All articles and pages may contain affiliate links. You can read our disclosure policy here. Edward G Robinson

DISCLAIMER: All film criticism is extremely subjective and there is no such thing as the definitive list of the Greatest (English-language) Films. Great Films can't be measured scientifically because greatness is extremely subjective. Just because we like a film doesn't mean that you will like it as well. Please feel free to leave us a comment with the films that you think are the greatest which we have not included on our list.

Welcome to the second installment of our “Greatest Films of” series. This week we look at the Greatest Films of 1931.

Not only was 1931 a big year for movies but it was also a big year for actors making their film debuts and the birth of future actors and directors.

 

Making Their Film Debuts:

Bruce Cabot – Heroes of the Flames, Bette Davis – Bad Sister, Lotte Lenya – The Threepenny Opera, Otto Preminger director, producer – The Great Love

 

Among Those Born In 1933:

Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Mamie Van Doren, Rip Torn, James Dean, Claire Bloom, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, John Gavin, Carroll Baker, Olympia Dukakis, Leslie Caron, Tab Hunter, Ian Holm, Anne Bancroft, Larry Hagman, Anita Ekberg, Angie Dickinson, Mike Nichols, Rita Moreno

 

Top-grossing Films

Rank Title Studio Worldwide Gross
1. Frankenstein Universal Pictures $12,000,000
2. City Lights United Artists $5,019,181
3. Mata Hari MGM $2,227,000
4. Susan Lenox MGM $1,506,000
5. A Free Soul MGM $1,422,000
6. Cimarron RKO $1,383,000
7. Dracula Universal Pictures n/a
8. Private Lives MGM n/a
9. No Limit Paramount Pictures n/a
10. The Public Enemy Warner Bros. n/a

 

Academy Awards

Best Picture: Cimarron – RKO
Best Actor: Lionel BarrymoreA Free Soul
Best Actor: Wallace Beery – The Champ
Best Actor: Fredric MarchDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Best Actress: Marie Dressler – Min and Bill
Best Actress: Helen HayesThe Sin of Madelon Claudet

Note: Prior to 1933, awards were not based on calendar years. And there were two awards given in 1932 for ‘Best Actor’. That’s how there are 3 ‘Best Actor’, 2 ‘Best Actress’ awards for 1931 films.

 

The Greatest Films of 1931

 

***POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT FOR ALL ***

Poster for the movie "Little Caesar"

© 1931 First National Pictures − All right reserved.

Little Caesar

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell

One of the most well-known and best of the early classical gangster films is Warner Bros.’ and director Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. It is often called the grandfather of the modern crime film, with its quintessential portrayal of an underworld character that rebelliously challenged traditional values. Cesare Enrico Bandello/”Little Caesar”, a small-time, street-tough hood and merciless killer, rises to power at the top of the mob, followed by a quick downfall.

Little Caesar reflects the technically primitive nature of early film-making, with a straight-forward, blunt narrative, yet its hard-hitting gritty realism gripped audiences. Unlike many other gangster films, the film does not feature graphic bloodshed, depict violence on-screen, or sensationalize street language, but its tone is somber and tough. Its low-budget sets and cheap, sleazy atmosphere add to the film’s impact.

It was nominated for an Academy award for Best Writing, Adaptation for Francis Edward Faragoh, and Robert N. Lee

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

Poster for the movie "Arrowsmith"

© − All right reserved.

Arrowsmith

Director: John Ford

Stars: Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, Richard Bennett

An intelligent and faithful film adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel. A small-town, idealistic, young, and dedicated research doctor, Dr. Martin Arrowsmith (Ronald Colman) tries to remain true to his medical ethics – to help humankind rather than have personal wealth. He leaves his practice to conduct research to help stop bubonic plague in the West Indies with a new serum. He suffers personal tribulations when his wife Leora (Helen Hayes) dies. Tempted by commercial interests and quick, big money offers, he nearly strays from his calling, but remains true to his idealism, although tempted by a vampish rich girl’s love, Joyce Lanyon (Myrna Loy).

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

Poster for the movie "Bad Girl"

© 1931 Fox Film Corporation − All right reserved.

Bad Girl

Director: Frank Borzage

Stars: James Dunn, Sally Eilers, Minna Gombell

Borzage’s last film for Fox Studios, and based on Viña Delmar’s 1928 autobiographical bestseller – a tale of flapper promiscuity. A simple, slightly dated love story – a touching melodrama of the hardships and disillusionment of a young, lower-income New York couple, Eddie Collins (James Dunn) and shop girl Dorothy or “Dot” (Sally Eilers), who must impulsively marry when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant after a pre-wedlock night together in his apartment. Eddie sacrifices his career dream of owning a radio shop to provide for his family – by entering a boxing match for the prize money.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Champ"

© 1931 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) − All right reserved.

