050. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)
The Roaring Twenties is one of the most amazing gangster dramas of the classic era, but it’s probably the least recognized among the “big” ones. Few gangster films have a leading character as likable as James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett. And because he’s so likable, his downfall is absolutely heartbreaking. This probably is the most emotional of all the major gangster films of the era. The film is about more than just Eddie’s downfall, though. It’s about the downfall of the country, how is went from the fun Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression. And it has one of the most fantastic closing lines of all time. “He used to be a big shot.”

049. Men In White (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
As with Life Begins, Men In White is a fascinating look at how things were so much different in the medical world in the 1930s. But it’s also one of the most daring films to come out of the pre-code era. It’s not just about sex and violence. It tackles some really important social issues of the time. The topic of abortion was so taboo they had to tip toe around it in the dialogue, even during the pre-code era. It was a bold move, and the films handles it delicately but honestly. It’s an emotionally powerful film in more ways than one.

048. Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937)
Few actresses could do screwball comedy as well as Carole Lombard (Fort Wayne native, thank you very much). There were many gifted comic actresses in the 1930s, but I think Lombard was at the top of the list, and I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Hazel Flagg in Nothing Sacred. She really carries the movie, being sweet, funny, and likable despite the fact that we know she’s lying the whole time. Fredric March was no screwball slouch either, and the pairing of these two is absolutely perfect. I enjoy the way it often buck romcom norm, as with their first kiss, which we don’t even see. It’s amazing how director William Wellman was able to make a kiss we didn’t even get to see so incredibly romantic.

047. Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)
Believe it or not, it took me awhile to warm up to Mannequin. I know, right? A Frank Borzage movie I didn’t love instantly. It took a few viewings for me to appreciate and really see the beauty in the love story between Joan Crawford’s Jesse and Spencer Tracy’s Hennessey. It’s a very slow build. Jesse starts the relationship married to another man, and Hennessey loves her from afar. But it turns out her husband is a pretty big loser, so she divorces him. Hennessey pursues her, she resists, but then they marry. Jesse doesn’t really love Hennessey at this point, and they both know it, but they figure that love will grow. And it does.

046. The Man In Possession (Sam Wood, 1931)
The Man In Possession might be the sexiest pre-code film I’ve ever seen. Of course, like most pre-code films, it uses sly innuendos and the like, but even then it’s a lot more blatant and in-your-face about its sexuality than most films from the era. There’s a moment where Irene Purcell’s Crystal wakes up in the morning, obviously sated and worn out from a night of lovemaking with Robert Montgomery’s Raymond, and the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. And it’s pretty much ripped in half. That’s probably the most blatantly sexual moment in all of pre-code film. Thankfully, though, there’s more than just that to the film. It’s a clever, very funny comedy. And it has Robert Montgomery. Which is always good.

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055. Bad Girl (Borzage, 1930)
Frank Borzage won his second Academy Award for Best Director for the Depression romance Bad Girl. The brilliance of his work in this film is the simplicity. It’s a very small, private love story that probably was probably more than a little like a lot of love stories happening in real life at the time, so he knew not to be too over the top and flashy. The movie is very down to earth and it feels stunningly authentic. Not only is it an excellent love story, it’s also an incredible depiction of life during the Depression, from the tenements to the slang.

054. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)
Baby Face is, without a doubt, essential pre-code viewing. It’s hard to find a leading female character more pre-code than Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily (seriously, what is up with the worst of the pre-code dames being named Lily or Lil? That was also Jean Harlow’s name in Red Headed Woman, and she might actually have Stanwyck beat for the most pre-code). Even during the era, that weren’t a lot of films that celebrated a woman’s ability to get to the top by getting on her back, and Baby Face was one of them. Lily sleeps her way to the top, and she’s completely unapologetic about it.

