Top Movie Actresses of the 1930’s

1930’s Hollywood introduced us to many of the greatest actresses of all time. There was a wealth of female film talent during this decade and they have all earned the right to be remembered as a permanent part of Hollywood history.

The following actresses, in no particular order, represent just a sampling of the talent that women brought to the silver screen during the 1930’s. For film fans of any generation, you would be doing yourself a huge favor by viewing as many of their pictures as possible. Take the time to view not only the 1930’s film suggestions for these great actresses, but those film’s made throughout their career’s.

Jean Harlow – Considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the greatest movie stars of all time. Harlow’s first major role was in Howard Hughes’ 1930 World War I epic Hell’s Angels. Her early films capitalized on her charismatic sex appeal and “laughing vamp” image.

In her early films, Harlow was severely criticized by the critics as having little acting talent, but none would deny her immense screen presence and appeal. The audiences loved her.

In 1932 Hughes would sell the rights to the beauty with the “platinum blonde” hair to MGM Studio’s for $30,000. It was at MGM where she learned to develop her acting skill, was cast in more substantial roles, and became a major star.

Sadly, Jean Harlow’s star would shine for far too short a time as she died from apparent kidney failure in Los Angeles at the age of 26. She is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the gown she wore in the film Libeled Lady. Her co-star in the picture, William Powell, was the love of her life who in her hands placed a farewell note that read, “Goodnight, my dearest darling.”

Jean Harlow quotes:

“No one ever expects a great lay to pay all the bills.”

“Underwear makes me uncomfortable and besides my parts have to breathe.”

Greta Garbo – This Swedish born actress is an absolute icon of film with her popularity traversing both the silent era and classical period. The American Film Institute has declared Greta Garbo as one of the greatest female stars in history. She was one of the few silent screen actresses to successfully make the transition to talking pictures. Her first speaking role was in 1930’s Anna Christie for which she received her first of four Academy Award nominations.

1931’s Mata Hari, and 1932’s Grand Hotel would create a phenomenon known as “Garbomania.” Her immense popularity was, in part, due to her personal desire to lead a very private life. A desire that would only increase the public’s interest in the great actress. Greta Garbo’s somber and melancholic image would dampen the stars popularity for a period during the mid-1930’s, but this would soon disappear with her 1939 comeback comedy Ninotchka.

While romantically linked to a number of men and women, Garbo never married, had no children and lived most of her life alone. Greta Garbo died in 1990, at the age of 84, in a New York hospital of pneumonia and renal failure. 

Greta Garbo quotes:

“I never said ‘I want to be alone,’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone.’ This is all the difference.”

“There are many things in your heart you can never tell to another person. They are you, your private joys and sorrows, and you can never tell them. You cheapen yourself, the inside of yourself, when you tell them.”

“Life would be so wonderful if we only knew what to do with it.”

Carole Lombard – Also found on the American Film Institutes list of the greatest stars of all time. She is most frequently remembered for her comedic talent having starred in numerous screwball comedies during the 1930’s.

By the end of the decade, Lombard was the highest-paid star in Hollywood earning nearly $500,000 per year. Tragically, Lombard would also die at far too young an age. A plane crash claimed her life at the age of 33.

English author, playwright, and literary critic Graham Greene described Carole Lombard as the, “Platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, she wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century  and My Man Godfrey.”

Carole Lombard was loved off-screen every bit as much as on-screen due to her warm personality and earthy sense of humor. At the time of her death, Lombard was married to Clark Gable, living a happy life with the two stars raising chickens and horses on their California ranch.

Carole Lombard quotes:

“I can’t imagine a duller fate than being the best dressed woman in reality. When I want to do something I don’t pause to contemplate whether I’m exquisitely gowned. I want to live, not pose!”

“Bill Powell is the only intelligent actor I’ve ever met.”

