The 1930s was a strange time for film, as new technology was both greeted with open arms and shunned by traditionalists, the decade before saw the introduction of ‘talkies’, Al Jolson stands up and says “you ain’t heard nothing yet”, leading The Jazz Singer (1927) to usher in a simple technique that would shape the rest of film history. For the most part this list focuses primarily on the ‘talkies’ that came out of the decade, but that’s not to take anything away from the traditionalists who carried on the silent era style.
1. King Kong (1933)
Director: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoesack | Runtime: 1h 40mins | Action, Adventure, Fantasy
A daring film crew goes to a mysterious island where they come across prehistoric animals and a ginormous Gorilla named Kong. The discovery sparks a new motivation for the crew as they try to capture the beast and bring him back to New York for public display.
Let’s be honest, there isn’t a soul on earth who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of King Kong. The gigantic gorilla has one of the biggest places in pop culture along with the likes of Godzilla, Frankenstein or even any superheroes that have joined the big screen. But the original isn’t just a behemoth staple on popular culture, it’s use of stop-motion blended with live action is waves above a lot of creature features that come from the same time. But even if you don’t want to watch it as a piece of history, there is still much more entertainment here than you’d expect.
Of course though, 80 years and numerous sequels later leave this films advancements with less impact, but the real beauty of the original King Kong is that even all these years later, it has the popcorn entertainment value of a B-Movie. In many respects this is still the best as well, balancing the fun and intentional drawbacks of the B-Movie sequels and even matching Peter Jackson’s solid sequel as a strong technological product of it’s time. Whether it’s for the rich history the film possesses, or the iconic beast swatting at biplanes on the Empire State building, there is no doubt whatever your reason for watching, you’ll be easily satisfied.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Director: Lewis Milestone | Runtime: 2h 32mins | War, Drama
A group of young soldiers are subjected to the horrors of World War 1 as they are talked into joining the army by their teacher. As the group becomes less and less, the unrelenting horrors don’t let up.
Lewis Milestone’s war epic is very clear in it’s message, swapping deep characters for products of the surroundings, it’s clear to see just how anti-war this film is. It’s relentless style is one of the many reasons it came out on top at the 1931 Academy Awards, and despite this only being the 5th award in the Academy’s history, All Quiet on the Western Front still demands attention on any Oscar list.
Despite having numerous characters throughout, and being led by an underrated performance by Lew Ayres, the films real main character is the war itself. Sharing a lot of similarities in it’s approach to war to Oliver Stone’s own anti-war film Platoon (1986), Milestone focuses solely on the harsh environment and is never subtle in what he’s showing, but even in the quieter parts of the film, it’s anti-war message recedes but never loses it’s prominence. You’ll be lost for breathe in the early bunker scenes, mesmerised during the first battle and tearful for the rest, All Quiet on the Western Front really is a classic of War films, and one of the best to come from the decade.
3. It Happened One Night (1934)
Director: Frank Capra | Runtime: 1h 45mins | Comedy, Romance
Spoiled heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert) jumps ship from her disapproving family to find her husband. On the way, she seeks help from selfish journalist Peter (Clark Gable) who agrees with the promise of a big story.
There are particular names that stand out in 1930s cinema, and Frank Capra may just be the biggest. Having a career that stretches to the 1960s (even branching to propaganda during the war), it’s safe to say Capra’s impact of Hollywood is second to none. In fact, this list alone could be filled with Capra’s numerous feel-good masterpieces, but the one that made it is the ever charming, It Happened One Night.
In terms of plot, it’s as simple as it gets, man and women who hate each other at first find themselves falling in love. In fact it’s so common it feels overplayed a lot of the time, but the truth is Frank Capra’s tender and funny approach is one of the greatest achievements of the romantic genre and despite being one of the earliest incarnations of the plot, it’s still impossible to find one better. Along with untouchable performances from it’s two leads and a charming screenplay, Frank Capra created a wonderful piece that has shaped the history of cinematic romance, and the screwball comedy.
4. The Invisible Man (1933)
Director: James Whale | Runtime: 1h 11mins | Horror, Sci-Fi
Scientist Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) finds a way to turn himself invisible, but in doing so begins to lose his mind and becomes dangerous.
