Cataloging the Public Domain - PD movies I watched in 2019
As part of my Film Preservation project, I am cataloginging all the public domain movies I watched this year. This blog post is taken from a thread over on the fediverse, and expanded a bit with links and the like. What follows is a list of more than 50 movies that are in the american public domain, along with links to those movies on various platforms, a short review/synopsis, and comments on the quality of the available prints.
It’s not presented in any particular order. I started chronologically from when I viewed them, but that fell off midway through because I switched media servers, and don’t have data on when some of these were watched. Not every movie has a link, and not every link is the Canonical link for that film, but it should serve as a jumping point.
Public Domain Movies I watched in 2019
The Shadow Strikes (1937):
It’s “THE SHADOW” in only the lightest sense of the word. It’s really just a kind of light hearted mystery with the barest trappings of The Shadow.
The Shadow Returns (1946):
Another movie that alleges to feature The Shadow. Another movie that mostly doesn’t.
The Shadow Laughs (1933):
This one isn’t even about the shadow, they just took the name. It’s a low budget, early talkie that appears to have been converted from silent to talkie half way through. I don’t see any redeeming qualities to it.
Pimpernel Smith (1941):
The scarlet pimpernel does WWII? Not really. Just a british Anti-nazi thriller. It’s a spy movie, and an okay one.
The File on Thelma Jordon (1950):
A stone cold film noir, with an absolutely top notch femme fatale. Good movie.
His Girl Friday (1940):
It’s The Front Page, but with a woman in the leading role, so it’s a screwball romcom? Great interpretation of a Dark story.
Wikipedia has a 720p version.
A man who has been poisoned tells the cops about how it happened, and why, before he dies. Decent flick, but not required viewing.
Nancy Drew Reporter (1939):
Fun, low budget, kids flick. There’s a car with a rumble seat, there’s a musical number in a Chinese restaurant, I remember the movie being surprisingly tasteful for it’s age and subject matter, I remember that I liked it, but not much else.
Africa Screams (1949):
Abbot and Costello do racism in the jungle. Not recommended.
Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924):
Soviet science fiction. Good, a little long. Silent.
The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962):
Bad scifi horror. If you’re in to that kind of thing, it’s great.
Blonde Ice (1948):
Great, atmospheric flick. Noir, with a strong femme fatale. Tense. Bad title.
The Front Page (1931):
The same story as His Girl Friday, but without a woman in the lead. It’s funny, in parts, but the set-up is very dark and some scenes are needlessly cruel. I liked it, but many others did not.
Crime Inc. (1945):
A man fights the mob from the newspaper! It’s a decent movie. Not great, but good enough.
Roar of the Press (1941):
a pseudo-sequel to The Front Page, except not as well made, and a little less dark.
My Favorite Brunette (1947):
Bob hope sends up Allan Ladd hardboilers. Excellent.
Until recently, only available damaged, incomplete prints. The versions linked here are much better than what was available previously.
Noir, drama. Man survives murder attempt, drama ensues. Mostly a courtroom drama. Pretty okay.
Cause for Alarm (1951):
A sick man terrorizes his wife, writes a letter to the police comissioner claiming that his wife was going to murder him, dies. The wife commits several crimes in an attempt to not get blamed for her husband’s death. Surprisingly good.
A stone classic. One of the all time great Noir films. A man steals $20 to impress a lady, and gets mired in metaphorical quicksand.
The available transfer is okay, but we need a better one.
Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938):
Basically Sherlock Holmes fights the Klan? Except it’s not Holmes, and the Klan has a bedazzled snake logo. It’s good, but feels like an early talkie. The pacing is off, and there’s not enough sound. I would not be surprised to discover that it was originally shot much earlier, or by a director who had mostly done Silent films.
It is, as far as B-Movie crime flicks go, actually really good. It’s flaws are the flaws of cheap, early film, and are entirely secondary to what is otherwise a pretty good movie.
Shoot to kill (1947):
AKA Police Reporter. A former gangster is framed for murder. His wife and a reporter try to clear him. Clumsy, but not bad.
No Time For Sergeants (1955):
A TV movie (not the theater movie that came later), only available in pretty low quality, Andy Griffith joins the army, and gives his sergeant an aww shucks hard time. Really funny, but low quality print only.
Lady Gangster (1942):
Lady robs a bank, goes to Jail. Shenanigans ensue. B- I could live without it.
