Sign up for the
and get $50 off Final Draft 12
By Martin Keady · December 12, 2022
Hollywood has enjoyed two golden ages. The second, more recent one is relatively easy to define; it could simply be called “The 1970s”. Hollywood’s original golden age is harder to define, however, largely because it lasted much longer, extending roughly from the early 1930s (when filmmakers finally came to terms with the coming of sound) to the late 1950s.
Here are 10 classic scripts, in chronological order, from the original golden age of Hollywood. Temporally, they range from 1933 to 1952; stylistically, they range from the comic insanity of the Marx brothers to the grand Guignol of Billy Wilder; and collectively they constitute a testament to the greatness of the studio system, which produced many anodyne films but also many masterpieces.
Duck Soup saves lives, or at least one life. In Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Woody Allen’s Mickey, a TV writer undergoing the ultimate midlife crisis, nearly commits suicide by accident, when the shotgun he is holding goes off because his trigger finger is so sweaty. In desperation, he takes to the streets looking for some sign that he should go on living and without thinking wanders into a cinema showing Duck Soup. He is gradually drawn into the absurdist world of the film and realizes that any universe with the Marx Brothers in it is not completely irredeemable.
Woody Allen’s tribute to the Marx Brothers’ finest film is probably the most heartfelt homage from one great filmmaker to another. With Groucho at his grouchiest and the other brothers at their most Vaudevillian, Duck Soup sees the Marxes trying to stop tiny Freedonia from being engulfed by its larger and more aggressive neighbor, Sylvania. As a result, it is a comic masterpiece that anticipated the tragedy that would engulf Europe over the next decade.
Frank Capra’s first great film was one of the first truly great films of the sound era. After finally overcoming the technical difficulties inherent in incorporating sound as well as visuals into cinema, Capra and other great directors and screenwriters were finally and literally able to give voice to the new America emerging from the wreckage of World War One and the Great Depression.
It Happened One Night starts not with a “meet cute” but with a “meet ghastly”, as Clark Gable’s freshly fired newspaper reporter blackmails Claudette Colbert’s runaway heiress into giving him a scoop; otherwise he will reveal her whereabouts to her father, who wants to stop her marrying a playboy who he suspects is really a gold-digger. Thus, this original odd couple board a bus from Florida to New York and establish the template for so many great American road movies that followed, including more modern masterpieces such as Midnight Run (1988).
Gone With The Wind is right up there with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as the most controversial American film ever made. Both are testaments to racist power structures and the mythology that sustains them. Indeed, Gone With The Wind might be subtitled The Death of a Nation, the nation in question being the South that is swept away by the US Civil War.
Ultimately, however, Gone With The Wind is more palatable than The Birth of a Nation because of its remarkable love story, between Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, the archetypal Southern Princess, and Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler, the archetypal Southern Gentleman, who foresees but cannot prevent the destruction of both the South and his relationship with Scarlett.
His Girl Friday is arguably both the greatest screwball comedy of ‘em all and the wittiest script ever written, as it should have been given its source: a great stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which has been filmed several times, including by Billy Wilder in 1974.
However, His Girl Friday remains unsurpassed, with its rapid-fire dialogue between Cary Grant’s newspaper editor and his ex-wife and star reporter, played by Rosalind Russell, who wants to quit the newspaper business to marry a quieter, simpler, duller man. That’s until a front-page scoop, involving the possibly wrongful execution of an innocent man, forces them to work together again. His Girl Friday is probably due for another remake/reboot for the Instagram age, but any such effort would almost certainly fail to match the comic majesty of the original.
The next two entries on this list, Citizen Kane and Casablanca, merit inclusion in any list of the greatest screenplays ever written. However, they also deserve to be celebrated in their original context, as arguably the two finest screenplays of the original golden age of Hollywood.
Read More: Essential Movies Taught in Film School
Citizen Kane is the film that transformed cinema, proving that it could be as powerful and complex as any other narrative art form. Consequently, it has begotten numerous films, TV series, and books about its making, including the Ridley and Tony Scott-produced RKO281 (1999) and, most recently, Mank (2020). Both RKO281 and Mank are fine films, but Citizen Kane remains so seminal and so central to the history of cinema that it is likely films will continue to be made about it forever.
