Greatest Films of 1934

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.

 

1934 was a big year for Claudette Colbert movies and it was also a big year for film debuts and the birth of future actors and directors.

Making Their Film Debuts: Gene Autry – In Old Santa Fe; Alice Faye – George White’s Scandals; Greer Garson – Inasmuch…; Alec Guinness – Evensong; Rita Hayworth – Cruz Diablo; Bob Hope – Going Spanish; Margaret Lockwood – Lorna Doone; Rosalind Russell – Evelyn Prentice; Jimmy Stewart – Art Trouble; Robert Taylor – Handy Andy

 

Among those born in 1934: Bill Bixby, Tina Louise, Alan Arkin, Shirley Jones, Shirley MacLaine, Pat Boone, Jamie Farr, Kenny Baker, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Russ Tamblyn

 

Among those who died in 1934:

Lilyan Tashman, Lew Cody, Dorothy Dell, Harry A. Pollard, and Marie Dressler

 

Top-grossing Films of 1934:

Rank Title Studio Actors
1. Viva Villa! MGM Wallace Beery
2. Cleopatra Paramount Claudette Colbert
3. The Barretts of Wimpole Street MGM Norma Shearer
4. It Happened One Night Columbia Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
5. The Thin Man MGM William Powell and Myrna Loy
6. The Richest Girl in the World RKO Miriam Hopkins
7. The Gay Divorcee RKO Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
8. Imitation of Life Universal Claudette Colbert
9. The Girl from Missouri MGM Jean Harlow
10. The House of Rothschild United Artists George Arliss and Loretta Young

 

Academy Awards

Best Picture: It Happened One Night – Columbia Pictures
Best Actor: Clark Gable – It Happened One Night
Best Actress: Claudette Colbert – It Happened One Night
Best Director: Frank Capra – It Happened One Night

 

The Greatest Films of 1934

 

Poster for the movie "The Barretts of Wimpole Street"

© 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) − All right reserved.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Director: Sidney Franklin

A prestige piece of work adapted from a stage play, beautifully produced by MGM. An historical, emotional, heart-felt tale of Victorian literary poets Robert Browning (Fredric March) and Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) who fell in love with each other in 19th century England. Her jealous and over-protective father Edward (Charles Laughton) vigilantly watched over the couple. With her newly-found vitality and happiness, the invalid, bed-ridden poet broke away from her domineering father’s dictatorial stranglehold.

 

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Black Cat"

© 1934 Universal Pictures − All right reserved.

The Black Cat

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

A classic, enigmatically disturbing horror film from Universal Studios in the 1930s. With spooky, moody cinematography and bizarre Expressionistic sets. It became Universal’s top-grossing film of the year. The visually intriguing, austere, landmark horror film masterpiece – a tale of European post-war anguish and death, was expressionistically directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Its theme of the horrors of war would be echoed in his later films. Considered by some to be the first American psychological horror film, with dark sexual repression, twisted relationships, and aberrant behavior (devil worship), black mass orgies, necrophilia, pedophilia, sadistic revenge, murder and incest). Its fantastic architectural settings, expressionistic lighting, interesting geometric patterns and designs, and bizarre sets all added a richness to the strange tale. The film teamed two masters of the horror genre together: Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi) who sought revenge against devil-cult worshipping Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff).

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

Cleopatra

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

DeMille’s extravagant production of the spectacular historical epic of the Egyptian Queen of the Nile. It was a modernistic 1930s costume spectacle that reshaped the Cleopatra story. The Paramount Studios film was campy, grandiose, unreal and ludicrous historically – filled with DeMille’s usual mixture of sin and sex. Sexually-suggestive costumes adorned most of the female characters. Seductive, mysterious, and voluptuous Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) flirted openly with Roman lovers. After the death of Julius Caesar (Warren William), she focused her attention on Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). This kitsch film was well-known for three scenes: the infamous barge scene, an elaborately-staged sea battle (seen in montage), and Cleopatra’s suicidal death scene from the bite of an asp.

 

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Gay Divorcee"

© − All right reserved.

The Gay Divorcee

Director: Mark Sandrich

Notable for the first teaming of Astaire and Rogers in a starring role. In a Brighton seaside hotel, dancer Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) was mistaken by Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) as the writer/correspondent Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) who was part of her lawyer’s fictitious set-up to prove infidelity in her divorce suit. Holden became interested in and infatuated by her, but moped around love-sick after being rejected in this amusing case of mistaken identity. He pursued her nevertheless, romanced and finally won her when she agreed to marry him. Included great music and dancing with Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” Oscar-winning “The Continental” (the first time an Academy Award was given for Best Song), and “A Needle in a Haystack.”

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "Imitation of Life"

© 1934 Universal Pictures − All right reserved.