Marlene Dietrich – This German born screen legend also is listed on the American Film Institutes’ greatest actress list and landed her breakthrough role as cabaret singer Lola-Lola in 1930’s The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg.

Her success in The Blue Angel was a springboard to Hollywood. Dietrich moved to the United States and was signed to a film contract by Paramount Studios. Her first American film was Morocco, also directed by von Sternberg, and the film earned Dietrich her first Oscar nomination. In all, she would star in six films under the direction of von Sternberg and would become one of motion pictures first femme fatales.

Her outspoken political views were anti-Nazi, and when approached by party representatives, and asked to return to Germany, she immediately turned them down. Marlene Dietrich would become an American citizen in 1939 and actively supported the war efforts against Nazism.

Sadly, during the latter portion of her life, no longer active is show business, she had become an alcoholic with an additional dependency on pain killers. She would die at the age of 90 in Paris, France.

Marlene Dietrich quotes:

“It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.”

“Once a woman has forgiven her man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.”

“I do not think we have a “right” to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.”

Claudette Colbert – A French born actress who would establish her movie career with Paramount Pictures in 1928 and become one of the highest paid entertainers in film. Colbert was extremely versatile and was featured in roles that included dramatic performances in 1930’s Manslaughter, and musical roles such as 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant.

It was 1934 that proved to be the breakthrough year for Claudette Colbert with a string of successful films that included Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and the screwball comedy It Happened One Night starring opposite Clark Gable. It was in this film that she taught the popular leading man a thing or two about the art of hitchhiking.

Colbert would win the Best Actress Award for her role in It Happened One Night and received two more Best Actress nominations, both for dramatic roles, in 1935’s Private Worlds, and 1944’s Since You Went Away.

Claudette Colbert went on to have one of the most successful acting careers of her generation and never compromised on what she felt would be best for her career. In 1989, Colbert received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement. The latter part of her life was spent in her Manhattan apartment and her summer home in Barbados. Claudette Colbert passed away at the age of 92 after a series of strokes.

Claudette Colbert quotes:

“I know what’s best for me, after all I have been in the Claudette Colbert business longer than anybody.”

“It matters more what’s in a woman’s face than what’s on it.”

“Audiences always sound like they’re glad to see me, and I’m damn glad to see them.”

Myrna Loy – 1934 was a banner year for this Montana born actress. Starting with a few small roles in silent films and some typecasting as a vamp, Myrna Loy’s popularity and film prospects would explode after being paired with the very popular William Powell in The Thin Man. The onscreen chemistry between the two would lead to 5 more Thin Man films and a total of 14 films together.

Loy enjoyed a string of successful films in the 1930’s that had her paired with some the screens biggest stars. She appeared with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Libeled Lady (1936) with Powell, Harlow, and Spencer Tracy, The Great Ziegfeld (1936) again with Powell, and three more films with Clark Gable.

Myrna Loy had become one of Hollywood’s most popular and highest-paid actresses and was listed on the “Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars.” However, there was a great deal more to Myrna Loy that extended far beyond her screen stardom.

After the outbreak of World War II, Loy put her Hollywood career on hold in order to focus on the war effort and worked closely with the Red Cross. Myrna Loy was married and divorced four times with no children of her own.

Her humanitarian efforts continued after her career with Loy serving as Co-Chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. Myrna Loy died during surgery in 1993 at the age of 88 and was laid to rest in her home state of Montana.

Myrna Loy quotes:

“I think that by carrying on a life that is meant to be private in public is a breach of taste, common sense, and mental hygiene.”

“Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming.”

“Most of the sex I’ve seen on the screen looks like an expression of hostility towards sex.”

Barbara Stanwyck – This exceedingly gifted American actress has won a room full of honors, but is, in my opinion, unquestionably the greatest actress to never win an Academy Award.

Barbara Stanwyck made 85 motion pictures during her 38 years in Hollywood before turning to television and continuing a career that would span 60 years. This distinquished career began in 1923, just before Barbara’s 16th birthday, when she became a Ziegfeld Girl.

