By Trevor Busch
Any one with more than a passing addiction to classic film will have long ago checked their boxes of the many top-grossing fan favourites and award darlings that spanned the ’90s, ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, and even, perhaps, the 1950s. As the decades march on, however, the inevitability arises that most born after 1980 will not have expanded their palettes into the films of the 1940s or the 1930s, where the silver screen held supreme and Hollywood seemed just a little bit smaller than it does today.
Admittedly, it’s only been in the last decade or so that this hopeless cinephile has braved the crackly audio and fuzzy black and white picture of some of the classics of this era.
To be fair, I’m not about to claim that I’ve completely wrapped the vast library of filmdom that punctuates the intervening decades between today and the years of the Great Depression. In fact, I probably haven’t even scratched the surface. But I have touched on most of the famed and the infamous, the Academy Award winners and the lovable flops, the fringe obscure and the cult followings.
And eventually, on cold and wintry evenings or bold and blustery summer nights, one finds himself dabbling in the decades that have escaped his vision thus far. I have yet to expand this obsession to the silent film era of the 1920s, however, finding the “talkies” much more compelling at this point. It should be noted I’m not the only film junkie that fears to tread into that era, which seems so far removed from our current epoch of modernity to be almost an absurdity today.
But never say never, I suppose. If someone had told me that I would one day be penning a review of film favourites from the 1930s, I wouldn’t have believed them. So without further ado, here’s a selection of some of the best that I’ve viewed so far.
The Big Trail (1930): Featuring a young John Wayne in his first starring role, it is notable for being one of the first films to be released in a very early form of 70mm film. A classic western epic about the Oregon Trail, it was the first large scale big-budget film of the sound era, costing over $2 million, but ended up a financial failure at the box office due to the onset of the Depression. Wayne’s turn as young trapper Breck Coleman received acclaim and would cement his status as a rising Hollywood star.
Grand Hotel (1932): A big-budget Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer epic, Grand Hotel was a box office success that eventually spawned a series of later films in the so-called “Grand Hotel theme” which follows the activities of various people in a large busy place, with some characters’ lives overlapping in odd ways and some of them remaining unaware of one another’s existence. Starring the likes of Hollywood titans like Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford, Grand Hotel is still the only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category.
It Happened One Night (1934): A romantic comedy film with elements of screwball comedy directed and co-produced by director Frank Capra, it follows the exploits of a pampered socialite (played by Claudette Colbert) who falls in love with a roguish reporter, played by Depression-era heartthrob Clark Gable. It Happened One Night was the first film to win the “Big Five” Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing). As of 2014, only two other films have achieved this feat: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975 and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.
Top Hat (1935): Perhaps the best of the series of musical comedies featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers throughout the 1930s, Top Hat follows American dancer Jerry Travers, who comes to London to star in a show where he meets and attempts to impress Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to win her affection. Songs from the film written by Irving Berlin, such as “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” or “Cheek to Cheek” have since become American classics. Top Hat was the most successful picture of Astaire and Rogers’ partnership (and Astaire’s second most successful picture after Easter Parade), achieving second place in worldwide box-office receipts for 1935.
You Can’t Take It With You (1938): Another Frank Capra opus, You Can’t Take It with You is a romantic comedy starring Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart and Edward Arnold, and follows the story of a man from a family of rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family. The film received two Academy Awards from seven nominations, Best Picture and Best Director for Frank Capra. It was also the highest-grossing picture of the year.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): A personal favourite of mine, this film I admittedly had watched long before my more recent forays into 1930s cinema, based largely on its reputation for supposedly subversive ideas and controversy surrounding its ultimate message.Chronicalling the tragic tale of a newly appointed United States Senator who fights against a corrupt political system, the film was controversial when it was first released but was also successful at the box office, and made James Stewart a major movie star. Directed again by Frank Capra, it is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time as well as one of the most finely-crafted indictments of political corruption.
Gone With the Wind (1939): Cited by many as one of the greatest years in the history of film making, we return to 1939 for a film that hardly requires an introduction. This epic historical romance directed by Victor Fleming smashed box office records and took home 10 Academy Awards, setting records for the total number of wins and nominations at the time. The film was immensely popular, becoming the highest-earning film made up to that point, and retained the record for over a quarter of a century. When adjusted for monetary inflation, it is still the most successful film in box-office history. Sources at the time put the estimated production costs at $3.85 million, making it the second most expensive film made up to that point, with only silent-era Ben-Hur (1925) having cost more.