The 50 greatest Classic Hollywood screen legends

Classic Hollywood celebrates American films that were released between the 1910s and the 1960s. Commercial film production in the United States developed rapidly after World War I (1914-1918); the major Hollywood studios together were releasing more than 500 feature films a year by the mid-1930s. Source: Professor David Neumeyer.

The American Film Institute (AFI) has produced a curated list of ‘The 50 Greatest American Screen Legends’ from this period. I’ve set myself the challenge of watching at least one film from every actor and actress on this list released during this timeframe (1910-1969), starting April 2021. I’ll keep track of what I’ve watched below.

Actresses

  1. Katharine HepburnBringing Up Baby (1938), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  2. Bette Davis
  3. Audrey Hepburn: Roman Holiday (1953), Charade (1963)
  4. Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca (1942), Indiscreet (1958)
  5. Greta Garbo
  6. Marilyn Monroe: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
  7. Elizabeth Taylor
  8. Judy Garland: The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  9. Marlene Dietrich
  10. Joan Crawford
  11. Barbara Stanwyck
  12. Claudette Colbert
  13. Grace KellyRear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), High Society (1956)
  14. Ginger Rogers
  15. Mae West
  16. Vivien Leigh
  17. Lillian Gish
  18. Shirley Temple
  19. Rita Hayworth
  20. Lauren Bacall
  21. Sophia Loren
  22. Jean Harlow
  23. Carole Lombard
  24. Mary Pickford
  25. Ava Gardner

Actors

  1. Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca (1942)
  2. Cary Grant: Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), Suspicion (1941), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), To Catch a Thief (1955), Indiscreet (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Operation Petticoat (1959), Charade (1963)
  3. James Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958)
  4. Marlon Brando
  5. Fred Astaire
  6. Henry Fonda
  7. Clark Gable
  8. James Cagney
  9. Spencer TracyGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  10. Charlie Chaplin
  11. Gary Cooper
  12. Gregory Peck: Roman Holiday (1953), Cape Fear (1962)
  13. John Wayne
  14. Laurence Olivier
  15. Gene Kelly
  16. Orson Welles
  17. Kirk Douglas: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
  18. James Dean
  19. Burt Lancaster
  20. Marx Brothers
  21. Buster Keaton
  22. Sidney PoitierGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  23. Robert Mitchum: Second Chance (1953), Cape Fear (1962)
  24. Edward G. Robinson
  25. William Holden

Notes

  • Read the 200+ recommendations I’ve received from friends; thanks to everyone who has submitted something.
  • The AFI has defined an ‘American screen legend’ as an actor or a team of actors with a significant screen presence in American feature-length films whose screen debut occurred in or before 1950, or whose screen debut occurred after 1950 but whose death has marked a completed body of work.
  • 10 of the screen legends comprise five legendary duos: Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
  • 13 screen legends were born outside the United States: Audrey Hepburn, Belgium; Elizabeth Taylor, England; Ingrid Bergman, Sweden; Greta Garbo, Sweden; Marlene Dietrich, Germany; Claudette Colbert, France; Vivian Leigh, India; Sophia Loren, Italy; Mary Pickford, Canada; Cary Grant, England; Charlie Chaplin, England; Laurence Olivier, England; and, Edward G. Robinson, Romania.
  • View the AFI’s list.

18 thoughts on “The 50 greatest Classic Hollywood screen legends

Add yours

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for stopping by. No, they weren’t on the list. I’m happy to add them on to my challenge, though. Do you have any suggestions of what to watch from them? Rebecca is already on my list starring Fontaine opposite Laurence Olivier.

      1. Start with Heaven Cant Wait (1943) and Laura (1944) for Tierney. Check out Suspicion (1941) and The Constant Nymph (1943) for Fontaine.