Danger on Wheels (1940):
A man drives a car dangerously. He races. There’s a double cross. It’s okay, but not essential.
The Stranger (1946):
Orson Welles directs and stars in this movie about a former nazi hiding out in Connecticut. It’s an absolute classic. Dark, moody, genuinely frightening in parts. Just a very good movie. Widely available in high quality.
Teenagers From Outerspace (1959):
… Teenagers! From! Outerspace! There’s a Lobster Monster! There’s romance! There’s socks OVER shoes. It’s not good, but it’s my favorite.
British Intelligence (1940):
It’s a mediocre spy film with Borris Karloff. Double cross on double cross. Not bad, just not good.
Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven (1948):
A guy wants to be a novelist. A girl wants to run away. They meet up on a texas highway, move to Brooklyn, meet a gangster, and buy some animatronic elephants, or something. A cute, silly romcom.
Speak Easily (1932):
Buster Keaton in a talkie! He’s trying to fund a play. Everyone wants to sleep with him. He doesn’t have any money, even though everyone thinks he does. It’s silly. It’s fun.
It lacks the skill of some of the films Keaton directed himself, and it was filmed in a particularly dark point in his life, but you wouldn’t know from watching it.
A Bucket of Blood (1959):
A cheap, cheap, cheap horror film. Roger Corman directs. A murderer disguises himself as an artist. It’s not bad, especially if you like schlocky horror.
King Solomon’s Mines (1937):
White people go on a safari. One of them is Allan Quartermain. They find an ancient diamond mine, and an African tribe, then get stuck in the ancient mine/volcano. Less racist than I expected it to be for the era it was released. Not perfect in it’s depictions of Africa, but so much better than Africa Screams.
Allegedly, the most faithful adaptation of the original novel.
Beat the Devil (1953):
Bogart stars in a send up of the kind of noir picture he made famous. I think it’s a really great film, and modern critics agree with me, but it flopped at the time. One of the few public domain films with an easilly available HD print (a situation which I am trying to make more common!)
Cat-Women of the Moon (1953):
A secret society of Women on the Moon! With Mind Control! It’s a decent movie. More earnest and less sleezy than the title would suggest. Almost good enough to be considered good. Almost chaste enough to be a family film.
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973):
Sex kills! At least, it does in this movie, where everyone is topless most the time. It’s a sleezy sex horror flick, that manages to be remarkably boring in spite of each of those things.
Dick Tracy (1945):
A feature film adaptation of Dick Tracy, really just more of a mild detective adventure. Not bad, just not remarkable.
House on Haunted Hill (1959):
Locked room horror in a haunted house. What’s real? What isn’t? It’s kind of silly, but I enjoy it. William Castle, Vincent Price. Durring original screenings of the film, skeletons would fly out in to the audience on wire durring the scene where that makes sense.
Robin Hood (1922):
It’s Robin Hood! It’s Douglas Fairbanks! It’s Silent! It’s pretty good!
The General (1927):
The best silent comedy ever made, IMO. It’s the story of the great train robbery (an event that happened in my home town during the US Civil War) filtered through the eyes of Buster Keaton. It flopped. It wasn’t even a little well recieved. It was the most expensive movie ever made. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, Brilliant.
One of the best Poverty Row films ever. Recently re-released in HD for the first time. It’s beautiful, it’s the classic tale of an unreliable narrator in a bad situation that keeps getting worse.
The wikipedia version is a recent restoration, in 720p. It’s worth watching that one, or even buying the Critereon Collection bluray. The version on archive.org is the one I watched the first time I saw the film, it’s lower resolution and damaged in noticable ways.
The Little Shop of Horrors (1950):
Another low budget Corman horror comedy. It’s funny, it’s horrific. I like it.
One of the first films to be recolored for re-release in the 80s. The results make it feel different, and not entirely in a bad way.
Safety Last (1923):
Harrold Lloyd’s most recognizable feature. Silent. Slower than modern audiences expect, but still worth seeing, especially for fans of the films of that era.
Safety Last entered the public domain in the US on January 1st 2019. It’s a baby.
International Crime (1938):
The Shadow! (again!) But not really! (again!) My favorite of The Shadow feature films (but not as good as the serials.)
Again, most releases available of this film that I am aware of are mediocre in quality. I hope to find or make a better one eventually.
