Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1930s

Anna Christie, an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play, was the first big Hollywood release of the 1930s. It starred the Swedish icon Greta Garbo in her first talking role, and it delivered her famous line at the beginning of the film: ‘Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!’ Who could resist the Garbo charm after that? Despite it being hailed as Garbo’s ‘talkie’ breakthrough, there is nothing too special about its production. It was a modest success having been nominated for three Academy Awards (then only a few years old, and it made a profit of a half a million US dollars.

Fast forward to the end of the decade, with the outbreak of war in Europe destined to change the world forever. During December 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia, a three-day festival attended by 300,000 people marked the outrageously over-the-top premiere for Gone with the Wind – an epic four-hour historical romantic drama about the American Civil War, released in glorious Technicolor and one of the most expensive productions ever made up until that point. It also made a profit of almost US$400 million (that’s US$3.4 billion in today’s money!!)

The time between Anna Christie and Gone with the Wind saw Hollywood become a lucrative money-making machine. Sound pictures became a behemoth, and to enable their profit, a system of star-making became the norm – Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Shirley Temple, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and John Wayne were all announced to us as super-people. The Studio System was developed by mega-rich capitalists who had already been in the ascendency from their successes with silent movies in the 1920s. The following studios set out their stall during the 1930s: Metro Goldwyn Mayer (family entertainment and middle-class values), Paramount (decadence and upper-class style), Warner Brothers (lower budget and working-class stories), Universal (horrors and musicals), Columbia (screwball comedies), 20th Century Fox (ambitious technical productions), Walt Disney (children’s entertainment and animation), and United Artists (more independent features). They all desperately sold their respective wares to the public at theatres across the States. They made lots and lots of moola, and so did the stars that their movies spawned.

Meanwhile not in the US, cinema also grew in its influence. Great Britain saw Alfred Hitchcock make astounding technical advancements and Laurence Olivier took the wonders and delights of the stage onto the Big Screen. The romance and pessimism of Poetic Realism was established as a successful genre in France thanks to Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir. In Germany, there was a before- and after-Hitler period, with the former characterised by amazing films like Fritz Lang’s M and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Vampire, and the latter by Nazi propaganda films such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Spain gave us the surrealist genius Luis Buñuel, and in the Far East, we were first introduced to the Japanese masters Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozo, and by god, given their contributions to cinema over the following decades, we can be very thankful for that.

Sight and Sound critics’ list of the Greatest Films of All Time currently has five films from the 1930s and it is notable that from a period that produced some of the most recognisable Hollywood movies (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Frankenstein and King Kong), the only American films on the list are two Charlie Chaplin comedies:

  • Modern Times (1936, Charlie Chaplin) (78)
  • M (1931, Fritz Lang) (=36)
  • City Lights (1931, Charlie Chaplin) (=36)
  • L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) (34)
  • La Règle du jeu (1939 Jean Renoir) (13)

For me, there are another five films that should be held up with the best of them, and they are discussed here.

Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Most people will nod towards Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin when they think of ‘old black and white comedies,’ but the Marx Brothers are unsurpassed when it comes to physical, surreal and written comedy from the early period of cinema. They essentially gave the movie-going public the original LOLs and ROFLs. Out of an impressive back catalogue, I would easily choose Duck Soup for its consistently absurdist plot, its impressive parody about war, and its unforgettable choreographed silent sequences (especially the ‘mirror/reflection’ bit with Groucho and Harpo, and the ‘three hats’ part with Chico and Harpo).

The film is hilarious from beginning to end. Groucho’s Rufus T. Firefly is one of the great characters of film, and his quips and interplay with the completely straight Mrs Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is truly something to behold in terms of comedic dialogue. When watching Duck Soup (unfathomably, deemed by some to be a failure upon release), it is unsurprising to find that the brothers’ Vaudeville-origins, Jewish-style act would go on to define the direction of successful trans-Atlantic comedy, from Woody Allen and Mel Brooks to Monty Phyton and Peter Sellers.

