As the “old guy” on the site, and a professor of film at a Ontario college I thought perhaps I might combine what I do on the site with what I do at college and create a series, in which I go back in time and move through the decades exploring the ten best films of each, with a list of fifteen runners-up. My motto has always been “any film you have not seen is a new film” and I stand by that to this day. For all those who turn their nose up at a black and white picture from the thirties or forties, give it a try, and you might experience one of the greatest pieces of cinema you will ever see.
So, first some housekeeping. First of all, I am exploring The Ten Best American Films of each decade. No need to blast away for leaving off foreign language cinema, including my own dear Canada, but I am looking at the ten greatest American films of each decade, beginning today with the thirties. To make the list, the film must have had a lasting and historical impact, and remain as entertaining now as it was then. Time, the enemy of all cinema, can not have started its relentless destruction of the film. Ten films for each decade, fifteen runners-up.
THE TEN BEST FILMS OF THE THIRTIES (1930-39)
Movies were still an evolving art form in the thirties, with sound still a very new toy that actors and directors were struggling to get used too. Many silent screen actors saw their careers go down in flames with the advent of sound because they simply could not speak and act at the same time, which caused Hollywood to raid the stages around the country looking for actors who could speak. They of course would have to adapt to having the camera on them, and their every emotion and facial movement blown up on the big screen, thus acting went through an evolution, the first of many.
The Great Depression was raging, people had no jobs, no money, yet movies were more popular than ever, offering an escape from what life really was. The top box office star of the decade was a singing, tap dancing little named Shirley Temple; serial films were all the rage; Charlie Chaplin refused to convert to sound films, making silents up until 1940; Disney unleashed their first animated feature, Snow Hite and the Seven Dwarfs (1938); and through the decade Frank Capra emerged as the first great American director, with John Ford and Victor Fleming nipping at his heels. Genres emerged and gained popularity with audiences, specifically, horror, musicals and the western. As the decade came to a close, all eyes were on Europe and what was happening as Hitler began his conquests, something that would eventually involve the United States, and change forever the landscape of cinema.
1. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)…now famously, a box office failure upon release, audiences have followed the yellow brick road for generations now, and the picture might be the perfect film Hollywood ever created. Directed by Victor Fleming, just now himself being re-discovered, we watch as Dorothy (Judy Garland) is swept from Kansas by a twister into the colorful land of Oz, where she encounters a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) with no brains, a Tin Man (Jack Haley) with no heart and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) forming the most bizarre quartet of friends the movies had ever seen. They journey to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard (Frank Morgan) to help get Dorothy back home, which he agrees to do, with the promise that they destroy the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) who hates Dorothy. Filled with stunning images, from Munchkinland to the Witch’s castle, the film is a musical fantasy yet is often terrifying, with Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch the stuff nightmares are made of. As it turns out, what they each claim not to have they each possess, and what Dorothy wanted was in her own back yard. A beautiful, haunting film, that has transcended time to become one of the most beloved films of all time. Watch the performances, which are all vastly under appreciated. Under all that make-up, the actors, Lahr and Hamilton in particular are nothing short of spectacular.
2. CITY LIGHTS (1931)…Chaplin’s masterpiece and among the greatest comedies and love stories ever made. The little tramp loves from afar the blind flower girl, who not knowing his state, is kind to him while others are not. Vowing to help restore her sight, the film becomes a lovely comedy in which the little fellow will do anything to help his lady-love see again. Among the films best moments come when he encounters a drunken millionaire who adores him…when he is drunk, when sober the wealthy fellow does not know who the tramp is. The famous ending of the film still after all these years takes ones’ breath away. Realizing with a touch who the tramp is, and what he has done for her, Chaplin smiles a smile that comes directly from his soul and spills out onto the screen the beautiful innocence and humanity of his character. His finest hour, yet how did the Academy miss it???
3. MODERN TIMES (1936)…And again Chaplin. Always fiercely concerned with those less fortunate than he, Chaplin was one of the most politically aware artists working in the business. He feared Hitler long before many in American even knew the name!! In Modern Times (1936) he explores, rather brilliantly how the machine age would take over and take jobs from men, eventually, as in the film swallowing up men and women. Within the film Chaplin explores how humanity attempts to live in a dehumanized world, where technology makes an instrument, part of the giant machine. Many saw the film as a swipe at talking cinema, which Chaplin eventually became part of, but only after a long struggle. Actors speak in this film, but gibberish, and there are sounds, but the little man tells his story as he always, visually, and superbly.
4. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)...Vivien Leigh gives one of the greatest performances by an actress ever caught on film in this grand epic, and proved to the men in Hollywood a woman could carry a picture. As the devious survivor Scarlett O’Hara, who moves from wealth to ruin back to wealth again at the cost of her soul, Leigh is merely astounding, throwing vanity to the wind (as it were) and portraying a woman who simply refuses to ever go hungry again, to ever struggle again. Her strange relationship and eventually marriage to Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is at the films’ center though she realizes, famously too late that she does indeed love him as he loves her. Directed by Victor Fleming, who took over from Sam Wood, George Cukor and John Ford, the film is great story telling, a love story against the backdrop of history, an epic that is also an intimate story. Superbly acted by all, but Leigh is a towering force to be reckoned with.
5. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)...Yes 1939 was that good. The third film on the list from that year, with one more to come, this one was Frank Capra’s best film of the decade, and one of James Stewart’s finest performances, earning him the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor. As Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young senator fresh to Washington, Stewart is brilliant, realizing through the course of the film, that most of the men around him are crooked in some way, using their political position for personal gain. Stunned but not broken by this realization he fights back and takes the floor of the senate, refusing to yield. Stewart was better than this just one other time, and was robbed of an Oscar for this magnificent piece of acting. Capra’s direction as always was assured and strong.
6. KING KONG (1933)…The acting is weak, admittedly, but what are we watching here if the truth be told, the people, or Kong?? For me it was always Kong, from the first moment I saw the film for the first time…hooked. My dad used to put us boys to bed at 7 and wake us at 11:00 for the start of Friday Night Fright Night Theater out of Buffalo, and this was one of the first films we saw. It was incredible seeing this massive ape destroy dinosaurs, stand atop the Empire State Building, swatting at planes, eventually falling to his death where that immortal line, “it was beauty that killed the beast” is uttered. One of those films where the visual effects are the film, where the character created by movie magic steals every scene he is in. Not a single Oscar nomination if that seems possible. Kong was king in 1933, love live the king.
7. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1938)…Breathtaking animation dominates this early Disney feature that was a considerable risk for Walt Disney back in the thirties. Would audiences go for a full length animated film? What business did a for children have in movie theaters?? Well it turned out he was in fact creating his own personal genre, the Disney animated feature, and Walt’s animated films are among the greatest works committed to film. Superbly crafted the characters of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are as vibrant and alive as they ever were, and the film has an inner energy that many live actions lack. A masterpiece and the beginning of something rather extraordinary.
8. STAGECOACH (1939)…John Ford knew that the western needed to outdoors, but not just outside, free of the studio, under the heavens and under the shadows of mountains, the harsh wilderness surrounding the actors, dwarfing the characters and displaying natures raw majesty over human beings. Ford understood the invisible border separating man and civilization from the savagery of nature. Though the timeline of the American West (the cowboy/ gunfighter era) is relatively short, Hollywood and audiences adored westerns and this one was the first to be a work of art. Shot on location at Monument Valley, the film explores what happens when the passengers of a coach are attacked by Indians and pick up a known outlaw, enlisting his help. John Wayne became a star as the Ringo Kid, and this western became a part of American film history.
9. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)…Pure movie magic and fun, this adventure film brought out the pure movie star appeal of Errol Flynn as Robin, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Filmed in color, the greens of Sherwood come to vivid life along with the characters of folklore, including Friar Tuck, Little john, Maid Marion, the evil Sheriff, and of course Robin himself. Flynn understands the character soars or fails based on his appeal, and he turns on the full movie star charm in the role, winning us over the moment he strides into the castle with a deer slung over his shoulders, in violation of the law. Grand fun and still the best movie about Robin Hood ever made.
10. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1937)…The first great movie sequel, Universal recognized the fact that horror sells, and they had a collection of monsters they were going to unleash on an unsuspecting America. Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) came first followed by The Invisible Man (1933), and then this sequel which with its stunning production values was elevated to the status of A production. As the monster, Boris Karloff was sublime, bringing a humanity to the creature not felt in the book, or even the first film. Learning to speak in this one he urges the good doctor to build him a mate, who promptly rejects the creature as a monster. More than any of the Frankenstein films, this one hits it right in exploring that the doctor did not create life, but simply brought the dead back.
- FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
- IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
- HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1939)
- ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)
- TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932)
- TOP HAT (1936)
- MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)
- THE INFORMER (1935)
- THE INVISIBLE MAN (1932)
- BRINGING UP BABY (1938)
- LOST HORIZON (1937)
- THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939)
- MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936)
- THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)
- MEET JOHN DOE (1937)
Tags: Best of the Decades, Gone with the Wind, John Ford, John Wayne, King Kong, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Vivien Leigh