The 30 Greatest Actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age

21. Carole Lombard

My Man Godfrey (1936)

As a kid, Jane Alice Peters, later to be known as Carole Lombard, was a tomboy. Incidentally, it was while playing baseball with boys from her LA neighborhood that she was discovered at age 12. After working mostly in short-features, Paramount decided to give the young actress a shot.

Although she was already making films during the Silent Era, Lombard’s sweet voice was an important asset when Talkies arrived. Her short-lived marriage to William Powell in the early 1930’s, also helped her career, but it was Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century that truly revealed Lombard’s comedic flair to the world. She found popularity in a series of comedies with Fred MacMurray, and obtained great roles in My Man Godfrey -which earned her an Oscar nod- and 1937’s Nothing Sacred.

Shortly after marrying screen-legend Clark Gable, Lombard appeared in Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith and then brilliantly played Maria in To be or Not to Be, which would be her last film. The Screwball queen tragically died in 1942, in an airplane accident, while returning home from a War Bond Tour. She was only 33 years old.


22. Myrna Loy

The Thin Man

The holder of one of the most extensive filmographies of the main players of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Myrna Loy was a trained dancer before deciding on acting as a profession. She started appearing on the stage to help her family financially until Rudolph Valentino and his wife took notice of Loy’s beauty and got her a start in pictures.

As a Silent performer she was mostly cast in exotic, evil parts, but with the coming of Sound the turning point of Loy’s career didn’t take long: As Nora Charles, alongside William Powell’s Nick, in The Thin Man movie series, the actress found fame and better professional prospects. They starred together in 14 films and are one of the best-remembered on-screen couples of all time.

After working for the Red Cross during WWII, Loy found more roles to go along her ‘perfect wife’ screen persona, most notably in The Best Years of Our Lives. Two years before she passed away in 1993, Loy was awarded with an Honorary Oscar, becoming the first actor to be presented with the award without ever having been nominated.


23. Marilyn Monroe

Some Like it Hot

The popular culture phenomenon was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in LA, and spent a good part of her childhood in foster care. At 16, Monroe married a young neighbor in order to avoid being sent to another orphanage. In 1944, while her husband was overseas during the war, she took up work in an airplane factory, where a photographer made her into a pin-up model.

Hollywood didn’t waste time in bringing in the young beauty and Monroe had small parts in famous films like All About Eve. In 1951, she signed with Fox where she had her first important role in Don’t Bother to Knock. Following a scandal surrounding surfaced nude pictures, Monroe became a major box-office attraction playing ‘dumb blondes’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.

Off-screen, the sex symbol was a shy, conflicted individual. She studied method acting and yearned for better roles, which seemed to be finally arriving when last husband, Arthur Miller wrote her the part of Roslyn in The Misfits. Lamentably, Monroe died at 36, before she could fulfill her dramatics ambitions, the actress had a barbiturates overdose on August 5, 1962.


24. Maureen O’Hara

Maureen O'Hara

Irish-American actress Maureen O’Hara showed talent for performing since childhood, when she dreamed of becoming a stage and opera star. Her first major role, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, introduced her to actor Charles Laughton, who was so impressed by the red-head, that he brought her to States to appear alongside him in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

In her long Hollywood career, O’Hara’s screen persona was of a fiery and passionate adventurer. She was called the Pirate Queen for frequently appearing in swashbucklers, such as The Black Swan and The Spanish Main, and could often be seen sharing the screen with movie-icon John Wayne, such as in John Ford’s The Quiet Man and Rio Grande.

How Green was my Valley and Miracle on 34th Street are also amongst her celebrated films. In 2014, Maureen was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for her important contributions to American Film. At 95, she is one of the last surviving Old Hollywood stars.


25. Ginger Rogers

Top Hat (1935)

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.” Although there is controversy surrounding the authorship of the quote, one cannot argue the truth of those words. Born, Virginia Katherine McMath, in Missouri, Rogers was already winning dancing contests by the time she was 14.

From their first pairing, in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, to their farewell act in The Barkleys of Broadway, in 1949, Ginger and Fred have become a symbol of the magical aura of Hollywood’s golden days. Rogers was also a splendid comedienne having given hilarious performances, in movies like Bachelor Mother and The Major and the Minor, but she also proved herself a gifted dramatic performer, even winning an Oscar for her work in 1940’s Kitty Foyle.

The accomplished actress retired from the screen in 1965. In her later life, Ginger wrote a bestselling autobiography, before passing away from natural causes at age 83.


