Most Influential Films in American Cinema

The 100 + Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema

The 1930s

Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
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Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Descriptions of Influence/Significance
Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)
d. Tod Browning, 75 minutes, Universal Pictures

  • Director Tod Browning's creepy, weird, and frightening film defined the genre of horror pictures, with tremendous atmosphere and dialogue.
  • The plotline was taken from Abraham ("Bram") Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. (The screenplay by Garrett Fort was more closely adapted from the successful stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston.) The first film version of the novel was an early German silent film, Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker's novel directed by expressionist F. W. Murnau.
  • The title character, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) - a Transylvanian vampire with a lilting Hungarian accent, had moved from Europe to London to find his true love and satisfy his craving for human blood. In a secondary role, Dracula's insane slave Renfield (Dwight Frye) aided his quest. The Count lured and victimized innocent English women, leading them to his underground vaults.
  • 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.
  • Since this film appeared, there have been about a dozen 'true' film adaptations of the Stoker novel, and literally hundreds of other Dracula sequels, farces, parodies, loose adaptations, and other vampirish variations (including the "blaxploitation" Blacula films of the early 70s). [The most frequently-portrayed character in horror films would eventually be Dracula.]
  • On account 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.
Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)
d. James Whale, 71 minutes, Universal Pictures

  • Director James Whale's great horror classic from Universal Pictures (production by Carl Laemmle, Jr. - the head of the studio), although antiquated, was based upon Mary Shelley's 1818 horror novel. It was followed by director James Whale's even greater sequel film Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
  • This definitive film, with Victorian undertones, was produced in the same year that Dracula (1931), another classic horror film, was produced within the same studio - both films helped to save the beleaguered studio. In addition to this film, dozens of other adaptations have been made of the Frankenstein horror story, notably from the UK's Hammer Studios.
  • In the film's plot, in a small Bavarian village, obsessed Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), assisted by crazed dwarf Fritz (Dwight Frye), conducted strange experiments in his mad search to create artificial life. During a violent thunderstorm, Frankenstein harnessed the power of lightning to jolt life into an inanimate monstrous cadaver strapped to an operating table in his elaborate laboratory in the watchtower of his Victorian manor. The hideous Monster (Boris Karloff with a superb rendering of the pathetic, innocent figure, without dialogue), created out of body pieces, was truly frightening, and soon escaped from the tower and terrorized the countryside. During pursuit, the Monster faced his creator one-on-one on a rocky hilltop, dragged Frankenstein to the old milltower and then flung him to the ground (causing injuries), and then was burned alive in the mill that had been set on fire by the villagers. In the epilogue, Dr. Frankenstein was still recovering and not married to his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke).

The Public Enemy (1931)
d. William A. Wellman, 83 minutes, Warner Bros./Vitaphone Corp.

  • This early sound-era, pre-Code film was Warners' follow-up to Little Caesar (1931) released earlier in the same year. In the next year, Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) also attracted huge audiences with Paul Muni as the notorious criminal Al Capone. Its opening was delayed for a few months due to Hawks' and producer Hughes' continuing squabbles with industry censors over its sensationalism and glorification of the gangster menace, and issues regarding the film's retitling.
  • It was a box-office smash and one of the earliest and best of the genre of gangster films. Together, these were the two quintessential gangster films of the early 1930s. The latter film was tougher, more violent and realistic (released before the censorship codes were strictly enforced), although most of the violence was off-screen.
  • With the menacing character of James Cagney in a dynamic and kinetic performance, most memorably noted as pushing a grapefruit into the face of moll girlfriend Mae Clarke.
  • 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 (portrayed by Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, and Jean Harlow). 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, heroic or realistic way.

42nd Street (1933)
d. Lloyd Bacon, 89 minutes, Warner Bros.