Made shortly after Citizen Kane, Casablanca is less revolutionary but more beloved, as it created the greatest love triangle ever (between nightclub owner Rick, his former love Ilsa and her new husband, Victor Laszlo) set against the greatest historical backdrop ever, namely World War Two, which, as the script itself puts it, makes their troubles look like “a hill of beans”. In reality, of course, Casablanca is a veritable Everest of beans: a seemingly run-of-the-mill studio creation that captures the heart of any viewer. It is entertainment elevated, not least by the writing, to the status of great art.
Just as Citizen Kane and Casablanca transcend their original setting to demand inclusion on any list of all-time great screenplays, so do the greatest works of Billy Wilder, arguably the most human and humane director ever to work in Hollywood. Like so many directors and screenwriters in the 1930s, Wilder had only narrowly escaped the Nazification of Germany and his native Austria, and he brought that awareness of the essential precariousness of existence to all of his greatest works, whether they were comedies or dramas.
Read More: Nobody’s Perfect: Explore the Movies of Cinematic Legend Billy Wilder
Double Indemnity had one of the finest screenwriting teams ever assembled, if not the finest. It was based on a novel by one of the greatest noir novelists, James M. Cain (who also wrote the original novels for The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce), which Wilder adapted with arguably the greatest of all noir novelists, Raymond Chandler. The result is an acid bath of sour wit and sheer moral disintegration that nobody, least of all the hapless insurance salesman Walter Neff, can survive.
The greatest Christmas movie ever made, It’s A Wonderful Life is rivaled only by Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as the greatest Christmas story in any art form, which is entirely appropriate. That’s because The Greatest Gift, the short story by Philip Van Doren Stern that was the basis for the film, was itself a conscious updating of and homage to Dickens’s most adored story.
What It’s A Wonderful Life has in common with Dickens and most of the scripts on this list is a profound awareness of the potentially tragic nature of life, which so many films (especially since the second golden age of Hollywood in the 1970s) seem to want to avoid completely. And yet It’s A Wonderful Life shows that if life itself fits any genre it is tragicomedy, being both a comedy with pain and a tragedy with laughter. So often, only the joyous ending of the film is remembered. However, it would be ]meaningless without all the suffering and frustration (born of Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey’s inability to escape the small town he grew up in) that precedes it. It’s A Wonderful Life, yes, but also a painful one, which ultimately makes the wonder all the more wondrous.
The last two films on this list come full circle, taking us back to the beginning of Hollywood’s original golden age and the coming of sound, the single most important technological development in the history of Hollywood and indeed all cinema. The first of them, Sunset Boulevard, might be considered the great “Coming of Sound Tragedy”, in which a struggling screenwriter thinks that he can exploit the delusion of a former silent film star that she can resurrect her career in the age of sound until he realizes that he himself is being exploited.
In addition to the legendary screenwriting partnership of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, there was a third writer of Sunset Boulevard, namely D.M. Marshman Jr, who was apparently essential to the development of both the screenwriter character and the screenplay itself. It was the only major screenwriting credit he ever had before becoming an advertising executive. However, if you’re only ever going to have one single major screenwriting credit, it’s best to have it on Sunset Boulevard, the greatest-ever Hollywood film about Hollywood itself.
Barely two years after the release of Sunset Boulevard came Singin’ In The Rain, the great “Coming of Sound Comedy”. That it is the greatest screen musical ever made is almost axiomatic, as proven by its continuing inclusion in the top 10 of the very latest (2022) Sight and Sound list of The Greatest Films Ever Made.
However, it is easy to forget the brilliance of the script. From Gene Kelly’s opening declaration about the importance of retaining “Dignity – Always Dignity” in the film industry, even while the ensuing montage reveals all the pratfalls he had to endure en route to the top, to the lyrics of Arthur Freed, arguably the greatest Hollywood lyricist, in all those unforgettable songs (Good Morning, Broadway Melody and of course the title track), Singin’ In The Rain is a truly great screenplay, whether its lines are spoken, sung or danced.