Top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1930s

Written by Sean Harris There may have been a depression on, but there was nothing to feel glum about when these guys were on the screen! Join WatchMojo.com as we count down our picks for the top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1930s! For our series on the Top 10 Decade Defining Male Actors Per Period, we’ve made our choices based on a combination of their commercial success, their box-office scores, their productivity, their awards and how they helped set the tone and raise the standard in Hollywood for the era. If you want to see one of your ideas become a WatchMojo video, be sure to submit it through our Suggestions Tool at WatchMojo.comSuggest
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Written by Sean Harris

Top Ten Decade Defining Actors of the 1930s


There may have been a depression on, but there was nothing to feel glum about when these guys were on the screen! Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 Decade Defining Actors of the 1930s!

For our series on the Top 10 Decade Defining Male Actors Per Period, we’ve made our choices based on a combination of their commercial success, their box-office scores, their productivity, their awards and how they helped set the tone and raise the standard in Hollywood for the era.

#10: Robert Taylor
1911 - 1969

In 1934, Taylor signed for movie giants, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and within a year he’d secured his first leading role in “The Magnificent Obsession.” An appropriately titled first gig, Taylor would soon be idolized by moviegoers and prioritized by moviemakers! As ‘The Man with the Perfect Profile,’ he starred alongside some of the finest actresses of the day like Greta Gabo in “Camille” and Vivien Leigh in the British comedy, “A Yank at Oxford.” Taylor had true talent, and everyone wanted a piece of it!

#9: Mickey Rooney
1920 - 2014

It’s an almost impossible task to choose just ten out of the 90 years Mickey Rooney performed, but if he defined any decade, it was the 1930s! This was where it all began for Rooney. A role as Andy Hardy in “A Family Affair” landed him an unexpected franchise success, and a part in “Boys Town” with Spencer Tracy proved his dramatic credentials. However, the young Mickey Rooney will always be remembered alongside a young Judy Garland for his Oscar-nominated turn in “Babes in Arms.”

#8: James Cagney
1899 - 1986

Orson Welles said of this man that he ‘maybe the greatest actor who ever appeared in front of a camera,’ so James Cagney’s inclusion on our countdown is heavily justified! During the ‘30s, he most found fame by appearing as gangsters and tough guys – “The Public Enemy” and “Angels with Dirty Faces” are amongst his best-remembered works. It was a typecast he would work to shed off later in his career; but during the post-prohibition years, it was box-office gold!

#7: Fred Astaire
1899 - 1987

Known today for his romance-fuelled dancing double-act with Ginger Rogers, Astaire’s own acting and performing credentials were never in doubt. He began show business at an early age, forming a variety act with his sister, Adele. By the ‘30s he was an established personality, and played romantic leads in many a musical – “The Gay Divorcee” and, with Rogers, “Shall We Dance” among the most notable. Rogers and Astaire complimented each other so well, Katharine Hepburn once reportedly said, ‘He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal!’

#6: Errol Flynn
1909 - 1959

Flynn’s journey from his place of birth, Tasmania, across an ocean to Hollywood was by no means straightforward. He worked a variety of jobs before he pursued acting, but once he found the stage, he’d found his calling! Flynn became synonymous with swash-buckling roles through the ‘30s, and he formed a formidable partnership with Olivia de Havilland. “Captain Blood” was their initial success, but Flynn is most remembered for his first Technicolor lead-role in, “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

#5: Spencer Tracy
1900 - 1967

In 1930, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart both debuted in the same picture, “Up the River.” It was a modest success; however, the first five years of Tracy’s glittering career didn’t go as planned, as he fell into bad reviews and alcoholism. Upon signing with MGM in ‘35, his career took a sizeable turn for the better! He took on varied roles in comedies and dramas, and won Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years, for “Captains Courageous” and then “Boys Town”! By 1940, he was a living legend!

#4: Bela Lugosi
1882 - 1956

After playing Count Dracula in a 1927 Broadway adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, Bela Lugosi was selected by Universal pictures to portray the legendary vampire in their 1931 cinematic recreation. His performance was a success, and he went on to work in the niche market for horror movies with a European theme. His Hungarian heritage and accent led him to be inevitably typecast… but Lugosi was clearly a forerunner of fright, and a trendsetter of the terrifying!

#3: Boris Karloff
1887 - 1969

Karloff was among the first to follow in Lugosi’s footsteps, and he eventually overtook the original. An English actor, his accent again won him credit within the horror movie, genre, though Karloff’s fame was found in “Frankenstein.” After starring as the Monster in three major movies during the ‘30s, as well as the iconic “Mummy,” Karloff quickly became the face, and voice, of scary cinema! He was often paired with Lugosi, but Karloff usually received the top billing!

#2: Clark Gable
1901 - 1960

This legendary actor scored a contract with MGM in 1930, and he never really looked back! Consistently paired with the leading ladies of the day, Gable won the hearts of many an audience with his authoritative look and voice. He and Joan Crawford got steamy in “Possessed,” and then he’d pick up the Best Actor Oscar for his role in “It Happened One Night.” However, Gable finished the ‘30s with his most memorable movie. Opposite Vivien Leigh he played Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind,” and cemented his Hollywood legacy!

Before we unveil our pick for Decade Defining Actor of the 1930s, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Erich von Stroheim
1885 - 1957
- Fredric March
1897 - 1975
- Tyrone Power
1914 - 1958
- William Powell
1892 - 1984
- Edward G. Robinson
1893 - 1973

#1: Cary Grant
1904 - 1986

Our champ spent the ‘30s as an official Englishman, before obtaining American citizenship in 1942. Mae West is largely credited with giving this definitive leading man his breakthrough opposite her in “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel.” “The Awful Truth” was a pivotal movie though, as it established Grant as Rom-Com royalty! After that he paired up with the likes of Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing up Baby” and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday.” Grant is a legend of laughter, and a legend of love – a romantic, comedic winner!

Do you agree with our list? Which 1930s actor do you think is the most iconic? For more classic Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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