Many notable movies saw their release in the 1930’s. One of the biggest years for movies was 1939, and is still felt to be one of the greatest in Hollywood to date.
Some of the best performers in acting and film history came from this decade. Several actresses started their careers in the 1930’s, while some on this list came from the 1920’s but were still highly regarded.
10. Margaret Sullavan
Born Margaret Brooke Sullavan on May 16th, 1909, in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was a wealthy stockbroker, Cornelius Hancock Sullavan and her mother an heiress, Garland Council Sullavan. Margaret overcame a severe muscle weakness during childhood and went on to make her debut on Broadway in Hello, Lola in 1926. She caught the eye of director John M. Stahl and made her film debut in Only Yesterday in 1933. She only made 16 movies, preferring to work onstage, four of which were made with James Stewart. The 1938 movie she starred in, Three Comrades, got her nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She retired from making movies in the early 40s, but returned to make her last 16 movies, including No Sad Songs for Me, playing a woman who was dying of cancer.
The rest of her career was spent on the stage. She died of a drug overdose January 1st 1960 in New Haven, Connecticut.
9. Claudette Colbert
Born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin on September 13th, 1903, in Saint Mande, France. Colbert started her career just like Sullavan, onstage in the 20s, but then moved to film with the advent of talking pictures. She started out with Paramount Pictures, later becoming a freelance actor. She won a Best actress Oscar for her role in the 1934 film, It Happened One Night. She was the first woman not born in the United States to achieve an Academy Award. She also received Oscar nominations for the 1935 film Private Worlds and the 1944 film Since You Went Away.
She died on July 30th, 1996, in Speightstown, Barbados, after a series of strokes.
8. Jean Harlow
Born Harlean Harlow Carpenter on March 3rd, 1911, in Wichita, Kansas. Jean became a sex symbol and film actress in the 1930s. Director Howard Hughes signed Harlow, and her first major appearance was in the 1930 film Hell’s Angels, after which several flops followed. She then signed with Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1932. She became a leading lady for MGM, having a string of hit films including Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reckless (1935), and Suzy (1936). Several of her co-stars included William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and in six of her films, Clark Gable. Her popularity rivaled and surpassed those of her colleagues at MGM, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. By the late 1930s, she became one of the biggest movie stars around, often nicknamed “Baby”, “Blond Bombshell” and “Platinum Blonde” for her “Laughing Vamp” movie persona. Jean Harlow, at the age of 26, died June 7th, 1937 from kidney failure.
7. Carole Lombard
Born Jane Alice Peters on October 6th, 1908 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and her mother took her and her two older brothers to Los Angeles to live.
In 1921, at the age of 12, Carole was spotted playing baseball in the street by director Allan Dwan, who cast her in the film A Perfect Crime.
She didn’t make another movie for four years, but eventually signed a contract with Fox films in 1925, after passing a screen test. She was always noted for her energetic, off-beat roles in the screwball comedies of the 1930s. In the late 1930s, she became the highest paid star in Hollywood. She gained more fame after marrying William Powell in 1931, but they divorced two years later. Her career turned around in 1934 when she starred in Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy Twentieth Century. This is where she excelled in this genre. In 1935, Lombard appeared in Hands Across the Table, forming a partnership with Fred MacMurray. She received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role in the 1936 film, My Man Godfrey. She was in a total of 79 films.
Her last film made was in 1941 called To Be or Not to Be, and the release was held back due to the start of WWII. Unfortunately, Lombard would not live to see the release of her last film. At the age of 33, Lombard, her mother, and 20 other people died in a plane crash on January 16th, 1942, just outside of Las Vegas.
6. Vivien Leigh
Born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5th, 1913 in Darjeeling, west Bengal, India. She got her acting education in drama school and appeared in four small roles in four different films in 1935. Revered for her beauty, she sometimes felt that it kept her from being taken seriously as an actor.
Even though she had success as a screen actress, most of her career was onstage. She played roles ranging from heroines in comedic classics of George Bernard Shaw to Shakespearean roles like Cleopatra, Ophelia, Juliet, and Lady Macbeth. Her most notable films were Gone with the Wind in 1939, also starring Clark Gable, who she did not get along with, and A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, with Marlon Brando. She won an Oscar for Best Actress in both. She was in a total of 20 films in her career. She died on July 8th, 1967 in London, England at the age of 53, from long-term tuberculosis.
5. Joan Crawford
Born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23rd, 1905 in San Antonio, Texas to parents Anna Belle & Thomas E. LeSueur.
By the time she was a teenager, she’d had three stepfathers. She started her career as a dancer in a travelling theatrical company before she debuted as a chorus girl on Broadway. She signed her movie deal with MGM in 1925.
