Golden Memories: The 1930s, The Golden Age of Hollywood and Film Star Cigarette Cards by John Schad

The decade of the 1930s (and most of the 1940s as well) is often referred to as the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. Although many of the films of this decade were issued in Black and White, technological advances in color and sound advanced the release of "talkies", and transformed the film industry and the movie-going experience. It was a decade in which the silent film era ended with many silent film stars (e.g. John Gilbert) not being able to make the transition to sound.

Laurell & Hardy

Large arrays of films were produced during the 1930s with a skill, style, and elegance that has never been equaled before or since. Film genres were expanded to include gangster films, horror films, screwball comedies, westerns, historical biopics, newspaper reporting films, and musicals to name a few. Some of the most acclaimed films of all time including Frankenstein (1931), It Happened One Night (1934), Modern Times (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) were seen by movie-going audiences for the first time.

Marx Brothers

Many of Hollywood's leading ladies emerged during the 1930s including Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, and a young Shirley Temple. Jean Harlow, a young platinum blonde, appeared in her first major role in Howard Hughes' World War 1 aviation epic, Hell's Angels (1930). The "Blonde Bombshell" was later paired with Clark Gable in six films before her untimely death at the age of 27.

Mae West

Silent star Greta Garbo (whose original name was Greta Lovisa Gustafsson), spoke her first words on film in Anna Christie (1930), which was advertised as "Garbo Talks!" In her Swedish accent, Garbo said, "Gimme a vhiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." She was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. Marlene Dietrich, who gained stardom and notoriety by appearing in Josef von Sternberg's Blaue Angel, Der (The Blue Angel) released in Germany in 1929, was "discovered" and appeared in her first Hollywood feature film, Morocco (1930). Dietrich was promoted by Paramount Studios as a "continental" German star to rival MGM's imported star Greta Garbo.


Katherine Hepburn made her screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and went on to star in films such as Little Women (1933), Morning Glory (1933) –for which she won her first of four Academy Awards for Best Actress, Alice Adams (1935), and Bringing up Baby (1938). Judy Garland, who would later go on to star in several musicals in the 1940s including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), starred in The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film that will be cherished for generations. Child star Shirley Temple appeared in her first films during the 1930s, including appropriately titled movies such as Curly Top (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), and Dimples (1936).

Fred Astaire

Leading male actors of the 1930s included Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart. Clark Gable, who will be forever remembered for his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), starred in 38 films in the 1930s including Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) with Joan Crawford (the first of eight films that teamed them together) and It Happened One Night (1934) for which he won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Errol Flynn, the undisputed king of swashbuckler films, starred with Hollywood leading lady Olivia DeHavilland in Captain Blood (1935), Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Dodge City (1939). Flynn found success in Hollywood unlike previous positions he held prior to his film career, including sanitation engineer, treasure hunter, sheep castrator, and shipmaster for hire.

Clark Gable

Cary Grant (born Archibald Leach and later named Cary Grant during the beginning of his film career by Paramount Studios) starred in Bringing up Baby (1938), Gunga Din (1939), and 33 other films during the 1930s. Grant would later turn down the role of James Bond 007. Humphrey Bogart, known for his trademark lisp, appeared in 28 films from 1936-1940, usually as a gangster, including The Petrified Forest (1936) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1939). Bogart would later gain acclaim and international stardom for his role as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942) where he spoke the words "here's looking at you kid."

Greta Garbo

The "Golden Age of Hollywood" coincided with the "Golden Age" of collecting Film Star Cigarette cards in many countries throughout the world. While film star cards in any format (e.g. cigarette, candy or gum cards) were virtually non-existent in the U.S. during the 1930s (cigarette cards came to an end after the T207 set in 1912 and sports players were the primary choice for candy and gum cards), they were very popular in other countries including the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Australia, Egypt, Finland, Cuba, Italy, and Chile. In these countries, cigarette cards could be found featuring just about every conceivable subject, from sporting figures to politicians, to subjects such as automobiles, birds, flags, animals, flowers, and film stars.

Judy Garland

The concept of inserting a blank card, as a pack "stiffener", to add integrity to the paper cigarette packs became very popular with cigarette manufacturers in the late 19th century. While the cards were blank when they were originally introduced, they soon began bearing product details, an idea first employed by Goodwin & Co. in the U.S. in 1886 and by British cigarette manufacturer W.D. & H.O. Wills in 1888.

