Although the preceding crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Great Depression, the 1930s were regarded as the Golden Age of Hollywood, and current knowledge of famous actors from the era embodied the phrases “glitz” and “glamour.” A period when “actors” were cinema stars and “films” were genre-defining classics. Talented performers from this era are among the industry’s finest. Several of these performers won the Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress in a Leading Role.
Who was the biggest movie star of the ’30s? Keep reading to learn more about the most prominent figures of the 1930s.
Table of Contents
- 1. Laurence Kerr Olivier
- 2. Clara Gordon Bow
- 3. Bela Lugosi
- 4. Irene Dunne
- 5. Gary Cooper
- 6. Jean Arthur
- 7. James Cagney
- 8. Katharine Hepburn
- 9. William Horatio Powell
- 10. Carole Lombard
- 11. Herbert Marshall
- 12. Norma Shearer
- 13. Lionel Barrymore
- 14. Marlene Dietrich
- 15. Spencer Tracy
- 16. Bette Davis
- 17. James Stewart
- 18. Barbara Stanwyck
- 19. Henry Fonda
- 20. Ginger Rogers
1. Laurence Kerr Olivier
One of three male performers who dominated the British stage in the mid-20th century, Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier, OM, was an English actor and director. On May 22, 1907, his life began; on July 11, 1989, he died away and was also prolific in the film business, with over fifty film appearances spread across his career. Later in his career, he had great success in television roles.
Olivier received a knighthood in 1947 and was elevated to the peerage for life in 1970. Olivier was also awarded the prestigious Order of Merit (1981). He won ten awards for his work in front of the camera, including five Emmys, three Golden Globes, four Oscars, and two BAFTAs. The Society of London Theatre annually presents the Laurence Olivier Awards in his name, and the National Theatre’s main auditorium is named the Laurence Olivier Auditorium in his honor.
2. Clara Gordon Bow
It’s well known that American actress Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965) achieved fame in the 1920s as a leading lady in silent films and then successfully transitioned to “talkies” in 1929. Her portrayal of a fearless shopgirl in the film propelled her to international stardom, earning her the moniker “The It Girl.” The Bow has become an icon of the Flapper era and is sometimes cited as the decade’s foremost sexual emblem.
In 1928 and 1929, Clara Bow was ranked as the top box office attraction, while in 1927 and 1930, she was ranked as the number two draw. At the height of her fame, she received more than 45,000 admirer letters in a single month, and her appearance in a film was reported to have guaranteed investors a “safe return” by over two to one odds. After marrying fellow actor Rex Bell in 1931, Bow decided to retire from show business and start a new life as a rancher in Nevada. In 1933, she starred in her final picture, Hoop-La.
3. Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi (born Béla Ferenc Dez’s Blaskó; October 20, 1882 – August 16, 1956) was a Hungarian-born American actor who is most famous for his portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 English-language film of the same name.
In 1927, he played the title role in a Broadway production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; by 1928, he had relocated to Hollywood with the show. Later, in 1931, he played the title role in Tod Browning and Universal Studios’ film adaptation of Dracula. His reputation as “Dracula” and his ominous, thick Hungarian accent drastically limited the jobs offered to him during the 1930s, despite his best efforts to avoid being typecast.
4. Irene Dunne
Known for her roles in films during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Irene Dunne DHS (born Irene Marie Dunn; December 20, 1898 – September 4, 1990) was an American actress. Although she has appeared in films across genres, she is most recognized for her humorous parts.
Lovely Irene Dunne, affectionately dubbed “The Iron Maiden,” initially set her sights on a career in opera, but her vocal powers took her to Broadway and Hollywood. Even though she had many outstanding performances, Dunne was never nominated for an Academy Award. As a result, she is now considered the best American actress who was never recognized for the award.
During her retirement, Dunne focused on humanitarian work. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed her to represent the United States as a delegate to the United Nations. She spoke out in favor of international cooperation to promote peace and raise awareness about humanitarian aid for refugees.
5. Gary Cooper
American actor Gary Cooper (born Frank James Cooper on May 7, 1901, and passing away on May 13, 1961) was recognized for his calm strength on film. Regarding American performers, Gary Cooper was up there with the best of them. Cooper received praise from film reviewers, moviegoers, and his peers for his subtle performances. Cooper, a leading actor throughout Hollywood’s Golden Age, was named by the American Film Institute as the eleventh most excellent male star of classic Hollywood films.
6. Jean Arthur
Born Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17, 1900, and passing away on June 19, 1991, Jean Arthur was a Broadway and cinema actress whose career spanned from the early 1920s through the early 1950s.
