Some theorize that the greatest art is born out of uncertainty and hardship. If that's the case, the 1930s certainly measure up. The Great Depression and World War II were austere bookends to a tumultuous decade, and the types of films released three-quarters of a century ago reflect that.

Musical escapism ('Swing Time,' '42nd Street') and screwball comedies ('Bringing Up Baby,' 'My Man Godfrey,' 'The Awful Truth') jollied theatergoers out of their torpor during the darkest days of '30s. For adrenaline junkies who counted thrills and chills as a boost, Universal Studios began its classic series of horror films ('Frankenstein,' 'Bride of Frankenstein,' 'Dracula' and 'The Invisible Man'). Finally, during the last year of the decade, nine seminal movies, including 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz' unspooled before audiences suffused with nostalgia about a world that was soon to change forever. Some theorize that the greatest art is born out of uncertainty and hardship. If that's the case, the 1930s certainly measure up. The Great Depression and World War II were austere bookends to a tumultuous decade, and the types of films released three-quarters of a century ago reflect that.

Musical escapism ('Swing Time,' '42nd Street') and screwball comedies ('Bringing Up Baby,' 'My Man Godfrey,' 'The Awful Truth') jollied theatergoers out of their torpor during the darkest days of '30s. For adrenaline junkies who counted thrills and chills as a boost, Universal Studios began its classic series of horror films ('Frankenstein,' 'Bride of Frankenstein,' 'Dracula' and 'The Invisible Man'). Finally, during the last year of the decade, nine seminal movies, including 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz' unspooled before audiences suffused with nostalgia about a world that was soon to change forever.


42nd street40. '42nd Street' (1933)
The ultimate backstage musical sees an ailing Broadway impresario (Warner Baxter) trying to put on what could be his last show. But when his star twists her ankle, what's a producer to do? Enter tap-happy Ruby Keeler -- serendipitously -- from stage left. The Harry Warren/Al Dubin score contains such standards as the title tune, 'You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me' and 'Shuffle Off to Buffalo.' And although the plot creaks with corniness, the melodies (even 75 years later) remain evergreen inspiring as they did a real hit Broadway musical version of the film in the 1980s.

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39. 'The Blue Angel' (1930)
Marlene Dietrich vamps it up and croons her signature song ('Falling in Love Again') as Lola Lola, a cabaret performer who mesmerizes a respected teacher (Emil Jannings) into throwing his life away for her. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, the film had a tough time with censors in the U.S. (it was banned in soon-to-be Nazi Germany) cementing as it did Dietrich's status as one of sound film's first bona fide vixens.

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38. 'You Can't Take It with You' (1938)
Despite winning Best Picture and Director (Frank Capra) Oscars, this adaptation of the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart Broadway comedy hasn't traveled well through the decades. The zaniness of the eccentric Sycamore clan headed by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) seems a bit forced and less endearing with the passage of time, especially vis-à-vis Capra's more classic '30s efforts (see 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' and 'It Happened One Night'). Still, even this "Capra-corn" is buoyed by a bright cast that includes James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold and a very young, pirouetting Ann Miller.

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37. 'I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang' (1932)
Paul Muni plays a decorated World War I veteran who is wrongly convicted and forced to labor on a Southern chain gang before he can make his escape to Chicago. Trouble is; he can't outrun his past. The movie caused many viewers to question the U.S. penal system and led to some reforms. And the film's final scene, with a broken Muni backing furtively away into the darkness while telling how he survives ("I steal") is as chilling to view now as it was more than 70 years ago.

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36. 'Captain Blood' (1935)
Errol Flynn as a wronged Irish doctor (Peter Blood) is deported to the Caribbean but escapes and becomes a privateer in this quintessential swashbuckler that was also the actor's breakout role into major stardom. Olivia De Havilland is radiant as Flynn's object of affection and Basil Rathbone strikes just the right duplicitous pose as Flynn's onetime partner in crime who becomes his sworn enemy. Flynn's and Rathbone's swordplay (both men were accomplished fencers) is the film's highpoint.

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35. 'Little Women' (1933)
Director (actresses a specialty) George Cukor helmed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic Civil War-era novel of the tight-knit March sisters coming of age under the gentle tutelage of their mother Marmee (Spring Byington). Katharine Hepburn is fine -- a case of typecasting, really -- as independent-minded Jo, with Joan Bennett as Amy and Edna May Oliver wonderfully brittle as Aunt March. Remade a few times and with a decided feminist slant in 1994.

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34. 'Les Miserables' (1935)
Long before the hit Broadway musical, there was this definitive film version of Victor Hugo's immortal novel about one man's obsession and justice miscarried to an illogical extreme. After serving a decade in prison for swiping a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean (Frederic March) breaks his parole and is relentlessly pursued -- for another 10 years -- by Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton) who enthusiastically subscribes to the "two strikes and you're out" brand of justice.

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33. 'My Man Godfrey' (1936)
During the height of the Depression, a dizzy New York socialite (Carole Lombard) hires a vagrant named Godfrey (William Powell), whom she meets at the city dump, to be the family butler. Lombard and Powell -- both screwball comedy veterans -- are hysterical in a movie that takes the idle rich to task (Godfrey refuses to romance his beguiled employer, feeling that such a relationship isn't appropriate and might imperil their employer-employee compact). The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, was nominated for Oscars in all major categories (except Best Picture) but didn't win a single statuette.

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32. 'Dodsworth' (1936)
When his frivolous wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) refuses to act her age and begins an affair during a trip to Europe, retired automobile industry executive Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) begins to despair -- until he meets a woman (Mary Astor) who embodies all the steadfast traits his wife lacks. The film, directed by William Wyler from Sinclair Lewis's novel, is a small masterpiece of the deep price marital strife exacts, particularly when a "second chance" presents itself.

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31. 'The Awful Truth' (1937)
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are New York City high society types, married and suspicious of each other's fidelity. No sooner do they start divorce proceedings (they split custody of their dog!) than they begin to undermine each other's early stabs at dating -- proving that you can't have it both ways, at least in vintage screwball comedies. Directed with considerable elan by Leo McCarey, who won an Oscar.

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Morris Dickstein on '30s Movies: Screwball Brilliance and What Happened in 1939


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Watch a documentary about Hollywood's golden era -- 'Going Hollywood' [SnagFilms]