The Classical Hollywood Cinema was a period that lasted over 40 years, roughly spanning from the late 1920’s to the early 1960’s. Many, now legendary, names were first introduced to the movie-going public during this time. These actors captivated generations and their work lives on even decades after their passing.
Some are famous purely for their acting skills, others for their dancing or singing and there are even those whose off-screen lives get as much attention as their films. Regardless of how, the men listed here have all left their ever-lasting mark on the movie-industry and the almost mythological status they have achieved is a testimony to the grandeur of what we now call the studio-system.
Please note that the list is in alphabetical order and does not cover actors whose main occupation were as filmmakers, therefore, names like Charles Chaplin and Orson Welles are not included.
1. Fred Astaire
“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” This was said to have been some movie producer’s comment on Astaire’s very first screen test. The Omaha-born actor came to Hollywood in 1932, after his sister and life-long dancing partner, Adele, quit show business to get married. The then 33-year-old actor, had modest beginnings. His father was a brewer and his mother a dreamer who first noticed and encouraged her children’s talent.
Although his screen debut was in MGM’s Dancing Lady, Astaire only became a household name at RKO, thanks to his irresistible association with Ginger Rogers, with whom he would star in 10 films. In almost 50 years in Hollywood, Astaire also had successful singing and radio careers, but his uncanny dancing steps are his indisputable trademarks.
The Top-hat-and-tails icon also proved himself a competent dramatic actor in his later career, but the singular magic of classics like Swing Time and Funny Face is what truly makes him a film-legend.
2. Lionel Barrymore
The Barrymores are perhaps the most famous acting family of all time. Siblings John, Lionel and Ethel all became distinct film stars on their own right. John, also known as The Great Profile, is probably the most admired actor of the three, but his decline was a fast one, leading to a premature death in 1942.
Lionel was the oldest child of Maurice and Georgie Blyth, who were both theater actors. From his father he took the stage name Barrymore and went to Hollywood in the 1910’s. After successfully starring in many silents, he took a break from acting to direct films, such as 1929’s Madame X, for which he was nominated in the Academy Awards as Best Director.
Two years later, after making the transition to sound films, Barrymore appeared in A Free Soul winning the Best Actor Oscar of that year. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Lionel build his reputation as one of the greatest character actors of American films, usually playing elderly men whose irritability hid a kind nature.
Captains Courageous (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Key Largo (1948) were some of his memorable roles, but he’s certainly best remembered as the villainous Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life’s.
3. Humphrey Bogart
Born in New York, on Christmas day, 1899, Humphrey DeForest Bogart had a wealthy background. His father was a surgeon and his mother a renowned magazine illustrator. After a naval stint he began his acting career on the stage, subsequently signing a contract with Fox in 1930. His Fox years were not productive and Bogart went back to Broadway, where he landed the role of Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest.
When Warner Bros. wanted to adapt the play, his co-star Leslie Howard refused to reprise his role on the screen unless the studio hired Bogart as well. The film was a hit and WB singed Bogart to a long-term contract. He was stereotyped as a tough guy having appeared in classic gangster films such as Dead End, Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties.
In 1941, Bogie starred as the now-iconic Sam Spade in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, he soon became a Film Noir trademark with other famed films like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not, having met fourth wife Lauren Bacall on the set of the latter. With 1942’s Casablanca he also became a romantic lead and won his only Oscar for 1951’s The African Queen. Sadly, Bogart died at only 57 years old of throat cancer.
4. Marlon Brando
Method acting exponent Marlon Brando rose to fame when he reprised his Broadway role of Stanley Kowaski in the screen adaption of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. His performance earned him an Academy Award Nomination and paved the way for a series of emblematic parts in such classics as The Wild One and On the Waterfront.
As a more mature actor in the 1970’s, Brando left behind the young rebel characters and took part in controversial films like The Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now.
One of the most recognizable actors of all time, Brando is credited for inducing more realistic acting in the Movies, his distinct mumbling-like speech delivery was truly original back in the 1950’s. He won two Oscars, the second for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Brando died of natural causes in 2004 at 80 years old.
5. James Cagney
Arguably the ultimate tough guy of the big screen, James Cagney’s breakthrough role was in Warner Brothers’ The Public Enemy, in which he infamously smashes a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke’s face. In addition to having excelled in Gangster films like Angels with Dirty Faces, White Heat and Smart Money, Cagney was also an accomplished dancer, having showcased his ability in Busby Berkely’s numbers in the musical Footlight Parade and most famously in George M. Cohan’s biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Cagney was also a natural comedian having brilliantly appeared in the pre-code gem Blonde Crazy and in Billy Wilder’s One Two Three. For his extremely versatile talent, the American Film Institute listed him as one of the top ten legends of American Film.
