The 10 Best Films of the 1930's

The 10 Best Films of the 1930’s

When one compiles a ten best list they must always be aware that the list is not the end all say all on the subject. Invariably, be it movies, music, books, restaurants or anything else, the list compiler is bound to include one or two titles that will leave the reader scratching their head while omitting one or two the reader prefers to something on that list.

With that in mind, I am compiling a list of the 10 best movies of each decade, starting with the 1930’s. Are they the ten best films of the decade? In my humble opinion, they are, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many more great movies as well. They just don’t happen to be better than the ten listed, as far as I am concerned.

It is with these lists and any others that I hope not to argue my favorites against yours but hopefully to get even one reader to see a title they don’t know and nudge them enough to peak their interest to seek out one of them.

So we begin in the 1930’s. Sound had just revolutionized the film industry and everyone, with the exception of Charlie Chaplin, embraced the new technology. A B-movie actor named John Wayne had his first major role in a Western called “The Big Trail.” It would be nine years before Wayne would hit it big with the movie “Stagecoach.”

Warner Oland made his first appearance as detective Charlie Chan in 1931’s “Charlie Chan Carries On.” Oland would become known as the best of the actors to play Chan. Basil Rathbone became the first and only actor to play Sherlock Holmes on a repeated basis with 1939’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, and the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the top 3 box office stars of the decade.

Here are my choices for the 10 best films of the decade listed in alphabetical order.


Likely the best of several terrific Errol Flynn adventures as the title character who steals from the rich to give to the poor. The film is in spectacular Technicolor with a rousing musical score and contains some of the best sword fights ever put on film. Olivia DeHavilland plays the lovely Maid Marian, while Claude Rains (Prince John) and Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy) play Robin’s formidable foes.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney and Pat O’Brien star as childhood friends whose adult lives went down completely different paths. Cagney became a convicted gangster, while O’Brien became a priest. As the film opens, Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) has returned home and has gone into business with another gangster (Humphrey Bogart) while becoming a hero in the eyes of the local gang of teenagers (The Dead End Kids) for whom the priest is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. Directed by Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz, this may be the best gangster film of its era, with Cagney giving one of his greatest performances. This is also one of the first films to have an ending that is left open to interpretation and demands discussion.


This is one of the most inspirational films ever made, featuring Spencer Tracy in an Academy Award-winning performance as Father Flannigan, the real-life priest who opened a home for troubled young boys who could get out of their bad areas and get away from those who inflicted bad influence on them. Located in Nebraska, Boys Town became a place where these boys could be in a positive environment and receive a proper education while learning some life lessons along the way. The school’s credo, “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” is severely tested when troublemaker Mickey Rooney, who idolizes his criminal brother, arrives. This is a film that touches the heart in many different ways.


Perhaps the greatest of the fast paced screwball comedies is Howard Hawks’ film starring Cary Grant as a nerdy zoologist who becomes the object of affection by an heiress (Katherine Hepburn) who happens to own “baby,” a pet leopard. Together with “baby” she throws his life into shambles in this non-stop laugh-a-thon. There is so much rapid-fire wit in this film it demands repeated viewings.


As written above, Charlie Chaplin refuses to embrace the popularity of sound movies as he feels that his Little Tramp character would be diminished if his voice were heard. This 1931 classic shows that Chaplin was dead on in his assumption that the power of a movie is not in sound but in writing. Chaplin again plays his Little Tramp character, who falls hopelessly in love with a blind flower girl who, through an ingenious mistake, believes the Tramp to be a millionaire. To say more would ruin the unbridled power this movie still holds, and it has an ending that would move even the most hardened person to tears. This is one of the greatest films ever made.


The first movie blockbuster is also a landmark epic (nearly four hours in length) in glorious color. Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, Wind tells the story of families in the South during the Civil War. Many memorable characters emerge, including the spoiled Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the loyal servant Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), Scarlett’s cousin Melanie (Olivia DeHavilland) and Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). This great Gone with the Wind film contained many memorable set pieces, most notably the burning of Atlanta, and ended with the first use of bad language ever in a motion picture when Rhett leaves Scarlett at the door with the line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”


Of all the horror/monster movies of the decade this is the one that stands out the most with its terrific adventure story and visual effects that were astounding for its time. The story is well known as the film has twice been remade, in 1976 and 2005, and while each has its fans as well as detractors, neither holds up to the power of the original.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James Stewart gave the performance of his career in Frank Capra’s drama about a young idealist who discovers that the U.S. Senate is filled with nothing but corruption. This is one of those films that demands discussion after it’s over and benefits from repeated viewings.


Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel is this depression-era set story of two friends, Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.), a simple-minded hulk of a man with the mind and temperament of a child, and George (Burgess Meredith), his best friend and protector who move from job to job in the hopes of raising enough money to live on their own ranch where Lenny can tend to rabbits. Unfortunately, Lenny continues to derail their dreams with his accidental use of his strength and innocence, leading to a brutal act of violence that is warranted but ultimately devastating.


There have been many terrific children’s films, but none equal this timeless classic with Judy Garland as Dorothy, a farm girl who is transported with her dog Toto to the fantasy land of Oz after a tornado hits. While there, she meets and becomes friends with Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, who aid in getting Dorothy back home because “there is no place like home.” The film is infused with memorable images (the opening and closing are in black and white while the Oz scenes are in beautiful color) and famous songs. A true masterpiece loved by children and adults.

Author Gwen

Gwen is a freelance artist and writer for film, advertising, corporate projects, and web media. She feels his expertise in the entertainment industry provides a unique opportunity to engage the public through real-life stories and over a decade of experience and knowledge.