Her fame outlasted her MGM colleagues Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer in the 1930s. Depression-era movie goers and women particularly could relate to the young and hard-working roles she played during this time. She was in three films shortly after her stint on Broadway that did not make a big splash, but she kept toiling away until her big break in 1928, with Our Dancing Daughters, which elevated her to star status. Crawford became one of the highest paid women in the United States and a very prominent movie star. Unfortunately, her films kept losing money and by the end of the 1930s she was labelled “Box Office Poison”. She was nominated for three Oscars and only won one for Best Actress in her role in the 1946 film Mildred Pierce.
She was credited in 92 film roles. Crawford was married four times and died from cancer on May 10th, 1977 in New York City, New York at the age of 72.
4. Gretta Garbo
Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18th, 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden. Her parents were Anna Lovisa and Karl Alfred Gustafsson, both laborers. Her dad died when she turned 14 and left the family destitute. She began work in a department store where they used her for a model and a short film. She then entered and won a scholarship to drama school and was during discovered after a couple of small roles by a director leading her to pull out of drama school. The director put her in film, and by the age of 18 she was on her way. In 1925, Louis B. Mayer, CEO of MGM saw Greta and brought her to America, putting her under contract. Her first film with MGM was a silent film called Torrent in 1926. The next year, her role in Flesh of the Devil catapulted her to international stardom.
She made 42 movies and had four Oscar nominations for Best Actress, two of which were in 1938. She won an Honorary Oscar for her performances in 1955. Joan Crawford died in New York City, New York, in 1990, from pneumonia at the age of 84.
3. Bette Davis
Born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5th, 1908 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her parents were Ruth Augusta and Harlow Morrell Davis, who was a patent attorney. Her parents divorced when she was 10, and she and her sister were raised by their mother. Early in life Bette wanted to be a dancer because she thought they led glamorous lives. She gave up dancing to become an actor, which she thought was more challenging. Once she graduated from Cushing’s Academy, she enrolled in John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School and was their star student. Her Broadway debut was in 1929 where she starred in the play “Broken Dishes”. Late in 1930, Universal brought her aboard (as a loan out for other studios), and her first film for them was in 1931, called Way Back Home, however her films for Universal were unsuccessful. Warner Brothers Pictures signed her to a seven-year deal in 1932, and in 1932, the film The Man Who Played God made her a star. She had several critically acclaimed films with them and was praised for her willingness to play many different types of roles in a range of genres. Davis tried to get out of her contract with Warner Brothers Pictures in 1937, and even though she lost the major court case, her career took off after that loss. She was one of the most celebrated leading ladies until the late 1940s. She was married four times and had three children. She was credited in 124 roles, nominated for 11 Oscars and won twice. Bette Davis died of breast cancer in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Haute-de-Seine, France, on October 6th, 1989, at the age of 81.
2. Marlene Dietrich
Born Mary Magdalene Dietrich on December 27th, 1901, in Schoneberg, Berlin, Germany. She started out in the cabaret scene in Germany in the 1920s as a singer.
She married Rudolf Sieber and remained married to him until his death in 1976. They were legally married for 52 years but only lived together for five years.
In 1929, she was seen on stage in the cabaret by Josef von Sternberg. He gave her a screen test, and cast her in the 1930 film The Blue Angels as a cabaret singer. The film was a success, and, in 1930, Josef took her to America, where she became known to Hollywood and the rest of the world through the movie Morocco. She was an international success and became the highest paid actress of her time. She became an American citizen in 1939, and throughout WWII, she was a high-profile frontline entertainer. She is credited with 56 actress roles and 67 soundtrack parts.
She died of kidney failure in Paris, France on May 6th, 1992, at the age of 90.
1. Katharine (Kate) Hepburn
Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12th, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut. Her parents were wealthy, progressive and encouraged her to always speak her mind and exercise. She was devastated when at the age of 14, she found her brother Tom dead by an accidental hanging, said to have been the result of practicing a noose technique taught by his father.
Kate started withdrawing into herself and was mostly homeschooled. She attended Bryn Mawr College, and it was there she decided to become an actress. After graduating, she started getting small roles on Broadway and received the attention of Hollywood. She had success in her early years in film and won an Oscar for her third film, Morning Glory in 1933. After her Oscar win, she had a series of failures, which led her also to be labeled “Box Office Poison” in 1938. Kate rallied, however, and made her own comeback. She bought out her contract from RKO Radio Pictures and acquired the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which only sold with the condition that she be the star. Some of her most memorable films were On Golden Pond, The Philadelphia Story and The African Queen.
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Kate was credited with 52 film roles, nominated for 12 Oscars and won four. She retired from public life in the 90s. Katharine Hepburn died at the age of 96 of natural causes at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on June 29th, 2003.