Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1920-1929.
Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1930-1939:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski
For as long as I can remember, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been one of my favorite animated films. Based on the tale written by the Brothers Grimm this animated musical was released in 1937, becoming Disney’s first feature-length animated film. I’ve probably read every original Brother’s Grimm tale that exists, but there’s something so special about seeing them brought to life on screen in beautiful Technicolor. Snow White was actually a monumental film in American cinematic history, and is one of the top grossing films of all time. I won’t bore you with all the details, but look it up sometime if you have any interest at all!
In case you’ve been living under a rock since the minute you left the womb, Snow White is a tale about a beautiful fair-skinned princess who lives her whole life in the shadow of jealousy cast by her stepmother, the Evil Queen. She sends a huntsman to murder the princess, but he spares Snow White’s life and she ends up stumbling upon the home of the most adorable characters ever made, the seven dwarves. (Try to remember all of their names right now with no help from Google, I bet you’ll forget at least one!) Well soon the Evil Queen discovers Snow is still alive, concocts an evil plan and a horrible potion, and tricks Snow White into a deep sleep. That’s when the strong handsome and wealthy male by the name of Prince Charming swoops in to save the damsel in distress with true love’s kiss.
Okayyyyy so the story is a bit outdated – women worrying about who’s more attractive, a beautiful woman cooking and cleaning for the dwarves, the dwarves fawning over her beauty and social status, a man coming to save the day – but the message in there is eternal: vanity and material things are never worth more than the value of human companionship. This particular Brothers Grimm tale has been retold and reimagined so many times it’s hard to count, but this was the first time it was ever seen on the screen. Lil’ baby Liza loved it, and somewhat more mature kind-of-still-learning-how-to-be-an-adult Liza does too!
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – Conor Hall
The 1930s don’t seem like a particularly progressive time socially-speaking (being in the midst of a depression likely didn’t help), and one of the last places you’d be likely to find veiled allegories for internal social struggle would be a wacky horror movie that featured miniaturized people dancing around and biting fingers. Yet here I am talking about James Whale’s brilliant Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Whale, as it turns out, was one of the many closeted gay men living in Hollywood at the time, eventually becoming the first openly gay man in Hollywood. His life was not easy; his struggles with his own sexuality run rampant in this (far superior) sequel to his 1931 classic Frankenstein. We learn early on that most familiar faces from the original, including Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his monstrous creation (Boris Karloff, returning in his defining role), have survived the events of the original. What follows helped to create a strong tradition in (well-done) horror: the true use of allegory.
Every monster represents an inherent fear, and it’s usually not just being stabbed. The eponymous alien in Thing From Another World (1951) represents the growing red fever in McCarthy-era America, the xenomorph of Alien (1979) is a post-second wave feminist commentary on consent and birth control, etc. In Bride of Frankenstein, Whale introduces us to a monster that is lost and confused; rejected by his creator and nearly burned alive, simply for what he is. We currently live in a world where being homosexual is still punishable by death and Whale’s picture of fear and loneliness is clear. He only finds comfort in the care of another man, the blind old hermit of the original novel.
Our titular bride is created at the urging of one Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), with whom Dr. Frankenstein flies in the face of God to create life. Pretorius is a unique figure – an elderly man, scientist, and admirer of Frankenstein’s who interrupts his wedding in order to convince him to create a sequel to his masterwork. Our Bride’s appearance is brief but iconic; wraps around her arms, tattered dress, and of course, that beehive shock of hair. When she’s born, her fear is palpable. An ecstatic monster reaches for her, but like the others, she rejects him.
With a powerful performance from Elsa Lancaster pulling double-duty as the Bride and our framing device Mary Shelley, Whale crafts an allegory that critics continue to argue about and that helped set the stage for artists like Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell.
