Top 10 Favorite Movies of the 1930s
I figured I’d do something a little different in today’s entry and do a list…my first of hopefully many. I started with a list of my ten favorite movies of the 1930s. Again, these aren’t “the best” or “must-sees” they’re my favorites. And favorite is a loose word as I only picked movies I really remembered. There are movies that came out during this time period that I saw, but if I can’t remember specifics and feel a rewatch would benefit, it’s not on this list. That also allows me to revise this list in the future and I’ll hopefully do more of these for the other years. So, my ten favorite movies of the 1930s!
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the 1933 version of King Kong but I’m still wowed by it to this day. The amazing Ray Harryhausen effects have withstood the test of time and this is still one of the best “creature features” I’ve seen (although I haven’t seen many). I always recommend people watch this instead of the crappy CGI spectacle Peter Jackson came up with in 2005.
I know that I mentioned in my Platinum Blonde review that I’m not a Frank Capra fan but apparently I forgot about It Happened One Night. This is an iconic screwball comedy with a hilarious set of performances from Clark Gable (who I can’t seem to go a week without mentioning lately) and Claudette Colbert. My favorite scene has to be when ace reporter Peter Warne (Gable) and heiress Ellie (Colbert) pretend to be a married couple to fool an innkeeper. Their fight is hysterical in how over the top it is, complete with Ellie bawling her eyes out and Peter screaming at her to “Shut up!” It’s ludicrous and hysterical!
M is such a tense movie that you’ll be yelling at the screen and yearning for director Fritz Lang to get things over with! The story of a child murderer and the people and police of German town trying to catch him is filmed in such a skillful way as the murderer is revealed from the get-go. Peter Lorre has very little dialogue but his mere presence around a child makes your skin crawl. With the knowledge of the murderer it’s up to the people and police to discover what the audience knows and there the frustration lies. The film’s ending, in a kangaroo court, makes said audience confront their owns views of justice and whether you’d do the same thing to Lorre’s character. Such a taut thriller that couldn’t be done today.
I covered this just a week or so ago for The Films of Jean Harlow but this is still an amazing movie! William Powell and Jean Harlow steal the show as a couple who have to fake a marriage, mimicking Gable and Lombard our number 9 slot. In fact, Libeled Lady is almost a continuation to It Happened One Night making them great movies to watch side by side.
One of the many highlights of the 1930s was the first, feature-length, animated film to hit theaters! Walt Disney and his work are a passion of mine and without this movie, none of Disney’s magic would exist! I’ve read and seen many things about the making of this film and even 75 years later this movie is still an transporting, beautiful, and enchanting fairy tale. The dwarves are hilarious, the backgrounds are lush, in fact the animation seems to become the star of the film. The songs are sweet and I defy anyone to not sing “Someday My Prince Will Come” after watching this. If anything I get sad watching this because, while Disney movies continue to entertain me, they don’t hold the same feelings as Snow White. Call it nostalgia, but I hold a special place for the founding film of the Disney universe.
As many of the commenters said when I wrote about Bringing Up Baby, the movie stands the test of time. Another amazing screwball comedy this one pairs off the debonair Cary Grant with the glamorous, and scatter-brained Katherine Hepburn. Both actors bring something memorable to the film from Grant’s sweet guy hiding behind horn-rimmed glasses to Hepburn being a bit of a stalker to get Grant’s David to stay with her, it’s proof their characters are destined to be together. Two heavily flawed people coming together to raise a leopard, what movie holds more joy?
I wrote about The Thin Man during my 25 Days of Christmas and this movie is still one of my favorite William Powell movies and I’m pretty sure it’s in the film noir genre so it’s one of my favorites there as well. Powell and Myrna Loy as the drunken and wealthy Charles’ clan makes for some great sleuthing and discussions. They have an effervescent quality to them and they inhabit the “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” that Robin Leach talked of once upon a time (at 23 I can’t believe I remember that guy!).