  • A classic, fast-paced, backstage movie musical - a refreshing film about show business that changed the film musical forever and saved Warner Bros. studios from bankruptcy, helping it grow into a major studio.
  • This film is considered the backstage musical par excellence, the grand-daddy of them all. It was based on the 'putting-on-a-show' tradition stemming from MGM's first sound film, The Broadway Melody (1929), another "backstage musical."
  • The first of three landmark musical films released in 1933 by Warner Bros. to revitalize the musical film genre (the other two films were Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933)). Earlier, stage-bound musicals had become box-office poison after the dawn of the talkies in the late 1920s. Lively dance numbers (transposed from the stage productions onto film) were difficult to shoot with large cumbersome cameras, and the stories were often unexciting.
  • Set during the current Depression era, it emphasized the effects of the current economic downturn on hard-working chorus girls on stage. It was an unglamorized look at the tough realities of backstage life behind the footlights. The urban milieu of the film is filled with crisp, slangy, bitter dialogue and wisecracks, street-wise characters, topical references, desperately-striving chorines, dancers, and crew, and down-and-out references to the Depression.
  • The first major work of Busby Berkeley, a tremendously talented choreographer, whose direction of voyeuristic, surrealistic production numbers was illustrated in extravagant, musical numbers, giant kaleidoscopes of imagery, dancing girls forming geometrically-shaped, abstract designs and patterns, and innovative camera images. He was particularly known for his overhead shots, freely-moving camera (dollies and pans), and for creating numbers especially-made for films that went far beyond conventional boundaries. He became widely imitated.

I'm No Angel (1933)
d. Wesley Ruggles, 87 minutes, Paramount Pictures

  • The sultry, busty blonde bombshell and sexy star/comedienne Mae West, brought westward from Broadway by Paramount, appeared in two films in the same year: I'm No Angel (1933) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). In both films, her co-star was supporting actor Cary Grant.
  • The controversial films were filled with wisecracks, one-liners, and racy double entendres within her promiscuous dialogue, suggestive songs and bawdy body language. All of this raised the ire of the Production Code.
  • Her performances, displaying a classic combination of sex, verbal lust, comedy, and suggestiveness, spurred the movement for greater movie censorship by the mid-1930s through the Hays Office. Only one year after West's films, the Hays Production Code released a list of "do's and don'ts" for film-making - as a way to censor Hollywood films.
  • The way that sex was portrayed on the screen would be changed for many decades. It would be over 30 years before changes in the depiction of sex on screen would appear, with a new, more permissive advisory rating system. (Soon after the loosening of censorship, the X-rated Best Picture-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969) would be released.)

King Kong (1933)
d. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (uncredited), 100/104 minutes, RKO Radio Pictures

  • Perhaps cinema's most original creation - RKO's spectacular, campy adventure/fantasy film - a metaphoric re-telling of the archetypal Beauty and the Beast fable.
  • When released, it broke all previous box-office records. Its massive, money-making success helped to save RKO Pictures from bankruptcy.
  • A phenomenal, influential landmark film that raised the bar for special effects for many decades - due to the genius of chief technical-special effects man Willis H. O'Brien, famed for his first feature film The Lost World (1925). It utilized sequences with stop-motion animation, miniature models about 18 inches high, trick photography, and one of the earliest uses of back- (or rear) projection. It was extremely influential on up-and-coming special effects artist Ray Harryhausen.
  • It was the first film to be heavily promoted on the radio.
  • It was accompanied by Max Steiner's dramatic and emphatic score. It was noted as the first feature-length musical score written specifically for a US 'talkie' film, and was the first major Hollywood film to have a thematic score rather than background music, recorded using a 46-piece orchestra. For the first time in film history, RKO's sound department head Murray Spivak made a groundbreaking sound design decision - he pitched the effects to match the score, so they wouldn't be overwhelming and so they would complement each other.
  • An iconic monster movie about a giant ape, King Kong launched the "giant beast" or "giant monster" (known as kaiju in Japan) subgenre of science-fiction, inspiring the 1950's atomic mutant creature features and the Japanese giant movie monsters like Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, etc. - numerous remakes, and even Cloverfield (2008) years later.

