By John H. Foote

The art of film acting was evolving in the 30s and did not reach its peak until the 50s with the explosive arrival of Marlon Brando. With the introduction of sound, Hollywood began looting the Broadway stage for actors with effective voices such as Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, elevating the art of acting and ending many silent film actors’ careers. Thus began a new art form in the movies. Initially the results were mixed as screenwriters wrote too much so that actors were always talking, never listening, and speaking at rapid fire-speed that was unnatural. But directors like Frank Capra and John Ford found that when acting was more realistic, the performances were much stronger.

Women became a serious draw for audiences, sometimes even more than their male counterparts. Vivien Leigh’s astounding work as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) remains to this day one of the finest performances ever put on the screen. Through the 30s and 40s, you can see clearly the craft evolving. And no, you will find no Laurence Olivier performances here. You never will.

1. VIVIEN LEIGH IN GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) – Cast after an agonizing search, Leigh proved two things as Scarlett: one, she was born to play the role and two, a woman could carry a film. The British actress slipped into the role of the Southerner prepared to do anything and everything to survive the Civil War and its aftermath, Leigh is astounding. To this day, 83 years later, this is still one of the greatest screen performances ever given by a woman. Fearless in her work, she had no problem with Scarlett being a vile human being, bringing an authenticity to the film that was absolutely needed. Stunning.

Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind

2. JAMES STEWART IN MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) – Before Marlon Brando, the greatest actor in movies was James Stewart and until 1946, this was his finest performance. As naive idealist Jefferson Smith, a junior senator recently elected to Washington, he arrives filled with hope. Very quickly he realizes that Washington is filled with corruption, and he is attacked for his decency and accused of wrongdoing. His filibuster speech on the floor of the Congress Building is electrifying and superbly acted. No one captured basic human decency better than Stewart.

James Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington

3. BETTE DAVIS IN JEZEBEL (1939) – Like Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis was a fearless actress, unafraid of playing women who walked the line of society and the bounds of decency. As a spoiled Southern belle, knowing she will be an immediate scandal, she wears a flaming red gown to a ball and is at once considered a jezebel and abandoned by all who had previously cared for her. She refuses to apologize, but still scratches and crawls her way back. It is a towering performance that tells us she might have been an excellent Scarlett too.

Bette Davis and George Brent in Dark Victory

4. MARGARET HAMILTON in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – The stuff of nightmares, Hamilton terrorized more than Dorothy. The first time I saw it, she sent me scampering from the living room to hide under my covers as the camera closed in on her maniacally laughing face. As the Wicked Witch of the West, the fact she wanted a child dead was one matter, but then to want to kill her dog? A witch indeed and a brilliant performance that should have won her an Oscar. Darkly brilliant.

Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz

5. CHARLES CHAPLIN IN CITY LIGHTS (1931) — Chaplin understood that his tramp did not need to speak, so he made a silent film as talkies were taking over film in the 30s. As the gentle tramp trying to help a blind flower girl regain her sight, he gave his greatest performance, beautifully balancing his physical comedy with the superb mime skills that he mastered in silent film. The final scene, after the girl realizes her benefactor is not a rich benefactor but rather a good man who loves her, the camera closes in on the greatest smile and closeup in film history. To this day, I weep.

Virginia Cherrill and Charles Chaplin in City Lights

6. CLARK GABLE IN GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) – From the second it was announced a film version of the best seller was coming, audiences stated they would accept only Gable as the rakish Rhett Butler. The rogue finds his humanity watching the Southern gentleman march off to certain death and becomes the man we suspect he could. The love story is superb, and we sense his defeat after his daughter dies. That final goodbye with Scarlett where he tells her “I don’t give a damn” and walks away into the fog remains etched in our minds. A brilliant performance perfectly matched with Leigh.

Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind

7. BERT LAHR, JACK HALEY, and RAY BOLGER IN THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – The trio can never be broken up because they work perfectly as a whole, each in their own unique way. Lahr gets the biggest belly laughs as the Cowardly Lion, who despite that fear marches into certain death to save Dorothy, while Bolger evolves beautifully as the smartest of the group despite the fact he has no brains. And Haley, the gentle Tin Man weeps easily because his heart, which the tinsmith forgot to give him, is in fact just too big. Like Dorothy, they each have what they want, they just need to realize it. All three deserved Oscar nominations, with the edge going to Lahr.

Bert Lahr Ray Bolger and Jack Haley in The Wizard of Oz

8. KATHERINE HEPBURN IN BRINGING UP BABY (1938) – As she aged into a startling dramatic actress, it is often forgotten that in her early career, Hepburn was a superb light comedian. Her skills might never have been better displayed than in this wonderful film with Cary Grant. In the picture, she and Grant are tasked with babysitting a leopard, and all hell breaks loose. Hepburn bounces around the screen with Lucille Ball like energy and that trademark Hepburn intellect. It is a wonderful, silly film anchored in every way by the star’s perfect performance.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby

9. CHARLES LAUGHTON IN THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) – As Quasimodo, the hero of Victor Hugo’s classic Beauty and the Beast tale, Charles Laughton is utterly breathtaking. His task was not small, as he had to surpass the work of Lon Chaney Sr. in the 1923 version, and he did just that. His features twisted and grotesque, Laughton slips into the character with unabashed brilliance and gives an astounding physical performance, as he captures the wounded soul of the Hunchback. Again, a nomination was deserved.

Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

10. BORIS KARLOFF IN THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – What? Karloff? Yes, he deserves to be on this list. The gentle Englishman was astounding as the creation of Frankenstein, a towering monster who did not prove his master could create life but more that he could animate the dead. In the first part of the film, we watch him wreak havoc as he escapes the castle and the torture placed upon him by his vile keeper. He wanders the countryside, accidentally killing a child making him a wanted man. Though we believe he perishes in a fire, this sequel lets us know he is alive and well. Once again, roaming the forests, he meets an old blind hermit and makes a friend, learns to speak and think.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein

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