I just finished the excellent book The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton that tells of the Siamese sisters who appeared in this movie. Many filmgoers love director Tod Browning’s depiction of Dracula with Bella Lugosi, but I love Browning’s film Freaks…the movie that essentially ended his career. For starters, it’s a movie that may seem exploitative (look at that wonderfully exploitative poster) but Browning, being a former carnival worker himself, imbues the cast of circus performers with heart and personality. Telling the story of little person Hans (Harry Earles) who falls in love with the beautiful and evil trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) sets the stage, but the rest of the cast depicts the horrific treatment of these “freaks” at the circus. The characters are only made to be jokes from the regular people who are evil, and the sense of community takes a frightening turn when it’s discovered that Cleopatra wants to kill Hans. A climax in the rain with the deformed cast out to seek revenge is all kinds of frightening leaving you chilled when they start to chant “One of us, one of us.”
What list of the best movies of the 1930s would be complete without The Wizard of Oz? This is a classic in every sense of the word! It’s timeless! It’s so great that there’s numerous spin-off movies coming up, a successful Broadway show, and talks of a remake (I’ll stop and let your outrage seep in)! It’s iconic and to me, it’s the definition of Hollywood filmmaking. The songs are amazing, the sets are fantastic, and even though I still maintain that Glinda was a bitch for never telling Dorothy how to get home, I can’t fault the adventure she makes the girl take (aside from that whole allowing her to be kidnapped and almost killed thing). A film that taught me “there’s no place like home” and “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do.”
Yes, my favorite movie of the 1930s is the 1939, Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon version of Wuthering Heights. To preface, I love Wuthering Heights! I love the original Emily Bronte novel (I read it once a year), and I’ve seen every major Hollywood version and most of the Masterpiece theater versions. While all of them have their pros and cons the 1939 version is a sumptuous, lavish version with such smoldering sexual tension between Olivier’s Heathcliffe and Oberon’s Cathy. Their romance is timeless and the way Olivier delivers Heathcliffe’s iconic speech, “Take any form, drive me mad; only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you” is incredibly hot for lack of a better word. This is the definitive version (yes I know it doesn’t encompass the entire book) for me and is a classic romance.
Any films I forgot or should seek out? What are your favorite films of the 1930s?
1930s, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Films of Jean Harlow, German, Horror, Musical, Mystery, Romance, Thriller
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
The 30s may be my most neglected decade. I have only seen a few from your list, but I am glad that M made the cut. Are you a Chaplin fan at all? City Lights and Modern Times both impressed me quite a bit.
The 30s was hard for me as I didn’t realize how little I’d seen, definitely need to revisit the decade again! I can’t say with certainly if I’m a Chaplin fan as I saw parts of Modern Times in high school (I’m sure that makes me a bad film fan/writer). He’s definitely an actor I want to look into soon.
Nah, you’re not a bad film fan at all. I didn’t see my first Chaplin film until last year. I highly recommend starting with City Lights — still the best I have seen from him, and one of the rare movies I would easily give a 10/10 to.
I need to see M definitely, and City Lights…
Question: I can get down with the old movies once in awhile but sometimes they can kinda be a chore, even the good ones. Is M literally good by even the today’s standards? Like is it good compared to Billy Madison?
An example of an old movie that’s better than Billy Madison is Night of the Living Dead, but that’s from the 60’s or something… I’m skeptical about the 30’s. M sounds pretty sweet though.
Certain classic films definitely don’t stand the test of time (I personally can’t stand Gone with the Wind). M is definitely a great movie as its in the vein of a mystery/vigilante movie. I’d say it’s good by today’s standards but then again…there are people who say Billy Madison shouldn’t qualify as entertainment and I tell them their idiots (O’Doul rules!). Night of the Living Dead is definitely fantastic and technically classic film is generally any movie pre-1970 although that definition changes with each generation (my little brother says 90s movies are “old”). M is far better than I expected if that says anything!
Nice list. My personal top 10:
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. 42nd Street
6. The Lady Vanishes
7. Gold Diggers of 1933
8. All Quiet on the Western Front
9. One Hour With You
That’s a fantastic list with a lot of movies I have on my Netflix. 42nd Street, Holiday, Gold Diggers of 1933, and The Lady Vanishes are movies I’ve been interested in checking out. Thanks for reading!!
Not one James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson film on your list, I am shocked.
Haha, I must say I’ve only seen one film from each actor so far (Cagney in The Public Enemy and Robinson in Double Indemnity). I’m open to recommendations though!