The historian James Harvey documented the development of romantic comedy with the following words: “Jean Arthur was more synonymous than anybody else with the screwball comedy genre. The star’s personality was so closely tied to the screwball aesthetic that it’s hard to picture the genre without her.” The phrase “the archetypal humorous leading woman” has been used to describe her. In 1953, she portrayed the homesteader’s wife in George Stevens’ Shane, the final picture in which she did not play a humorous role.
7. James Cagney
James Cagney was an American dancer and actor born on July 17, 1899, and died away on March 30, 1986. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 1942 musical film Yankee Doodle Dandy. Because of his achievements in the entertainment sector, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. The president of the United States has given his approval. He was featured on the list of the Greatest Male Stars of Classical Hollywood Cinema, prepared by the American Film Institute in 1999.
8. Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn was an American actress who appeared in film, on stage and television. She was born on the 12th of May in 1907 and died on the 29th of June in 2003. Throughout her six-decade career, Hepburn was a top Hollywood actress. She built a film persona that mirrored this public image, and she typically portrayed parts requiring a strong will coupled with intelligence. She was renowned for her fierce independence, vibrant personality, and outspokenness. Her work encompassed a wide range of genres, from screwball humor to literary drama, and earned her countless accolades, including a record-breaking four Academy Awards for Best Actress. Her achievements set a bar that no other actor has yet to surpass. In 1999, the American Film Institute awarded Hepburn the title “Greatest Female Star of Classic Hollywood Film” in her honor.
9. William Horatio Powell
William Horatio Powell, an American actor who died on March 5, 1984, was a major star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. He was born on July 29, 1892. His most famous role was opposite Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. William Horatio Powell’s efforts in The Thin Man, My Man Godfrey, and Life with Father earned him three nominations for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. The Hollywood community had a lot of respect for Powell. Marion Shilling, who starred with him in the film Shadow of the Law, called him “a great guy to work with.” “He was one of the nicest individuals I’ve ever encountered; humble, respectful, and incredibly considerate of others. He could see I was intimidated by him, so he made an effort to put me at ease right away.”
10. Carole Lombard
Carole Lombard was a famous American actress who lived from October 6, 1908, until her untimely death on January 16, 1942. Lombard’s breakout role as the lead in Howard Hawks’ groundbreaking screwball comedy Twentieth Century was a watershed moment in her career (1934). She became known for her roles in films including Hands Across the Table (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Nothing Sacred (1937). (1937). At the time, Lombard wed “The King of Hollywood,” Clark Gable, and the celebrity pair became a cultural phenomenon. At the end of the decade, Lombard desperately wanted an Oscar and started taking on increasingly dramatic roles. A legend of American cinema and the screwball comedy genre, she is now recognized as a true Hollywood legend.
11. Herbert Marshall
In theater, cinema, and radio, English actor Herbert Brough Falcon Marshall was a mainstay from May 23, 1890, until his death on January 22, 1966. His memorable appearances in blockbuster Hollywood pictures of the 1930s and 1940s have made him a legendary English actor. During the pinnacle of his career, he was one of the most in-demand performers in Hollywood. Herbert Marshall was honored with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star for his services to the motion picture business in 1960. Later in life, he specialized in portraying offbeat characters.
12. Norma Shearer
Edith Norma Shearer (August 10, 1902 – June 12, 1983) was a Canadian-American actress active on film from 1919 through 1942. For her contribution to the motion-picture industry, Shearer has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6636 Hollywood Boulevard. Even for a pampered star, her output in the sound era is strikingly meager. And yet this was part of her undeniable aura that she did not make movies lightly and frivolously but with great care, sincerity and conviction.
13. Lionel Barrymore
American stage, cinema, and radio actor and director Lionel Barrymore (April 28, 1878 – November 15, 1954) was born Lionel Herbert Blythe. While his portrayal in A Free Soul (1931) earned him an Oscar, he is most remembered today for playing the evil Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s 1946 film. It’s a Wonderful Life.
Lionel Barrymore, the eldest actor in the famed Barrymore family, is remembered as Mr. Potter in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life. Unlike many of his offspring, Barrymore was a musician who also created music. Barrymore was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in both film and radio.
14. Marlene Dietrich
Marie Magdalene “Marlene” Dietrich was a German-born American actress and singer whose career extended from the 1910s up to the 1980s. She was born on December 27, 1901, and died on May 6, 1992. She became one of the era’s highest-paid actresses by effectively capitalizing on her beautiful character and exotic beauty, which allowed her to do so. Dietrich was ranked as the ninth greatest female screen legend in the history of classic Hollywood films by the American Film Institute in 1999. Dietrich was considered an icon in the fashion world and the entertainment industry. Edith Head once stated that Marlene Dietrich was the only actress who understood more about fashion than she did. Marlene Dietrich adored Dior.