053. It’s Love I’m After (Archie Mayo, 1937)

It’s Love I’m After is another nutty love-square romantic comedy, only it’s not quite as totally frakking insane as Four’s a Crowd. Nevertheless, it’s a flat out awesome romcom, with stellar performances from the whole cast. Unlike Four’s a Crowd, you can be pretty certain from the beginning who’s going to end up with who, despite the couple swapping (and at one point it almost becomes a love pentagon when Davis’ character starts to cozy up to DeHavilland’s dad), but it’s fun to watch them get there. It also has one of the best lines ever in a comedy. After being particularly mean to DeHavilland, only to have her delight in his criticisms, Leslie Howard says, “You don’t suppose I’ve awakened her ‘slap me again, I love it’ complex?”
052. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
No doubt I’ll get a few “What the hell? WAY TOO LOW!” comments because City Lights isn’t in my top 50. But I still love it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be on this list at all. Chaplin continued to make silent films into the sound era, and proved that true emotion and love could still be expressed without words. It’s a film about true selflessness. The Tramp works to earn money for the Flower Girl’s operation even though he knows there’s a huge chance she won’t want him once she sees he’s not the millionaire she thinks he is. It’s a simple story, but a moving one, and it proves that you don’t need a lot of frills to make an effective romantic comedy.

051. Camille (George Cukor, 1936)
Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite in Camille my be the  most famous of her career. While I don’t think it’s her best performance, it’s certainly the ultimate Garbo role, the sacrificial bad girl, and she even gets to slowly die in this one. Yeah, sounds like a downer, but it is an incredibly romantic and ever moving film. And Garbo’s performance is really fantastic. She’s charming, she’s sexy, she’s sad. And Robert Taylor makes for a wonderful younger leading man. They’re a good pair, with strong chemistry. If you like Moulin Rouge, you’ll like this. Because it’s basically the exact same story.

074. City Girl (Murnau, 1930)
FW Murnau was a really interesting director. It’s kind of fascinating to compare his other films, like Nosferatu, Faust, and even Sunrise with his 1930 silent film City Girl. On the surface, it’s a very different kind of film. It’s visual style is much simpler than most of his previous efforts (but no less stunning), and it doesn’t have the massive dramatic punch. It’s a much smaller, more intimately set story about love and family and finding your place. Mary Duncan and Charles Farrell (who were fantastic together the year before in Frank Borzage’s The River) play the young lovers who come from two different worlds, and their chemistry manages to carry much of the film.

You guys get two entries since you went so long without. Yay!

60. Life Begins (James Flood, 1932)
There are some movies from the 1930s that are really fascinating looks into the way the world worked back then. Some things were just so drastically different. Life Begins is one of those film. It’s about the maternity ward of a hospital and the many women who occupy it. It’s so strange to see the way a hospital maternity ward worked at the time. But outside of being an interesting 1930s slice of life, Life Begins is a really excellent movie about, well… life. Young plays an expectant mother who’s been checked into the maternity ward knowing that once her child is born she’ll be returning to prison to finish out a manslaughter sentence.  Glenda Farrell plays another expectant mother, a carefree showgirl. This is a very emotionally charged movie about the start of a new life and all the complications that brings.

059. Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (Howard Hawks, 1932)
Howard Hawks’ violent, completely insane Scarface: The Shame of the Nation is without a doubt one of the best and most important gangster films of all time. Paul Muni give an amazing performance as Tony Camonte, the overly ambitious and kind of crazy protagonist of the film. It’s completely fearless and shameless. The supporting cast is excellent as well. George Raft (who had real-life mob ties) plays Tony’s closest confidant, the lovely and alluring Karen Morley plays his love interest, and Ann Dvorak is flat out incredible as his little sister. There is, of course, a shocking amount of incestuous subtext, which just make this movie all the more fascinating. It’s easiest the most balls-to-the-wall crazy mobster movie of the classic era.

057. Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938)
Bette Davis was never more beautiful than she was in William Wyler’s period romance Jezebel. And her performance is absolutely wonderful (she won her second Best Actress Oscar for it). She makes Julie a more arrogant, beautiful, glorious, simpering mess of a southern belle than Scarlet O’Hara could ever hope to be. William Wyler, despite coming form Europe, just got the American South. (He also directed Davis in the exquisite Southern masterpiece The Little Foxes in 1940.) It’s a shame he never directed a Faulkner adaptation. The two would have been an absolutely perfect fit. Davis is paired here with Henry Fonda, and the two are an excellent screen team. They had loads and loads of chemistry.

