Hollywood's Leading Ladies of the 1930's

Not only some of the best actresses of this decade, but also some of the most profitable actresses of their time.
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Claudette Colbert
One of the brightest film stars to grace the screen was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin on September 13, 1903, in Saint Mandé, France where her father owned a bakery at 57, rue de la République (now Avenue Général de Gaulle). The family moved to the United States when she was three. As Claudette grew up...
“ A French born American film actress that started out in Broadway. She signed a contract in 1928 with Paramount Pictures and made several films, but it wasn't until 1934, with It Happened One Night that she cemented herself as one of Hollywood's most profitable actresses. The film was Paramount Pictures' biggest success until the 1980's. ” - sweetlittlepie
Jean Arthur
This marvelous screen comedienne's best asset was only muffled during her seven years' stint in silent films. That asset? It was, of course, her squeaky, frog-like voice, which silent-era cinema audiences had simply no way of perceiving, much less appreciating. Jean Arthur, born Gladys Georgianna Greene in upstate New York...
“ Known for her screwball comedies. She portrayed the everyday heroine in Frank Capra's classics Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). She was a very private and reclusive person, refusing to do any kind of publicity and declining interviews. ” - sweetlittlepie
Irene Dunne
Irene Marie Dunne was born on December 20, 1898, in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the daughter of Joseph Dunne, who inspected steamships, and Adelaide Henry, a musician who prompted Irene in the arts. Her first production was in Louisville when she appeared in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the age of five...
“ Born in Louisville, Kentucky; she started out her career in musical theater before making her film debut in 1930. She made several film classics, like Cimarron (1931), Back Street (1932), Show Boat (1936), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937) and Love Affair (1939), among many others. ” - sweetlittlepie
Katharine Hepburn
Born May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the daughter of a doctor and a suffragette, both of whom always encouraged her to speak her mind, develop it fully, and exercise her body to its full potential. An athletic tomboy as a child, she was also very close to her brother, Tom, and was devastated at age 14 to find him dead...
“ Named by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star in Hollywood history. She was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years. Her breakthrough role came in 1932 with the melodrama A Bill of Divorcement, which brought her critical acclaim and made her an instant star. She had several hit films in this decade, though she suffered a brief period when she, along with several other Hollywood stars, was labelled "box office poison". However, she was able to make a comeback by the early 1940's. ” - sweetlittlepie
Loretta Young
Sweet, sweeter, sweetest. No combination of terms better describes the screen persona of lovely Loretta Young. A&E's Biography has stated that Young "remains a symbol of beauty, serenity, and grace. But behind the glamor and stardom is a woman of substance whose true beauty lies in her dedication to her family...
“ Even though her career began before the 1930's, she was at her most active during this decade making more than fifty films from 1930 to 1939. In the fifties, she made her move to television where she had an anthology series called The Loretta Young Show. ” - sweetlittlepie
Carole Lombard
Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on October 6, 1908. Her parents divorced in 1916 and her mother took the family on a trip out West. While there they decided to settle down in the Los Angeles area. After being spotted playing baseball in the street with the neighborhood boys by a film director...
“ Notable for her roles in screwball comedies during this decade. She was the highest paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930's. Her biggest successes being Twentieth Century (1934), opposite John Barrymore, and My Man Godfrey (1936), opposite her ex-husband, William Powell. Unfortunately, her career and life was cut short by a plane crash in 1942. She was 33 years old at the time of her death. ” - sweetlittlepie
Greta Garbo
Actress, Ninotchka
Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden, to Anna Lovisa (Johansdotter), who worked at a jam factory, and Karl Alfred Gustafsson, a laborer. She was fourteen when her father died, which left the family destitute. Greta was forced to leave school and go to work in a department store...
“ A Swedish film actress and international icon. She started out her career in the 1920's during the silent film era. In the 1930's she was one of the few silent film stars to make the successful transition into "talkies". Her first "talkie" was Anna Christie (1930), it was a critical success and became the highest grossing film of the year. During this era she had a fanatical world wide following. This phenomenon, known as "Garbomania", reached its peak in 1931 with the releases of Mata Hari and Grand Hotel. Both films were huge successes both critically and financially. Her biggest hits in this decade also include, Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939). ” - sweetlittlepie
Rosalind Russell
The middle of seven children, she was named after the S.S. Rosalind at the suggestion of her father, a successful lawyer. After receiving a Catholic school education, she went to the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, having convinced her mother that she intended to teach acting. In 1934...
