Who Were the Movie Stars of the 1930s?

By Christina Hamlett
Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara won an award for her role as the wife of Clark Gable's Rhett Butler in 1939's

Money, security and optimism were in short supply in the 1930s, but that didn't stop American audiences from loyally flocking to movie theaters to watch their favorite stars. Not only did this vicarious form of escapism help lift their spirits, but those glamorous women and dashing men that lit up the silver screen also had a fair share of influence on the country's culture, makeup, fashion, politics, morals and the frequently comedic battle of the sexes.

Leading Ladies

Films of the 1930s were often written with specific stars in mind and, accordingly, it was common to see these stars playing roles with which their fans were comfortably familiar. Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Myrna Loy, for example, often appeared in screwball comedies featuring snappy banter with their male counterparts. Greta Garbo, Merle Oberson and Marlene Dietrich were sought for their exotic mystique. If a drama called for a strong female lead, directors eagerly tapped Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Maureen O’Sullivan, Joan Bennett, Norma Shearer and Mary Astor. But Olivia de Havilland’s classic, delicate beauty made her a natural for period films. The most competitive audition of the 1930s, however, was to fill the role of Scarlett O'Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” Many an American actress was disappointed by the casting of British newcomer Vivian Leigh.

Leading Men

Pirates, cops and robbers, cowboys, suave playboys and intrepid newspapermen dominated 1930s movies. Audiences wanted to see action heroes they could cheer for, comedians they could laugh at, bon vivants they could envy and hard-scrabble lads whose daily grit could give them hope. Among this list you'll find the well-known Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Also on the list, there is Wallace Beery, Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, David Niven and Fred Astaire. Add to that James Cagney, John and Lionel Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, The Marx Brothers, Basil Rathbone, Leslie Howard and Gary Cooper.

Character Actors

The movies would be sorely lacking without sidekicks, confidantes, confederates and loyal servants. The flip side of glamorous leading ladies and leading men on the silver screen includes the bevy of character actors who had no shortage of work during the 1930s and beyond as supporting players. Their ranks include Marie Dressler, Joe E. Brown, Edward Everett Horton, Donald Crisp, Andy Devine, Spring Byington, Nigel Bruce, Billie Burke, Claude Rains, William Frawley, Alan Hale and Marjorie Main. And this list cannot leave out Margaret Hamilton -- Dorothy’s wicked witch nemesis from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Child Stars

W.C. Fields cautioned his fellow actors against working with children or dogs. But that didn’t stop 1930s directors from casting pint-size players to evoke instant audience sympathy. While some child actors such as Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Jane Withers continued to act throughout their childhood into their adult years, others enjoyed a much shorter spin in the spotlight. Actors and Actresses in this list include Deanna Durbin, George Spanky McFarland, Bobby Wheezer Hutchins, Anne Gillis, Freddie Bartholomew, Jimmie Hambone Robinson, Cora Sue Collins and Marilyn Knowlden. As for the era’s most famous child star -- Shirley Temple -- her calling following retirement at age 22 was the corporate sector, philanthropy and evenutally global politics.

About the Author

Ghostwriter and film consultant Christina Hamlett has written professionally since 1970. Her credits include many books, plays, optioned features, articles and interviews. Publishers include HarperCollins, Michael Wiese Productions, "PLAYS," "Writer's Digest" and "The Writer." She holds a B.A. in communications (emphasis on audience analysis and message design) from California State University, Sacramento. She also travels extensively and is a gourmet chef.