The advent of synchronized sound charted new directions for the biopic. More than announcing the arrival of sound on film, The Jazz Singer (1927) anticipated the marriage of the biopic and the musical, highlighting the lives and careers of musical impresarios, entertainers, and composers. The Great Ziegfeld (1936), produced by MGM, with lavish sets, song and dance numbers, guest appearances by popular entertainers, and the use of stars, memorialized the rise and fall of the impresario. Biopics documenting the lives of entertainers increased in number throughout the remainder of the interwar years; films about Johann Strauss, Victor Herbert, Vernon and Irene Castle, and Fanny Brice celebrated the overcoming of adversity through talent and perseverance, and, by implication, the role of cinema in bringing these figures to life on the screen. Images of landscape and architecture, paintings, costumes, and dialogue (and intertitles) all helped to create the historical milieu, and sound enhanced the depiction of the period through orchestral scores of classical music, the introduction of patriotic and folk songs, drum rolls, and sound effects pertaining to coronations, marriages, funerals, and military encounters. Musical leitmotifs heightened character or cued irony.
Biopics about monarchs, literary figures, and political and military leaders featured stars with impeccable acting credits from stage and film, including George Arliss (1868–1946) in Disraeli (1929), Voltaire (1933), and the Iron Duke (1934), and, in the late 1930s, Paul Muni (1895–1967) in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939). These films had a morally uplifting message and a tendency to humanize and universalize ethical commitment, social responsibility, and opposition to vested interests. The Arliss and Muni films had a theatricality that highlighted the acting style of the performer and their ability to impersonate the historical figure.
Biopics also featured popular female and transnational stars of the silent and early sound eras, notably Greta Garbo (1905–1990) in Mata Hari (1931) and Queen Christina (1933) and Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) in The Scarlet Empress (1934). These films were tailored to their star images and to tie-ins between the films and contemporary fashion. Garbo's portrait of the Swedish queen capitalized on the monarch's bisexuality, ill-fated romance, and disdain for fame and power in a style that accentuated the star's legendary face, ambiguous sexual identity, and independence. Dietrich's portrait of the Russian empress fused the personae of the historical figure and the star, relying on Dietrich's publicized image in movie magazines and contemporary gossip as well as on the director's role in her creation.
The biopic is also associated with crime films of the late 1920s and 1930s. Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932) were thinly veiled, fictionalized accounts of the life of Al Capone that resulted in intensified demands for industry self-regulation. Thus the biopic played a role in the implementation of the Production Code, which was designed to regulate depictions of sex and criminality and to offer a moral image of the industry through commonly accepted and respectable models of moral behavior, appearance, and action.
Biopics of the interwar and World War II years were closely tied to discourses of nation formation. Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) depicted the transformation of an unprepossessing figure to an icon endowed with exceptional abilities and power. The casting of Walter Huston (1884–1950), Henry Fonda (1905–1982), and Raymond Massey (1896–1983), respectively, in the title roles identified them with these qualities. While the Lincoln biopics differ in the selection of the biographical events filmed, in the acting, and in the depictions of communities, the tendency of the films—most evident in Young Mr. Lincoln —is to mask the politics, presenting history as a moral parable or allegory about national unity. To develop the credibility of the historical context presented, the films include portraits of social institutions: the family, the local community, law, commerce, the military, and the government. History is visualized through costuming, photographs, landscapes, and printed documents, as well as reinforced through the uses of music and speeches.
Clive of India (1934), Rhodes of Africa (1936), Stanley and Livingstone (1939), which featured such prominent actors as Ronald Colman (1891–1958), Walter Huston, Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), and Cedric Hardwicke (1893–1964), are biopics concerned with issues of empire. Replete with images of maps, scenes of combat, trials, and oratory, these biopics romanticized the trials and the superhuman qualities of European men—entrepreneurs, expansionists, explorers, and colonizers—who undertook to civilize the "natives." Relying on the rhetoric of a benevolent imperialism, the films highlighted an "exotic" landscape, depicted hostile encounters with indigenous peoples, and underscored the protagonists' successful struggle to create peace and unity in an alien terrain despite the resistance of the natives. According to established conventions, it is not chance that determines these men's victory, but their resourcefulness and indomitable wills.