“ An American film and stage actress. Some of her film credits during this decade include, Rendezvous (1935), Craig's Wife (1936), Night Must Fall (1937) and the star studded, The Women (1939), opposite Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard. ” - sweetlittlepie
Joan Bennett
Actress, Dark Shadows
Eighteen-year-old Joan Bennett had intended to avoid the Bennett tradition of acting but, divorced and with a child to support, had little choice; she accepted a role in her father's play "Jarnegan", then her first leading film role in Bulldog Drummond. Her popularity growing, she made 14 films under a Fox contract...
“ She started out her career as a stage actress before making the leap into film. Several of her hits include She Wanted a Millionaire (1932) and Me and My Gal (1932) both opposite Spencer Tracy. She also played Amy in Little Women (1933). ” - sweetlittlepie
Norma Shearer
Actress, The Women
She won a beauty contest at age fourteen. In 1920 her mother, Edith Shearer, took Norma and her sister Athole Shearer (Mrs. Howard Hawks) to New York. Ziegfeld rejected her for his "Follies," but she got work as an extra in several movies. She spent much money on eye doctor's services trying to correct her cross-eyed stare caused by a muscle weakness...
“ One of the most popular actresses of her time. She won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee (1930). ” - sweetlittlepie
Mary Astor
Her German immigrant father pushed her into a beauty contest at 14 and her first movie Sentimental Tommy at 15. After a number of minor parts she starred in John Barrymore's Beau Brummel. She had a lively affair with Barrymore, over with before she starred a second time with him, in Don Juan...
“ Like Garbo, she was able to make a successful transition from silent films to "talkies". Some of her hits in the 1930's include Red Dust (1932), The Kennel Murder Case (1933) and The Hurricane (1937). ” - sweetlittlepie
Jean Harlow
Harlean Carpenter, who later became Jean Harlow, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1911. She was the daughter of a successful dentist and his wife. In 1927, at the age of 16, she ran away from home to marry a young businessman named Charles McGrew, who was 23. The couple pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles...
“ An American film actress and sex symbol of the 1930's. Her film debut came when she replaced actress Greta Nissen in Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels (1930). She found stardom with MGM during 1932 and 1936, even though Louis B. Mayer was originally against the idea of signing her because he found her "floozy". Her career was cut short when she died in 1937 at the age of 26. ” - sweetlittlepie
Marlene Dietrich
Marie Magdelene Dietrich von Losch (aka Marlene) was born in Berlin, Germany on December 27, 1901. Her father was an army officer who had served in the Franco-Prussian War. Because of his constant absences from the family due to his army duties, Marlene and the rest had to rely on themselves. When he died...
“ A German-born American actress, known for her exotic androgynous look. She broke through with her role as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930). The role brought her worldwide recognition. She made several hit films during this decade, including, Morocco (1930), Blonde Venus (1932) and Shanghai Express (1932). She was one of the highest paid actresses of the era. Though for a brief period she was labelled "box office poison". However, she was able to make a comeback in 1939 with the western Destry Rides Again, opposite Jimmy Stewart. ” - sweetlittlepie
Clara Bow
Actress, Wings
Clara Bow was born in a run-down tenement in old Brooklyn, to a schizophrenic Mother and a chronically destitute, physically abusive father. As a child, she was a tomboy and played games in the streets with the boys; since her clothes were so ragged and dirty other girl children wouldn't play with her...
“ Though her biggest success came in the "roaring twenties", she was able to transition smoothly from silent films to "talkies" and thus she was able to maintain her position as a top-box office draw and queen of Hollywood during the early 1930's. Though not as widely remembered as Greta Garbo or Lillian Gish, she was more popular in terms of box office dollars and consistently bringing audiences into theaters. ” - sweetlittlepie
Barbara Stanwyck
Today Barbara Stanwyck is remembered primarily as the matriarch of the family known as the Barkleys on the TV western The Big Valley, wherein she played Victoria, and from the hit drama The Colbys. But she was known to millions of other fans for her movie career, which spanned the period from 1927 until 1964...
“ She made several films with legendary directors, Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang and Frank Capra. She started out her career in Broadway as a Ziegfeld girl before eventually making her way into film. Several of her hit films in this decade include Ladies of Leisure (1930), Annie Oakley (1935) and Stella Dallas (1937). ” - sweetlittlepie
Janet Gaynor
Actress, Sunrise
After graduating from high school in San Francisco, Janet moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at a Hollywood secretarial college. Eager to get into movies, she started working as an extra in comedy shorts. In 1925, she was hired by Fox and was cast in The Johnstown Flood. In 1927 she appeared in 7th Heaven as Diane and Sunrise as the wife in danger...