The Champ

Director: King Vidor

Stars: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich

A sports-related film and great, sentimental tearjerker, the story of a down-and-out ex-heavyweight boxing Andy ‘Champ’ Purcell (Wallace Beery) and his adoring son Dink (Jackie Cooper). Training in Tijuana for an eventual comeback, the washed-up boxer is also a drinker and a gambler. He is threatened with separation from his boy when the boy’s mother Linda (Irene Rich) who had abandoned them, now married to a wealthy husband, returns to regain custody of her son, to raise him in a more favorable environment. In the climactic boxing bout, the Champ wins a tough match against a Mexican fighter, but dies with his son by his side in the locker room.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "City Lights"

© 1931 Charles Chaplin Productions − All right reserved.

City Lights

Director: Charles Chaplin

Stars: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee

Charlie Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, the last of his totally-silent films. The film’s theme concerns the consequences (and suffering) resulting from the Tramp’s attachment and efforts to aid a blind girl (and restore her sight with money for an operation) and a millionaire, as he persuades both of them that life is worth living. Both characters cannot “see” him or recognize him for what he is. However, the Tramp functions as a savior and wish-fulfiller for the blind flower girl while masquerading as a wealthy duke. For the drunk millionaire, the Tramp repeatedly saves the man’s life and provides a congenial friend.

It was well known that Chaplin preferred the silent art form to the advent of sound films. Chaplin was responsible for the film’s production, direction, editing, music, and screenplay (although assisted by Harry Crocker, Henry Bergman, and Albert Austin). The episodic film includes a complete musical soundtrack and various sound effects – but no speech or dialogue. Incredibly, Chaplin’s film was not nominated for a single Academy Award – to the pro-talking film Academy members, it must have appeared to be reversing the trend toward talkies and advanced sound films.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

© 1931 Paramount Pictures − All right reserved.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Stars: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. The heavily-censored film features themes of sexual abuse, man’s dual nature, and repression. The Pre-Code story of a fatally curious doctor, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Best Actor-winning Fredric March) who adventures into the unknown, has more sex and violence than later versions. He self-tested a serum formula that releases the uninhibited, subconscious evil in his soul, and develops a monstrous and tortured split personality as Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll has some sexy scenes with Cockney slut “Champagne Ivy” Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) – and as the hideous, simian-like Mr. Hyde, he exhibits sordid, vicious, sexually-decadent, and sadistic behavior and eventually murders her. In the finale, he is hunted and killed by London police, who gasp when they see him revert to Dr. Jekyll in death.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "Dracula"

© 1931 Universal Pictures − All right reserved.

Dracula

Director: Tod Browning

Stars: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners

A film that defined the genre of horror pictures. The plot line is taken from Abraham (“Bram”) Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. A creepy, weird, and frightening film with tremendous atmosphere and dialogue. Bela Lugosi plays the Transylvanian vampire, with a lilting Hungarian accent. Count Dracula moves from Europe to London to find his true love and satisfy his craving for human blood. He lures and victimizes innocent English women, leading them to his underground vaults.

Lugosi established himself as the definitive screen vampire.

This successful, atmospheric 1931 adaptation, although somewhat flawed by its slow dialogue and static, stage-bound nature, helped to launch a long series of horror-pictures for the studio. (Universal’s follow-up picture was the equally successful gothic Frankenstein (1931).) Its eerie lighting, gliding camera trackings, and moody and shadowy atmosphere were largely the work of cinematographer Karl Freund.

Although it’s hard to believe today, segments of the film were censored in overseas viewings: a gigantic bug’s emergence from a coffin, the appearance of Dracula’s three zombie-like wives in his castle, Renfield’s begging scene to allow him to eat spiders and flies, and the reading of a newspaper account of vampire bride Lucy’s victimization of children.

Because of Universal’s success with this classic Dracula film, the next year, Browning went on to direct the truly bizarre, classic horror film Freaks (1932) for MGM – a controversial and grotesque film that has achieved cult status, and was banned for almost thirty years in Britain.

Watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "Frankenstein"

© 1931 Universal Pictures − All right reserved.

Frankenstein

Director: James Whale

Stars: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, Boris Karloff

The classic and definitive monster/horror film of all time, director James Whale’s Frankenstein is the screen version of Mary Shelley’s Gothic 1818 nightmarish novel of the same name.

Karloff’s rendition of the pathetic, innocent figure is superb. An obsessed Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) creates the hideous monster Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) out of body pieces, including a criminal brain. When the mad doctor’s creation accidentally drowns a little girl, the angry townspeople attack the scorned and lonely creature.

