There's a flood of classic movies and cartoons moving into the public domain, available to watch free online. Many are cheap serials and cheesy B-movies (okay, I love those, too), but there are also genuine gems, including many wonderful silent films, comedies and thrillers.
I've picked out seven terrific old films you can find on free sites like Google, IMDB and emol.com. The viewing experience isn't as rich as buying a great print of the movie on DVD with extra features, and watching it on your high-def TV, but this way, you can see if you really like a classic movie before you buy.
My choice for the best screwball comedy of all time, Howard Hawks’ remake of The Front Page
casts Cary Grant as the charming, unscrupulous newspaper editor and Rosalind Russell as his wise-cracking girl reporter and former wife. Rapid-fire dialog, a breakneck pace, laugh-aloud bits of business and some truly touching moments make His Girl Friday
Buster Keaton is a revelation in this silent film as a Civil War train engineer who loves his locomotive, the General, and his sweetheart - in that order. Panned when it was made, it has since been recognized as one of the great films of all time, with ingenious, dangerous stunts, a tight, imaginative plot, and Keaton’s athletic, affecting performance. Slapstick and subtlety combine in this action-comedy-romance.
Jofa-Atelier Berlin Johnnisthal
The first - and unauthorized - version of Dracula
is a masterpiece of German expressionism, with a ghoulish Max Schreck as the blood-sucking fiend “Count Orlok.” Its play of light and shadow is gorgeous, especially for such an early film, and still creepy. Nosferatu
set some of the early screen conventions for vampires to come, including vile eroticism and death by sunlight for the bad guy.
Wry, dry and offbeat, Beat the Devil
is an odd little spoof of caper movies. You’ll either love it or hate it. It was Humphrey Bogart’s last collaboration with director John Huston, and Truman Capote wrote the dialog for an all-star cast. Truly funny lines and a great performance by Robert Morley are highlights; the climax falls a bit short. I love it anyway.
A classic suspense thriller, “M“
was German director Fritz Lang’s first film with sound, and sound features brilliantly in the plot. With Peter Lorre cast in the role of a serial child killer, the film is a race between the police and Berlin’s underworld to find and catch the killer, and was so effective that Lorre was typecast as a villain for years thereafter.
A charming screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey
features Carole Lombard as a ditsy heiress and William Powell as a down-and-outer during the Depression. The heiress latches onto the bum as the “forgotten man” she needs to win a scavenger hunt. She hires him as butler to her eccentric family, and he promptly turns the tables. Who‘s really helping who? A witty commentary on class and the moral high ground in tough times.
The only big Fred Astaire musical in the public domain, Royal Wedding
is a bit of MGM fluff that might otherwise be forgotten, were it not for two indelible Astaire moments: his effortless, fluid dance with a coat rack as a partner, and his gravity-defying tap dance on the ceiling. There‘s never been a dancer to match him, and my, what a talented coat rack!
Often voted the worst movie ever made, Plan 9 from Outer Space
is readily available online. Try a double feature of dreck with the equally awful Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
. So bad they’re good.