As we continue to mourn the impending end of Filmstruck, I find myself thinking more and more about cinema’s history. In the grand scheme of culture, film is a relatively youthful medium but it has come to indisputably dominate our popular understanding of art in a way that older forms can’t entirely compete with. It’s also become the framework around which one of the most powerful industries has been built. In a time where media monopolies become more dominant than we ever could have imagined, the topic of ownership and art appears with more frequency and urgency. Soon, The Walt Disney Company will own around 40% of the box office once their acquisition of Fox is confirmed, and the AT&T/Warners merger has already seen a significant change to their business plan (which included shutting down Filmstruck). It’s no coincidence that these corporations that are so keen to own everything are also the ones who lobby the hardest for the extension of copyright. Ever wondered why Mickey Mouse, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind aren’t in the public domain? There’s your answer.
The public domain refers to any artistic work that is not copyrighted or owned by government, an organization or individual force. Sometimes, a work enters public domain because of sloppiness on the part of its owners, other times it’s because the original copyright was flawed or poorly ordained. A lot of old films are in the public domain because their studio or producer shut down business and they were never picked up elsewhere. Whatever the case, the importance of public domain art cannot be overstated, especially in today’s age of streaming, media monopolies, and the downfall of physical media. It’s just a good thing to have art not owned by the same six companies which then becomes near impossible to watch due to cost, availability or good old fashioned greediness.
The public domain is also a great way to explore film history, with some of the greats of the silent era available to watch for free on YouTube and other video sites. You can watch hours of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, early Hitchcock, and even some classic B-movies by Roger Corman, and it’s all legal. I could be here all day listing the public domain films you should be watching, but I’ll keep things brief. If you’re interested in finding out more, check out this exhaustive list from MUBI!
A Star is Born
With the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga remake hogging up the movie headlines right now, there’s no better time to return to the film that started it all. Janet Gaynor and Fredric March’s classic romantic drama and Hollywood legend remains one of the most starkly bleak tales of the double edged sword that is celebrity. This film tends to be overlooked in favour of the 1954 film, probably because Judy Garland is a star who the public are more familiar with than Gaynor, but Gaynor is wonderful as the wide-eyed country girl who becomes the biggest actress in Hollywood. The story is also surprisingly frank about how the industry created specific narrative and reinvented its stars to best suit their needs, be it through a make-over, a name change or a total rewrite of their past. While the musical adaptations may prove more traditionally entertaining for some, this fable endures for a reason.
His Girl Friday
You just can’t beat an old-school screwball comedy, the kind where, if the actors spoke any quicker, they’d probably end up falling over themselves. Rosalind Russell is the reporter looking to get out of the newspaper business after splitting from her editor ex-husband, played by Cary Grant. In an effort to hold onto her, Grant gets her to cover one last story. While the film is technically an adaptation of the play The Front Page (which isn’t in the public domain, meaning some people don’t classify His Girl Friday as such but it is, I swear), the addition of the romance and the gender-change of the central character make this story its own unique experience. Almost 90 years have passed since His Girl Friday was released and it still feels like every rom-com lives in its shadow.
Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey’s low-budget indie film from 1962 is basically the horror genre’s version of the Velvet Underground: Few saw it when it was released but those who did went on to become massive stars, in part influenced by the movie. Both David Lynch and George A. Romero cited Carnival of Souls as an inspiration to their own films. Even today, over 55 years later, there is an immense power to Carnival of Souls and its sense of mood. So much of the film feels incredibly fresh. This is a great one for a dark night, preferably not alone.
Ida Lupino was one of only a handful of women directors during the 1940s and ’50s with any true Hollywood studio clout. She became a star as an actress before moving onto directing a slew of “issues movies” that tackled major social topics of the day, from rape to divorce. The Hitch-Hiker is a lean, mean film noir that remains achingly tense and bleak throughout its brief running time. Lupino had a real eye for capturing the stifling mood of paranoia, and it works incredibly well in this story of two friends who pick up a hitch-hiker who happens to be a mass murderer. On top of that, it’s also a sly take-down of gun-stroking toxic masculinity. What more could you want?
It’s debatable as to whether Howard Hughes’s heated Western is actually a good movie, but its place in Hollywood lore was sealed the moment the project was announced. Hughes, still eager to be an industry kingpin, was all about pushing the boundaries of the Hollywood Production Code, and The Outlaw presented the perfect vehicle for such escapades: A garish tale of the Old West that was mostly an excuse to stare at Jane Russell’s breasts. Hughes even fashioned Russell her own special bra for the production, but she hated it so much she discarded it and he never noticed. It deserves a watch if only to understand what all the fuss is about, although the homoeroticism of the relationship between Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid is definitely worth your time.
House on Haunted Hill
Director William Castle loved a gimmick. His horror films became known for the stunts played during screenings, such as vibrating chairs, view-finders that showed ‘ghosts’, and skeletons that dropped from the ceiling. The latter was famously employed for House on Haunted Hill, a Vincent Price vehicle that’s like the Rosetta Stone for haunted house movies. We can’t promise any skeletons but this movie is the right mix of campy and creepy and would be a good addition to anyone’s night of horror films.
Of Human Bondage
When RKO planned to adapt the W. Somerset Maugham Of Human Bondage. They had trouble finding an actress willing to play the role of Mildred. The selfish manipulative waitress who the story’s protagonist falls obsessively in love with is the kind of role most actresses would kill for now but at the time it was seen as too big a risk for fear that audiences would hate the actress as much as they hated the character. Bette Davis, then at Warner Bros. and desperate to prove herself beyond the middling material she was being given, essentially begged for the role. It paid off and there was genuine industry-wide outrage when her performance was not nominated for an Oscar. Of Human Bondage isn’t an easy watch but check it out to see Davis command the screen in the way only she could.
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