057. Four’s a Crowd (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
Love triangles are a pretty ordinary thing in romantic comedies. Love squares are less common. Especially love squares as completely nuts as this. Not only is it a totally crazy love square romantic comedy, but it’s also a newspaper movie, too. Be still my heart! And it even has a twist ending. That’s right, it’s a romantic comedy with a twist ending. Up until the last minute, you’re not really sure who’s going to end up with who. It really could go any way. Michael Curtiz is one of the most underappreciated directors of all time in my opinion. He gets a lot of recognition for Casablanca, but so few recognize the really solid work he did as a studio director. He could do literally every genre, and he proved with Four’s a Crowd that he could do excellent work in the screwball comedy genre.

056. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934)
Hmmm… two movies with strong incestuous undertones in one post. That’s  a little bit weird. Anyhoo, the film is based on the true love story between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  But while the romance is very important to the movie, the story is more about the growth of Elizabeth Barrett as a person, and away from her family. Producer Irving Thalberg was big on adapting stage plays to the screen, and while the camera work isn’t particularly creative (it’s often criticized as being basically a films play) the story is still told beautifully. Shearer and Charles Laughton give career best performance. Laughton plays Elizabeth’s father, who love clearly goes beyond fatherly affection. Due to the Production Code, the Hayes Office ordered a re-write of the script to tone down the incestuous subtext, but Laughton famously said, “They can’t censor the gleam in my eye.”

By Katie Richardson

065. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
The first film to sweep the major awards at the Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress), It Happened One Night is the quintessential Romantic Road Screwball Comedy. Lots of subgenres there. Before Capra started making his well-known “Cpra Corn”, he made some of the best and most subversive films of the 1930s. It Happened One Night is a battle of the sexes, with Gable and Colbert squaring off, verbally sparring, and of course, falling in love. They’re a perfect match, both stubborn and strong willed. I would have loved to see Robert Montgomery in the role (it was originally offered to him, he turned it down), but Gable really is fantastic. In addition to being a wonderful battle of the sexes comedy, it’s also a great illustration of the class divide during the Great Depression.

064. Stage Door (George Stevens, 1937)
Stage Door is a collection of some of the best character actress working in the 1930s. Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers head up the cast, and both give great performances (I’d give the edge to Rogers), but really, I think the movie is all about the supporting actresses who live in the boarding house with Rogers and Hepburn. Some of them were actresses who would become much bigger stars a few years later. Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick. Particularly noteworthy is Andrea Leeds. In a movie with big names like Roger, Hepburn, and Adolphe Menjou, it was Leeds who nabbed the Oscar nod with her devastating performance as an actress who had a brief moment of success, only to fall back hard.

063. A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932)
It’s kind of strange that Borzage made so many films about war. Sure, the idea of war generally work well with a lot of his themes. But he hated war so much that he usually had someone else film battle scenes in his films. Nevertheless, A Farewell to Arms, based on the Hemingway novel, it one of Borzage’s many amazing pre-code films. Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, both giving great performances,  fall in love during WWI. I’m a sucker for WWI movies (there really aren’t enough of them), especially when they’re directed by Frank Borzage and they’re about the spiritual power of love. Helen Hayes’ performance is particularly noteworthy here. I think she was one of the best actresses of the 1930s, and I wish she had spent more time in Hollywood rather than on the stage in New York. She had an extremely natural and down to earth style.

062. The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth is probably the best example of the remarriage comedy. At the beginning of the movie, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne decide to divorce, and the rest of the movie is spent awaiting their divorce and falling back in love. I like the remarriage comedy because it so often starts at where a story would typically end. In addition to being the perfect example of this subgenre, The Awful Truth is also flat out hilarious. Cary Grant and Irene Dunner were two of the most talented comedians of the silver screen, and they worked brilliantly together. I so prefer Dunne in comedy over drama. I tend ot find her really dull in dramas, but she really comes to life in the best bubbly way possible in comedy.

061. Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)
First of all, I love Footlight Parade for it’s amazing cast. James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, Claire Dodd. That’ one hell of an amazing ensemble. Cagney and Blondell are one of the all time great screen couples. They were simply made for each other. Their back and forth bantering is so perfect. Busby Berkeley choreographed many films in the 1930s (and you can always tell which ones are his), and Footlight Parade might be his most impressive effort. The musical numbers are just astounding.

By Katie Richardson

075. Hide-Out (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)
Hide-Out is a mobster movie in so much as it’s about a mobster. But instead of being a Little Caesar type story of the rise and fall of a gangster, it’s a romantic dramady. Montgomery’s Lucky really is no good. When he ends up at the Miller family farm after being shot, he intends to use the family’s kindness for as long as he can until he recovers and then return to his life of crime. But he starts to actually genuinely like the family, especially Pauline, the daughter, played by a charming Maureen O’Sullivan. At first he is after that one thing that bad boys are after when it comes to girls, but he realizes her really loves her and that makes him want to turn his life around. The movie is a really good piece of character development for Lucky, and Montgomery’s performance as both the heartless Lucky and the changed man is very good. He makes the development feel very natural. The love story, while simple, is surprisingly romantic, and there’s a an incredibly charged scene where Lucky and Pauline take refuge in an empty house during a rainstorm.

074. City Girl (Murnau, 1930)
FW Murnau was a really interesting director. It’s kind of fascinating to compare his other films, like Nosferatu, Faust, and even Sunrise with his 1930 silent film City Girl. On the surface, it’s a very different kind of film. It’s visual style is much simpler than most of his previous efforts (but no less stunning), and it doesn’t have the massive dramatic punch. It’s a much smaller, more intimately set story about love and family and finding your place. Mary Duncan and Charles Farrell (who were fantastic together the year before in Frank Borzage’s The River) play the young lovers who come from two different worlds, and their chemistry manages to carry much of the film.

073. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
William Powell and Myrna Loy made a huge amount of films together. Their most notable are obviously the Thin Man movies, but Libeled Lady is easily their best non-Thin Man movie. I’m a big fan of the love-quadrangle thing in old movies, and this movie has one of the best. Powell, Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow make a great team, and it makes for three of the best pairings in classic romance – Loy and Powell (obviously), Tracy and Harlow, and Harlow and Powell. I think Harlow’s performance is particularly impressive because she spends a good portion of the movie acting like the last thing she wants to do is marry Powell, when in reality that was what she wanted more than anything (Powell and Harlow were an item until her death in 1937).

072. Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937)
Shall We Dance really doesn’t get a lot of love among the Astaire/Rogers films, which is unfortunate and not entirely fair. Sure, while the dancing is good, it doesn’t really match a few of their other films, and with the exception of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” there isn’t an amazingly memorable number. But what it lacks on the musical front it makes up for by having one of the most original stories and the pair’s film canon. No mistaken identity here. Fred and Ginger play two famous dancers who the press mistakingly think are married. It’s a good premise that leads to some fantastic comedy, and great performances from its leads. Especially Ginger, who spends much of the movie acting annoyed and put out by Fred’s obvious attractions. And while there’s no mind blowing dance accompanying it, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is one of the best songs Fred ever sang, and Ginger’s reaction shots to it are beautiful.

071. Midnight Mary (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Thanks to the ultra-pious good girl image she cultivated for herself in the late 1940s and 1950s, when people think of Loretta Young think almost exclusively of that ultra-pious good girl. So a lot of people are often surprised to go back in her filmography and look at her pre-code work, in which that good girl was a far away thing. This is especially true of Midnight Mary, an amazing character study where Young plays one of the most flawed heroines of the era. Mary gets dealt a shit hand early on, and her life just devolves from there, from prostitution to a dangerous relationship with a violent criminal. This film is so obviously pre-code. It seems that every time Mary makes a strong moral decision, it backfires on her completely, but whenever she does something bad things kind of work for her. In the end, Mary is her own worst enemy, thinking that she doesn’t deserve any better than the life she has. Young’s performance is incredible, and this is one of the best characters to come out of the decade.