It Happened One Night (1934)
d. Frank Capra, 105 minutes, Columbia Pictures

  • One of the greatest romantic comedies in film history, and a film that has endured in popularity. It is considered one of the pioneering "screwball" romantic comedies (noted for rapid fire dialogue) of its time, setting the pattern for many years afterwards, along with other contemporary films, such as The Thin Man (1934) (with screen couple Myrna Loy and William Powell), and Twentieth Century (1934) (with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore).
  • The story, actually a road trip, presented the unlikely romantic pairing of a mis-matched couple (the theme of opposites attract) - a reversal of the Cinderella story (the heroine had rejected her wealthy lifestyle).
  • The modern tale - an escapist theme - was a big hit with Depression-weary audiences. It was filled with light-hearted sex appeal in which courtship and love triumphed over class conflicts, socio-economic differences, and verbal battles of wit.
  • It was an unexpected runaway box office sleeper hit (especially after it began to play in small-town theaters), and it garnered the top five (or "Big Five") Academy Awards for the first time in Oscar history. It was unrivaled until 1975, forty-one years later by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) - and then again by The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
  • Marketing lessons could be learned from the film. With his good-natured, street-smart, and breezy performance, Clark Gable influenced the un-sale of undershirts by taking off his shirt and exposing his bare chest, and bus travel by women substantially increased as a result of the film.
  • Animation expert Friz Freleng, in his unpublished memoirs, claimed that the film helped to inspire the creation of various cartoon characters: Bugs Bunny, Pepe LePew, and Yosemite Sam.
  • Romantic comedy road films, such as The Sure Thing (1985) and When Harry Met Sally... (1989) owed their success to this film.

Becky Sharp (1935)
d. Rouben Mamoulian, 84/67 minutes, Pioneer Pictures Corp./RKO

  • This was the first feature-length Technicolor film to be shot entirely in 3-strip color (although the color did not look completely realistic). There was now a separate film register for each of the three primary colors. The new 3-strip process was created by adding a blue film record to the red and green components of Technicolor's earlier two-color process.
  • This striking development that forever changed cinema encouraged the making of color motion picture films in Britain and the US in the years before World War II.
  • It was a milestone film dramatizing William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair with Miriam Hopkins in the title role.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
d. William Cottrell, David Hand, 83 minutes, Walt Disney Productions

  • This is the first full-length animated feature (83 minutes in length) in color and with sound, and one of Disney's greatest films - a pioneering classic tale in film history. It was the first commercially successful film of its kind and a technically brilliant, innovative example of Disney animation.
  • Disney realized that he had to expand and alter the format of cartoons. However, his innovative project was often dubbed "Disney's Folly" during the three to four year production of the musical animation. It took almost four years and an astronomical (at the time) $1.7 million to create. It was feared that it would be a big flop - until its release.
  • The risk-taking film made use of the multi-plane camera (first used in Disney's own animated, Oscar-winning Silly Symphonies short, The Old Mill (1937)) to create an illusion of depth.
  • It introduced human characters (the jealous Queen, the Huntsman, the Prince, and Snow White herself) modeled on live actors, and used larger painted cels and drawing boards.
  • It was the first film with an official soundtrack and the first film to release a motion picture soundtrack album.
  • For the film's remarkable achievement, Walt Disney was awarded with an Honorary Oscar - the film was "recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon."

Gone With the Wind (1939)
d. Victor Fleming, 238 minutes, Selznick Int'l Pictures/MGM

  • Director Victor Flemin's most beloved, enduring and popular film of all time was cinema's greatest, star-studded, historical epic film of the Old South during wartime. It boasted an immortal cast in a timeless, classic tale of a love-hate romance.
  • This big-screen, blockbuster adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 best-selling novel was a 228-minute Civil War epic drama that went on to profitably gross almost $200 million (domestic) (and $400 million worldwide) - highest-grossing film status at the time.
  • The touchstone film had a production cost of over $4 million - it was the longest and most expensive Hollywood sound film of the time.
  • Adjusted for inflation (as of 2022), it remains the highest grossing film ever made (at $1.895 billion), and one of the original blockbusters on the silver screen.
  • Noted for its three years of advanced publicity and tremendous Hollywood myth-making. Producer David O. Selznick's expensive Civil War era epic set a major pattern or blueprint for future grand epics.
  • The film (originally rough-cut at 6 hours in length) was challenging in its making, due to its controversial subject matter (including rape, drunkenness, moral dissipation and adultery - and its depiction of slavery) and its epic qualities, with more than 50 speaking roles and 2,400 extras.
  • It won eight competitive statues (including Best Picture) - a record for its time that lasted for 20 years (until Ben-Hur (1959) won 11 Oscars).
  • It was the first color film to win Best Picture.
  • Best Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American performer to win an Oscar (she was also the first African-American nominee for an Oscar, and the first African-American guest at the awards ceremony).
  • Its casting call for the lead female role of Scarlett O'Hara ended up being one of the biggest ever with over 30 well-known actresses being considered for the highly desired role. In all, 1,400 actresses were interviewed for the part, and 400 performed audition-readings. Little-known British actress Vivien Leigh was signed on for the role. Casting calls such as this one inspired future, fiery leading ladies, such as Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997).
  • It continues to inspire critical attention and debate, the purchase of memorabilia, references to its many quotable lines, and numerous re-releases over the years.

