Movie Gems from the Early 1930s

by James Scott Bell

In one of Steve’s recent posts I left a comment with a little ditty based on the famous song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” The song is from the 1933 film 42nd Street. Steve commented that he’d have to see it sometime. To which I say YES! Every writer, actor, dancer—indeed, any artist who bleeds for their art—needs to see this classic.

With dance numbers choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street is the backstage tale of a Broadway musical, from initial financing to opening night. The central plot revolves around a naive young actress newly arrived in the big city (Ruby Keeler) who gets cast in the show’s chorus. Will she somehow emerge a star? (Go ahead, guess.) The marvelous cast includes Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, and Una Merkle, supported by veteran character actors Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, and Allen Jenkins.

Ruby Keeler and Warner Baxter in 42nd Street

But the movie belongs to Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh, the show’s director. Baxter—who a few years earlier won the second Academy Award for Best Actor (In Old Arizona, 1928)—fully inhabits the role of a man whose life is the theater, who is incapable of compromise, who would rather die (and just might!) than put on a mediocre show. Baxter gives us a masterful range of emotion, gaining intensity the closer they get to opening night. And then comes a crisis! The show is in danger! Can Baxter pull out a miracle? (Go ahead, guess.) We get the show itself for the last part of the movie. And then, for my money, one of most memorable last shots in movie history. When you see that shot—being the artist that you are—you’ll relate to it fully.

All this got me thinking about a few other gems from the early 1930s—the “pre-code era”—that shouldn’t be missed.

You’ll not see a finer ensemble cast than the one in Dinner at Eight (1933, dir. George Cukor). It’s led by Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Jean Harlow. From this film you can learn about handling parallel plotlines, and also the great value of orchestration. That is, creating characters who have the greatest possibilities for conflict with one another. Indeed, this is responsible for one of the best last lines ever. It’s between the highly-cultured actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) and the gorgeous but unrefined Kitty (Jean Harlow). Since it doesn’t spoil the film plot wise, here it is:

No pre-code retrospective would be complete without at least one film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck, of course, went on to become one of the big stars of the golden age of movies, and then on TV in The Big Valley. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Stanwyck shot to fame in 1930 in the Frank Capra-directed Ladies of Leisure. She plays a “party girl” who falls genuinely in love. Stanwyck—not a classic beauty a la Garbo or Harlow—demonstrates that sexiness is as much about attitude as it is about surface features.

Stanwyck would show that over and over in her career, but never with more verve than in Baby Face (1933). As Lily Powers (great name) she uses her sexuality to seduce men on her way up the ladder in New York City. (The film is also notable for a small part played by a miscast young actor named John Wayne.)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

And then, of course, there’s a film everyone who loves movies should see: It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra). From this you can learn the tropes of a great romance. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress who goes on the run, against her father’s wishes, to get to the man she wants to marry. The story becomes a national sensation. Taking a night bus for New York, Ellie is recognized by a street-smart reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). He offers to help get her to her lover in return for her story, exclusive.

These two peas are not from the same pod. They take an immediate dislike to each other (trope). Through a series of obstacles they begin to fall in love (trope). But a big misunderstanding sunders their romance (trope) until…well, you need to see it.

The movie was not supposed to be a big hit. It was made by a small studio (Columbia) and Gable was in it only because he had been “loaned out” by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was mad at Gable for demanding a raise, and wanted to teach him a lesson.

Some lesson. Gable won the Oscar as the film swept the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay.

One famous bit of trivia. There’s a scene where Gable starts to undress in front of Colbert. When he takes off his shirt, he’s bare chested. Thereafter in America, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted.

The film also shows the value of what I call the “spice” of minor characters. Don’t ever waste yours. They are opportunities to delight your readers. The two standout spices in It Happened One Night are a pair of great character actors: Roscoe Karns as an obnoxious, would-be Lothario; and Alan Hale as a roadster-driving con man.

Undergirding it all is the flawless script by Robert Riskin, a frequent Capra collaborator. More trivia: During the production of his script for Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Riskin reportedly got increasingly annoyed by critics talking about “the Capra touch.” One day, when he felt Capra himself was taking too much credit, he stormed into Capra’s office and threw down 120 pages of blank paper. “Put the Capra touch on that!” he said, thus becaming a hero to Hollywood screenwriters ever after.

I only have time for some honorable mentions, but these are all worth seeing and contain lessons for every writer. You should be able to find most of these via streaming services and/or YouTube:

Little Caesar (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

The Champ (1931)

American Madness (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

Rain (1932)

Scarface (1932)

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

The Power and the Glory (1933)

The Thin Man (1934)

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Happy viewing!

Any other early movie favorites you’d like to add? Of the films mentioned, which have you seen? Any other writer lessons you draw from them?

26 thoughts on “Movie Gems from the Early 1930s

    • You got that right, Nancy. I’m especially loving finding obscure B noir flicks on YouTube. An abundance of content out there now. I think back to my college days, when you had to scour the newspaper to see what little indie movie houses in Hollywood were showing, get there on the right night, etc. Or you’d catch whatever they were showing late on TV. Now the only question is which film to watch right here at home!

  1. The original King Kong remains one of my all-time favorite movies, and the only film from that era my kids will routinely watch with me.

    • You are so right, Gregg. Thanks for adding that. It’s an amazing movie for its time, of course, but that it holds up so well is testament to the director and co-writer, Merian C. Cooper, and his co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack.