By Katie Richardson

100. Liliom (Frank Borzage, 1930)
It’s not exactly the easiest love story for a modern generation to swallow, despite the fact that in its musical form (the wonderful Carousel) it’s one of the most beloved romances of all time. Nevertheless, with its endlessly flawed hero, his doormat wife, and their unconventional version of love, this is one romance that modern feminists aren’t going to be fans of. And it’s true, in its final moments, trying to sell physical abuse as some kind of sign of affection doesn’t really work as well as it wants to. But before that point, director Frank Borzage still managed to do what he always did best: he took an immensely flawed couple with an even more flawed relationship and made it beautiful. Liliom and Julie’s marriage isn’t near perfect. He’s lazy with a bad temper, she allows him to walk all over her. But underneath it all, there is a deep love there and an understanding that the pair has for one another that is unparalleled.  And even in the end, while (perhaps ill-advisedly) sugar coating Liliom’s domestic abuse, Borzage never let’s Liliom off the hook, which leaves us with a heartbreaking conclusion. Despite what seems to be an uplifting ending, we really know that even with the best of intentions, even in death some men can’t change.

099. Made For Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939)
Carole Lombard is one of the greatest comedic talents to ever appear on the screen. Because she’s so famous for her comedic efforts, her dramatic performances are, at best, often forgotten, and, at worst, ridiculed as being “a waste of her talent”.  But her talent really did shine through in her dramatic roles, and Made for Each Other is proof of that. The film is a unique love story. In most romances we get to see the falling in love part, with “happily ever after” being the end of the story”.  Here, it’s the beginning, and it’s not so much “happily ever after” as it is “with a whole lot of bumps along the way.” Marriage is hard work, and this movie shows it, complete with disapproving mothers-in-law, terrible bosses, and sick children. It still hold up particularly well today as proof that, no matter the decade, marriage comes with the same problems and the same responsibilities. Made For Each Other is a dose of reality, maybe not one that everyone wants to see, especially from the classic era, but one that’s honest and, because of that, rewarding.

098. History Is Made At Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)
It’s not secret that director Frank Borzage was all about the transcendent power of love and all the spirituality that entails. It’s a hallmark of his films, and it figures quite prominently in History Is Made At Night. But what’s most prominent in this little romantic oddity is an element that’s only a latent theme in his other films: the battle between good and evil. Underneath the surface of a lush romance is a very primal tug of war between two forces. The evil is personified in the quite substantive form of Colin Clive’s downright deranged and insanely jealous ex-husband, while the good is represented less by the lovers (Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur), and more by the undying love that they share. With shifts between romantic comedy, psychological drama, and disaster film, History Is Made At Night may seem downright schizophrenic at times, but no matter what genre it’s veering into, it always maintains Borzage’s warmth, romance, and optimism.

097. Heroes For Sale (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Unflinching yet still somehow optimistic, Wild Bill Wellman’s Depression-era saga Heroes For Sale is one of the decade’s best glimpses into the way times really were for millions of Americans. It’s not just one problem for leading man Richard Barthelmess. It starts with one thing and then just starts to snowball from there. It’s pre-code in the best possible way, dealing with issues like drug addiction head on, and never pulling its punches (there’s a character death which leads to one shot that is one of the most startling in all of classic film). Wellman wasn’t afraid to make things as dark as possible for his characters, because that’s the way things were in the world around him, and somehow, like no other director really could, he balanced this crushing sadness with a certain amount of hope. Even though they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was there, somewhere, and eventually they would see it, if they just kept looking.

096. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938)
Despite all the fawning that goes on over the overblown My Fair Lady, the gloriously simple 1938 version of Pygmalion is still the best version to ever appear on the big screen. Everything about this movie is perfect, from its head to its toes. Wendy Hiller is the best Eliza Doolittle there possible could be, beautiful enough to be convincing as the lady she becomes, but with just enough grit and uniqueness to keep her believable as the lovable street urchin. Leslie Howard’s refined gruffness is inimitable, and the chemistry they share is one of a kind. The story of Pygmalion is special in that it’s a love story without being a romance. It’s not about falling in love, and the big dramatic feelings that come with it. It’s about companionship, finding where you fit. What a novel idea, to sell that as such a quiet, unassuming thing as this.

Stay tuned for 95-91.

By Katie Richardson