City Lights (1931) – Nick Potter
Most people are at some level familiar with Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, but City Lights is the peak of the Tramp and Chaplin’s artistry in general. What begins as a simple story about a lovable fool who falls in love with a blind flower saleswoman quickly grows into several bigger things. Chaplin meets a drunk millionaire and saves him from multiple suicide attempts, but isn’t recognized by the man when he sobers up and kicks him out. The tramp finds out about a surgery that could save the woman’s vision, but she can’t afford the surgery or her current rent. Chaplin enters into a boxing match against a much larger opponent in order to win some money, but not even his witty tricks can overcome the brute.
The ending of the film is what makes it truly and profoundly great. I’m sorry if you haven’t seen the film, but I do also feel like spoilers that are over 80 years old are fair game. Besides, I don’t believe that knowing the ending impairs the viewing whatsoever, so please seek it out regardless.
The tramp gets some money from the millionaire and gives it to the woman, but the rich man sobers up and calls the police. Chaplin is arrested after delivering the money and goes to jail for quite some time. He emerges significantly more tattered than before, and goes to where he used to see the girl. She saves him from being bullied by the same newsboys that always tormented him, and he asks “You can see now?” to which she responds “Yes, I can see now”. Her face reads shocked and then jubilant, while he moves from afraid to relieved. The ending of City Lights is almost the exact opposite of the final shot of The Graduate (1967); the characters see every possible negative outcome before coming to the joyous realization that things can work out.
The world of film was moving quickly and evolving around Chaplin. Synchronized sound was being widely adopted, but he refused to get on board. He used his clout to keep his story silent except for a few modernized sound effects. While actively rooting himself in the past, Chaplin managed to tell one of the most beautiful and effective stories in cinema. City Lights is wonderfully layered, lightly comical, and still finds a way to get right to your heart.
Other Charlie Chaplin films may be more well-known, but I don’t believe he ever made a film that was better than City Lights.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Patty Williamson
The Wizard of Oz (1939) was released in late August of 1939 to a less than enthusiastic critical reception and tepid box office returns. The adaptation of Frank Baum’s 1900 bestseller opens in sepia-tone saturated Kansas, just before a tornado hits Dorothy Gale’s (Judy Garland’s) family farmhouse. MGM’s iconic film then bursts into a magical Technicolor dreamscape, depicting the land of Oz. Certainly there is no need for me to recount the plot of this familiar favorite.
The Wizard of Oz is easy to overlook when discussing cinematic masterpieces, seeing as it is generally accepted as being the most-watched film ever. Its regular broadcasts on network television, beginning in the 1950s, may lead us to think of the film in purely nostalgic terms, rather than a piece of cultural history. But, let’s look at this film more critically. It’s a film about a young woman who bravely leads a group of misanthropic men on a journey to fight a powerful, unknown entity, along the way fighting off an evil witch, flying monkeys and a con-man with an identity complex. The three most powerful characters in the film are women; Dorothy, Glinda the Good Witch (Billie Burke), and the Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton). The real power in the film lies in the hands (and slippers) of women, while men’s power is illusory. Yes, you heard me right, The Wizard of Oz is a feminist film disguised as an unassuming children’s story.
The clear lessons of the film are to be yourself, and even more importantly, to dig deep within yourself to find the piece that’s missing, that thing that holds you back from being fulfilled. For the Scarecrow it was a brain, for the Tin Man it was a heart, and for the Lion it was courage. But by the end of the film we realize they had what they were looking for all along. It seems like a cliché message to many of us now, due to the ubiquitous nature of this story, but the film was a lesson of endurance, hope and self-confidence for those suffering in the end stages of the Great Depression (yet looking forward to the future with the promises of the New Deal).
Behind the scenes, the film’s production was full of upheaval. Mervyn LeRoy produced the classic film for MGM, and pushed to cast Shirley Temple in the lead role but luckily he was overruled by Louis B. Mayer upon hearing Judy Garland sing. The film was troubled by a revolving door of directors; LeRoy fired the original director Richard Thorpe less than a month into filming, feeling that Thorpe didn’t understand the story, and in fact, he’d put Garland in a blonde wig and heavy, baby doll makeup. Director George Cukor arrived on set and immediately changed the direction of Dorothy’s character, telling Garland to just be herself. However, Cukor was then replaced by journeyman director Victor Fleming, who shot the majority of the film, and is the only credited director on the picture. Fleming was eventually called away to direct Gone with the Wind (1939), a film experiencing even more problems on set, and King Vidor directed the monochromatic Kansas sequences using Fleming’s storyboards as a guide. Fleming eventually made it back to help shape the film in editing.
