Saturday, April 4, 2015

The 14 Best Period Dramas of the 1930s

One of the absolute best decades in Hollywood cinema was the 1930s. An incredibly diverse range of genres, bevies of glamorous stars, and experimentation with sound and color photography made this a particularly rich era. The studio system ensured that lavish costume productions could be funded with the proceeds of B movies, cheap westerns and crime films, and popular serials. As regular readers of this blog know, I love period dramas; here are the best of the 1930s, all of them set before the twentieth century.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) 
One of the greatest swashbucklers of all time and the best adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, this film stars Errol Flynn as the gallant outlaw, Olivia de Havilland as his noble lover Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone as a vengeful Norman aristocrat, and Claude Rains as the scheming Prince John. The gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito is stunning and vibrant and the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is one of the best ever composed for a Hollywood movie. This film captures all the pageantry, suspense, and romance of the legend.

Anna Karenina (1935) 
Though Tolstoy's novel has been adapted well over a dozen times, my personal favorite is this version, starring Greta Garbo, who gives one of her finest performances as the doomed adulteress, opposite Fredric March as the dashing, reckless Count Vronsky. The film cuts more than half of the plot, reducing Levin, one of the main protagonists of the novel, to a mere bit part, but in doing so renders the story far more cinematic. Lushly romantic with an astringently bitter edge, Anna Karenina is a masterpiece of Hollywood melodrama.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
Norma Shearer stars as the invalid poetess Elizabeth Barrett opposite Fredric March as the impetuous poet Robert Browning and Charles Laughton as the Barrett patriarch, who refuses to let any of his large brood of children marry for reasons that remain ominously obscured. Though this film unfortunately is in rather desperate need of a restoration - there are significant imperfections both visually and aurally - it's a beautiful film that tells one of the most gratifyingly romantic stories of history. The costumes by Adrian are particularly sumptuous.

Camille (1936)
In this impressive adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, also the source material for Verdi's ever-popular opera La Traviata, Greta Garbo - one of the greatest actresses to ever appear on screen - gives perhaps her best performance as the tubercular courtesan who sacrifices everything for her lover. A very young Robert Taylor plays her lover Armand Duval with impetuosity and passion and Lionel Barrymore, at his curmudgeonly best, is his scrupulous father. The final scene of Camille is devastating and remains so after repeated viewings.  

Captain Blood (1935)
Another strong contender for the best swashbuckler of all time, Captain Blood stars Errol Flynn as an English doctor, declared guilty of treason after aiding a wounded rebel and sentenced to transportation and slavery. Once in the colonies, Blood is bought by the beautiful, proud Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), but he escapes to turn pirate on the high seas. Also worthy of mention is Basil Rathbone, playing a treacherous French pirate, with whom Flynn fights one of the most impressive fencing battles in film history, one that equals the famous fencing scene in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Gone with the Wind (1939)
Though long considered a strong contender for the best film of all time, Gone with the Wind is definitely starting to show its age; its idyllic portrayal of the Old South and downright sunny depiction of slavery and the relationships between slaves and their masters become less acceptable every year. That being said, it's a film that cannot help stirring up strong emotions, from the burning of Atlanta and the devastating scenes of a desecrated Tara, and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara is extraordinary in the thorny role of a woman with few scruples. A flawed, but nevertheless great film.

Little Women (1933)
Katharine Hepburn, in an iconic performance, plays Jo March, Louisa May Alcott's rebellious teenage heroine with literary ambitions, heading a marvelous cast that includes Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, Paul Lukas, and Frances Dee. Edna May Oliver as Aunt March is a particular treat. Max Steiner's nostalgic score, which integrated songs from the Civil War era, evokes the sentimentality and the sweetness of Alcott's novel. The films wears its heart on its sleeve, but it takes a very aggressive cynicism to resist its considerable charms. 

Marie Antoinette (1938) 
One of the biggest successes of its time, this film stars Norma Shearer as the famously capricious queen, Robert Morley - a criminally underrated actor - as King Louis XVI, Tyrone Power as a disillusioned but infinitely romantic Swedish count, and John Barrymore as King Louis XV. The film is a surprisingly accurate and un-romanticized depiction of history, though no expense was spared for the sumptuous costumes, sets, furniture, and props, designed by Adrian. 

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Clark Gable (without his moustache, which is rather distressing), Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone head the cast in this, the best version of the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty. In 1787, the HMS Bounty sets sail captained by the brutally severe Captain Bligh (Laughton), but his ruthlessness costs him the loyalty of his crew and, led by Fletcher Christian (Gable), the men stage a mutiny and escape to Tahiti. An unflinchingly suspenseful drama that successfully interrogates the complexities of loyalty, patriotism, liberty, and human rights.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Directed by the legendary British producer-director Alexander Korda, Charles Laughton gives another brilliant performance as Henry VIII, while his wives are portrayed by Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie, Elsa Lanchester (Laughton's wife in real life and a wonderfully witty actress), Binnie Barnes, and Everley Gregg, and Robert Donat has a role as a handsome young man either too foolhardy or stupid enough to pursue his monarch's wife. Hugely entertaining (in multiple senses), Laughton easily routs all the competition, giving what is surely the definitive performance of Henry VIII.

Queen Christina (1933)
Rouben Mamoulian's highly fictionalized biography of the seventeenth century queen was tailor-made for its star Greta Garbo, whose androgynous beauty, sexual intensity, and effortless glamor were perfect for playing a cross-dressing monarch. The film's weak spot is John Gilbert, Garbo's frequent costar and lover; he proves unable to project any character into his voice and it's clear why he wasn't able to make the transition to talking pictures. Otherwise, this transgressive romantic and political drama is a wonderfully fine film.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) 
Womanish fop Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard, who utterly outdoes himself) drives his stunningly gorgeous French wife Marguerite (Merle Oberon) half out of her mind with his idiotic antics, while she frantically follows the events of the French Revolution and places her hopes for her loved ones in the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing hero who risks his life to save French aristocrats. This film, now in the public domain, would benefit from a restoration, particularly of the sound elements. 

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
Ronald Colman, once one of the biggest Hollywood stars and now, sadly, remembered only by classic film buffs, gives a knockout performance in the role of Sydney Carton, a seedy, debauched London lawyer infatuated with the virtuous and happily married Lucie (Elizabeth Allan) while the Terror rages in France, in this moving adaptation of the beloved Dickens novel. The final scene is a definitive response to accusations that understated acting is a "modern" development.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
This film really adapts only the first half of Emily Bronte's novel and this decision, as in the case of Anna Karenina, gives the material a decidedly more cinematic structure. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon star as Heathcliff and Cathy, childhood playmates whose semi-incestuous and cross-class relationship, not to mention their distinctly prickly personalities, doom them to misery. Olivier's performance as Heathcliff is definitive and unparalleled, while few films can match this one for Gothic atmosphere.


  1. I was reading and kept thinking, Oh no, where is "Wuthering Heights"? And then, there it was, last but not least. Thank you for not disappointing me! But then again, what about "Gunga Din"? I was also thinking perhaps you might have included "Lost Horizon" (another great performance by Ronald Coleman), but it isn't a period drama. Anyway, nice choices!

    1. I couldn't leave out "Wuthering Heights"! I can't say I cared much for "Gunga Din" - I like its energy, but the story left me pretty cold. The colonists-as-heroes thing made me uncomfortable. I do like Colman's performance in "Lost Horizon," but I found the movie overall super dated and not in a good way.