Following the advent of "talkies" in 1927, the film industry found inventive ways to use sound and expand the medium. The 1930s include some all-time classics from the history of cinema, plus other gems just waiting to be discovered. I wouldn't proclaim a mastery of this decade, but I've seen plenty of remarkable choices that deserve to make a Top 5 List. It says a lot that The Rules of the Game, The Lady Vanishes, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and other excellent films didn't even make the honorable mentions. If you haven't seen any of the 12 films listed below, I recommend that they get shifted to the top of your must-see list. The top two rank among my favorites from any era, and the rest are remarkable movies that deserve your time. Let's travel back to the '30s and check out my picks!
Honorable Mention: Duck Soup (1933), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
I've enjoyed all the Marks Brothers comedies that I've seen, but Duck Soup stands out from the pack. It includes standout gags, including Groucho's classic mirror sequence. They also take some effective jabs at war and satirize the entire institution. With Snow White, Walt Disney revolutionized the genre and proved that a full-length animated feature could work in the theaters. It earned huge box-office receipts, and the revenue drove the entire success of the company. The technical accomplishments of this movie changed the way animated films were made and lead to a series of classics. Apart from the groundbreaking aspects, it's also an entertaining movie with memorable songs and enjoyable characters.
5. Scarface (Hawks and Rosson, 1932)
Far superior to the overrated Brian DePalma remake, this spare gangster film reveals the mastery of Howard Hawks. The story is fast-paced and includes memorable sequences throughout the brisk 93-minute running time. Paul Muni shines as the over-the-top Tony Camonte, a character based closely on Al Capone. He violently rises through the gangster ranks and takes over, but his inner demons may end this dominance. Tony's overly protective of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) and may have feelings that go too far. Much of the main story will seem familiar to viewers who've seen the remake. Scarface is a classic '30s gangster film that's sometimes forgotten among the genre classics.
4. M (Lang, 1931)
This remarkable portrayal of a serial killer remains stunning more than 80 years later. The key factor is what's not seen, which raises our imagination about the grisly child murders. Fritz Lang's direction masterfully uses the sound of Hans Beckert's (Peter Lorre) whistle to prepare us for the next crime. Both the cops and criminals are after Beckert because he's destroying their status quo. Lang reveals the close similarities between the two groups as they try to solve the crimes. Lorre is perfect for the lead role, and his final monologue actually generates sympathy for a child killer, which seems like an impossible task.
3. It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934)
This charming road movie includes one of the all-time great duos in Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. She glimmers on the screen as Ellie Andrews, a recently married rich girl who's fleeing from her new husband. Unemployed newspaper reporter Peter Warne is willing to help her, but he has an ulterior motive. It Happened One Night is a classic road movie with a predictable love story that works because the stars are so darn likable. Frank Capra has crafted many classic films, but this might be his best. His sharp direction combines perfectly with Writer Robert Riskin's excellent screenplay to deliver pure enjoyment.
2. Stagecoach (Ford, 1939)
One of the great all-time westerns, John Ford's classic introduces John Wayne to audiences in the most glorious way possible. The camera zooms in on the Ringo Kid with over-the-top aplomb, and it's clear this is the hero. Wayne owes a good portion of his success to Ford, and Stagecoach is the prime example. This adventure through the harsh wilderness rejuvenated the western and made Wayne a star. The mismatched characters include a variety of standard types like the prostitute with a heart of gold, a drunken doctor, and a goofball stagecoach driver. The combination of action, emotion, and fun works perfectly and is a must-see even if you're not a big genre fan.
1. City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
This silent Chaplin masterpiece provides a wonderful combination of heart and laughs. The Tramp gets involved in several outstanding sequences, particularly the hilarious boxing match against a much larger opponent. He's trying to earn money for a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) that he loves who doesn't realize what he is. When she finally regains her sight (spoiler alert!) and truly sees him, the result is one of the great movie endings. Chaplin makes the Tramp a lot more than a silly figure while retaining the fun that charmed audiences. It all comes together in City Lights, which is one of my all-time favorite movies.
It's impossible to properly cover a decade with so many great films with this list, so here five more classic movies from the 1930s that just missed it:
Bride of Frankenstein
Bringing Up Baby
Trouble in Paradise
The Wizard of Oz
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.
Next week, I'll journey back to 1927 and check out Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.