Marlene 1942 in NY
15. Spencer Tracy
American actor Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born on April 5, 1900, and died on June 10, 1967. He was widely regarded as one of the best performers to grace vintage Hollywood films. Spencer Tracy’s adaptability enabled him to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards twice a row. The American Film Institute voted him the seventh best male star of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1999. To many, Tracy represents the pinnacle of 20th-century acting.
Critic Leonard Maltin labels Tracy “One of the main stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.” At the same time, cinema historian Jeanine Basinger calls Tracy’s career a “golden record of movie achievement,” both accolades from the 21st century. “Tracy deserves to be known for himself, as a master of acting technique,” writes The Washington Post’s Charles Matthews.
16. Bette Davis
More than 50 years and 100 roles into her career, Ruth Elizabeth “Bette” Davis (April 5, 1908 – October 6, 1989) was a legendary American actress. Her greatest triumphs were in romance dramas, although she was known for her performances across various cinema genres, including modern criminal melodramas, historical pictures, suspense horror, and the occasional comedy. She won two Oscars and set a record by being the first actress to be nominated for the award ten times.
Davis was the first female recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award when she received it in 1977. An industry-wide vote was taken to select the “50 Greatest American Screen Legends.” That list, “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars,” was released in 1999 to increase the general public’s familiarity with and enthusiasm for old cinema. Following Katharine Hepburn in second place among the top 25 actresses was Viola Davis.
17. James Stewart
American actor and World War II aviator James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, and died on July 2, 1997. James Stewart, who played the everyman onscreen better than anyone else, was named the third-greatest American male actor by the American Film Institute in 1999. He exemplified the ideal American man of the 20th century because of the high moral standards he demonstrated during his 55-year acting career.
Stewart was an instinctive actor, according to his biographer Scott Eyman. Despite his reserved nature away from the spotlight, he acted like a pro in front of the camera. Stewart’s co-stars appreciated working with him because Stewart was easy to get along with and eager to improvise during production, which was consistent with his casual and conversational acting approach. He said that playing out a scenario in front of a soundstage’s lights and cameras felt unnatural.
18. Barbara Stanwyck
The American actress, model, and dancer Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, and passed away on January 20, 1990) was born on this day in history. Because of her powerful and lifelike performances and flexibility, she was a household name during her 60-year career in the film and television industries. She produced 85 films over 38 years before switching to television and was a favorite of directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, and Frank Capra.
By the early 1950s, the star’s success had dwindled. By the 1960s, Stanwyck had switched to television, where she was quickly recognized with three Emmys. She received several honorary lifetime honors, including an Honorary Oscar in 1982 and the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1986. The American Film Institute named her the eleventh most excellent female star of the golden age of Hollywood. Stanwyck spent her retirement years doing volunteer work quietly.
19. Henry Fonda
American film and stage actor Henry Jaynes Fonda (May 16, 1905 – August 12, 1982) had a career spanning five decades on Broadway and Hollywood. In numerous iconic films, Fonda established himself as a regular guy.
Many people consider Fonda to be one of the all-time greats in Hollywood. On his centennial birthday, May 16, 2005, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) aired a marathon of Fonda’s films. The Nederlander Organization renamed the Carter DeHaven Music Box theater the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood in 1985 in honor of the actor. The United States Postal Service produced a 37-cent stamp featuring an artist’s rendering of Fonda in May 2005 as part of their “Hollywood legends” series.
20. Ginger Rogers
After being born on July 16, 1911, Ginger Rogers became a famous Golden Age Hollywood actress, dancer, and singer before passing away on April 25, 1995. In the 1930s, she appeared in RKO’s musical films alongside Fred Astaire, and in 1940, she received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Kitty Foyle. Throughout much of the 20th century, she had a successful career in theater, radio, and television.
Rogers’ nine films with Fred Astaire in the 1930s were enormous hits for RKO Pictures and are widely considered to have revolutionized the genre at the time. However, after her first two films with Astaire were bombed at the box office, she began focusing on dramatic and comedic roles. Oscar’s success catapulted Rogers to the ranks of the 1940s’ highest-paid and most popular actresses.
Rogers had a prolific career, appearing in 73 films during it. She is ranked as the fourteenth best female classic Hollywood film star by the American Film Institute.