Hollywood's Leading Ladies of the 1930's

by sweetlittlepie | created - 28 Oct 2013 | updated - 04 Dec 2013 | Public

Not only some of the best actresses of this decade, but also some of the most profitable actresses of their time.

1. Claudette Colbert

Actress | It Happened One Night

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 ...

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.

2. Jean Arthur

Actress | Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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 ...

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.

3. Irene Dunne

Actress | The Awful Truth

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...

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.

4. Katharine Hepburn

Actress | The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut to a suffragist and a doctor who both 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 very close to her brother Tom; at 14 she was ...

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.

5. Loretta Young

Actress | The Stranger

Sweet, sweeter, sweetest. No combination of terms better describes the screen persona of lovely Loretta Young. A&E's Biography (1987) has stated that Young "remains a symbol of beauty, serenity, and grace. But behind the glamour and stardom is a woman of substance whose true beauty lies in her ...

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.

6. Carole Lombard

Actress | To Be or Not to Be

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 ...

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.

7. 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 ...

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).

8. Rosalind Russell

Actress | Auntie Mame

The middle of seven children, she was named, not for the heroine of "As You Like It" but for the S.S. Rosalind on which her parents had sailed, 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 ...

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.

9. Joan Bennett

Actress | Suspiria

Joan Geraldine Bennett was born on February 27, 1910, in Palisades, New Jersey. Her parents were both successful stage actors, especially her father, Richard Bennett, and often toured the country for weeks at a time. In fact, Joan came from a long line of actors, dating back to the 18th century. ...

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).

10. Norma Shearer

Actress | The Divorcee

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 ...

One of the most popular actresses of her time. She won an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee (1930).

11. Mary Astor

Actress | The Maltese Falcon

Mary Astor was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois to a German immigrant father, Otto Ludwig Langhanke, and an American mother from Illinois, Helen Marie Vasconcellos, of Portuguese and Irish ancestry. Her parents were very ambitious for her as they recognized ...

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).

12. Jean Harlow

Actress | Suzy

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 ...

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.

13. Marlene Dietrich

Soundtrack | Witness for the Prosecution

Her father was a police lieutenant and imbued in her a military attitude to life. Marlene was known in school for her "bedroom eyes" and her first affairs were at this stage in her life - a professor at the school was terminated. She entered the cabaret scene in 1920s Germany, first as a spectator ...

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.

14. Clara Bow

Actress | Wings

Clara Gordon Bow, destined to become "The It Girl", was born on July 29, 1905 in Brooklyn, New York, and was raised in poverty and violence. Her often absentee and brutish father could not or did not provide and her schizophrenic mother tried to slit Clara's throat when the girl spoke of becoming ...

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.

15. Barbara Stanwyck

Actress | Double Indemnity

Today Barbara Stanwyck is remembered primarily as the matriarch of the family known as the Barkleys on the TV western The Big Valley (1965), wherein she played Victoria, and from the hit drama The Colbys (1985). But she was known to millions of other fans for her movie career, which spanned the ...

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).

16. Janet Gaynor

Actress | A Star Is Born

Janet Gaynor was born Laura Gainor on October 6, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child, she & her parents moved to San Francisco, California, where she graduated from high school in 1923. She then moved to Los Angeles where she enrolled in a secretarial school. She got a job at a shoe ...

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.

17. Miriam Hopkins

Actress | The Heiress

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 ...

Known for her versatility, she had an illustrious career in the 1930's.

18. Merle Oberon

Actress | Wuthering Heights

Estelle Merle Thompson was born in India on February 19, 1911 of Welsh and Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) descent. She was educated in that country until the age of 17, when she left for London. She began her career in British films with mostly forgettable roles or bit parts. She appeared in an ...

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.

19. Luise Rainer

Actress | The Great Ziegfeld

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 ...

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.

20. Dolores del Rio

Actress | Las abandonadas

Dolores del Rio was the one of the first Mexican movie stars with international appeal and who had meteoric career in the 1920s/1930s Hollywood. Del Rio came from an aristocratic family in Durango. In the Mexican revolution of 1916, however, the family lost everything 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).

21. Joan Blondell

Actress | Grease

With blonde hair, big blue eyes and a big smile, Joan Blondell was usually cast as the wisecracking working girl who was the lead's best friend.

Joan was born Rose Blondell in Manhattan, New York, the daughter of Katie and Eddie Blondell, who were vaudeville performers. Her father was a Polish ...

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).

22. Dorothy Lamour

Actress | Donovan's Reef

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 (1936), and ...

Best remembered for appearing in the Road to... movies, a series of successful comedies with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

23. Lupe Velez

Actress | Mexican Spitfire

Lupe Velez was born on July 18, 1908, in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, as Maria Guadalupe Villalobos Velez. She was sent to Texas at the age of 13 to live in a convent. She later admitted that she wasn't much of a student because she was so rambunctious. She had planned to become a champion roller ...

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".

24. Mae West

Actress | She Done Him Wrong

Mae West was born August 17, 1893 in Brooklyn, New York, to "Battling Jack" West and Matilda Doelger. She began her career as a child star in vaudeville, and later went on to write her own plays, including "SEX", for which she was arrested. Though her first movie role, at age 40, was a small part ...

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.

25. Kay Francis

Actress | Mandalay

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 ...

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.

26. Fay Wray

Actress | King Kong

Canadian-born Fay Wray was brought up in Los Angeles and entered films at an early age. She was barely in her teens when she started working as an extra. She began her career as a heroine in westerns at Universal during the silent era. In 1926 the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers ...

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.

27. Myrna Loy

Actress | The Thin Man

Myrna Williams, later to become Myrna Loy, was born on August 2, 1905 in Helena, Montana. Her father was the youngest person ever elected to the Montana State legislature. Later on her family moved to Radersburg where she spent her youth on a cattle ranch. At the age of 13, Myrna's father died of ...

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.

28. Shirley Temple

Actress | The Little Colonel

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 ...

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).

29. Margaret Sullavan

Actress | The Shop Around the Corner

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 ...

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.

30. Ginger Rogers

Actress | Kitty Foyle

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 ...

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).

31. 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...

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).

32. Joan Crawford

Actress | What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Joan Crawford was born Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23, 1904, 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 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).

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