We continue our series on films celebrating 10-year milestones this year – we’ve already done 1997, 1977, 1967, 1947, 1927, 1917, and 1987. Now let's set our time machine for -80, and return to the heyday of classic Hollywood, 1937.
The world faced uncertainty in 1937. Though the worst of the Depression was over, it had affected a generation. In Europe Hitler was already beginning to threaten nearby countries, occupying disputed areas and making treaties with Japan and Italy. Spain was in the midst of a civil war, and Japan was invading China. But all of that barely affected Hollywood (with exceptions like The Good Earth; see below), whose dream factories turned out screwball comedies, adventure dramas, and frothy musicals calculated to keep Americans' minds off their economic woes and the world's rumblings. The box office favored escapism both wholesome and handsome, with Shirley Temple and Clark Gable dominating the charts, and though a serious biopic of Emile Zola focusing on the Dreyfuss Affair did win Best Picture, screwball comedy The Awful Truth (see below) snatched up the Best Director prize.
Hollywood wasn't without its own traumas, with the death of Jean Harlow at age 26 and a major fire at Fox destroying nearly all of the studio's silent films. Yet for deeper engagement with global affairs, one has to look to foreign films. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion fits the bill, a WWI tale that clearly has the current political situation in mind. It's also the 1937 film that has held up the best over the years, coming in at #1 on our list. Here's what joins it in Flickchart's top ten for the year:
When first meeting her new theatrical boarding-houseful of roommates, Katharine Hepburn's Terry Maitland bows out of the common room suggesting that "it'd be a terrific innovation if you could get your minds stretched a little further than the next wisecrack." And believe me, when you've got Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, a very young Lucille Ball, a very young Ann Miller, and Gail Patrick as aspiring Broadway actresses trying to cohabitate, there's no shortage of wisecracks. And that's where the joy of the film is - just looking through a bunch of quotes right now had me dying laughing and wanting to rewatch a film I've seen probably two dozen times, but what keeps the film so high on my personal chart (solidly in my Top 50) is the mix of all-out sarcasm and surprisingly affecting drama, as one of the girls, likely the best actual actress among them, comes to the end of her rope. And yet, the life of the boarding house goes on, and it's bittersweet and wonderful. - Jandy HardestyGlobally Ranked #1977
Ranked 3156 times by 192 users
Wins 51% of its matchups
Screwball comedies were truly coming into their own in 1937 (see The Awful Truth below), and here's one with a twist. The title character played by Roland Young is a stick-in-the-mud businessman who needs to learn to live a little. Giving themselves that job are Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, a married couple who live a little too much, right up until they crash their car joyriding and spend the rest of the film as ghosts: ghosts with a mission to turn Cosmo Topper into a fun-lover. Most of this work falls to Bennett, who ignominiously drags Topper around her favorite fun spots, often while invisible, making this a zany good time. There are also two sequels sans Grant, Topper Takes a Trip and Topper Returns (with Joan Blondell taking over the Bennett role), both of which are fun but can't quite match this one. - JandyGlobally Ranked #1964
Ranked 3974 times by 300 users
Wins 49% of its matchups
Jean Gabin's career was a long one, boasting memorable performances up to the mid-1970s. Decades previously, near his career peak as a tough guy romantic, he played the title character in 1937’s Pepe le Moko, as a bank robber hiding from the police in the old Casbah neighborhood of Algiers, free and not free. That milieu, whose depiction is often regarded today as a slice-of-life view of a multicultural neighborhood, is something that audiences in 1930s France viewed as exotic. The exoticism is what draws Gaby (Mireille Balin), in full evening wear and with a tangled situation of her own to deal with. The film is directed neatly by Julien Duvivier, whose work I am not as familiar with as Gabin’s, although his 1946 thriller-mystery Panique is worth a watch and would eventually be remade into Monsieur Hire in 1989. - Walter J. MontieGlobally Ranked #1954
Ranked 3045 times by 158 users
Wins 55% of its matchups
Part of us never really gets tired of the idea of Utopia, Xanadu, Shangri-La: paradises set apart from the outside world, unblemished by war or poverty or even aging. As soon as Frank Capra read James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon, he knew he wanted to make a movie of it. This was an interesting choice for a man whose career is largely about patriotic Americana, since this story centers on the hidden valley of Shangri-La in the Himalayas. Still, its vision of a potentially idyllic world probably appealed to him, and he pulled out all the stops (going way over budget) with a lot of location shooting and elaborate set design for the glorious valley. Not everything is sunshine and roses, though, as the valley's High Lama may not be on the up and up, and some residents' desire to leave is not exactly encouraged. Despite feeling like somewhat of a footnote in Capra's career, coming between Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Lost Horizon did receive a Best Picture nomination and retains a decent following, as evidenced by its placement on Flickchart. - JandyGlobally Ranked #1783