Despite the challenges during the filming of the movie, The Wizard of Oz soon established itself to be one of the most beloved films of American cinema. Upon its re-release in 1949, once-underwhelmed critics changed their tunes. The film was both a box office smash and a critical revelation. Sixteen-year-old Judy Garland’s performance is the essence of innocence mixed with adventurer, and her singing is still unmatched in the emotionally-charged and iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” In fact, each of the key actors embodies the essence of the character they play. Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr (as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion respectively) exude personality and warmth in their performances, while Frank Morgan (the Wizard) perfectly captures the vulnerability and warmth of the title character. The film won only two Oscars (one for Best Original Song, and the other for Original Score), but also picked up nominations for Best Picture, Cinematography, Art Direction and Special Effects. The film was also nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1939. However, the film didn’t fare as well as some might expect due to competition from Gone with the Wind, which picked up eight gold statues that year, including one for Best Picture. Oz’s director Victor Fleming won the Best Director Oscar that year, but for Gone with the Wind.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) – Dylan Clauson
We all know and love the larger-than-life figures in gangster films, but back before Danny DeVito’s shine box or Al Pacino’s ‘little friend’, before Tim Roth’s betrayal and Marlon Brando’s offer, the unforgettable James Cagney stood tall as the king of mafia movies. Cagney spent most of his career playing these tough guys from the streets, a role epitomized in 1938’s hit gangster film Angels with Dirty Faces.
The Michael Curtiz-directed film follows the lives of Rocky Sullivan (Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), two childhood friends and troublemakers. After getting arrested and sent to a juvenile facility, Sullivan turns into a street-hardened tough guy while Connolly, seeing his friend locked up, turns over a new leaf and trains to become a priest. Flash forward and we see the two reunited as adults, but their vastly different lifestyles leads to tension between the two when a group of neighborhood kids (played by the Dead End Kids) begin to look up to and follow Sullivan.
Fearing that this admiration might lead them down the same violent path as Sullivan, Connolly does his best to divert their attention. Eventually his past catches up with him and Sullivan is arrested and sentenced to death. On his final walk to the chair, his friend Connolly begs him to repent and save the lives of these kids that adore him. Angels with Dirty Faces was released nearly 80 years ago, and what happens next is still debated by film critics and fans alike. I won’t spoil anything, instead I’ll let you watch the film and decide for yourself what the ending means.
With Cagney and Humphrey Bogart is a supporting role, Angels with Dirty Faces features arguably the two biggest male movie stars of the time. Throw in O’Brien and leading lady Ann Sheridan, along with director Curtiz, and you have a bona-fide hit on your hands. Angels with Dirty Faces serves as a beautiful example of human nature and breaks down the concept of what it means to be a ‘man’ vs being a ‘good man’. Rocky and Jerry serve as perfect examples that while we may have the freedom to choose what path we walk down, as in Rocky’s case it can also be difficult to leave it.
If you like gangster films, and you’re lying if you say you don’t, then Angels with Dirty Faces is an absolute must-watch. It is not only one of the best films of the genre, but without it we likely wouldn’t have the likes of Goodfellas or The Godfather.
Honorable mentions for the 1930s, in no particular order:
- Scarface (1932), Director: Howard Hawks
- Modern Times (1936), Director: Charlie Chaplin
- L’Atalante (1934), Director: Jean Vigo
- The 39 Steps (1935), Director: Alfred Hitchcock
- Gone with the Wind (1939), Director: Victor Fleming
- It Happened One Night (1934), Director: Frank Capra
- Stagecoach (1939), Director: John Ford
- Duck Soup (1933), Director: Leo McCarey
- Bringing Up Baby (1938), Director: Howard Hawks
What are some your favorite films of the 1930s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1940-1949 coming up in two weeks.