  1. Oh I can give you a list of films… Kate Hepburn- The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Summertime. Ingrid Bergman-Intermezzo, Spellbound, Murder on the Orient Express. Audrey Hepburn- Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face. Bette Davis-Of Human Bondage, The Little Foxes, Jezebel. Marilyn Monroe- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara, Bus Stop. Jean Harlow- Dinner at Eight, Red Dust, Wife vs. secretary. Greta Garbo-Flesh and the Devil, Camille, Ninotchka. Judy Garland- Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Star is Born. Liz Taylor- National Velvet, Father of the Bride, a Place In The Sun. Joan Crawford- Grand Hotel, Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar. Marlene Dietrich- The Blue Angel, Destry Rides Again, Witness for the Prosecution. Claudette Colbert- It Happened One Night, Three Came Home, The Egg and I. Ginger Rogers- Tp Hat..any Astaire/Rogers film to be honest. Kitty Foyle, The Major &The Minor. Mae West- She Done Home Wrong, I’m No Angel, my Little Chickadee. Barbara Stanwyck- Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut. Vivian Leigh- Gone With The Wind, Waterloo Bridge, That Hamilton Woman. Grace Kelly- High Noon, Dial M For Murder, The Country Girl. Lillian Gish- Broken Blossoms, The Wind, way Down East. Shirley Temple- Curly Top, Heidi, The Little Princess. Rita Hayworth- You’ll Never Get Rich, Covergirl, Gilda. Lauren Bacall- any with Bogart, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Shootist. Sophia Loren- Two Women, Houseboat, Arabesque. Carole Lombard-Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, To Be Or Not To Be. Mary Pickford- Sparrows, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Taming of the Shrew. Ava Gardner- The Killers, The Barefoot Contessa, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

    I will return later to do the men’s list😁

    1. Birgit, you are a diamond! 😀 Thank you so much for this. I hadn’t had so many recommendations for the actresses so I really appreciate this. It’s a shame we don’t live in the same city (or even country!) so we could watch some together.

      1. I agree! It would be great to watch films together..the good the bad and the ugly😁. I will now give my male picks. Some are already chosen with the women like Clark Gable in GWTW but I will try and choose others with the men.

  2. Ooooh this is a GREAT challenge!! I just might have to take this one as well, Claire, perhaps later in May/June. I’ve already recommended ROMAN HOLIDAY for Audrey Hepburn where she won an Oscar and I’d recommend that again 🙂

    I own a bunch of Gregory Peck movies so I can totally recommend you stuff from all kinds of genres. He’s done some great Westerns too and I’m usually not even a fan of that genre.

    1. You definitely should, Ruth! I discovered the list after looking up Sophia Loren and finding the link on her Wikipedia page. Loren and Sidney Poitier are the only living legends from the list.
      Roman Holiday is currently on a streaming service that I’ve just downloaded a free trial for so I will get it watched asap!

      1. Oh, did you see The Life Ahead with Sophia Loren? I was actually hoping she’d be nominated this year for that.

        YAY!! I actually rewatched Roman Holiday again last week and it’s still as breathtaking + lovely as it ever was.

  3. Now here are my film picks for r the men…Humphrey Bogart-High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre( Casablanca is a must though). Cary Grant- Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace, Operation Petticoat. James Stewart(my favourite and IAWL is my favourite film). You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Winchester 73, Anatomy of a Murder. Marlon Brando-On The Waterfront, Guys &Dolls, The Godfather. Fred Astaire- again, any Astaire/Rogers movies. You Were Never Lovelier, The Band Wagon, Silk Stockings. Henry Fonda-The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men. Clark Gable- SAN Francisco, Boom Town, The Misfits. James Cagney- Public Enemy, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat. Spencer Tracy- Adams Rib, Bad Day at Black Rock, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Charlie Chaplin- The Kid, City Lights, Modern Time, The Great Dictator, Limelight. Gary Cooper- Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, The Plainsman, Ball of Fire. Gregory Peck- SuspicIon, The Guns of Navarone, The Big Country(To Kill a Mockingbird is a must). John Wayne ( another favourite of mine)- Stagecoach, Red River, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, McLintock, True Grit. Lawrence Olivier- Wuthering Heights, The Entertainer, Marathon Man. Gene Kelly- For Me and My Gal, Covergirl, Singing In The Rain, An American in Paris. Orson Welles- Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger H The Third Man is a must see). Kirk Douglas- A Letter To 3 Wives, Lust For Life, Paths of Glory. James Dean- Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, Giant. Burt Lancaster-Vera Cruz, Elmer Gantry, The Sweet Smell Of Success. The Marx Bros- Du k Soup, A Night at the Opera, a Day At The Races. Buster Keaton- The General, Sherlock Jnr., Go West. Sydney Poitier-The Defiant Ones, Lillies of the Field, In The Heat of the Night. Robert Mitchum- Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison. Edward G. Robinson- Little Caesar, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window. William Holden- Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild Bunch. So there is my list. Enjoy!

    1. A big thank you again, Birgit! I really appreciate you taking the time. I’ve started checking some of these off already, including Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve already seen The Godfather trilogy so I’m going to try and watch some of Brando’s earlier work, like On the Waterfront.