26. Rosalind Russell

His Girl Friday

One of the best comediennes Hollywood ever produced, Rosalind Russell was first type casted as a ‘refined lady’ such as in The Citadel and Under Two Flags. It was only with 1939’s The Women that her masterful comedic ability first unfolded. Following her iconic depiction of Sylvia Fowler in the all-female comedy, Russell landed her signature role of fast-talking, witty reporter Hildy Johnson in Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday.

She continued to appear in comedies, especially screwball ones for most of the 1940’s, including her Oscar nominated role in My Sister Eileen. The actress also displayed her dramatic talent scoring another Academy Award nod with 1947’s Mourning Becomes Electra. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, Russell had memorable parts in Gypsy, as well as the title character in Auntie Mame.

In privacy, she led a quite life beside her husband, Frederick Brisson, and only child, Lance, until her death in 1976, at age 69, from breast cancer.


27. Barbara Stanwyck

Double Indemnity (1944)

From her difficult childhood as an impoverished orphan, to her marriage to an abusive alcoholic and finally her great success in Hollywood, Barbara Stanwyck’s life could have been made into a movie, and many said it was when 1937’s A Star is Born came out, carrying noticeable similarities with the actress’ trajectory.

Although some contemporaries have developed a more iconic position with time, one can effortlessly argue Stanwyck was the most versatile and talented actress of her time. She could virtually play any character on the screen and her work speaks for itself: the deadly Phyllis from Double Indemnity, the loving mother of Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve’s seductive con artist , not to mention her vast efforts in westerns such as in Anthony Mann’s The Furies.

For choosing career independence over studio support, the ‘tough old broad from Brooklyn’, as she liked to call herself, never won a competitive Oscar; a mistake the Academy tried to compensate by giver her a Honorary Award in 1982. Stanwyck died at 82 years old, after having appeared in over 80 pictures throughout more than 60 years in the Industry.


28. Elizabeth Taylor

Whos Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (1966)

The violet eyes actress was a MGM child prodigy who shared the screen with many big names, including 4-legged star Lassie. In the 1950’s, as a young woman, she transitioned to starring parts, some memorable roles were in George Stevens’ brilliant A Place in the Sun and in the epic saga Giant. Towards the end of the decade, the famed beauty was nominated for an Academy Award for her work as Paul Newman’s neglected wife in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Taylor led an extravagant life-style, she loved jewelry and had many highly-publicized love affairs, most famously with actor Richard Burton, to whom she was married twice.

On the other hand, Taylor demonstrated her efficient acting skills on many occasions, being acknowledged with Oscar wins twice ( For BUtterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and she was also a devoted humanitarian, having worked with AIDS research and charity projects. After suffering most of her life with health problems, the last major star introduced by the studio system died in 2011, aged 79, from congestive heart failure.


29. Shirley Temple

Jean Hersholt and Shirley Temple ,"Heidi" 1937 20th Century Fox - ARCHIVES |

Easily the most iconic child-star of Film History, the curly-haired actress debuted in motion pictures at the tender age of 3. During the gloomy Depression years, Temple brought hope and happiness to American homes with her cheerful acting, singing and dancing. At six years old she was awarded with a Juvenile Academy Award and remains the youngest person ever to receive an Oscar.

With movies like Heidi, Bright Eyes and The Little Princess, Temple became synonymous with quality entertainment. She was elected the most popular star during four consecutive years, even defeating ‘The King of Hollywood’ Clark Gable.

As she grew older, and entered her teen years, the magic was gone: Shirley acted in some great films such as Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You, but box-office results were not the same. After retiring from the industry at only 22, Temple pursued a political career, becoming involved with the Republican Party. She died in 2014, aged 85.


30. Mae West

Mae West in 1932

Mae West was practically born and raised on the NY stage. Since she was a child, Mary Jane (Mae), was already appearing in vaudeville. Later she started writing her own material and the provocative nature of her plays even landed her in jail for obscenity.

In Hollywood, her work was extremely controversial but commercially successful: I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong had so much “immoral” content they joined the list of films that resulted in the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code, the self-imposed censorship of the Industry.

To get her material approved, Mae started using even more innuendo and it became her trademark. After she left Cinema screens, the polemic star went back to the stage and tried her hand at TV, West loved the spotlight and seemed to be made for it, as she once said: “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.”

Author Bio: Priscilla Signorelli is a 23-year-old Brazilian Film Graduate. She’s obsessed with everything Classic Hollywood, but will gladly watch anything from Ingmar Bergman to Marvel movies. Her dream is to work as a Film Historian and share her passion for old movies with the world.