6. Montgomery Clift
Known for playing sensitive, often emotionally disturbed figures, ‘Monty’ Clift, like friend Marlon Brando, was one of the first Method acting practitioners in Hollywood. In 1948, his work as Matt Garth in Howard Hawks’ Red River marked the start of his meteoric career. Before arriving in California, Clift developed his talent on the stage, and that distinctively contributed to his great accomplishments as a Film star.
A Place in the Sun; I Confess; From Here to Eternity and Suddenly, Last Summer are some of his most famous movies, and they all have in common Clift’s thoroughly intense performances. Along with Brando and Dean, Monty exemplified a rising type of character on the screen, a handsome and sensual man who was, nonetheless, severely unstable.
Unfortunately, his life-long health and mental problems and his infamous drug and alcohol abuse got worse after a car accident in 1957. His career started a downfall and good roles, like in The Misfits and Judgment at Nuremberg, became rare. Clift was found dead at 45 years old at his home.
7. Gary Cooper
When one thinks of the quintessential American screen hero, Gary Cooper is a name that automatically comes to mind. Cooper didn’t seem to act his parts, he lived them. His natural and simple technique was extremely appealing to the audience, who could see a bit of the real ‘Coop’ in every character he played. In a career that spanned from the Silent Era to his death in 1961, he appeared in over 100 films.
From Westerns like the High Noon, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar, to Comedies like Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eight Wife or Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds goes to Town, or even War Biographies like the famed Sergeant York, Coop brought an authentic feel to every genre he tried his hand at. The strong, silent hero he immortalized was an icon to a whole generation and remains an American ideal to this day.
8. Joseph Cotten
“Orson Welles lists Citizen Kane as his best film, Alfred Hitchcock opts for Shadow of a Doubt and Sir Carol Reed chose The Third Man – and I’m in all of them”. His lack of modesty aside, Joseph Cotton was unquestionably one of the top actors of the 1940’s. Orson Welles’ best friend also appeared in the Film Noir classic Journey to Fear, in the acclaimed Western Duel in the Sun and in William Dieterle’s Romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie.
Cotton was part of Welles’s renowned acting company The Mercury Theatre, alongside the likes of Agnes Moorehead , Ruth Warrick and Ray Collins. His stage training was important to his career and kept him in demand even when he was no longer leading-man material. One of his last roles was in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, in 1980.
9. James Dean
Like his role-model Marlon Brando, James Dean attended the illustrious Actors Studio and learned Method acting from Lee Strasberg. An Indiana farmer’s son, Dean’s first film roles were bit parts, like in Douglas Sirk’s musical Has Anybody Seen My Gal, as a youth at a drug-store soda fountain.
In spite of his legendary status, Dean only had three star roles. First in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, in which he played Cal Trask, an unbalanced young man, whose businessman father doesn’t give him attention. Then he went on to star as the iconic Rebel Without a Cause, Jim Stark.
The temperamental teenager in his red jacket and jeans has completely embedded Dean’s image and transformed him into a cultural icon. His last film, George Stevens’ Giant, was almost completed when Dean had an accident while driving his Porsche in a road nearby Cholame. At only 24 years-old, he died immediately from a broken neck.
10. Kirk Douglas
Issur Danielovitch Demsky, professionally known as Kirk Douglas, was born on December 9, 1916 in a poor Amsterdam, NY, household, to immigrant Jewish parents. Douglas is now one of the last stars of Classical Hollywood still with us. At 98 years-old, he has appeared in over 90 film productions and wrote a handful of books.
His classmate at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Lauren Bacall, got him his Hollywood break as Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in the Noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Three years later, he became a true star playing ruthless boxer Midge in Mark Robson’s Champion. He also famously interpreted Vincent Van Gogh in 1956’s Lust for Life, for which he got one of his three Academy Award Nominations.
Having worked with admired directors such as Billy Wilder, in the Journalism-themed classic Ace in the Hole, and Stanley Kubrick in two masterpieces Paths of Glory and Spartacus, Douglas has often showcased his energetic acting style through strong characters.
Furthermore, he has repeatedly been cited among those responsible for ending the Hollywood Blacklist by given on-screen credit to writer Dalton Trumbo in his production of Spartacus. In 1996, The Academy awarded Douglas’ courage and talent with a much-deserved Honorary Oscar.