“ One of the most popular actresses of the silent era, she made the transition to sound films as the primary actress for Fox Studios. Her most popular role came in 1937, in the film A Star Is Born, opposite Fredric Marsh. The role brought her notable success. ” - sweetlittlepie
Miriam Hopkins
Born into wealth in Savannah,Georgia on October 18, 1902, Ellen Miriam Hopkins was able to attend the finest educational institutions including Goddard Seminary in Plainfield, Vermont and Syracuse University in New York State. Studying dance in New York , she received her first taste of show business as a chorus girl at twenty...
“ Known for her versatility, she had an illustrious career in the 1930's. ” - sweetlittlepie
Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon was born in Bombay, of mixed Welsh-Indian parentage, as Estelle "Queenie" Thompson. According to Michael Korda, she "became a feature of Bombay nightlife while still in her early teens and eventually made her way to England as the girlfriend of a wealthy young Englishman." In London she...
“ She began her acting career in Britain before moving to the United States to make her debut in Hollywood. Her most famous role was that of Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939), opposite Laurence Olivier. ” - sweetlittlepie
Luise Rainer
Luise Rainer, the first thespian to win back-to-back Oscars, was born on January 12, 1910 in Dusseldorf, Germany, into a prosperous Jewish family. Her parents were Emilie (Königsberger) and Heinrich Rainer, a businessman. She took to the stage, and plied her craft on the boards in Germany. As a young actress...
“ She was the first actress to win two consecutive Oscars. Though her career soon declined after this. She later remarked that her Oscar wins were the worst thing to happen to her career. ” - sweetlittlepie
Dolores del Rio
Dolores del Rio was the first Mexican movie star with international appeal and had a meteoric career in 1920s Hollywood (an extraordinary accomplishment for an Hispanic female on those years). She came from an aristocratic family in Durango. In the Mexican revolution of 1916, however, the family lost everything they had and emigrated to Mexico City...
“ A groundbreaking Mexican actress. She was the first Latin American film star to be recognized internationally. Even though not as popular in her native Mexico as Maria Felix, she can be considered the most popular Mexican actress of her time due to her ability to crossover into Hollywood, something which Felix couldn't accomplish. She had several successful films in this decade, including Birds of Paradise (1932) and Flying Down to Rio (1933). ” - sweetlittlepie
Joan Blondell
Actress, Grease
With blonde hair, big blue eyes and a big smile, Joan was usually cast as the wisecracking working girl who was the lead's best friend. Born into vaudeville to a comic named Eddie, Joan was on the stage when she was three years old. For years, she toured the circuit with her parents and joined a stock company when she was 17...
“ Born in New York City to a vaudeville family. She appeared in more than 100 movies and television productions during her career. She made several films with James Cagney, including The Public Enemy (1931) and Footlight Parade (1933). ” - sweetlittlepie
Dorothy Lamour
Actress, Road to Bali
In addition to being Miss New Orleans in 1931, Dorothy Lamour worked as a Chicago elevator operator; band vocalist for her first husband, band leader Herbie Kaye; and radio performer. In 1936 she donned her soon-to-be-famous sarong for her debut at Paramount, The Jungle Princess, and continued to play female Tarzan-Crusoe-Gauguin-girl-with make-up parts through the war years and beyond...
“ Best remembered for appearing in the Road to... movies, a series of successful comedies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. ” - sweetlittlepie
Lupe Velez
Together with Dolores del Rio, Ramon Novarro, Lupe Velez and José Mojica as among the few Mexican people who made history in the early years of Hollywood. Vélez career began in Mexico City, where she lived with her mother and sisters. In 1925, while working in a clothes store, Vélez caught the attention of three theatrical managers who were impressed by her beauty and grace...
“ Much like Dolores del Rio, she was one of the first Latin American actresses to break into Hollywood. She started out in bit parts in Hollywood productions before she progressed into leading roles. She made several comedies in this decade, and was known as "The Mexican Spitfire". ” - sweetlittlepie
Mae West
Actress, I'm No Angel
Mary Jane West was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 17, 1893, to parents involved in prizefighting and vaudeville. Mae herself worked on the stage and in vaudeville from the time she was five years old. She never was academically inclined because she was too busy performing. She studied dance as a child...
“ One of the biggest sex symbols of her era. She started in two films with Cary Grant, She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I'm No Angel (1933), the latter became the most profitable film of her career. By 1933, she was the eight largest U.S. box office draw. ” - sweetlittlepie
Kay Francis
Kay Francis is possibly the biggest of the 'forgotten stars' from Hollywood's Golden Era, yet, for a while in the 1930s, she ranked as one of the most popular actresses, tagged the 'Queen of Warner Brothers', by 1935 earning a yearly salary of $115,000 (compared to Bette Davis with $18,000). The daughter of actress Katherine Clinton and businessman Joseph Gibbs...