Stagecoach (1939)
d. John Ford, Walter Wanger Productions/United Artists

  • A classic Western from film auteur John Ford. This film - his first sound Western - was a return to his most-acclaimed film genre after a thirteen year absence. By 1939, the Western genre had fallen out of favor, but Stagecoach helped to reinvent the genre, providing for its rebirth.
  • This classic frontier western was the first film that director Ford shot in Utah's iconic Monument Valley -- the site would repeatedly be used as the locale for most of his other Westerns. It marked the first of seven films he made in the famed western valley.
  • The film marked the breakthrough, star-making role for B-western actor John Wayne, as Ringo Kid.
  • This revolutionary, influential film - a story of redemption - is considered a landmark quintessential film that elevated westerns from cheaply-made, low-grade, Saturday matinee "B" films to a serious adult genre - one with greater sophistication, richer Western archetypes and themes, in-depth and complex characterizations, and greater profitability and popularity as well.
  • It combined typical genre elements plus a rich character study of its characters. Major social issues and themes (sexual and social prejudice, alcoholism, childbirth, greed, shame, redemption and revenge) were closely mixed together into an exciting adventure story.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
d. Victor Fleming, 102 minutes, MGM

  • Everybody's cherished favorite, this perennial fantasy film musical from MGM during its golden years has become one of the best known films of all-time.
  • It set a precedent for TV showings and viewings: for many seasons, it was featured regularly on network TV as a prime time event (its first two showings were on CBS television on November 3, 1956 and in December, 1959). It soon became a classic institution with annual showings for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and/or Easter time, and was a rite of passage for everyone, and probably has been seen by more people than any other motion picture over multiple decades. According to the Library of Congress, the musical fantasy is the most watched movie in history.
  • Its legacy remains strong: the classic film has been honored with dozens of books, TV shows (such as HBO's dramatic prison series Oz), references in other films or remakes, Broadway shows, and even by pop groups (singer Elton John with his Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road album, or Pink Floyd's 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon). It has inspired a wide variety of homages, parodies, and other parallel stories (the popular Broadway musicals The Wiz and Wicked, Under the Rainbow (1981), Wild at Heart (1990), and more).
  • The film perfectly integrated the musical numbers (songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. ('Yip') Harburg) with the action of the plot - enhancing and advancing the suspenseful narrative.
  • The scenes in bleak Kansas were shot in drab sepia tone, with brilliant, vibrant, 3-strip Technicolor used for the fantasy scenes in the journey to Oz. The special effects, by Arnold Gillespie, included the cyclone sequence, the flying winged monkeys, the Emerald City views, the poppyfield, the Wizard’s floating giant head, and the message written by the Wicked Witch in the sky: "Surrender Dorothy."
  • For its time, it was noted for its most elaborate use of character make-ups and special effects.
  • Of its two Oscar wins for its musical components, one was the well-known Best Original Song: "Over the Rainbow" - and the film has one of the most quotable scripts, with dozens of quotes indelibly remembered and referenced in popular culture (including "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!", "I'm melting! I'm melting!", "Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore," "I'll get you, my pretty. And your little dog too", "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," or the film's final line: "There's no place like home").
  • Probably the most revered and valuable film memorabilia item in movie history is Dorothy's ruby slippers, displayed in the Smithsonian Museum.

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