Imitation of Life

Director: John M. Stahl

The first film adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s melodramatic novel – about two hard-working women and their daughters. A sentimental soap opera about an ambitious widow/working girl Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert), her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson at age 18), her black housekeeper/maid Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers), and her maid’s daughter Peola (Fredi Washington at age 19) whose light complexion enables her to pass for white. Beatrice went into a successful pancake restaurant business with Delilah. The film dealt with disappointments in personal relationships and questions of identity and racial confusion.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

 

It Happened One Night Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette ColbertIt Happened One Night

Director: Frank Capra

A major Academy Award winning blockbuster film, a delightful, sparkling romantic comedy. A spoiled young heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) ran away from her disapproving millionaire father Alexander (Walter Connolly). She disguised herself for her travels to her boyfriend King Westley (Jameson Thomas), taking a cross-country bus trip from Florida to New York. On the bus, she ran into a recently-fired, out-of-work, no-nonsense newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who agreed to help her when she lost all her money. He played along in order to get the exclusive story so he could get his job back. By film’s end, they fell in love, almost against their wills. The film included a number of memorable scenes together, including the “Walls of Jericho” sequence and their competitive hitch-hiking scene.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

It’s A Gift

Director: Norman McLeod

A classic comedy from W. C. Fields, one of his best. A small-town grocery clerk, long-suffering Harold Bissonette (W. C. Fields) was beset by harassment from his children, his nagging wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard), and customers. He packed his family and belongings into their car for a trip out West to California to his “orange grove.” Included classic slapstick scenes and routines, including the ruination of his store by a blind detective, and the back porch swing scene when he attempted to take a nap.

 

Poster for the movie "Judge Priest"

© − All right reserved.

Judge Priest

Director: John Ford

Popular humorist Will Rogers starred as long-time, small-town, justice-dispensing Judge William Priest, based upon the stories of Irvin S. Cobb. This sentimental story (criticized for some racist stereotypical characters) was later remade by director John Ford as The Sun Shines Bright (1953). The widowed judge, a Confederate veteran, used common-sense, plain-speaking and lack of pretense in his small-town legal dealings – in the post-bellum South (1890s Kentucky). Meanwhile, he also was a matchmaker for his nephew Jerome or “Rome” (Tom Brown), newly-educated as a lawyer, to romance next-door neighbor schoolteacher Ellie May Gillespie (Anita Louise), an unwed mother. Priest’s high-society sister-in-law Caroline (Brenda Fowler) objected to the matchup, because she had an unknown lowly heritage (her poor mother died in childbirth and her father was unknown). Later, it was discovered that the town’s blacksmith Bob Gillis (David Landau) was Ellie’s missing father who had changed his name. Although charged for assault during a one-sided trial, Gillis was actually found to be defending his daughter’s honor, and he was a Civil War Confederate hero who had secretly supported his daughter for years.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

Poster for the movie "The Lost Patrol"

© 1934 RKO Radio Pictures − All right reserved.

The Lost Patrol

Director: John Ford

With an Oscar-winning score for oft-nominated Max Steiner. It provided the template for many future films about men during wartime surrounded by the enemy and awaiting death. During World War I in the year 1917, a small band of British cavalrymen were lost, cut off, and under siege in the hot Mesopotamian desert by Arab fanatics. They were doomed and suffering, struggling to survive against harsh odds in the water-less desert. One by one, the Arab enemy (hardly ever seen) mercilessly killed off the British soldiers with sniper fire until only their leader, the resolute Sergeant (Victor McLaglen), was left as the sole survivor.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

 

Poster for the movie "Manhattan Melodrama"

© − All right reserved.

Manhattan Melodrama

Director: W.S. Van Dyke II

Two New York City boyhood friends, Blackie Gallagher (Mickey Rooney as boy, Clark Gable as adult) and Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler as boy, William Powell as adult) were raised as orphans together, and grew up to choose opposite sides of the law – Gallagher became a slick gangster and racketeer, and Wade a noble and aggressive District Attorney. They both fell in love with the same charming woman Eleanor (Myrna Loy) who was caught between opposing forces. Their paths crossed later in a murder trial. Notable for the first film teaming Powell and Loy (who later would become famous with The Thin Man series) and for being the film that bank robber John Dillinger watched (for its similarity to his own life), prior to being killed outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre by the FBI in 1934.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Merry Widow"

© 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) − All right reserved.

The Merry Widow

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

A lavish, unique, stylistic musical, a remake of the 1925 silent film. It was director Lubitsch’s parody version of Franz Lehar’s operetta, set during the time of the downfall of the Hapsburg Empire. Womanizing Prince Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) from the small Ruritanian country of Marshovia, was forced by King Achmed (George Barbier) to go to Paris to romance, marry, and bring back home one of the country’s rich widows, Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), to keep the wealth in the kingdom and prevent economic collapse. After a few plot twists and mistaken identities, all ended happily.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

 

Poster for the movie "Of Human Bondage"

© 1934 RKO Radio Pictures − All right reserved.