Ranked 5238 times by 298 users
Wins 52% of its matchups
While modern audiences may wince a little to see Spencer Tracy's skin darkened up to play a Portuguese sailor, there's still a lot to like about this coming-of-age adventure. Tracy and child co-star Freddie Bartholomew turn in pretty good performances in what ultimately is a really excellent script. The film was nominated for Best Adaptation at the Oscars, as well as three other awards, though Tracy was the only winner. (Incidentally, the movie it lost two of those awards to, The Life of Emile Zola, is all the way down at #16 on Flickchart's 1937 chart.) This movie seems at first to be just a fun, light seafaring adventure, but it strikes a darker tone in the final third, reaching some surprisingly emotional moments that wouldn't necessarily be expected given the cheerful nature of the rest of the film. As one last unusual tribute to the movie, I learned in my research for this blurb that the film is greatly regarded by the sailing community for its shots of period fishing schooners under sail. Even if that attention to detail goes over your head, it's a good story told well. - Hannah KeeferGlobally Ranked #1753
Ranked 6428 times by 418 users
Wins 41% of its matchups
The Marx Brothers' career peaked artistically with their fifth and final film for Paramount, Duck Soup (1933), and their first for MGM (and first sans Zeppo), A Night at the Opera (1935). But their next film after Opera proved to be one of their most financially successful and also one of their most enduring. I grew up on the Marx Brothers and love them dearly, but in revisiting A Day at the Races, I have to be honest - the first half of the film is pretty slow, with even the bits between the brothers getting a bit clunky. Once you get past the mid-movie musical number, though, it's pretty much full-throttle classic Marx, about as close to a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon as you could get. There is one more musical number in the second half that, in my youth, I always found unbearably strange, when Harpo leads a community of poor black folks in another song-and-dance number that turns into a lindy hop barn dance. On my most recent watch it turned out to be one of the most entertaining segments of the film, if you can forgive the brothers punctuating the number by greasing themselves in blackface to “blend in” and escape the cops. The real comedic centerpiece of the film, however, is the brothers' “examination” of Mrs. Upjohn, played by their wonderfully prim and proper long-time comic foil Margaret Dumont (she appears in seven of their films.) A Day at the Races is a slow-burning comedy, but it is totally worth the wait. - Tom KaprGlobally Ranked #1027
Ranked 11917 times by 721 users
Wins 56% of its matchups
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will always be assured a place in the annals of film history as the first Disney animated feature, but since Disney animated features have become so ubiquitous, it's worth pausing to remember what an accomplishment it was. (Just to ward off smug comments, yes, the first animated feature was 1926's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but it was an anomaly, German, and done with shadow cut-outs, not the cel-shaded technique that Disney popularized. So Snow White is still important). In the 1930s, animation was basically very silly 6-minute cartoons that ran as part of a larger program. They were often built around popular songs, ridiculous sight gags, and rarely had sustained stories. Disney's Silly Symphonies series exemplified this style of animation as well as any. Walt Disney's vision of a feature-length animated film with a sustained story that depended more on character and plot than gags was nothing short of revolutionary, and in fact, earned it the title "Walt's Folly" around Hollywood during its three-year production. The original script and scenario did actually depend a lot more on gags, focusing on the antics of the dwarfs (the spelling "dwarves" was not popularized until championed by Tolkien, whose seminal book The Hobbit also came out in 1937), and painting the witch and the prince as much more comic figures. Thankfully, Walt realized if this gamble was going to work, it had to hew more serious, a turn Disney was making even in its animated shorts (see The Old Mill under our blogger picks below). When finally released, the film was a massive success, and although Disney animation would hit several rough patches over the decades, the way forward had been set. - JandyGlobally Ranked #773
Ranked 356253 times by 52223 users
Wins 35% of its matchups