Clark Gable

A couple of years later, manufacturers began issuing cards bearing pictures instead of purely advertising details. Cigarette cards quickly caught on, and there were thousands of sets issued around the world from the 1880s through about 1940. Even before there were films, there were cigarette cards featuring stage actors and actresses. As the movie industry evolved, cigarette cards were issued featuring international Hollywood stars and local movie stars. While the text from some of the cards issued might be in another language, the stars are generally recognizable.

Greta Garbo

Cigarette cards featuring film stars were perhaps most popular in the U.K., with hundreds of sets being issued in the 1930s. Movie stars were a popular subject, and the British cigarette cards documented these film stars from the beginning of motion pictures. These cards now form an historical record of the beginnings of the movie business.

Lionel Barrymore

A surprising number of these cigarette cards have survived in nice condition. This is probably due to the large number of collectors who collected and protected these beautiful cards when they were issued. It is also due to the fact that British card collecting became an organized hobby long before card collecting gained popularity in the United States . There were British firms in the card selling business as far back as the early 1930s, and these companies helped maintain the supply and condition of these sets as they stocked them for their customers.

Errol Flynn

The stunning beauty of many of the cigarette card sets continues to attract collectors today. These cards were a very important part of the cigarette business in the 1920s and 1930s, and the quality of the cards was taken seriously by manufacturers. A desirable and successful set meant increased cigarette sales, and manufacturers of film star cards such as Abdulla, Ardath Tobacco Co., Carreras, Gallaher, R.J. Hill, Richard Lloyd and Sons, Stephen Mitchell & Son, Ogdens, Godfrey Phillips, and John Players and Sons often tried to outdo each other, leaving collectors with cards featuring high quality color artwork.

Boris Karloff

Some of the most beautiful sets issued came from Gallaher Ltd., one of the most prolific film star cigarette card producers during the 1930s. Gallaher issued many different themed film star sets including the following:

Film Partners (1935) featured cards of George Burns/Gracie Allen, Clark Gable/Joan Crawford, and Cary Grant/Myrna Loy.

Famous Film Scenes (1935) depicted WC Fields in David Copperfield, Laurel and Hardy in Babes in Toyland, Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple in Now and Forever.

Shots from Famous Films (1935) featured Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man, Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan and his Mate, Jackie Cooper and Walace Beery in Treasure Island.

Portraits of Famous Stars (1935) included Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks and Richard Dix.

Film Episodes (1936) featured Laurel and Hardy in Bonnie Scotland, Katherine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray in Alice Adams, and James Cagney and Margaret Lindsay in G-Men.

My Favorite Part (1939) included cards of Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and a young Judy Garland, describing her favorite role in The Wizard of Oz.

Shirley Temple

These beautiful cards are now becoming increasingly popular with collectors in the U.S. and can be seen on the PSA Set Registry.

One of the most unique sets during the 1930s is the 1934 Carreras Ovals set. Issued by Carreras Ltd. of London, the cards are oval in shape and feature a gummed surface on the reverse (some collectors would moisten the back and put them inside a Carreras Cinema Stars Album). This set features a plethora of famous stars of the 1930s, and includes some of the earliest known cards of Laurel and Hardy, the Four Marx Bros. (Chico, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo), Clark Gable, Garry Cooper, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Lionel Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Richard Dix, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Al Jolson, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Myrna Loy.

WC Fields

As the "Golden Age" of Hollywood began to fade during the late 1930s, so did the "Golden Age" of cigarette cards featuring film stars. In 1940, World War II brought an end to most cigarette cards, when they were deemed a non-essential item (the U.K. wartime government officially banned them), and a waste to valuable paper. While film star cigarette cards never really started up again after the War, they are still collected worldwide and offer a great way to combine a passion for film with collecting cards.

About the Author: I am Executive Director of DVD Marketing for Theatrical Catalog at Warner Bros. Studios. I have two major hobbies in life: collecting PSA cards (I have been an avid baseball card collector since 1974, and currently collect PSA 9 cards of Hall of Fame New York Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger players in addition to film star cards), and watching films. I began collecting vintage Film Star cards 3 years ago and have found this to be the perfect hobby for me, as it combines my love for collecting PSA cards with my passion for films. My favorite film star set is my 1934 Carreras Ovals set of 72 cards. The set has a 9.5 GPA and is currently ranked #1 on the PSA Set Registry.