The Top 10 Best Movies of the 1930s

10 films from the 1930s that you MUST watch.

The 1930s saw the introduction of sound into film, which resulted in some of the very best movies of all time being made throughout the decade. Now, narrowing down the top 10 best movies of the 1930s — which is what we tried to do here — was no easy task. Hundreds of films were released throughout this decade, and many of them are stunning and still highly watchable today.

But, we have attempted to narrow down just 10 films from the 1930s that everybody should watch at least once. Every single film on this list is brilliant! 

The Top 10 Best Movies of the 1930s, Ranked

10. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Genre: Film Noir / Crime / Drama

Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy

Starting off strong, we’ve got 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni. A gripping film that still resonates today, this pre-code crime drama follows a man (Muni) wrongly convicted of a crime who is imprisoned and forced to endure inhumane conditions as one prisoner on a chain gang. 

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Muni), and Best Sound Recording. Unfortunately, the film didn’t end up taking home any Oscars. 

While Muni has possibly his career-best performance here (he’s heartbreakingly captivating to watch), he lost the Oscar to Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII). Regardless of the Oscars it didn’t win, this movie is definitely one of the very best movies from the 1930s — and therefore is surely worth a watch. 

9. The Grand Illusion (1937)

Genre: War / Drama

Starring: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim

Directed by: Jean Renoir

At #9, we’ve got the outstanding French film The Grand Illusion. The Grand Illusion follows a group of French POWs who stick together and try to escape from a German prison camp during World War I. But it’s also so much more than that. 

Often considered one of the best movies made about war — it’s also a part of the Criterion Collection (spine #1)! — The Grand Illusion takes a detailed look at war and the illusion that many common people and soldiers may have about it. The film is filled with layers that touch upon the meaning of war, the rise of fascism during this time (it was made on the eve of World War II), class, the decline of the aristocratic class, and prejudices (particularly against Jewish people). 

The Grand Illusion is a marvelous film that is often touted as a favorite by many iconic directors, such as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Martin Scorsese. When watched today, this 1937 film is still as intriguing and groundbreaking as it was back in the 1930s. 

As it’s a French film — and we know how the Academy Awards tends to treat foreign films — The Grand Illusion was only nominated for one Oscar (Best Picture). It lost to You Can’t Take It With You (also a wonderful film from the 1930s). 

There is a reason why The Grand Illusion is such a celebrated film, even today. As it’s one of the best movies from the 1930s, it’s also a must-watch for anyone who hasn’t seen it before! 

8. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Genre: War / Drama

Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy

Directed by: Lewis Milestone

All Quiet on the Western Front is also one of the best movies from the 1930s, without a doubt. This pacifist film follows young German soldiers who attempt to come to terms with the horrors of World War I. Based on the excellent novel by Erich Maria Remarque, this war drama remains one of the best movies ever made. 

All Quiet on the Western Front and The Grand Illusion are definitely two of the best anti-war or pacifist movies ever made, and they both were highly acclaimed when they were released. While those in the U.S. adored All Quiet on the Western Front, the film was banned or severely cut in various countries (the most notable being Nazi Germany). 

All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. It won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director! 

7. It Happened One Night (1934)

Genre: Romance / Comedy

Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns

Directed by: Frank Capra

It Happened One Night is so much fun and is definitely one of the best romantic comedies of all time — not just one of the best movies of the 1930s! In our minds, Frank Capra can do no wrong when he’s behind the camera, and this picture proves it. 

It Happened One Night follows a man of the people reporter (Gable) as he follows a runaway heiress (Colbert) across the country. She’s trying to escape her father and be with the man she loves (a man her father doesn’t approve of). He’s trying to get the scoop on what she’s up to. 

When they both find themselves stranded, they lean on each other for support, even though they are complete opposites and really don’t get along at all. But then, of course, they start to see each other a bit differently… and fall in love in the process. And it’s thrilling to watch! 

There are many reasons to love this film, which is definitely one of the best movies from the 1930s. However, we’re going to shed extra light on the amazing chemistry between leads Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. They’re riveting to watch together! 

It Happened One Night was a certified hit when it was released, resulting in five Oscar nominations — and the film ended up winning all the Oscars it was nominated for! The film took home the Oscar for: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Clark Gable), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Claudette Colbert), Best Director, and Best Writing! 

Plus, It Happened One Night is also a part of the Criterion Collection (spine #736)! 

Related — The Top 10 Best Clark Gable Movies of All Time

6. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold

Directed by: Frank Capra

Ever feel like you’re going to scream because of our current political problems? Go ahead and turn on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — it’ll both comfort and destroy you. As a result, the film is still relevant today and is often cited as one of the best movies from the 1930s. 

James Stewart plays a naive youth leader who fills a Senate vacancy and heads off to Washington with idealistic goals. However, Washington (including both other senators and the press) begins to get him down, and his character is attacked. 

When he tries to put through some notable ideas, his fellow hometown politicians work against him because of their own greed — and his Washington heroes begin to show their true colors. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of the best movies ever made and is still so heartbreaking to watch today. Upon its release, this film was nominated for 11 Oscars, including one for Best Picture. However, it only won one — for Best Writing. 