The film, with Victorian undertones, was produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal Pictures, the same year that Dracula (1931), was produced within the same studio – both films helped to save the beleaguered studio.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Front Page"

© 1931 The Caddo Company − All right reserved.

The Front Page

Director: Lewis Milestone

Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Mary Brian

The first film version of the original Broadway Hecht-MacArthur play, a fast-paced comedy with swift, sharp dialogue set in 1920s Chicago, in which fast-talking, ruthless editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) battled with his ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and with City Hall. Hildy wants to leave big-city life and get married, but is convinced to stay for one last story – about an escaped prisoner, a cop-killing radical (about to be executed) claims he is innocent. The last line (“son-of-a-bitch”) was censored – covered over by the sound of a typewriter.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

Poster for the movie "The Public Enemy"

© 1931 Warner Bros. − All right reserved.

The Public Enemy

Director: William A. Wellman

Stars: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods

A powerfully stunning, Pre-Code gangster film about 1920s hoodlums, the film that launched James Cagney as a typecast star. It is one of the earliest and best of the gangster films from Warner Bros. in the thirties. The film’s screenplay (by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon), which received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, was based upon their novel Beer and Blood.

The film is memorably known for the infamous scene of his nagging mistress Kitty (Mae Clarke) having a grapefruit smashed in her face. He also cavorts with other molls, including Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow).

Director William Wellman’s pre-code, box-office smash, shot in less than a month at a cost of approximately $151,000, was released at approximately the same time as another classical gangster film – Little Caesar that starred Edward G. Robinson as a petty thief whose criminal ambitions led to his inevitable downfall. The Public Enemy was even tougher, more violent, and realistic (released before the censorship codes were strictly enforced), although most of the violence is again off-screen.

Unfortunately, the film appeared to glamorize criminal activities such as bootlegging (although that was not its intent), and emphasized their high style of life with various floozies. Hence, the film hastened efforts of Hollywood’s self-imposed Production Code in the early thirties to strictly censor films (with criminal and sexual subject matter) that depicted undesirable social figures or sexual subjects in a sympathetic or realistic manner.

The film wasn’t even given a Best Picture nomination, nor was Cagney rewarded with a nomination for his dynamic and kinetic performance. Jean Harlow‘s small role as a sexy call-girl was her only screen appearance with Cagney and her only lead role with Warners.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie ""

© − All right reserved.

The Sin of Madelon Claudet

Director: Edgar Selwyn

Stars: Helen Hayes, Lewis Stone, Neil Hamilton

A sentimental tale of motherly sacrifice, a tear-jerking melodrama scripted by the title star’s husband Charles MacArthur. It tells about French rural girl Madelon Claudet (Oscar winning Helen Hayes in her first sound film) who had an illegitimate son after being seduced by American artist Larry Maynard (Neil Hamilton). He soon abandons the family and marries someone else. Her next affair with Carlo Boretti (Lewis Stone) ends with him being arrested for a jewel robbery. Charged as Carlo’s accomplice (and sentenced to 10 years), she is forced to give up her son, loses her social standing, and become a haggard streetwalker who also performs robberies. She secretly devotes her entire life to her son Lawrence Claudet (Robert Young), even financially supporting him in medical school.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

Poster for the movie "The Smiling Lieutenant "

© − All right reserved.

The Smiling Lieutenant

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Stars: Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins

This early, pre-Code Ernst Lubitsch musical set in Vienna tells about a love triangle and changing sexual mores. The main three characters in the Best Picture-nominated light musical are: Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier), a charming officer in the Viennese Royal Guard, Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a cute beer garden violinist and conductor of an all-female orchestra, and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), the sexually-repressed princess of Flausenthurm.

In the comedy, Niki leaves his mistress Franzi for the visiting Austrian Princess, and by the film’s final scene, the Lieutenant is forced to marry the Princess. However, Niki refuses to romance her, while he continues to have a ‘stepping out’ affair with Franzi, until Anna discovers their indiscretions. The sexually-liberated Franzi is called to the palace where she gives the Princess a lesson on sexiness by wearing modern lingerie and fashions. She also advises her on her unconsummated marriage. Because of Franzi’s romantic self-sacrifice at the film’s end, the randy Lieutenant sing suggestively toward the film audience before he closes his bedroom door – he saves his marriage and renews his love-making interest in the Princess.

Learn more and watch the trailer here.

 

Did your favorite 1931 film make our list?

 

Save

Save

Save

Greatest Films from:

1930 | 1931 | 1932 | 1933 | 1934 | 1935 | 1936 | 1937 | 1938 | 1939

1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | 1946 |1947 | 1948 | 1949

1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 | 1956 | 1957 | 1958 |1959

1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964 | 1965 | 1966 | 1967 | 1968 |1969