The Phantom Empire (1935):
Watch the full serial on Archive.org
Watch the first chapter on wikipedia
Watch the edited feature film version on wikipedia
Gene Autry sings as bankers try to steal his ranch, and they discover an underground city full of robots! It’s a cliffhanger serial, be sure to watch the episodes in order. (Or, I guess, watch the 70 minute feature film re-release, but I found that one confusing and nonsensical.)
I have a copy of the full serial on 16mm film, and I will be working to release a higher quality transfer than those that are currently available.
The Magic Sword (1962):
Children’s high fantasy adventure. It’s great, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Really deserves a 1080p or 4K restoration
Menace from Outerspace:
Rocky Jones Space Ranger! This is a movie made of episodes of Rocky Jones. It’s pretty bad! But I love Rocky Jones, so I don’t care. It works better on the small screen, and doesn’t really deserve the movie treatment, but the run of the show is more commonly available today as 12 movies rather than 39 episodes.
Rocky Jones is currently only available in SD. That’s something I hope to correct in the near future!
More episodes of the TV show on Peertube.
Crash of the Moons:
Same as above, but it’s a better movie, IMO.
Yongary Monster from the Deep (1967):
Korean Godzilla, basically. With everything that implies.
Topper Returns (1941):
Topper is a kind of silly novel about a man getting frisky with a ghost. This is a movie in which that same man solves a murder, with the help of another ghost. Eventually made in to a decent TV show.
The Slowest Gun in the West (1960):
TV Movie with Jack Benny and Phil Silvers. A send-up of westerns, and of masculinity in general. Pretty good, if a little silly. Only available at TV resolution.
Only one transfer available that I’m aware of, and that transfer has been re-encoded and reposted in a million places. It’s an okay transfer, but I’d love to find a better one.
Plan 9 from Outerspace (1959):
Not actually the worst film ever made, but definitely in contention. Unintentionally funny, inept, etc. Bella Lugosi’s last film.
The film was shot on 16mm film at full frame in the academy ratio, but intended for distribution as hard matte 16:9 film. Many versions of this movie that are in circulation return it to full frame. This is Not the OAR. Many of the sets and effects look much worse at 4:3 than they do at 16:9. For most films, this is a big deal, and I wold never suggest watching at something other than the original aspect ration. For this film… Eh, the full frame version has it’s own charms that you miss in the widescreen edition. The choice is yours and yours alone.
One of the best movies in the public domain. Sometimes called the last breath of the golden age of Hollywood. Carry Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Screwball romcom meets suspense thriller with spies and double crosses. Very enjoyable.
The soundtrack is still under copyright, so many version of this film in circulation have an edited soundtrack. The film is poorer for that. I believe all versions linked here retain the original soundtrack, and it is my understanding that it is legal to distribute the film with this soundtrack, but not to make modifications to the soundtrack. I am not a lawyer, your milage may varry.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966):
Watch it redone with puppets! (on youtube, I’m sorry.)
I think this review from 366 weird movies says what needs to be said:
Manos: the Hands of Fate demonstrates an important lesson: if applied consistently, incompetence can be a style. This narrative feature film was shot with a hand-wound 16 mm camera that could only capture thirty seconds of footage at a time. The camera was probably intended to be used by families making silent vacation films, and the results look exactly like a home movie from 1966, complete with barely adequate, dull coloration and hazy definition. Since the protagonists are lost vacationers, it’s an oddly appropriate, if accidental, visual scheme, almost as if the movie is found documentary footage of a missing family, a la Blair Witch.
There was no sound on camera. Everything was overdubbed after the fact. The actors that deliver the voice perfomances are far fewer than those who appear on screen. And, in spite of all that, there’s a weird kind of beauty to the film, and Torgo makes the whole thing worthwhile.
It is one of my favorite movies, but unquestionably one of the worst ever finished. The score is good enough that I own a copy on LP. (Seriously, check out this track, or really just go pay attention to the soundtrack and the movie.), the dialogue has a wierd poetic meter. The pacing is wrong. The blocking is wrong. The directing is wrong. It’s a trainwreck that has to be seen to be appreciated.
You’ll see some folks claiming copyright over the newly restored 1080p version of the film. This is an interesting legal theory that has not been tested in court, and would likely not hold up, as restoration falls under “sweat of the brow” work, which is exempt from copyright protection in the US.
I have another twenty or thirty reviews to add that I’ll do in a follow up post.
Eventually, I’ll collect all of this in to a database, and present it as it’s own website.
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