The 1930s is often considered the start of the golden age of filmmaking. During that time, the Motion Picture Production Code was in full force; this was Hollywood’s self-censorship that ensured films conformed to a certain moral standard. Although it has often been criticized, it was an effective tool that ensured films were family-friendly. The fact that some of the best films ever made were created under the Code demonstrates that moral structures are of great benefit to creating great films.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)*
Lewis Milestone – A powerful and difficult presentation of the famous book about the experiences of a young German on the front lines of WWI . [Warning: military violence.]
Public Enemy (1931)*
William Wellman (starring James Cagney) – A young hoodlum rises up through the ranks of the Chicago underworld, even as a gangster’s accidental death threatens to spark a bloody mob war. [Warning: gang violence]
Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers – Perhaps the Marx Brothers’ greatest film, Groucho takes over the role of President of a small country with the help of Chico and Harpo, and chaos quickly ensues.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Frank Capra (starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) – One of the greatest romantic comedies, it sets the standard for all “rom-com’s” that come after it. A spoiled heiress, running away from her family, is helped by a man who is actually a reporter in need of a story. A real delight.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Harold Young – the first film version of the famous vigilante who rescues aristocrats from the blade of the guillotine.
The Thin Man (1934)*
Van Dyke (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy) Based loosely on the characters created by Dashiell Hammett, Nick and Nora Charles, a former detective and his rich, playful wife, investigate a murder case mostly for the fun of it. This was the start of a full series of Thin Man films, almost all of which are great fun.
The 39 Steps (1935)*
Alfred Hitchcock – One of Hitchcock’s best films, a man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.
The Grand Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir (in French with English subtitles) – My personal favorite film by the great film director who was also the son of the renown French painter. Set during the first World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German P.O.W. camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from. (Note: In French, German, and English with subtitles as necessary)
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Gregory La Cava (starring William Powell and Carole Lombard) – Another delightful romantic comedy in the vein of the famous “screwball comedies” of the 1930’s. A scatterbrained socialite hires a vagrant as a family butler…but there’s more to Godfrey than meets the eye.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Howard Hawks – (starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) While trying to secure a $1 million donation for his museum, a befuddled paleontologist is pursued by a flighty and often irritating heiress and her pet leopard “Baby.” Another fun screwball comedy.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock – a lesser known Hitchcock great, while traveling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train.
John Ford (starring John Wayne) – One of John Ford’s greatest films, it set the standard for the classic western. A group of people traveling on a stagecoach find their journey complicated by the threat of Geronimo and learn something about each other in the process. (Note: one of the characters plays a ‘lady of the night,’ but nothing ever happens at night… she is just riding the stagecoach and it is suggested what her real profession is…)
Wuthering Heights (1939)*
William Wyler – A servant in the house of Wuthering Heights tells a traveler the unfortunate tale of lovers Cathy and Heathcliff. This is the classic screen version of the novel.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Sam Wood – A heart-warming tale set in England, an aged teacher and former headmaster of a boarding school recalls his career and his personal life over the decades. If your children have studied Latin, it will be particularly entertaining.
* Contains more mature material, such as adult situations or violence.