“ She achieved her greatest success between 1930 and 1936. During this time she was the number one female star at Warner Brothers and was the highest paid film actress. ” - sweetlittlepie
Fay Wray
Actress, King Kong
She was born Vina Fay Wray near Cardston, Alberta, Canada, on September 15, 1907. Fay was from a large family that included five siblings. She moved to Arizona when she was still small in order for her father to find better work than what was offered in Alberta. After moving again to California, her parents divorced...
“ Perhaps best known for playing the female lead in King Kong (1933). Arguably the most famous horror film actress of her time. Her career spanned over 57 years. ” - sweetlittlepie
Myrna Loy
Myrna Loy was born Myrna Adele Williams on August 2, 1905 in Helena, Montana, to Adelle Mae (Johnson) and David Franklin Williams. Her paternal grandparents were Welsh, and her mother was of Scottish and Swedish descent. Myrna was raised in Helena and nearby Radersburg. Her father, a rancher, was the youngest person ever elected to the Montana State legislature...
“ Born in Helena, Montana, like a lot of other actresses on this list she started out in silent films before making the transition to sound. Her big break came in 1934 with the film The Thin Man, this was one of the biggest films of its year and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film. Loy and her co-star, William Powell, proved to be so popular together that they were paired up again for another 13 films, becoming one of the most prolific pairings in Hollywood history. She also made four films with Clark Gable. ” - sweetlittlepie
Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple was easily the most popular and famous child star of all time. She got her start in the movies at the age of three and soon progressed to super stardom. Shirley could do it all: act, sing and dance and all at the age of five! Fans loved her as she was bright, bouncy and cheerful in her...
“ The most famous child actress of the 1930's, and one of the most famous child actresses of all time. She was the top box office draw four years in a row (1935-38). During the years she was active she made many hit films, including, Curly Top (1935) and Heidi (1937). ” - sweetlittlepie
Margaret Sullavan
Born in Norfolk, Virginia to wealthy stockbroker Cornelius Hancock Sullavan and heiress Garland Council Sullavan, Margaret Brooke overcame a muscle weakness in her childhood to go on to become a rebellious teenager at posh private schools. She went on to perform with the University Players at Harvard and made her Broadway debut in Hello...
“ An American stage and film actress. She worked on four films with James Stewart, a partnership that proved popular. In 1938, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film Three Comrades. ” - sweetlittlepie
Ginger Rogers
Actress, Top Hat
Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri on July 16, 1911. Her mother, known as Lelee, went to Independence to have Ginger away from her husband. She had a baby earlier in their marriage and he allowed the doctor to use forceps and the baby died. She was kidnapped by her father several times until her mother took him to court...
“ An American actress, singer and dancer, who made over 73 films during her long career. Her fame came when she was paired up with Fred Astaire in ten musical films as his romantic lead and dancing partner. Together the two revolutionized the genre. Among the classics she made with Astaire, the most memorable are: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1935), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938). ” - sweetlittlepie
Bette Davis
Actress, All About Eve
Ruth Elizabeth Davis was born April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, to Ruth Augusta (Favor) and Harlow Morrell Davis, a patent attorney. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She and her sister were raised by their mother. Her early interest was dance. To Bette, dancers led a glamorous life, but then she discovered the stage...
“ Davis' career took off in the mid 1930's with her critically acclaimed role as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1934), the fact that she was not nominated for an Academy Award for her groundbreaking performance caused outrage among the public, critics and fellow actors. This lead to a change in Academy voting procedures. She followed her success with strong performances in Dangerous (1935), for which she won her first Academy Award, and The Petrified Forest (1936), alongside Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. Her role as a spoiled Southern belle in Jezebel (1938), not only earned her a second Academy Award, but it also marked the beginning of the most successful phase of her career. She made other hit films before the end of this decade including: Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). ” - sweetlittlepie
Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1905, in San Antonio, Texas, to Anna Belle (Johnson) and Thomas E. LeSueur, a laundry laborer. By the time she was born, her parents had separated, and by the time she was a teenager, she'd had three stepfathers. It wasn't an easy life; Crawford worked a variety of menial jobs...
“ Crawford started out her career in silent films before making a successful transition to sound. She proved to be a highly successful film star of the new era of sound pictures. In 1931, she starred opposite Clark Gable in the film Possessed. She followed this with a supporting role in the star studded Grand Hotel (1932), the film was a huge success. In 1933, she received top-billing in Dancing Lady (1933) which reunited her with Clark Gable. Life magazine named her the first "Queen of the Movies" in 1937, though soon after this her popularity began to decline. Crawford was labelled "box office poison" in 1938 by the Independent Film Journal, alongside other stars whose popularity was on the decline and had made several box office bombs. However, like most stars on the list, she was able to make a successful comeback in The Women (1939). ” - sweetlittlepie