- Hollywood’s Golden Age was filled with talented actors, some of whom are now overshadowed by more iconic movie stars of the era.
- Discrimination and prejudice were prevalent during this era, leading to typecasting and limited opportunities for actors.
- Many of these forgotten actors, like Claude Rains and Kay Francis, delivered exceptional performances and deserve to be remembered today.
The Golden Age of Hollywood was bursting with contract studio actors, some of whom are still famous many decades later and others who are deserving of more recognition today. Most people know the names Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, and Bette Davis, but there are many less-familiar talents from that era who delivered equally compelling performances. Some of these lesser-known performers may have been overshadowed by their more iconic co-stars in the history books, while a number of them were much more famous in their day but have, for whatever reason, been forgotten so many years later.
Defined as the period between the late 1920s through the early 1950s, Hollywood’s Golden Age saw the production of some of the most iconic films of all time, but it was also a time of great discrimination and prejudice. Actors were consistently typecast, too often the result of racial injustice. Additionally, due to the power that studios had at this time, they controlled what movies their stars were cast in, and whether actors in their stable would rise or fall. Whatever the reason for these actors falling into relative obscurity, they all deserve to be remembered and recognized today.
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10 Claude Rains
Best Known Movies: The Invisible Man (1933); Casablanca (1942)
Humphrey Bogart would not have been as memorable in Casablanca without Claude Rains to play against. For his own performance, Rains received his second Oscar nomination of four, all of them for supporting roles. He was primarily a character actor known for villainous characters, as in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. However, Rains did occasionally play the lead. He portrayed the titular roles in The Invisible Man and the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera and played the hero in The Wolf Man, making him one of the less-heralded regular stars of the Universal Classic Monsters franchise.
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9 Kay Francis
Best Known Movies: Trouble In Paradise (1932); In Name Only (1939)
Although Kay Francis made it through the transition from silent pictures to talkies, her stardom didn’t last much longer than the late ’40s. She was with Warner Bros. for her best films, including Ernest Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. There she displays impeccable comedic timing and a talent for wordplay, delivering Lubitsch’s dialogue with flair. For a time, she was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, but this came to an end following her public feud with the studio. Warner Bros. declined to renew her contract due to her tumultuous personal life, and after taking smaller parts with other studios, Francis fell out of the public eye and is now largely forgotten.
8 Joel McCrea
Best Known Movies: The Most Dangerous Game (1932); Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Joel McCrea spent the latter half of his career starring in B movie Westerns, but this was not the case at the start. He had the lead in the original 1932 film adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game and later starred in Sullivan’s Travels and Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. McCrea had a wide range of characters he could embody, but he was cast as the romantic lead opposite some of the biggest female stars of the time, including Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. Although he had reasonable success, McCrea enjoyed his time outside Hollywood and was happy to step out of the spotlight as he got older.
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7 Gladys Cooper
Best Known Movies: Now, Voyager (1942); My Fair Lady (1964)
Primarily a stage actress for the first part of her career, Gladys Cooper went on to gain notoriety in Hollywood in the latter half of her life. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, she co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and the Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager (which also features Claude Rains), earning her first of three Oscar nominations for the latter. Decades later, she portrayed Mrs. Higgins — her third Oscar-nominated role — in My Fair Lady opposite Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. While Cooper was a fantastic actress and had high-profile roles, due to her fame coming later in life, her younger co-stars wound up lasting longer in the public’s memories.
6 Ann Miller
Best Known Movies: On The Town (1949); Kiss Me Kate (1953)
Ann Miller was a powerhouse of the musical genre, displaying exceptional dancing and singing talent in a number of big-budget movies. She was quickly recognized for her tap dancing abilities, in particular, and was cast in such beloved classics as On The Town, Easter Parade, and the 3D musical movie Kiss Me Kate. Though she was cast alongside many actors and actresses with high-profile star-power, Miller often played the secondary lead and so never achieved the same level of fame. After her studio contract was up, she moved primarily to stage performances, occasionally taking small roles, such as Coco in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, until her death in 2004.
5 Anna May Wong
Best Known Movies: Daughter Of The Dragon (1931); Shanghai Express (1932)
Anna May Wong has begun to be recognized for the wonderful actress that she was, and the important work she did. Due to racial prejudice, she sadly did not receive much credit while she was alive. Facing discrimination throughout the entirety of her career, Wong was typecast in roles that perpetuated Asian-American stereotypes, but this did not stop her from delivering great performances in such films as Picadilly and Daughter of the Dragon. In Shanghai Express, which was nominated for Best Picture, Wong stands out among her co-stars. Though Marlene Dietrich is billed higher, Wong asserts herself in all of their scenes together and makes the movie her own.
4 George Sanders
Best Known Movies: Rebecca (1940); All About Eve (1950)
George Sanders was often cast in roles that were mysterious, or even villainous, due to his commanding speaking voice. The British actor began as a stage performer before moving to Hollywood and co-starring in the Alfred Hitchcock films Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent. His greatest success came with his performance opposite Bette Davis in All About Eve, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While his career lasted long after that, it was cut short by a stroke that hindered his mobility, so he did not gain the level of fame as some other actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
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3 Dana Andrews
Best Known Movies: Laura (1944); The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives is considered an American classic, and though Dana Andrews was not nominated for his performance as World War II vet Fred Derry, the film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, among several others. It’s a shame that he was not recognized for his work in the film, as Captain Derry is one of his best roles, genuinely representing many homecoming Americans at the time. His many other notable films also include Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Despite his strong performances, Andrews soon moved into less prestigious television work, and his more significant work was relatively forgotten.
2 Hattie McDaniel
Best Known Movies: Show Boat (1936); Gone With The Wind (1939)
Hattie McDaniel was a hallmark of Hollywood and the first Black woman to win an Academy Award. This was for her performance as Mammy, the house servant, in Gone with the Wind. Although the role gained her some recognition, it is representative of the discriminatory typecasting that McDaniel had to deal with throughout her career. Outside of her film career, she was a talented jazz singer and later exhibited this talent on a national level on her CBS radio program, The Beulah Show. McDaniel played supporting roles in many films, and though she was never treated as an equal in Hollywood, her work broke many barriers.
1 William Powell
Best Known Movies: The Thin Man (1934); My Man Godfrey (1936)
William Powell achieved the most recognition for his work in the six Thin Man movies. Producers regularly cast him in roles that required a suave, well-groomed type, though his other most famous movie, the iconic screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, played with that characteristic. He excelled even when typecast, delivering what was expected. His notable role as Lauren Bacall’s love interest in How to Marry a Millionaire was one of his last before he left Hollywood for an early retirement. His decision to leave Hollywood was his own for his personal life, but it did mean that his work faded into the background as far as Hollywood royalty goes.