Another name that has gone down in Hollywood’s history is that of James Whale, who created some of the most iconic figures and films in horror today. The most obvious choice would be to go with Whale’s now visionary adaption of Mary Shelley’s horrifying Frankenstein (1931), but instead the one making this list is another classic of the genre, The Invisible Man. With a similar tone to King Kong, it’s pioneering style has morphed into cheesy but effect entertainment that still holds both it’s acclaim and the ability to excite even today.
Most of what you’re seeing is something that is easily replicated by 80 years of technology, but even the finer details such as footprints in the snow, or even the unravelling of the bandages, all reflect the above and beyond approach James Whale attaches to his films, and it’s the simple yet effective approach of The Invisible Man that cements it’s place in history. With Claude Rains adding some much needed over-the-top sophistication to the role, you can rejoice in a creature feature that replaces the terrifying monster archetype and swaps it with a dangerous intellect, adding much more humanity to the film.
5. ‘M’ (1931)
Director: Fritz Lang | Runtime: 1h 57mins | Crime, Thriller
Child-murderer Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) wreaks havoc on the people and preys on the young children. With the police unable to catch him, the public take matters into their own hands to catch Beckert.
Arguably one of the best films of all time, Fritz Lang’s classic is years a head of it’s time both thematically and technically, that being said there isn’t much surprise coming from the man who only 4 years earlier directed Metropolis (1927). Most of the films on the list come from that of the Hollywood system, but Fritz Lang’s place starts in the realm of German Expressionism, films that celebrate individual style through both writing and directing in a time when individuality was on the verge of being forbidden.
From beginning to end ‘M‘ is full of intrigue, full of wonderful scenes that never hinder the rest of the film but only lift it to greater heights and become integral to the final product. Not only is it a visceral journey but it takes risk after risk (having the main character as a child-murderer) that pays off again and again. The best thing though, is the films ability to question morality and the human conscience, through a great ending and one of the most underrated performances of all time from Peter Lorre.
6. Modern Times (1936)
Director: Charlie Chaplin | 1h 27mins | Comedy, Drama
Charlie Chaplin’s classic character ‘The Tramp’ struggles to hold onto one employment after another. With the help of a young woman (Paulette Goddard) he tries to navigate in a progressing society.
Charlie Chaplin is one of the undying pioneers that history will forever hold onto, he’s one of the earliest figures that saw motion picture as a form of entertainment on a large scale and created some of the best films in the early 20th Century that still hold up today. Two films that standout in his illustrious time during the 1930s are City Lights (1931) and the one that made the list, Modern Times (1936). One is a staple of the romantic comedies, a sweet and tender story that is timeless, but Modern Times is arguably his smartest and most essential film.
So many times Chaplin has shown just how individualistic his brand of comedy is from everyone else, matched only by Buster Keaton, his ability to create such humour through his entire body and the props around him is still a picture to behold. But what puts Modern Times above most, is it’s proof that Chaplin is more than just the bumbling tramp he portrays on screen, he puts into perspective the struggle of the working man through entertainment. Not just that, but in the final scene when the Tramp and his companion are on their last legs, he utters the phrase “Buck up – never say die! We’ll get along.” it’s the perfect conclusion on a film not just meant to represent society, but Chaplin’s transition from silent era legend to a fast moving new world of the ‘talkies’.
7. The 39 Steps (1935)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock | Runtime: 1h 26mins | Film-Noir, Thriller
Things go wrong for a Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) when a woman claiming to be a secret agent is found murdered in his room. In an effort to save his skin, he goes on the run and tries to clear his name.
Once again this list finds itself in the company of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time in Alfred Hitchcock, a director who’s work spans over five decades. Most of his critically acclaimed work comes from the 50s and 60s with films like Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and North by Northwest (1959), but a lot of his most under appreciated work is from his earliest films, like The 39 Steps. While Hitchcock has mostly lived off of the suspense story, his 1935 classic matches the suspense with the calculation of a cold spy thriller.
In many respects this is a much more reserved film for Hitchcock, his unique style isn’t quite as on the surface as a lot of his other classics, but in doing so doesn’t hinder the film but merely adds to it’s subtle espionage story and leaves the quality simply to his storytelling and actors. This may not be Hitchcock’s finest or the decades finest, but it’s a real shame for it not to get a mention for its consistent twists and turns, and the ability to keep you hooked no matter what.