Of Human Bondage

Director: John Cromwell

The first and best film version of Somerset Maugham’s tragic, classic literary novel. The story of the emotional “human bondage” of a sensitive, but lame (club-footed) young Englishman medical student Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) who became compulsively infatuated and victimized by a blonde vulgar, trampy, selfish waitress/barmaid Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis).

This marked the earliest critically-acclaimed role of Bette Davis, a turning point in her career, but Davis failed to win the Best Actress Academy Award in 1934.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

 

Poster for the movie "One Night of Love"

© − All right reserved.

One Night of Love

Director: Victor Schertzinger

An American girl on a trip to Italy, aspiring soprano opera singer Mary Barrett (Grace Moore, an actual opera star of the 1930s) hoped to achieve stardom in Europe. She fell in love with her demanding singing teacher Giulio Monteverdi (Tullio Carminati), and then almost gave up her career for Bill Houston (Lyle Talbot). But she triumphed at the New York Metropolitan Opera House. With a delightful musical score (which won Best Musical Score, the first time this Academy Award Oscar was given).

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

 

The Scarlet EmpressThe Scarlet Empress

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg’s startling, dark, visually opulent, hauntingly expressionistic, and mostly fictional biopic of German-born Princess Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich). The young, naive, tremulous bride-to-be was brought on a seven-week journey to Russia for an arranged marriage to Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), son of Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser). Sophia’s domineering, mother-in-law, who renamed her Catherine, hoped to improve the royal blood line, but she was repulsed by her bumbling, idiotic, and childlike husband-to-be, and instead became romantically involved with opportunistic womanizer Count Alexei (John Lodge). Eventually, she engineered a coup d’etat with the aid of the military, killed Peter III, and became Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia. This semi-erotic tale of 18th century Russia was one of the most daring films of the Hays Production Code era, featuring, among other things, immorality, nudity and open sexual decadence. The film also featured extravagant sets and von Sternberg’s trademark stylization, as well as great performances. For a six-year period, Dietrich was Svengali von Sternberg’s favorite leading lady – this was their sixth film together (and last great collaboration).

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

© 1934 London Film Productions − All right reserved.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Director: Harold Young

One of the greatest adventure swashbucklers ever made. Sir Percy Blakeney (Leslie Howard) posed as a mild-mannered English aristocrat, but in reality, this was a disguise for his activities as The Scarlet Pimpernel. He was a dashing, mysterious hero who rescued innocent but condemned French noblemen who faced the guillotine, during France’s 18th century Reign of Terror. The Pimpernel’s trademark was to leave behind a small red flower – a pimpernel. Blakeney lost the respect of his wife Lady Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who falls in love with the romantic, charming hero. However, in league with the devious Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), she set a trap for the Pimpernel in return for the lives of her arrested friends, and was astounded to learn that the Pimpernel was her own husband.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

Tarzan and His Mate

Directors: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway

The second MGM/Weismuller Tarzan film, and probably the best of the series, the sequel to Tarzan the Ape Man. Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) had left civilization and joined Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) in the jungle treetops. Her ex-fiancee Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) had returned to Africa with greedy ivory hunter/poacher Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) to search for the hidden elephant burial grounds and to bring Jane back. Tarzan was tricked into leading them to the burial grounds. With great action sequences and a climactic rescue. A sexy adult version, with Jane swimming nude and wearing revealing animal-skin outfits.

 

 

 

Poster for the movie "The Thin Man"

© 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) − All right reserved.

The Thin Man

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Based on the Dashiell Hammett detective story. The first (and considered the best) in the entertaining series of six films, the debut of the charismatic, beloved team of Powell/Loy as the suave, sophisticated, happy, and fun-loving detective couple. Retired police detective Nick (William Powell) and wealthy wife Nora Charles (Myrna Loy), with the help of their dog Asta, were asked to investigate the disappearance/murder of Dorothy Wynant’s (Maureen O’Sullivan) missing father, screwball inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis). With witty dialogue, clever bantering between the two, wisecracks, sophisticated humor, romance, and an intriguing plot.

Learn more and watch trailer here.

 

 

Viva Villa!Viva Villa!

Director: Jack Conway, Howard Hawks (uncredited)

The action-packed, loosely-historical account of Mexico’s legendary bandit/hero. Pancho Villa (Wallace Beery) began as a bandit leader in the Mexican hills who stole from the rich and assisted the poor. He later battled with the Federales in the revolutionary struggle for the Mexican Republic. After his victory, he reverted to banditry, but then returned again in triumph to declare himself President of the country, after which he soon retired to his ranch. With additional characters including an aristocratic woman Teresa (Fay Wray) who fell in love with him, and an American journalist Johnny Sykes (Stuart Erwin) who helped to create the Villa legend. Probably with Wallace Beery’s best screen performance ever.

 

 

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