception, proving him right. In the process of teaching her, Higgins fell in love with her, although she was attracted by an upper class gentleman named Freddy Eynsford-Hill (David Tree), and found she could not return home to Higgins. The Broadway musical remake that was inspired from this film, Lerner and Loewe's 1956 production, also led to the famous film musical My Fair Lady (1962), that would walk away with eight Oscars (out of twelve), including Best Picture. It was honored with four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor (Howard), and Best Actress (Hiller), and one Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Test Pilot (1938), 118 minutes, D: Victor Fleming
An exciting aviation drama with stunningly-photographed aerial sequences, and one of MGM's greatest hits of the year. The story of an adventurous, daredevil test pilot Jim Lane (Clark Gable) who tested planes manufactured by Howard Drake (Lionel Barrymore), aided by loyal mechanic Gunner Sloane (Spencer Tracy). When testing a plane and forced to land in a Kansas cornfield, he met and fell in love with farm girl Ann Barton (Myrna Loy), and they married. Lane was a brilliant test pilot but unpredictable and uneasy about settling down into domestic life as a husband and father. He obviously enjoyed the risks of his profession, which made it difficult for his wife to sit and watch him testing a new Air Force bomber.

You Can't Take It With You (1938), 126 minutes, D: Frank Capra
A great, endearing Best Picture-winning screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play from Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Receptionist/secretary Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) was the beautiful and sane daughter of an eccentric and happy family, run by philosophical patriarch/grandfather Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Family members were involved in free-wheeling activities including painting and sculpture, ballet dancing, fireworks invention and experimentation, xylophone playing, mystery writing and more. Alice worked in the offices of capitalist Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), a rich conservative banker. She feared that she might never marry, due to her crazy family. However, she became engaged to Kirby's son Tony Kirby (James Stewart), a down-to-earth son. Problems erupted when the two incompatible families were to meet for dinner at the Sycamore's house before the wedding. The Kirbys mistakenly arrived one day early, fireworks were accidently set off, everyone was carted off to jail, and the relationship between Tony and Alice was quickly put in serious jeopardy - would their love win out?

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