Related — The Top 10 Best Jean Arthur Movies of All Time

5. M (1931)

Genre: Mystery / Thriller / Crime

Starring: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Now, let’s discuss M, which happens to be the darkest movie on this list. Peter Lorre (in his breakout role) plays a child murderer in this tense thriller. The film follows a neighborhood as they struggle to catch the murderer, with many people from various walks of life trying to find the serial killer.

M is a notable film, and one of the best movies of the 1930s, for various reasons. For one, it’s an early procedural type of movie, the first of its kind. As we now live in a world where some of the most popular television shows are procedural crime dramas, it’s interesting to see where this type of mystery genre first started. 

M also happens to be one of the great murder mystery stories of all time. It’s riveting to watch, even decades after it was made. A lot of that is because the great Fritz Lang directed this film, but Peter Lorre is absolutely phenomenal as the serial killer everyone is looking for. 

The film also is a part of the Criterion Collection (spine #30)! 

Related — Peter Lorre: 5 Essential 1930s Movies

4. City Lights (1931)

Genre: Romance / Comedy / Drama

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers

Directed by: Charles Chaplin

A list of the best movies from the 1930s wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the greatest movies ever made: City Lights. Regardless of where you stand in the Charlie Chaplin vs Buster Keaton debate, I think we all can agree that City Lights is a fantastic film. 

This silent film follows Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp character as he falls in love with a blind flower girl (Cherrill). With some help, he works to make some money to try to help her see again! 

Even though sound films were on the rise when Chaplin made City Lights, he refused to change up the film and stuck with what he knew. This resulted in the film being a box office hit, as the film was adored by both critics and audiences alike. 

City Lights is still revered today for the masterpiece that it is, and many believe this is Chaplin’s greatest film (though opinions can differ, as you’ll see here). City Lights is also a part of the Criterion Collection (spine #680), for those interested! 

3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Genre: Fantasy / Adventure

Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr

Directed by: Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz is definitely one of the best movies from the 1930s. How could it not be? This film is iconic. How many of us grew up watching this film, only to have a newfound respect for it once we became adults? 

The Wizard of Oz tells the timeless tale of Dorothy (Garland) and her little dog Toto on their quest to return to their home in Kansas. When a tornado sweeps them to a new world full of interesting people and creatures, Dorothy and her new friends set off to find the Wizard to see if he can help them grant their wishes. 

The Wizard of Oz remains a feel-good classic, no matter how many times you watch it. When it was first released in 1939, it was a huge hit at the box office, as well as with critics. The film was nominated for five Oscars (including Best Picture), though it only won two: Best Song (for “Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Score. 

Related — The Top 10 Best Judy Garland Movies of All Time

2. Gone with the Wind (1939)

Genre: War / Romance / Drama

Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O’Neil

Directed by: Victor Fleming

As with so many of the other films listed here, a list of the best movies of the 1930s would not be complete without Gone with the Wind. Now, we’re well aware that many people would put this film in the #1 spot. And we almost did. But alas, we felt it would better belong in the #2 position — even though we adore the film. 

Now, there are obvious flaws and issues with Gone with the Wind — issues that weren’t just pointed out recently. These accurate criticisms have existed since the film was released, though they obviously were suppressed enough so that they never hit the mainstream audiences too much. 

These accurate criticisms (about the glorification of pre-Civil War south and slavery, etc) should be noted and understood. And with this understanding, one can still watch Gone with the Wind and love it. 

Gone with the Wind follows Scarlett O’Hara (an iconic and feisty Vivien Leigh) as she falls in love and loses everything amid the Civil War. The film was a huge hit and was nominated for a whopping 15 Oscars. It won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Vivien Leigh), and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hattie McDaniel)! 

Related — The Top 10 Best Vivien Leigh Movies of All Time

1. Modern Times (1936)

Genre: Romance / Comedy / Drama

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford

Directed by: Charles Chaplin

In our opinion, Modern Times is the best movie from the 1930s. It was hard to officially pick a film to take our #1 spot, but we feel confident that Modern Times deserves this spot. 

Modern Times is, much like City Lights, a Chaplin masterpiece. In this black romantic comedy, Chaplin plays the Little Tramp for one last time. Here, the Tramp is an inept factory worker who falls in love with a young girl (Goddard) and struggles to adapt to modern industrial society. 

Even though this film was made well after talkies became the norm for Hollywood, Chaplin still created and released a silent comedy, forever his ultimate film medium. There are bits of sound and song in this “silent” film though, and this film even contains the first time Chaplin’s voice was heard on film! 

Modern Times remains a pivotal film when it comes to the best movies of the 1930s. It’s also a part of the Criterion Collection (spine #543)! 

What’s Your Favorite Movie From the 1930s?

Comment below your own favorite movies from the 1930s! Do you agree with this list? Would you add or take away some of the films listed here? What’s your ultimate #1 film from the 1930s? Trust us, making this film and NOT including some films (The Thin Man, anything with Cary Grant, etc) was very difficult! 

Anyways, hit the comments below with all your thoughts and opinions! We’d love to hear what you think! 

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