20. 'Swing Time' (1936)
With its wonderful mix of tap numbers and ballroom routines, all set to a shimmering score by Jerome Kern, and a couple of first-rate comical second bananas (Victor Moore and Helen Broderick), 'Swing Time' is probably the best-realized movie in the entire Fred & Ginger canon. Astaire and Rogers have never been more engaging and insouciant than in 'Pick Yourself Up' or lighter than air than in the lilting 'Waltz in Swing Time.' And Fred's 'Bojangles of Harlem' number, where he hoofs with three silhouetted shadows of himself (preceded by an inventive "line dance" with some leggy chorines), was light-years ahead of its time cinematically.

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19. 'Modern Times' (1936)
In his last silent comedy (albeit with sound effects), Charlie Chaplin rages against the machine as a human cog in a giant, soulless assembly line that evokes themes from Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis.' The movie comments on the desperate lengths people had to go to survive during the Depression, often sacrificing individuality and even identity in favor of modern economies of scale. Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's wife at the time, appears as an orphan girl on the run from police. A man of many talents, writer/director Chaplin also composed the score which includes 'Smile,' a tune famously covered by Nat King Cole, among others.

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18. 'King Kong' (1933)
We all know the big lug is putty in Fay Wray's miniscule hands, and that he falls (both figuratively and literally) in a big way for the blonde bombshell's elfin charms. Kong's cinematic debut in 1933 was a groundbreaking event. Although the clunky stop-motion animation of the big ape swatting planes atop a Manhattan skyscraper may seem archaic now, it held movie audiences spellbound 76 years ago, making it truly the progenitor of all outsized monster movies to come.

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17. 'The Thin Man' (1934)
Urbane William Powell as Nick Charles meets his distaff match in Nora (Myrna Loy). They're a married couple (retired detective and heiress, respectively) who solve crimes as effortlessly as they mix martinis. About the only thing out of Nick and Nora's comfort zone is their precocious, unpredictable yet beloved wire-haired fox terrier, Asta. Based on the mystery novel by Dashiell Hammett, 'The Thin Man' was the first of six installments starring Powell and Loy as filmdom's wittiest crime-solvers. Factoid: The 'Thin Man' of the title is not Nick Charles but the name of the prime suspect in the film.

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16. 'Grand Hotel' (1932)
More star power is on display than in the heavens in MGM's ambitious mounting of a film (one of the first) that weaves together various stories and characters into a rich narrative tapestry. Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford and Lewis Stone star as denizens of Berlin's luxurious Grand Hotel. The film, which was adapted from a play based on a book, became, years later, a hit musical on Broadway. Quotable Quotes: This is the one where Garbo emotes, "I want to be alone."

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15. 'Frankenstein' (1931)
Universal Studios ushered in the Golden Age of horror with this brilliantly directed (by James Whale) adaptation of the immortal Mary Shelley tale of science gone terribly awry. Lurching through the role of a lifetime, Boris Karloff became indelibly associated with the misunderstood monster. As such, he delivered a touching performance filled with pathos that was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jack Pierce's chilling makeup; a visage that would set the iconic mold for all future pretenders to the Frankenstein's monster throne. Which just leaves us to say: "It's Alive!"

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14. 'Mutiny on the Bounty' (1935)
A vast ye maties! A huge hit in its day (and winner of the Best Picture Oscar), 'Bounty' chronicles the real-life mutiny led by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) against the puritanical Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton in full ogre mode). Neither of its two remakes -- with Marlon Brando, then Mel Gibson in the Christian role -- approached the critical and popular success of this version. The film (which Gable considered his favorite) was just another in a series of stepping-stones that resulted in the actor being crowned the king of Hollywood.

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13. 'M' (1931)
German Director Fritz Lang's first sound film is a knockout, with Peter Lorre absolutely chilling as Hans Beckert, a serial killer and pedophile who preys on children in 1930s Berlin, all the while whistling 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' from Grieg's 'Peer Gynt.' Although the polizei are on the case, it isn't long before the underworld decides to root out the killer themselves (his murders and the attendant publicity are bad for business). Lang's avowed favorite among all the films he directed, 'M' marked Lorre's first starring role and was a big reason he was typecast as a villain for years afterwards.

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12. 'Bringing Up Baby' (1938)
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are a top-notch screwball duo in this comedy trifle directed by Howard Hawks about a nerdy paleontologist (Grant) who is wooed by a crackpot socialite (Hepburn) while both try to corral an escaped pet leopard (the titular "Baby") who's loose in the wilds of Connecticut. Grant and Hepburn would pair up two more times in the next couple of years in equally beguiling comedies ('Holiday' and 'The Philadelphia Story'), proving that their comic chemistry was deft indeed.

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11. 'Wuthering Heights' (1939)
Emily Bronte's first (and only) novel, with its overarching themes of thwarted love and class division in Victorian England, makes it to the screen mostly intact. Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as ill-fated lovers Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff still make schoolgirls' hearts flutter at "what might have been," and Gregg Toland's fog-shrouded cinematography (which won an Oscar) works wonders in setting the appropriate moody scene. William Wyler directs from an angsty screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; on sabbatical from their usual rapid-fire comedy milieu.

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