Things to Come (1936, William Cameron Menzies)

This ambitious imagining of the H.G. Wells novel is an early example of cinematic visionary scope and fully realised science fiction on the big screen. You can see its influences on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run. Indeed, certain parts of Things to Come look terribly dated now, but one must remember this was written and made pre-World War II – at the very least, sending humans into space was quite an unreachable idea at the time. But Wells always invoked his imagination to paint the most plausible vision of the future that he could comprehend, and he had a mind like no other in that regard.

To this day, Things to Come is an extraordinarily optimistic film to witness. It starts in the near future (1940) when war is at the doorstep of a small British town, and then proceeds to sweep through time envisioning the fallout of world war, the subsequent political instability, and eventually technical advancements and scientific progress that leads to a Utopian version of the same British town a century or so later. The brilliant Raymond Massey is a stand-out, while the so-called futuristic costumes are more akin to ancient Rome than they are to a 2030s wardrobe.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

If you can ignore the macho undertone of Howard Hawks’ films, you can find something truly enjoyable to revel in. And given that Cary Grant’s character in Only Angels Have Wings has an interesting arc where his machoism finally succumbs to reason, it is certainly worth seeing out this brilliant adventure film’s runtime. But you do have to feel sorry for Jean Arthur. It does appear at times that the actress is fighting against Hawks’ bullish treatment of her character without success. In summary, Bonnie Lee (Arthur) finds herself stranded in a South American town where an air freight company is vying for a lucrative contract to fly mail across the continent by taking on increasingly hazardous flights across the Andes. Bonnie Lee becomes infatuated by Geoff, the headstrong company manager (Grant) and, well, we can see where this is going.

There is tremendous freedom to the aerial action in the film, and it is propelled by a raw performance by Grant (then only starting to make his mark on Hollywood). Typical of Hawks, he acquires a solid support of intriguing and fully realised background characters (Thomas Mitchell is fantastic and the stunning Rita Hayworth pops in towards the end), and offers scenes where the dialogue is quick and witty, and shared amongst the cast with silver precision. And in the end, he never loses sight of the central romance between Grant and Arthur, which is one for the ages.  

Le jour se lève (1939, Marcel Carné)

The deeply poetic and tragic tale of Le jour se lève (translates as ‘daybreak’) marks the height of the great collaboration between director Marcel Carné, writer Jacques Prévert and actor Jean Gabin. Carné and his talented crew gave us a very early glimpse of what could be done by incorporating a cinematic language on-screen (e.g. mobile cameras in outdoor settings and realistic background noises), while Gabin embodied the crew’s intent with his suave body movements and excellent delivery of lyrical dialogue.

Gabin, with his rough working-class demeanour and that irresistible French grin, plays a factory worker, who starts out in a no-win situation after seemingly being provoked into murdering a man he knows. His flashbacks tell the story that led him there, and it involves two women he becomes involved with, who themselves fall foul to the manipulations of the man he eventually murders. The two women are characterised as opposites: the innocent and young Jacqueline Laurent and the alluring and experienced Arletty. Both are magnificent and clearly influences on future French stars such as Jeanne Moreau and Nathalie Delon.

Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)

1939 was the year for some incredible films (I haven’t even mentioned Stagecoach, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights or Ninotchka!). It was as if the decade needed to close out with a bang before the 1940s offered us a deluge of further high-budget Romances, Action-Adventures and Westerns from the Hollywood Studios. In Destry Rides Again, Western and Comedy were wonderfully smashed together in the coming-together of an unbettered pair in Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart. Joyously demented throughout, Destry really is a one-of-a-kind madcap caper that pulls at every emotional string possible to create a marvellous example of film craft.

The film is noted for Stewart’s first and triumphant foray into Westerns (he never looked back) but I will forever remember it as the Marlene Dietrich show. Truly a performer who knew no bounds to what she could achieve, she takes to the metaphoric and literal floor of the saloon and makes it her own. Throughout the 1930s, Dietrich dazzled the silver screen until she fell out of favour with the Studios (presumably because she was too hot to handle) but this marked her comeback, and the magnetic performance she gives us (all-singing, all-winking, all-brawling) is unforgettable.

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