1930s - The ten best movies of the Golden Era!

Jul 7, 2003

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The Bottom Line Where do great stories come from? Take a look back when everything was new and stories and ideas were created by true movie innovators.

The 1930s represented a pivotal decade in film history. Sound had entered the pictures creating a whole new way to convey ideas and advance the story. Dialogue became an important ingredient of screenplays, and the entertainment factor was enhanced as music and dance could be successfully transferred to the screen. Along with sound came new technology that brought clearer pictures and better editing. By the end of the decade color had been perfected and movies became more realistic than they ever had before.

The Hollywood community also changed during this time period. The Academy Awards were created to honor the best movie and moviemakers of the year. Stars arose and stayed on top for thirty years. The glamour machine was in full swing. All the major studios had their stars which they publicized and marketed across America. It is no wonder that Bogart, Hepburn, Cooper, Davis, Grant, Cagney and Gable are still marketable today. But then again, they also made great movies.

The stories of actors and directors that couldn’t make the adjustment to sound are legendary but the 1930s showed us that there were artists that suddenly had a new tool and a new creative way to bring their movie, character, screenplay or cinematography to life. There were a lot of great movies that were created in the “Golden Era” of Hollywood. It is hard to evaluate some of the films because the legends were bigger than the movie. It has often been said that 1939 was the greatest year in movie history. I wouldn’t disagree, but 1938 was an outstanding year as was 1934 and the other years of the decade.

The following represents my submission for the10 greatest films of the 1930s.

10. The Lady Vanishes – Alfred Hitchcock - 1938

A young woman awakes on a train only to find that the old lady, with whom she had befriended earlier, had disappeared. In her place was a new old lady wearing the previous woman’s clothes. Is she crazy? The rest of the people on the train are mixed on passing judgment and minds change throughout the film. Can someone actually disappear in a confined space? Hitchcock provides his usual suspense and a significant amount of humor as the heroine tries to solve the mystery.

9. Grand Illusion – Jean Renoir – 1937

This is the first of two foreign movies in my choices and it provides a French look at World War I. In this movie, officers were gentlemen, and the prisoner of war French pilots were treated as such by the German officers. Although in French, the movie stays true to its characters as the Germans speak German and the English speak English. The film contains several conflicts: French vs. German, aristocracy vs. working class, captor vs. captive, and friendship vs. duty. On top of being a great escape movie, the movie has my favorite Hollywood character, Erich Von Stroheim as the German commandant.

8. It Happened One Night – Frank Capra – 1934

Clark Gable was the “King of Hollywood,” and his early keys to success can be seen in this film. Although already a leading man, Gable was lent to Columbia and combined with the skills of director Frank Capra, he won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of a stubborn newspaper reporter hot on the trail of a missing spoiled heiress. The thirties were filled with “screwball comedies,” and created a formula that has been rehashed ever since. Of course Gable and Colbert are going to hate each other and ultimately fall in love. There is no suspense in the ultimate destination of the story; it is the journey that makes this movie fun to watch.

7. The Thin Man – W.S. Van Dyke – 1934

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, this William Powell and Myrna Loy vehicle was so successful that it was followed by five sequels and a television show based on its characters. All buddy movies require great chemistry and in this installment, ex-cop private detective William Powell is newly married to socialite Myrna Loy who is looking for some thrills. Witty dialogue reigns supreme as the sleuths meet the suspects and ultimately catch the murderer. Both Powell and Loy had great careers with several outstanding movies, but this combination is as good as any in movie history.

6. The Bride of Frankenstein – James Whale – 1935

Some movies can be so good that another movie can be made about them over sixty years later. In 1998, the movie “God and Monsters” was successfully released about the making of this film. Nowadays, the Terminator, Jason, Freddie Krueger, etc. can come back to life in another movie because in 1935 Frankenstein resurrected into a successful sequel. This movie is as good, if not better than the original. Like all great sequels, the original characters are met with new obstacles and interesting new characters are introduced. In this story Dr. Frankenstein meets Dr. Septimus Pretorius (great name). Despite being filmed in the first half of the century, Dr. Pretorius describes his successful experimentation with human cloning. Of course we have outlawed human cloning today, but if you want to see what could happen, watch the movie.

5. City Lights – Charles Chaplin – 1931

Great movies have to have great stories. The infamous “Little Tramp” befriends a blind girl and through perseverance, luck, and a little chicanery, helps to restore her eyesight. The movie came out during the sound era but Chaplin released this silent classic as only his genius could allow. His timing and artistry are evidenced through out the whole movie and the boxing scene alone is worth viewing the film. Silent films became better through the first part of the century, and “City Lights encapsulated all that worked in previous films to create a masterpiece to end the silent era.

4. M – Fritz Lang – 1931

This German film is the best of the early sound films. It even takes on the challenge of filming a court room scene and makes it work. The movie follows the parallel search by the police and the Berlin underworld for a child killer portrayed by Hungarian comic actor Peter Lorre. Both Lorre and Lang came to Hollywood prior to WWII and went on to great careers, but this may be their best work. The film expertly uses cross cuts to move the story and provides glimpses into the mind of a psycho killer. One of the main actors later went on to head Hitler’s film industry and the movie provides an insight to prewar Berlin.

3. Gone With the Wind – Victor Fleming - 1939

Romantic epics either greatly succeed or fail miserably. There is very little in between. The epic has to be great enough to sustain the picture, and the romance has to be believable. Based on the Margaret Mitchell best seller, GWTW succeeds on all levels. Although not a true romance as things don’t end happily ever after, the movie explores the relationship and consequences of the flirt and the frustrated male. Despite the fact that multiple directors were used, it is no coincidence that it won 10 Academy Awards. It could probably win 10 Academy Awards today.

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Walt Disney – 1937

Most movies of the 1930s have aged and do not hold up well with the movies of today. The cinematography is hard to watch and the stories are forced. Directors were experimenting with sound and story progression, and although there were great movies made during the period, there were more that have long since been forgotten. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has to stand as one of the greatest achievements in film history. Despite the use of new art and computer graphics in today’s cinema, this sixty-six year old movie is as good as ever. The art, the characters, the humanity, and the other special aspects of this film are endless. This movie, unlike most, will be as good 100 years from now as it is today, and as it was when it was released.

1. The Wizard of Oz – Victor Fleming – 1939

“The Wizard of Oz” came out in 1939 and defined its genre. After all of these years, there hasn’t been another fantasy musical that has been remotely as successful. It is hard to believe that originally the movie lost money at the box office. It was probably just too much too soon. Color and sound were barely a decade old and this movie was too far ahead of its time. Imagine seeing “The Matrix” with a 1950s audience. Fortunately, the film had staying power because of all of its enormous strengths. Along with the great and catchy songs, the movie used vaudevillians in the major roles which provided color to their characters. It also used Margaret Hamilton, as one of the greatest villains of all time, and it did not shy away from making her terrifying and despicable. Everyone remembers seeing her for the first time because she scared us to death.

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