When Leo McCarey went up to the stage to accept his Academy Award for Best Director for The Awful Truth (see below), he said, thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong film. He was speaking of Make Way for Tomorrow, his other 1937 film, which could hardly be more different from the zany screwball classic he won for. Make Way for Tomorrow gives us a heartbreaking social problem that still rings true today - what do we do with the elderly when their children haven't time, space, or money to take care of them? I like to think we've become more humane now, but it's still not necessarily an easy thing to deal with. Here the older parents are played by great character actress Beulah Bondi and decent character actor Victor Moore (who's probably better here than anywhere else), both made up to appear even older than they were, who have their house repossessed and have to split up and go with two different children since none of their children have room for them both. Even taking care of one parent proves too much for these people, who... really, like, I'm trying hard to value their point of view, but they're often pretty much just awful people. The film could be simply depressing, but the last section gives our couple a long section to spend together, and it's like a bittersweet balm for the soul. Movies, especially in the classic era, rarely have much time for the elderly, but McCarey loves this couple, and you love them, too. It's beautiful and horrible and I'm not ashamed to say it utterly broke me. - JandyGlobally Ranked #746
Ranked 4738 times by 266 users
Wins 55% of its matchups
The screwball comedy got its start in 1934 (arguably - these things are always arguable) with It Happened One Night, and some might point to Bringing Up Baby as its apotheosis, but I'd give the title to The Awful Truth. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a feuding couple who start the divorce process early on in the film, but spend the waiting period sabotaging each other's new romances, ultimately unable to give each other up. It's the epitome of the battle of the sexes that's central to screwball, and Grant and especially Dunne go to absolutely crazy lengths in their quests to screw each other over, with the highlight being Dunne crashing a society party pretending to be Grant's Southern sister, complete with exaggerated accent. The insinuations of the final scene are pretty daring under the Production Code. - JandyGlobally Ranked #485
Ranked 13843 times by 802 users
Wins 55% of its matchups
Though WWII looms much larger in cinema post-1945, WWI was still a very fertile ground for films in 1937, especially as the next war started fomenting. Jean Renoir's classic WWI POW film is both a great film about the Great War and also a hopeless poetic cry against tyranny just as Hitler began plotting against neighboring countries. The "grand illusion" is the glory of war itself, an idea that had held sway over humanity for centuries, at least in the noble echelons of those who started wars. Any vestiges of the idea that war was glorious or honorable was shattered by the machine guns and trench warfare of WWI, and while Renoir here focuses on a POW camp rather than combat, he powerfully evokes the shifting dynamic from nobility to the working class through the German camp commander played by Erich von Stroheim, an old-school noble who feels more at home with a French prisoner of noble lineage than his own lower-class German guards. Main character Jean Gabin is decidedly working-class, and yet the most personally noble person here. The war is almost a backdrop here, but it's an ever-present one, and Renoir uses small moments and character beats to show not only the horrors of war and its aftermath, but also the death-knell of an entire society. - JandyGlobally Ranked #107
Ranked 25282 times by 1112 users
Wins 62% of its matchups
Nearly forgotten among Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' many pairings, Shall We Dance certainly doesn't have the staying power of a Top Hat or a Swing Time, but it still has more than enough to recommend it to any fan of musicals or dance. First off, Gershwin music. That's about enough right there. Second, Fred's version of a dance on roller skates - in fact, maybe the FIRST cinematic dance on roller skates, followed in the '50s by Donald O'Connor and then Gene Kelly. Third, a pretty decent plot (Fred-Ginger films aren't known for them) culminating in a lovely, if gimmicky, dance where a lovelorn Fred dances with dozens of girls holding up Ginger faces, only to have Ginger secretly step in as one of them. It's all very frothy, as these things are, but a solid entry in the Fred-Ginger filmography.
Globally Ranked #2273
Ranked 3703 times by 235 users
Wins 54% of its matchups
The Old Mill, at 26 on my chart, is my highest-ranked Disney animation film. It is nine minutes of wonder, suspense, and pure delight, and one of the most ground-breaking films in the history of animation, depicting the denizens of a derelict mill as they weather a violent storm. Directed by Wilfred Jackson and produced by Walt himself, from the opening shot of sunlight reflecting on a gently swaying spiderweb, through the rain and wind and lightning of the storm, The Old Mill is a master-class of effects animation and wordless storytelling. Building on the level of characterization Disney had pioneered since Three Little Pigs in 1933, the animals living in the old mill have distinct personalities. Long-gone are the cartoonish, rubbery animal antics of the Ub Iwerks days, favoring instead the kind of insight into realistic animal behavior and natural phenomena that would serve Disney animators so well a little over a half-century later in The Lion King. Leigh Harline's musical score seems born of the environment itself—frogs and crickets, cattails against fence slats, slamming shutters and shingles and wind moaning through dead trees. The Old Mill deservedly won an Academy Award as the best animated short film of 1937, was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, and is widely considered by industry professionals to be one of the greatest cartoons ever made. Every second, every frame, deserves study, and the film itself ought to be seen by all, from the animation buff to the casual viewer.
