Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Five Biggest Stars of the 1930s

In earlier posts, we listed our picks for the five biggest stars of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The stars of the 1930s faced a decade of transition as the movie industry moved from silent films to almost exclusively talkies. The big change didn't matter for a handful of stars (e.g., Greta Garbo), but for others it may have contributed to their decline. As always, new stars emerged and they dominate our list below. As with our other Biggest Stars posts, our criteria focused on boxoffice power, critical acclaim, and enduring popularity.

1. Greta Garbo - In 1930, at the age of 25, Garbo was already a huge boxoffice attraction. Her first talking film Anna Christie was the highest grossing film of 1930. Her popular and critical successes continued throughout the decade with Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939). She earned four Oscar nominations during the decade, but never won. At the height of her popularity, she was earning $300,000 per film.

2. Clark Gable - Starting in 1932, the International Motion Picture Almanac ranked the top ten stars at the boxoffice annually. Clark Gable made the Top 10 every year of the 1930s and was the runner-up to Shirley Temple for the top spot three times. He also received his only Oscar nominations for It Happened One Night (which he won as Best Actor), Mutiny on the Bounty, and Gone With the Wind. Yes, Mr. Gable had a very good decade.

3. Bette Davis - She arrived in Hollywood in 1930 and had appeared in over 20 films before garnering critical acclaim for Of Human Bondage (1934). Who forget how she spewed out her classic line to Leslie Howard: "And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!"  Her performance earned Bette Davis her first Academy Award nomination. By the time the decade ended, she has won Oscars for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). She also appeared in popular films such as The Petrified Forest (1936), Dark Victory (1939), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

4. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers - They made their debut as a team in supporting roles in 1932's Flying Down to Rio. By the end of the decade, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the most famous dancing duo in the history of film. Nine of their ten collaborations were made in the 1930s, including Top HatSwing Time, and Shall We Dance. Their popularity was so great that Astaire earned a percentage of the profits on some of their movies--a rare practice in Hollywood at the time. Alas, Rogers made considerably less than her co-star, but she also branched out to serious roles and earned an Oscar in 1940 for Kitty Foyle.

5. Shirley Temple - In retrospect, it's hard to appreciate Shirley Temple's immense popularity in the 1930s. But she was the biggest draw in the U.S. for four years in a row (1935-38) and ranked in the Top 10 for another two years (1934 and 1939). But the movie-going public can be fickle and, following the commercial failure of The Blue Bird in 1940, Shirley Temple's career was never the same. She had peaked at age 12!

Honorable Mentions: Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer, Paul Muni, Myrna Loy, and Errol Flynn.


  1. Great List for what is a near impossible task. James Cagney as an honorable mention as well?

  2. spencer tracy & Edward g. robinson should also be honorable mention.

    1. Two more great additions! And one could William Powell as well.

  3. Cagney, Tracy, and Powell are terrific honorable mentions. Do you intend to feature the best "couples" or "teams"? Tracy (and Hepburn) and Powell (and Myrna Loy) would no doubt make the top 5 then.

  4. The 1930s had some mega stars, and you did an excellent job of narrowing the names down to this list. Like other commenters have said, that is a near-impossible task!

  5. I can't argue with your selections, but you absolutely, positively can not leave out Joan Crawford. She was the "working girl's" idle of America in the 1930s. And then there was Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich.