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August 2, 2022

Top Hollywood’s Actresses of the 1930s

As a distraction from the stock market crash and the rise of the Great Depression, Americans began turning their attention to movies and television. The 1930s were part of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when actors were movie stars and films were genre-based masterpieces.


This era contains some of the best actresses of all time, many of whom are Academy Award winners, as well as classic film stars. Below is a list of 25 Hollywood’s leading ladies of the 1930s:

1. Clara Bow


Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965) was an American actress who rose to stardom during the silent film era of the 1920s and successfully made the transition to “talkies” in 1929. Her appearance as a plucky shopgirl in the film It brought her global fame and the nickname “The It Girl.” Bow came to personify the Roaring Twenties and is described as its leading sex symbol.

Clara Bow appeared in 46 silent films and 11 talkies. She was named first box-office draw in 1928 and 1929 and second box-office draw in 1927 and 1930. Her presence in a motion picture was said to have ensured investors, by odds of almost two-to-one, a “safe return.” At the apex of her stardom, she received more than 45,000 fan letters in a single month (January 1929). Two years after marrying actor Rex Bell in 1931, Bow retired from acting and became a rancher in Nevada. Her final film, Hoop-La, was released in 1933.


2. Jean Arthur


Jean Arthur (October 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991) was an American Broadway and film actress whose career began in silent films in the early 1920s and lasted until the early 1950s. Arthur had feature roles in three Frank Capra films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) with Gary Cooper, You Can’t Take It With You (1938) co-starring James Stewart, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), also starring Stewart. These three films all championed the “everyday heroine,” personified by Arthur.

James Harvey wrote in his history of the romantic comedy: “No one was more closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it, that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without her.” She has been called “the quintessential comedic leading lady.”


3. Irene Dunne


Irene Dunne (December 20, 1898 – September 4, 1990) was an American actress who appeared in films during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She is best known for her comedic roles, though she performed in films of other genres.

Affectionately nicknamed “The Iron Maiden,” lovely Irene Dunne hoped to have a career in opera, but her singing skills ultimately led instead to Broadway and movie stardom. On the basis of her early film credits, which were dominated by such dramas as The Age of Innocence (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935) and musicals like Show Boat (1936), Dunne surprised some critics and audience members with her considerable comedic flair on view in such highly regarded pictures as Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937). She also continued to excel in dramatic parts, with her portrayals in Penny Serenade (1941) and I Remember Mama (1948) being of particular note.

In spite of often excellent performances, Dunne never won an Academy Award and that led in later years for her to be called the finest American actress to have never received that honor. Regardless, Dunne was highly respected by her peers and her decision to retire comparatively early was viewed as a way to exit the business on a high note, while she still had some say in the roles being offered. Dunne's talent in the areas of drama, comedy, song and dance made her one of the most multi-facetted performers of the 1930s and 1940s and the consistent quality of that work made her much beloved among fans of classic Hollywood cinema.


4. Katharine Hepburn


Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress of film, stage and television. Hepburn’s career as a Hollywood leading lady spanned over 60 years. She was known for her headstrong independence, spirited personality and outspokenness, cultivating a screen persona that matched this public image, and regularly playing strong-willed, sophisticated women. Her work was in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to literary drama, and earned her various accolades, including four Academy Awards for Best Actress—a record for any performer. In 1999, Hepburn was named the greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema by the American Film Institute.

Raised in Connecticut by wealthy, progressive parents, Hepburn began to act while at Bryn Mawr College. Favorable reviews of her work on Broadway brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Her early years in film brought her international fame, including an Academy Award for Best Actress for her third film, Morning Glory (1933), but this was followed by a series of commercial failures culminating in the critically lauded box office failure Bringing Up Baby (1938). Hepburn masterminded her own comeback, buying out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures and acquiring the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which she sold on the condition that she be the star. That comedy film was a box office success and landed her a third Academy Award nomination. In the 1940s, she was contracted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where her career focused on an alliance with Spencer Tracy. The screen-partnership spanned 26 years, and produced nine films.

Hepburn shunned the Hollywood publicity machine and refused to conform to society's expectations of women, famously wearing trousers before they were fashionable for women. She was briefly married as a young woman but thereafter lived independently. With her unconventional lifestyle and the independent characters she brought to the screen, Hepburn epitomized the “modern woman” in the 20th-century United States, and is remembered as an important cultural figure.


5. Loretta Young


Few actors have enjoyed the professional longevity of the stunning Loretta Young (January 6, 1913 – August 12, 2000) and even fewer in three media—motion pictures, radio theatre, and television. Her remarkable career, begun as a child extra during the Silent Era of motion pictures, extended through the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Young attained star status on film as well as on the radio, even though she had no theater or dramatic school instruction. Young ended her film career to become a pioneer of the Golden Age of Television. She was the first actor to win both an Academy Award and an Emmy. Except for absences for serious illness and the births of her children, she was continuously before the cameras from age 12 through the early 1960s, making more than 250 film performances and appearing on more than 300 television programs.


6. Carole Lombard


Carole Lombard (October 6, 1908 – January 16, 1942) was an American actress, particularly noted for her energetic, often off-beat roles in screwball comedies. At 12, she was recruited by director Allan Dwan and made her screen debut in A Perfect Crime (1921). Eager to become an actress, she signed a contract with the Fox Film Corporation at age 16, but mainly played bit parts and was dropped after a year. Her career came close to ending shortly before her 19th birthday when a shattered windshield from a car accident left a scar on her face, but she overcame this challenge and appeared in fifteen short comedies for Mack Sennett between 1927 and 1929, and then began appearing in feature films such as High Voltage (1929) and The Racketeer (1929). After a successful appearance in The Arizona Kid (1930), she was signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures.

Paramount quickly began casting Lombard as a leading lady, primarily in drama films. Her profile increased when she married William Powell in 1931, but the couple divorced amicably after two years. A turning point in Lombard’s career came when she starred in Howard Hawks’ pioneering screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934). The actress found her niche in this genre, and continued to appear in films such as Hands Across the Table (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Nothing Sacred (1937). At this time, Lombard married "The King of Hollywood", Clark Gable, and the supercouple gained much attention from the media. Keen to win an Oscar, Lombard began to move towards more serious roles at the end of the decade. Unsuccessful in this aim, she returned to comedy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), her final film role.

Today, she is remembered as one of the definitive actresses of the screwball comedy genre and American comedy, and as an icon of American cinema.


7. Greta Garbo


Greta Garbo (18 September 1905 – 15 April 1990) was a Swedish-American actress. Regarded as one of the greatest actresses to ever be on screen, she was known for her melancholic, somber persona, her many film portrayals of tragic characters, and her subtle and understated performances.

Garbo launched her career with a secondary role in the 1924 Swedish film The Saga of Gösta Berling. Her performance caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), who brought her to Hollywood in 1925. She stirred interest with her first American silent film, Torrent (1926). Garbo’s performance in Flesh and the Devil (1927), her third movie, made her an international star. In 1928, Garbo starred in A Woman of Affairs, which catapulted her at MGM to its highest box-office star, usurping the long-reigning Lillian Gish.

With Garbo’s first sound film, Anna Christie (1930), MGM marketers enticed the public with the tagline “Garbo talks!” That same year she starred in Romance and for her performances in both films she received the first of three nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. By 1932 her success allowed her to dictate the terms of her contracts and she became increasingly selective about her roles. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Garbo fifth on its list of the greatest female stars of classic Hollywood cinema.


8. Joan Crawford


Starting as a dancer in traveling theatrical companies before debuting on Broadway, Joan Crawford (March 23, 1904 – May 10, 1977) was signed to a motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1925. Initially frustrated by the size and quality of her parts, Crawford began a campaign of self-publicity and became nationally known as a flapper by the end of the 1920s.

In the 1930s, Crawford’s fame rivaled MGM colleagues Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo. Crawford often played hardworking young women who find romance and financial success. These “rags-to-riches” stories were well received by Depression-era audiences and were popular with women. Crawford became one of Hollywood’s most prominent movie stars and one of the highest paid women in the United States, but her films began losing money and by the end of the 1930s she was labeled “box office poison.”


9. Joan Bennett


Joan Geraldine Bennett (February 27, 1910 – December 7, 1990) came from a show-business family, one of three acting sisters. Beginning her career on the stage, Bennett appeared in more than 70 films from the era of silent movies, well into the sound era.

Bennett’s career had three distinct phases: first as a winsome blonde ingenue, then as a sensuous brunette femme fatale (with looks that movie magazines often compared to those of Hedy Lamarr), and finally as a warmhearted wife-and-mother figure.


10. Edith Shearer


Edith Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902 – June 12, 1983) was a Canadian-American actress who was active on film from 1919 through 1942. Shearer often played spunky, sexually liberated ingénues. She appeared in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O’Neill, and William Shakespeare, and was the first five-time Academy Award acting nominee, winning Best Actress for The Divorcee (1930).

Reviewing Shearer’s work, Mick LaSalle called her “the exemplar of sophisticated 1930s womanhood ... exploring love and sex with an honesty that would be considered frank by modern standards.” He described her as a feminist pioneer, “the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen.”


11. Jean Harlow


Known for her portrayal of “bad girl” characters, Jean Harlow (March 3, 1911 – June 7, 1937) was the leading sex symbol of the early 1930s and one of the defining figures of the pre-Code era of American cinema. Often nicknamed the “Blonde Bombshell” and the “Platinum Blonde,” Harlow was popular for her “Laughing Vamp” screen persona. Harlow was in the film industry for only nine years, but she became one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars, whose image in the public eye has endured.

Harlow was first signed by business magnate Howard Hughes, who directed her first major role in Hell’s Angels (1930). After a series of critically failed films, and Hughes’ lost interest in her career, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought out Harlow’s contract in 1932 and cast her in leading roles in a string of hits built on her comedic talent: Red-Headed Woman (1932), Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reckless (1935) and Suzy (1936). Harlow’s popularity rivaled and then surpassed that of MGM’s top leading ladies Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. She died at the age of 26 of kidney failure while filming Saratoga. MGM completed the film with the use of body doubles and released it less than two months after her death; it became MGM’s most successful film of 1937, as well as the highest-grossing film of her career.


12. Marie Dietrich


Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich (December 27, 1901 – May 6, 1992) was a German-born American actress and singer whose career spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s.

In 1920s Berlin, Dietrich performed on the stage and in silent films. Her performance as Lola-Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international acclaim and a contract with Paramount Pictures. She starred in many Hollywood films, including six iconic roles directed by Sternberg: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus (both 1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Desire (1936) and Destry Rides Again (1939). She successfully traded on her glamorous persona and exotic looks, and became one of the era’s highest-paid actresses.


13. Bette Davis


Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis (April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989) was an American actress with a career spanning more than 50 years and 100 acting credits. She was noted for playing unsympathetic, sardonic characters, and was famous for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical films, suspense horror, and occasional comedies, although her greater successes were in romantic dramas. A recipient of two Academy Awards, she was the first thespian to accrue ten nominations.

Bette Davis appeared on Broadway in New York, then the 22-year-old Davis moved to Hollywood in 1930. After some unsuccessful films, she had her critical breakthrough playing a vulgar waitress in Of Human Bondage (1934) although, contentiously, she was not among the three nominees for the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. The next year, her performance as a down-and-out actress in Dangerous (1935) did land Davis her first Best Actress nomination, and she won. In 1937, she tried to free herself from her contract with Warner Brothers Studio; although she lost the legal case, it marked the start of more than a decade as one of the most celebrated leading ladies of U.S. cinema.


14. Claudette Colbert


Claudette Colbert (September 13, 1903 – July 30, 1996) began her career in Broadway productions during the late 1920s and progressed to motion pictures with the advent of talking pictures. Initially associated with Paramount Pictures, she gradually shifted to working as a freelance actress. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in It Happened One Night (1934), and received two other Academy Award nominations. Her other notable films include Cleopatra (1934) and The Palm Beach Story (1942).

With her round face, big eyes, charming, aristocratic manner, and flair for light comedy and emotional drama, Colbert’s versatility led to her becoming one of the best-paid stars of the 1930s and 1940s and, in 1938 and 1942, the highest-paid.


15. Barbara Stanwyck


Barbara Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – January 20, 1990) was an American actress, model and dancer. A stage, film, and television star, during her 60-year professional career she was known for her strong, realistic screen presence and versatility. She was a favorite of directors, including Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra, and made 85 films in 38 years before turning to television.

Orphaned at the age of four and partially raised in foster homes, she always worked. One of her directors, Jacques Tourneur, said of her, “She only lives for two things, and both of them are work.” She made her debut on stage in the chorus as a Ziegfeld girl in 1923, at age 16, and within a few years was acting in plays. Her first lead role, which was in the hit Burlesque (1927), established her as a Broadway star.

In 1929, she began acting in talking pictures. Frank Capra chose her for his romantic drama Ladies of Leisure (1930). This led to additional leading roles which raised her profile, such as Night Nurse (1931), Baby Face (1933), and the controversial The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). In 1937, she played the title role in Stella Dallas for which she earned her first Academy Award nomination for best actress. In 1939, she starred in Union Pacific, which won the first Palme d’Or awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Stanwyck’s film career declined by the start of the 1950s. She transitioned to television by the 1960s, where she won three Emmy Awards. She received an Honorary Oscar in 1982, the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1986 and several other honorary lifetime awards. She was ranked as the 11th greatest female star of classic American cinema by the American Film Institute


16. Dolores del Río


Dolores del Río (3 August 1904 – 11 April 1983) was a Mexican actress. With a career spanning more than 50 years, she is regarded as the first major female Latin American crossover star in Hollywood. Along with a notable career in American cinema during the 1920s and 1930s, she was also considered one of the most important female figures in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, and one of the most beautiful actresses of her era.

After being discovered in Mexico, she began her film career in Hollywood in 1925. She had roles on a string of successful films, including Resurrection (1927), Ramona (1928) and Evangeline (1929). Del Río came to be considered a sort of feminine version of Rudolph Valentino, a “female Latin Lover,” in her years during the American “silent” era.

With the advent of sound, she acted in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to musical comedies and romantic dramas. In the early 1940s, when her Hollywood career began to decline, Del Río returned to Mexico and joined the Mexican film industry, which at that time was at its peak. Del Río is considered a quintessential representation of the female face of Mexico in the world.


17. Joan Blondell


Joan Blondell (August 30, 1906 – December 25, 1979) was an American actress who performed in film and television for half a century. Blondell began her career in vaudeville. After winning a beauty pageant, she embarked on a film career, establishing herself as a Pre-Code staple of Warner Bros.

Pictures in wisecracking, sexy roles, appearing in more than 100 films and television productions. She was most active in film during the 1930s and early 1940s, and during that time co-starred with Glenda Farrell, a colleague and close friend, in nine films. Blondell continued acting on film and television for the rest of her life, often in small, supporting roles. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Blue Veil (1951).


18. Dorothy Lamour


Dorothy Lamour (December 10, 1914 – September 22, 1996) was an American actress and singer. She is best remembered for having appeared in the Road to... movies, a series of successful comedies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

Lamour began her career in the 1930s as a big band singer. In 1936, she moved to Hollywood, where she signed with Paramount Pictures. Her appearance as Ulah in The Jungle Princess (1936) brought her fame and marked the beginning of her image as the “Sarong Queen.”


19. Mae West


Mae West (August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980) was an American stage and film actress, playwright, screenwriter, singer, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned over seven decades. She was known for her breezy sexual independence, and her lighthearted bawdy double entendres, often delivered in a husky contralto voice. She was active in vaudeville and on stage in New York City before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry.

Mae West hit her Hollywood stride in her late 1930s when she might have been considered in her “advanced years” for playing sexy harlots, but her persona and physical beauty overcame any doubt. The blunt sexuality of her films aroused the wrath and moral indignation of several groups, but this sexuality is what she is remembered for today.


20. Myrna Loy


Myrna Loy (August 2, 1905 – December 14, 1993) was one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses of the 1930s and maintained that stardom for decades. She came to embody the perfect wife––sympathetic, wise and sexy––opposite William Powell, Clark Gable and others. Loy was the ultimate proof that marriage and companionship in the movies need not be an exercise in mutual henpecking or a mere happy ending, but rather something fun.

Trained as a dancer, Loy devoted herself fully to an acting career following a few minor roles in silent films. She was originally typecast in exotic roles, often as a vamp or a woman of Asian descent, but her career prospects improved greatly following her portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934).

Although Loy was never nominated for an Academy Award, in March 1991 she received an Honorary Academy Award in recognition of her life's work both onscreen and off, including serving as assistant to the director of military and naval welfare for the Red Cross during World War II, and a member-at-large of the U.S. Commission to UNESCO.


21. Shirley Temple


Shirley Temple Black (April 23, 1928 – February 10, 2014) was an American actress, singer, dancer, and diplomat who was Hollywood’s number one box-office draw as a child actress from 1934 to 1938. Temple began her film career at the age of three in 1931. Two years later, she achieved international fame in Bright Eyes, a feature film designed specifically for her talents. She received a special Juvenile Academy Award in February 1935 for her outstanding contribution as a juvenile performer in motion pictures during 1934. Film hits such as Curly Top and Heidi followed year after year during the mid-to-late 1930s.

Temple capitalized on licensed merchandise that featured her wholesome image; the merchandise included dolls, dishes, and clothing. Her box-office popularity waned as she reached adolescence. She appeared in 29 films from the ages of 3 to 10 but in only 14 films from the ages of 14 to 21. Temple retired from film in 1950 at the age of 22.


22. Margaret Sullavan


Margaret Brooke Sullavan (May 16, 1909 – January 1, 1960) began her career onstage in 1929 with the University Players. In 1933, she caught the attention of film director John M. Stahl and had her debut on the screen that same year in Only Yesterday. She continued to be a successful stage and film actress, and is most known today for The Shop Around the Corner.

Sullavan preferred working on the stage and only made 16 film appearances, four of which were opposite close friend James Stewart in a popular partnership that included The Mortal Storm and The Shop Around the Corner. Stewart and Sullavan were also close friends of Henry Fonda, to whom Sullavan was married to from 1931 to 1933. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Three Comrades (1938).

She retired from the screen in the early 1940s to devote herself to her children and stage work. She returned to the screen in 1950 to make her last film, No Sad Songs for Me, in which she played a woman dying of cancer. For the rest of her career, she appeared only on the stage.


23. Ginger Rogers


Ginger Rogers (July 16, 1911 – April 25, 1995) was an American actress, dancer and singer during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in Kitty Foyle (1940), and performed during the 1930s in RKO’s musical films with Fred Astaire. Her career continued on stage, radio and television throughout much of the 20th century.

In the 1930s, Rogers’s nine films with Fred Astaire are credited with revolutionizing the genre and gave RKO Pictures some of its biggest successes. But after two commercial failures with Astaire, she turned her focus to dramatic and comedy films. After winning the Oscar, Rogers became one of the biggest box-office draws and highest paid actresses of the 1940s.

During her long career, Rogers made 73 films and she ranks number 14 on the AFI’s 100 Years...100 Stars list of female stars of classic American cinema.


24. Mary Astor


Mary Astor (May 3, 1906 – September 25, 1987) began her long motion picture career as a teenager in the silent movies of the early 1920s. When talkies arrived, her voice was initially considered too masculine and she was off the screen for a year. After she appeared in a play with friend Florence Eldridge, film offers returned, and she resumed her career in sound pictures.

In 1936, Astor’s career was nearly destroyed by scandal. She had an affair with playwright George S. Kaufman and was branded an adulterous wife by her ex-husband during a custody fight over their daughter. Overcoming these stumbling blocks in her private life, she went on to greater film success, eventually winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of concert pianist Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941).

Director Lindsay Anderson wrote of Astor in 1990 that when “two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up, and everybody agrees that she was an actress of special attraction, whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.”


25. Rosalind Russell


A brilliant, charismatic and charming actress, Rosalind Russell (June 4, 1907 – November 28, 1976) spent her more than four-decades long career reflecting her own life experiences and observations on the world in the characters she brought to life on stage and screen.

Rosalind Russell known for her role as fast-talking newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson in the Howard Hawks screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), opposite Cary Grant, as well as for her portrayals of Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame (1958) and Rose in Gypsy (1962). A noted comedienne, she won all five Golden Globes for which she was nominated.

Russell’s career spanned from 1930s to the 1970s, and she attributed this longevity to the fact that, although usually playing classy and glamorous roles, she never became a sex symbol.




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