  2. Jim, you never cease to amaze me with your knowledge and retention of the facts and trivia about the old movies and the classics. Thanks for another great teaching moment (and a “viewing list” for this class). I’ve printed out this post, and my wife now has our movie list for many Saturday nights to come.

    And, to give you a head start on coming up with another ditty, my post this coming Saturday will be about tremor – “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.

    Thanks for a wonderful history lesson.

    • Well, thanks Steve, but I did pay for the knowledge…I was a film major in college. Being a film nut all my life, I couldn’t have been more pleased to discover you could get a degree by watching and writing about movies.

      You lucky guy! All that viewing pleasure coming your way. I’m almost envious that you get to experience these for the first time.


  3. You Can’t Take It With You with Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur (I’m a fan for anything with Jean Arthur)

    San Francisco with Gable, Tracy, and MacDonald

    M with Peter Lorre — I watched this one New Year’s Eve. What a way to start the New Year.

    • Yes indeed, Laurie. Though You Can’t Take it With You and San Francisco are both late 30s, they belong on any film lover’s list. The former is another Capra/Riskin collaboration, the latter a pairing of MGMs two big male stars, Gable and Spencer Tracy. They have great chemistry together. Tracy is one of my all time favorite actors. So natural.

  4. Thanks, Ann. More late 30s, but two must-see movies for the film fan. His Girl Friday is almost my favorite screwball comedy…it comes in a close second to The Awful Truth.

  5. Thanks for this list, Jim! I’ll be on the treadmill this afternoon for enough time to watch at least one of them. (I hope they have subtitles.)

    Here’s one to add: “The Thirty-nine Steps,” 1935. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat. It has a plot similar to “It Happened One Night,” where a man and a woman are thrown together in an unlikely situation. Although they *really* don’t like each other, you can guess what happens.

  6. Wow, Jim, this is a fantastic list. I have a lot of classic movie watching ahead of me 🙂 I’m mostly familiar with comedies from the 1930s–love the Marx brothers, for instance, as well as classic horror films like the original Dracula and Frankenstein. I was going to suggest adding the WW1 aerial combat epic “Wings” to your list, but it was released in 1927. Still a great film.

    Thanks so much for the post and list.

    • Dale, thanks for the additions, all terrific. Wings is silent, of course, and you’re right, a great film. Directed by William Wellman, who was an actual combat flyer in WWI. Notable for Clara “The It Girl” Bow and a small, but memorable appearance by an impossibly handsome actor. It got him to the next level…Gary Cooper.

  7. Great list. I’d also add Ernst Lubitsch’ Trouble in Paradise (1932), a pre-Code classic with Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall in the leads. It was out of circulation for a long time and is astonishingly funny and sophisticated (and risqué).
    Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934) is a screwball classic with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, plus an all-star cast of character actors that included the great Roscoe Karns (“I yield the lamp of learning to no one”). A fabulous script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

    • Great additions, Joe! You’re so right about Lubitsch, who also had a famous “touch.”

      And yes, perhaps Barrymore’s best role, where his overact…I mean, high style…was perfectly suited.

      Good ones! And a favorite book of mine is Hecht’s memoir, A Child of the Century.

      • Thanks, I’ll check out the Hecht book. Wasn’t he called the Shakespeare of the movies (or Hollywood)? His IMDb write-up is entertaining, by the way. Great quotes: “Old songs are more than tunes. They are little houses in which our hearts once lived.”

  8. I loves me some salacious pre code movies. Jean Harlow classes up in Grand Hotel. If you want to see her play a real gold digger watch Red Headed Woman. One scene has full a boob shot, nip included. The Catholic Legion of Decency would never have approved. Harlow, Gable, and Mary Astor make a great triangle in Red Dust. Harlow is a practitioner of the profession Marie Dressler alluded to, Mary Astor is the innocent (obviously she hasn’t graduated to the murderess of The Maltese Falcon yet), and Gable is the man in the middle. Many of Marlene Dietrich’s best performances are from the pre-code era. I love Blonde Venus. The Divorcee has a score settling infidelity plot that would not have made it past the Hayes office. Another pre code Barbara Stanwyck flick worth checking out is The Bitter Tea of General Yen, directed by Frank Capra. It deals with interracial romance. We think nothing of this now, but you don’t see during the Code era. Since a poster above mentioned Lubitsch one of his best pre code offerings is Trouble in Paradis. And let’s not forget Freaks. There’s a movie that would never have been greenlit after 1934.

    • Harlow rocks in Bombshell (1933), basically playing herself as a movie queen, along with an over-the-top Lee Tracy as the publicist from hell. Hilarious, no-holds-barred Hollywood satire. When ogling Harlow’s body in dresses she was sewn into, keep in mind it’s all her. For pre-Code female nudity, don’t forget Tarzan and His Mate (1933), with an astonishing opening underwater nude swimming sequence. I read somewhere it’s not Maureen O’Sullivan. Who cares?

  9. What a great list, Jim. I am a huge fan of the comedic cinema of that era — Laurel & Hardy, the Keystone Kops, and Buster Keaton, among others — but there were so many great dramatic films made as well. They were truly groundbreaking, creating techniques used to this day.

    Additions? 1932’s Call Her Savage, with the incomparable Clara Bow.

    • I’ve seen it, Joe, because I’m a fan of “The It Girl.” I think she (and that face!) were made for silents. Her voice, like that of John Gilbert, was not what audiences “heard” in their heads when they watched these two on the silent screen. That may have led to her retirement, which went a lot better than poor Gilbert’s. She was truly an icon of her time, the Roaring 20s.

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