  4. Ohh. Fun project! You’re gonna see some GREAT stuff!! 😄 I scrolled through so sorry if I missed it but has anyone recommended any Charlie Chaplin movies yet? I became a fan after starting my blog & finally watching some of his stuff. City Lights & Modern Times are brilliant. Oh! Just found the recommendations. I’ll have to look again & see if I can think of anything not mentioned. Lots of good recommendations already. 🙂

    1. Thanks, T9M! I’m enjoying it so far. I’ve had a few recommendations for Chaplin but will add those in.
      I’ve been blown away by how many recommendations I’ve received! I wanted to keep track so I can discuss the film after with the person who suggested it 🙂

  5. That’s a great project and quite a list though hardly all encompassing.

    For instance, neither my favorite actress-Linda Darnell-nor my favorite actor-John Garfield are included! Linda was a terrific actress, underappreciated even in her day but I’m more shocked to not see Garfield. He was a huge star, the outsider star before either Brando or Dean even started in the business. He was blacklisted and died young so that may have played into his exclusion. But both are worth exploring.

    Everyone has offered fantastic suggestions. If I may I’m going to do the same but just one for each, I’m including my two faves as well. Having seen the complete filmographies of most (but not all) of the people on the list, I’ll offer the film that I think contains each performer’s best performance (unless you have already seen that film-i.e., Marilyn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-then I’ll suggest my second choice).

    Women:
    **Linda Darnell: A Letter to Three Wives (1949)**
    Katharine Hepburn: The Lion in Winter (1968)
    Bette Davis: Dark Victory (1939)
    Audrey Hepburn: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
    Ingrid Bergman: Notorious (1946)
    Greta Garbo: Camille (1936)
    Marilyn Monroe: Niagara (1953)
    Elizabeth Taylor: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
    Judy Garland: A Star is Born (1954)
    Marlene Dietrich: Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
    Joan Crawford: Humoresque (1946)
    Barbara Stanwyck: (Drama) Stella Dallas (1937) (Comedy) Christmas in Connecticut
    Claudette Colbert: Three Came Home
    Grace Kelly: You’ve already seen her best, but The Country Girl (1954) is worth seeing.
    Ginger Rogers: The Major and the Minor (1942)
    Mae West: She Done Him Wrong (1933)
    Vivien Leigh: Waterloo Bridge (1940)
    Lillian Gish: The Wind (1928)
    Shirley Temple: (child star) Bright Eyes (1934)/(Teen) The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
    Rita Hayworth: Gilda (1946)
    Lauren Bacall: Woman’s World (1954)
    Sophia Loren: Marriage, Italian Style (1964)
    Jean Harlow: Red Dust (1932)
    Carole Lombard: Hands Across the Table (1935)
    Mary Pickford: Sparrows (1926)
    Ava Gardner: The Night of the Iguana (1964)

    Men:
    **John Garfield: The Breaking Point**
    Humphrey Bogart: In a Lonely Place (1950)
    Cary Grant: Holiday (1938) I see you’re a big fan so I was a little surprised to not see my favorite of his films in your list.
    James Stewart: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
    Marlon Brando: On the Waterfront (1954)
    Fred Astaire: Easter Parade (1948)
    Henry Fonda: The Ox-Bow Incident (1942)
    Clark Gable: The Misfits (1961) (His best performance)/It Happened One Night (1934)-(The Gable of legend)
    James Cagney: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
    Spencer Tracy: Inherit the Wind (1960)
    Charlie Chaplin: Limelight (1952)
    Gary Cooper: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
    Gregory Peck: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
    John Wayne: The Searchers (1956)
    Laurence Olivier: Wuthering Heights (1939)
    Gene Kelly: Les Girls (1957)
    Orson Welles: Touch of Evil (1958)
    Kirk Douglas: Ace in the Hole (1951)
    James Dean: East of Eden (1955)
    Burt Lancaster: From Here to Eternity (1953)
    Marx Brothers: Duck Soup (1933)
    Buster Keaton: The General (1926)
    Sidney Poitier: Edge of the City (1957)
    Robert Mitchum: The Lusty Men (1952)
    Edward G. Robinson: Scarlet Street (1945)
    William Holden: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

    Hope it helps!

    1. Thank you for your recommendations! I appreciate you taking the time to write them. I’ll add them to my list.
      It may be a small comfort to you that Darnell and Garfield were both nominated: link.

      1. Thanks for the link. Yes it’s nice that they were considered but looking at that list it made my head swim at who was left out of the final list! I know it’s only 25 women and 25 men but for huge stars like Lana Turner, Doris Day and Errol Flynn (?!?!) to be left out is incredible. I could have easily added another 50 without even trying!

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