Some of her most familiar films include Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity (where she would define the role of the femme fatale), Christmas In Connecticut, and Sorry, Wrong Number.

Critic Pauline Kael describing Stanwyck’s acting, “she seems to have an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera.” Famed director Frank Capra had this to say about Barbara, “she was destined to be beloved by all directors, actors, crews, and extras. In a Hollywood popularity contest she would win first prize hands down.”

Barbara Stanwyck’s was married twice, most notably to actor Robert Taylor. Her later years were spent working with charitable organizations until her 1990 death, in Santa Monica, California. She had chosen to be cremated with her ashes scattered in Lone Pine, California.

Barbara Stanwyck Quotes:

“Egotism – usually just a case of mistaken nonentity.”

“Career is too pompous a word. It was a job, and I have always felt privileged to be paid for what I love doing.”

Bette Davis – An American film actress renowned for her willingness to play characters that were unsympathetic and, in many cases, just plain evil. Her talent was such that she was perfectly suitable for any film genre, be it melodramatic, romantic, historical, and even comedic.

After a period on Broadway she moved to Hollywood in 1930 and worked initially for Universal Pictures. But, it wasn’t until 1932 when she signed with Warner Brothers that her legendary career began to take off. Bette Davis would appear in over 100 motion pictures.

She was the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, a club that offered food, dancing, and entertainment to servicemen. Bette Davis was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

She would receive ten Academy Award nominations winning two Oscar’s. Just a few of her most illustrious films include her Oscar winning roles in Dangerous, and Jezebel. Also, Dark Victory, The Letter, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, and All About Eve.

Davis was married four times and the later years of her life were troubled by ill health. She would die from a recurrence of breast cancer on October 6, 1989, at the age of 81, at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside of Paris. She was interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

It is my opinion that Bette Davis was the greatest actress of all time

Bette Davis Quotes:

“Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.”

“I would advise any woman against having an affair with a married man believing he will ever leave his wife, no matter how often he says his wife does not understand him. Love is not as necessary to a man’s happiness as it is to a woman’s. If her marriage is satisfactory, a woman will seldom stray. A man can be totally contented and still be out howling at the moon.”

“Old age is not for sissies.”

Joan Crawford – This American actress started out as a traveling theatrical dancer before appearing on Broadway and finally landing in Hollywood. MGM signed Crawford to a film contract in 1925 and by the end of the decade she was referred to as one of the original “flappers.”

During the 1930’s, Joan Crawford’s popularity matched that of screen legends Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. During this decade she was one of Hollywood’s most prominent movie stars and one of the highest-paid women in the United States.

Crawford’s popularity started to wane in the later part of the 1930’s, so much so that she was once labeled as “box office poison.” To say that this potentially career ending declaration was premature is an understatement. Joan would return to the top of the Hollywood list of female stars in the 1940’s after signing with Warner Brothers. She would go on to win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Mildred Pierce.

Joan Crawford married four times with three of the marriages ending in divorce and one in the death of her husband. Crawford would retire from the screen in 1970, withdrawing from public life and becoming more and more reclusive until her death as a result of a heart attack in her New York apartment in 1977.

Joan Crawford Quotes:

“I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

“I think the most important thing a woman can have – next to talent, of course, is her hairdresser.”

“Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your hearth or burn down your house, you can never tell.”

“You have to be self-reliant and strong to survive in this town. Otherwise you will be destroyed.”

That is quite an impressive list of 1930’s actresses, but it is just the tip of the female talent laden iceberg that was 1930’s Hollywood.

There were many more including, Loretta Young, Fay Wray, Thelma Todd, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mae West, Joan Bennett, Mary Astor, Eleanor Powell, and the list could go on and on.

Without a doubt the 1930’s produced as talented a group of actresses ever to grace Hollywood’s silver screen.


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