In large measure, the 1930's were the golden age for leading ladies. The pre-code era allowed for not only women of strength, courage & independence to appear on the screen, but also behind the scenes as writers & directors. Anita Loos & Frances Marion* churned out award winning & profitable movies as writers, while Dorothy Arzner was credited with directing 10 features, Stars like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn & Vivian Leigh were at their zenith in the 30's as well as the 10 I've selected here and many more. The star system as designed by the major studios was in full force making movies about women, without always pandering in making "women's pictures." The 10 I have chosen are my favorite leading ladies, but I could have easily have chosen Joan Blondell or Anne Dvorak to name but a few more. Even the enforcement of the code in 1934 did little to dim the brightness of these stars, although it did throw a wet blanket over the party of early 30's Hollywood.
The 10 selected here won 4 of the Best Actress Oscars during the decade & were nominated for an additional 14 Best Actress awards. 2 of the 10 had their lives cut short (Harlow in '37 & Lombard in '42) and for all intents & purposes 2 more were pretty much finished acting by 1940 (Garbo & Shearer). Of the 6 remaining, each went on to careers of varying length & notoriety, but all 10 had their zenith in arguably the greatest decade of American Studio filmaking!
While not awarded or nominated for the most awards, Miss Barbara Stanwyck stands atop my list because of her fearlessness & versatility. 3 of her 4 Oscar nominations came in the next decade, but the sheer breadth & depth of her 1930's output makes her my favorite. She kicked off the decade with a bang in 1931 with a trio of knock out performances in Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance & Night Nurse, but in each year (save 1938) thereafter had at least 1 fantastic film, if not a classic. The Bitter Tears of General Yen, with it's overtones of miscegenation, & the overt sexuality of Baby Face punctuated 1933. The raucous and romanticized Annie Oakley & the melodramatic Stella Dallas also serve as prime examples of her versatility. Finally, her work with renowned directors Frank Capra & William Wellman punctuate her strength as an actress, helping both men to shape their filmography in the early years of their careers.
Miriam Hopkins makes this list on the strength of her 3 films with Earnst Lubitsh (Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise & Design for Living), as well as Dr. Jekyl & Mr Hyde & The Story of Temple Drake. Those 5 films stand up with any group, from any actor of any period! The Lubistch films, with all the wit, charm & sexual inuendo go a long way towards securing her place here, but it is in fact the other 2 that are my favorites. While Hopkins appears in Dr. Jekyl for a few minutes, her Ivy is the catalyst that sets Jekyl down his evil path. The beguiling sexuality that she flaunts towards the doctor set in motion his and her ultimate destruction. Sitting on the bed in the flimsiest of lingerie, Ivy tempts and teases Jekyl to the point of madness. In Temple Drake, Hopkins' namesake teases and tempts local boys, but when she runs into a hardcore gangster she meets a fate on par with Ivy's. Both movies offer Hopkins' characters as cautionary tales of unbridled sexuality unchecked leading to tragic ends. Hopkins playing both women with an open, but knowing sexuality, draws in the men around her, sure, but also incites the viewer to appreciate the vulnerability of the characters, understanding the root of their behavior.
Carole Lombard's place on this list is primarily driven by her part in creating & developing the quintessential 1930's sub-genre, Screwball Comedy. With Twentieth Century in 1934, which is largely credited with starting the sub genre, Lombard put on screen the template for many a goofy, ditzy & sexy performance that was echoed throughout the decade. Further building on her reputation as a brilliant comedienne were My Man Godfrey, in her only Oscar nominated performance, & Nothing Sacred.
Norma Shearer & Greta Garbo are linked in my mind because of their status as the brightest stars in the MGM constellation. Both women vied for supremacy of the MGM lot throughout the '30's, with Garbo the etherial and unattainable goddess & .Shearer the independent "every woman." Garbo was the natural, while Shearer constantly worked to achieve the air of casual sophistication. Garbo's allure was established during the silent era, so much so that MGM delayed her talking debut (Anna Christie) until it's sound recordings were sufficient to capture her visual magic aurally. In films like Mata Hari, Grand Hotel & Queen Christina Garbo expanded the aura of mystery and un-attainability even as she submitted to the mysteries of love. Her gift was in seeming to be better than the earthly position she had been placed in. The hamstrung queen only looking for love in its simplest form & the world weary dancer in Grand Hotel Shearer's success was assumed by many to have been secured the moment she married MGM production chief Irving Thalberg in 1927. She was, however a hard working actress, who constantly strove to improve her craft. Her string of early pre-code films, including The Divorcee, A Free Soul & Let Us Be Gay, among others, expanded the definition of a modern woman. Later in the decade, when she moved towards more prestige pictures, under the direction of Thalberg, she deepened the nuances in her performances in films like The Barretts of Wimpole Street & Marie Antoinette. Finally, she closed the decade with perhaps her most famous role as the angelic Mary in George Culor's The Women.
Harlow’s story is easy to tell. She was always smarter than the roles she played and her overt sexuality only hinted at the depth of her personality. In films like Red Headed Woman & Red Dust she oozed raw sexuality as she used her body and her wits to secure a future for herself. In Dinner at Eight her future is already secure in the marriage to wealthy, yet uncouth Dan Packard (Wallace Beery). Her life was filled with tragedy, however, from the suicide of her husband Paul Bern to her early death from a cerbral edema in 1937 at the age of 26.
Claudette Colbert was another actress to benefit from the “Lubitsch Touch,” but she also showed her range in several films by Demille and in her best, It Happened One Night. Her sophisticated charm lent itself to playing queens or a society heiress, as she did in her most famous performances, but it was the knowing gleam in her eye that allowed her to move from comedy to drama. Demille cast her as royalty in 2 of his sword & sandal epics, Cleopatra & The Sign of the Cross in devilishly sensual roles. Her milk bath in The Sign of the Cross is legendary, but her Cleopatra is by far my favorite performance in that role. in 1934, in fact she played 2 iconic roles in addition to Cleopatra, winning the Academy Award for It Happened One Night and as the lead in the melodramatic Imitation of Life. Finally, her work with Lubitsch wonderfully bracketed the decade for her with The Smiling Lieutenant in 1931 & Bluebeard's Eighth Wife in 1938, playing the other woman in '31 & the fiance in '38.
Myrna Loy might have made this list for the 3 Thin Man movies made during the '30's, but those only represent a part of 1930's repertoire. As the perfect wife/benefactress Nora Charles in The Thin Man & it's sequels, Loy just drips elegance and class, with just a dollop of mischievousness. The witty banter has often been copied, but never equaled as that between Nick & Nora! Loy's better films in the decade also include 2 with Harlow, Libeled Lady & Wife vs Secretary. What also warrants mentioning with Loy is her partnership on screen with William Powell**. Of the more than a dozen films they made together, 8 were made in the thirties and all are enjoyable, if not classics. Animal Kingdom showed her not too nice side, so it's also worth noting.
**A quick aside on William Powell and how he impacted this list, both on screen & off. In addition to his on screen pairings with Loy, Powell was married to Carole Lombard, as well as engaged to Jean Harlow when she died.
*Marion won 2 Oscars for screenwriting (Big House & The Champ)