Globally Ranked #4992
Ranked 3646 times by 147 users
Wins 47% of its matchups
Laurel and Hardy's primary medium will always be the two-reeler talkie, where they best cultivated their unique magical comic rhythms, and which needn't be overly concerned with plot to find motivation for the gags. Their feature films often suffer from an unfortunate heaviness, a sense of dread and exhaustion as the audience is dragged through perhaps a few too many "nice messes," as whatever bizarrely twee plot is played out. But Way Out West manages to avoid this fate, by deftly balancing scene against scene with alternating and complementary feels: scenes mainly about the plot are followed by long-form sight gags, wordplay-heavy scenes come right before acts of outrageous violence, the boys reacting to other people are interleaved with scenes involving just them by themselves, as they quietly cope with and puzzle out the inanities of everyday life. Every brilliant tool in the L&H toolbox is brought out for display, each in, if not the best examples, at least their more superlative forms. And as a bonus, we have some broad, cinematic treats which would simply not be possible under the constraints of a short-subject: Ollie's extraordinarily beautiful tenor voice, simultaneously beatific and still somehow hilarious for being in such unexpected contrast to his appearance; James Finlayson at his most d'oh-ing Finlaysonest, bounding about with a shotgun for what seems like hours, with an exuberance that would make Yosemite Sam a little uneasy; and most of all, a soft-shoe dance number on an unpaved street, which exceeds, just in terms of its length and audacity of absurdity, almost any single scene in the entire Laurel and Hardy canon. We have here our Boys at the absolute peak of their powers, putting on a clinic of funny, many components of which belonged to previous eras even then, but which nevertheless radiate the powerful and unmistakable charm of comic genius.
Globally Ranked #3519
Ranked 4402 times by 173 users
Wins 48% of its matchups
I had never even heard of this film before being assigned it as part of a movie challenge, and I'm so glad I got to watch it. It's based on a play, and you can feel that theatricality in the depth of characterization and the fact that nearly the whole story takes place in one room. It's a murder mystery, so I'll keep the plot vague to avoid spoilers, but what really shines here is not the mystery but the abundance of incredible performances in all three of the leads. Rosalind Russell may be more familiar for her confident, witty roles in films like His Girl Friday. Here she is nervous and shy to an almost crippling point, but as the story goes on that nervousness makes way for something far more interesting. Dame May Whitty reprises her stage role as Russell's ever-demanding aunt, and got an Oscar nomination for her role. But it's Robert Montgomery who surpasses them both as the charming-but-perhaps-dangerous new servant, and his performance is entirely mesmerizing (and won him the movie's other Oscar nomination). My first thoughts after the credits rolled were, "I think I now have to go watch everything he was ever in." The mystery ending is not terribly surprising, but the narrative here serves the characters and the actors, and the film does not let you down on that front.
Globally Ranked #10497
Ranked 445 times by 25 users
Wins 59% of its matchups
David - The Good Earth
For at least twenty-five years, the quarter of the 20th century between about 1931 and the mid-1950s, the names "Pearl S. Buck" and The Good Earth could be expected to bring misty tears to the eyes of politically-conscious Americans of an internationalist persuasion. This was the novel, and later the movie, that packaged for American consumption a relatable and comprehensible myth - a myth that was true enough in the broad strokes - of the hard-working, tradition-loving, family-oriented, economically-striving Chinese peasant farmer. That this myth existed and was cherished by activist Americans is a crucial fact of mid-century American history, when ordinary Chinese (the ones in China; the ones in the States were all but cordoned off in the corners of major American cities) were "the good Asians," and the warlike Japanese and later the Soviet-backed Communists were "the bad." This fact helps to explain our stance towards China in the 1930s and 40s, Taiwan in the 1950s, and even our compulsion to intervene in Vietnam in the 1960s. This wasn't all Buck and her book's doing, of course, but echoes of her narrative reverberated in the pages of TIME magazine and governmental policy papers for years. It also echoed on the big screen in movies like The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Barbara Stanwyck), Dragon Seed (Katharine Hepburn), and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Ingrid Bergman). Is all of this context necessary to appreciate The Good Earth? Yes and no. The film stands alone as a massive production of the Hollywood studio system, an epic story of a family's rise and fall, a movie about conflict and survival. It features one of the best special-effects scenes of the 1930s - a locust plague that decimates a village's crops - and its costar Luise Rainer and cinematographer Karl Freund justly won Academy Awards. Yet it also presents a challenge for politically-conscious 21st-century Americans, just as it attracted 20th-century ones: it's a distractingly whitewashed movie that relies extensively on "yellowface." If context can help you stomach that embarrassment, The Good Earth has plenty.
Globally Ranked #7657
Ranked 1622 times by 93 users
Wins 39% of its matchups
What are your top-ranked films from 1937? Tell us in the comments below!
Jandy is especially drawn to classic, off-beat, and foreign film, but loves a good blockbuster action sequence, too. You can find her on Flickchart as faithx5. She also writes at The Frame, and co-hosts the occasional podcast Not at Odds at Row Three.