From The Wizard of Oz to Top Hat – why the 1930s is my favourite film decade

Depression-era audiences escaped into a whirl of glamour, fantasy and monsters in a decade that ushered in Hollywood’s golden age

The 1930s were the making of Hollywood. When the decade began, films were monochrome, still sometimes silent (the majority had sound only from 1929), and largely uncensored. By the end, some were in glorious Technicolor, most had sound, and all were obliged to conform to a strict code of wholesomeness: a transformation embodied on screen in The Wizard of Oz.

1939, GONE WITH THE WINDFILM POSTER Film ‘GONE WITH THE WIND’ (1939) 01 May 1939 CTF17975 Allstar/Cinetext/MGM **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only
Damn … the poster for Gone With the Wind, 1939. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/MGM

When assessing those years, the word “iconic” is liable to be overused. There were iconic war films (All Quiet on the Western Front), comedies (Modern Times, Duck Soup), westerns (Stagecoach), romances (It Happened One Night), political dramas (Mr Smith Goes to Washington), monster movies (King Kong), animations (Snow White), adventure films (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Tarzan the Ape-Man), epics (Gone With the Wind), fantasies (The Wizard of Oz), and films that stand alone (Freaks). Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their finest musical, the wickedly funny Top Hat. Garbo talked in Anna Christie, laughed in Ninotchka, and kissed another woman in Queen Christina. In Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich dressed as a gorilla, then stripped down to an incredibly racist costume to a sing an incredibly racist song to Cary Grant. Shirley Temple made tooth-achingly sweet movies whose tremendous appeal in their time is, to modern viewers, obscure. Horror films set the mould. Our enduring images of Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula arguably owe more to their 1930s screen portrayals by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi than to their creators, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Women who kiss … Greta Garbo in Queen Christina.

It was all too much for American conservatives, whose outrage led to the Hays Code being enforced from mid-1934. The guidelines decreed that movies would no longer be allowed to show any sympathy with crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. Under its many provisions, there would be no nudity, no “sex perversion” (homosexuality or cross-dressing), no miscegenation, no drugs, no booze unless it was essential to the plot, no profanity, no “indecent” dancing, no “white slavery”, and no scenes of childbirth, even if in silhouette. The code remained in place, raining on everyone’s parades, until 1968.

THE 39 STEPS [BR 1939] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock MADELEINE CARROLL, ROBERT DONAT
Hitchcock steps up … The 39 Steps. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Pre-code films reveal a 1930s full of people drinking, swearing and having sex, just like all the other decades in history. One of the movies that prompted the implementation of the code was Baby Face (1933), a scandalous “sex film” in which former child prostitute Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) falls under the influence of a Nietzschean cobbler (“Use men to get the things you want!”). She escapes to New York with her African American collaborator, Chico (Theresa Harris). At one point, Lily seduces a married man in a lavatory; at another, a pre-stardom John Wayne. As the men get richer, Lily and Chico’s furs get plusher. Lily is a remarkably strong female lead, and Chico, though poorly served by the screenplay, is at least shown to have her friendship and respect. What upset the supposed guardians of morality was not just sex and violence – though there was plenty of both – but women and people of colour not knowing their place, and LGBTQ people wanting a place at all.

1933, DUCK SOUP: MARX BROTHERSLOUIS CALHERN, HARPO MARX & CHICO MARX Film ‘DUCK SOUP: MARX BROTHERS’ (1933) Directed By LEO MCCAREY 01 May 1933 AFC8162 Allstar/PARAMOUNT **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of PARAMOUNT and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company & can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To PARAMOUNT is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company. Entertainment Orientation Landscape
Madcap comedy … the Marx brothers’ Duck Soup. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Film-makers pushed against the rules. In Bringing Up Baby, made under the code in 1938, Cary Grant marches around in Katharine Hepburn’s marabou-trimmed dressing gown, bellowing: “I just went gay all of a sudden!” The censors let it through because they did not understand what was then relatively cryptic slang, though Grant and Hepburn surely did. The most famous line in Gone With the Wind was altered from “My dear, I don’t give a damn” in the book, to Clark Gable’s oddly emphasised “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” on screen, to distract censors from the profanity. Even so, producer David O Selznick had to fight for it. Thanks to him, the code was altered to allow the words “hell” and “damn” to be spoken, though only if they were in a historical context or a quotation from a literary work.

Cryptic … Cary Grant wears the dressing gown in Bringing Up Baby

To appreciate the 1930s in world cinema would require a much longer piece. Outside the US, this was the decade of Fritz Lang’s M, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and the birth of Bombay talkies. Yet the 1930s will forever signal the beginning of Hollywood’s golden age: dragging audiences out of the Depression and into a whirl of glamour and fantasy before the next big war could hit.


Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
From Nosferatu to The General – why the 1920s is my favourite film decade
Chaplin and Keaton made millions laugh, but silent cinema’s greatest classics were the fruit of wild European fancy … and then Hollywood invented the talkies

Pamela Hutchinson

04, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
From Boyhood to Get Out – why the 2010s is my favourite film decade
The last seven years has given us career bests from visionary veterans and a horde of hungry up-and-comers ready to drag Hollywood into modernity. The death of cinema? We’ve never had it so good

Cath Clarke

29, Mar, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
From Blow-Up to Bonnie and Clyde – why the 1960s is my favourite film decade
Rebellion against ‘le cinema du papa’ was the rallying cry of new waves worldwide in this golden era of studio-funded oddness

Steve Rose

30, Mar, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
From The Naked City to Double Indemnity – why the 1940s is my favourite film decade
War changed everything, destroying whole film industries and heralding a new era of realism, grit and shoots on location

John Patterson

28, Mar, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
From Don't Look Now to The Godfather – why the 1970s is my favourite film decade
While Jaws and Star Wars spawned the blockbuster, groundbreaking film-makers pushed cinema to the limits with edgy drama and sparkling comedy

Ryan Gilbey

03, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
From Hidden to In the Mood for Love: why the 2000s are my favourite film decade | Peter Bradshaw
Featuring Coen brothers masterpieces and an astonishing run by Michael Haneke, this was the decade in which film rediscovered its history – and explored its future – thanks to digital technology

Peter Bradshaw

26, Mar, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Wizard of Oz is most influential Hollywood film
Judy Garland’s 1939 musical tops academic study’s list of films of cultural significance, with Star Wars in second and Psycho in third

Andrew Pulver

20, Jan, 2015 @8:45 AM

Article image
Asta Nielsen, the silent film star who taught Garbo everything
The Danish actor was a cinema pioneer and wildly popular all over the world. She is largely forgotten – discover her in a BFI season dedicated to her extraordinary talent

Pamela Hutchinson

27, Jan, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
From Godzilla to Some Like it Hot – why the 1950s is my favourite film decade
The decade that invented teenagers and giant radioactive lizards also gave birth to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the wry satires of Billy Wilder and saw Hitchcock at his finest

Wendy Ide

05, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
From Top Gun to Stand By Me – why the 1980s is my favourite film decade
It was the best of times for action, romance, teen and time-travel movies. It was also surprisingly liberal and diverse. But most of all it was fun

Hadley Freeman

27, Mar, 2018 @5:00 AM