Have you ever wondered how the low-budget Mystery Science Theater 3000 was able to afford the rights to so many movies? Probably not, but just humor me here. Take the film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, for instance. You’d assume it cost MILLIONS for Tom Servo to make fun of the American classic — but you’d be wrong. The movie fell into the public domain, and therefore, was (and still is) free to use. (That’s why you rarely hear “Happy Birthday to You” in TV shows; it’s copyrighted and costs a shit ton of money to use.)
A movie, like any piece of art, can enter the public domain, according to the U.S. Copyright Office, “if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection.” If either of those things happen (or if the work was published before January 1, 1923), anyone can use the movie in any way they’d like, for any purpose. Hundreds of comedies — many from the 1930s-1960s — are in the public domain, but here are 10 of the most notable.
Brideless Groom, 1947
There are currently four Three Stooges shorts in the public domain: 1936’s Disorder in the Court, not to be confused with the TruTV show of the same name; 1947’s wonderfully titled Sing a Song of Six Pants; 1949’s Malice in the Palace, which has nothing to do with Ron Artest; and 1947’s Brideless Groom, the most famous of the four. Even if you’ve only seen a half-dozen Stooges’ films, Brideless, about Shemp having to marry a singing instructor before 6 p.m. to inherit her deceased uncle’s fortune (not the only time in their filmography where there’s a race against the clock to receive a large sum of money), is likely one of them; it contains the famous line, “Hold hands, you lovebirds,” as said by actor Emil Sitka, the only man to work with all six Stooges, including the utterly forgettable Curly Joe. Sitka also had a birdcage smashed onto his head in the movie, a scene that Quentin Tarantino would later pay homage to in Pulp Fiction. He likely remembered it from Brideless being on TV so often.
Check and Double Check, 1930
*Loosens collar* With all due respect to A Prairie Home Companion, here’s THE radio-to-movie adaptation that never should have happened: Check and Double Check is the first – and only – film to star Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Charles J. Correll as their oh-so-racist characters, Amos ‘n’ Andy. Bringing the Athens, Georgia duo to the big screen not only proved troublesome because Check had to stretch a 15-minute radio show into a full-length film, it also had the unfortunate responsibility of putting two white boys in blackface, a problem that doesn’t exist when the audience can only hear you, not see you. It made a ton of money (it was one of RKO’s biggest hits until King Kong), but critics hated the film, as did its creators. The only good thing about it, actually: it introduced Duke Ellington, who appeared in the movie, to a national (read: white) audience.
Father’s Little Dividend, 1951
You might know the remake of this Father of the Bride sequel under a different name: Father of the Bride, Part II – y’know, the one with Martin Short. It’s not the most clever of titles, but it’s certainly better than Father’s Little Dividend, which sounds like a movie about the name a creepy businessman gave to his penis. Instead, it concerns Spencer Tracey and Joan Bennett, who returned as Stanley and Ellie Banks (Steve Martin and Diane Keaton would play the same characters 40 years later), dealing with the daughter of their first child, played by Elizabeth “The Bride” Taylor, in one of her earliest well known roles. It’s cute, if a bit lightweight.
His Girl Friday (1940)
I remember being irrationally upset at the American Film Institute when they released their list of 100 Years…100 Laughs, a ranking of the greatest comedies of all-time. Some Like It Hot at #1??? Why is Groundhog Day so low??? Why the fuck was Mrs. Doubtfire included??? His Girl Friday at #19??? That…makes perfect sense actually. It’s the perfect screwball romantic comedy, with rapid-paced dialogue (it may have been the first film to ever have characters talk over each other) and an engaging love story between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who both give magnificent performances. It never takes itself too seriously, which is why it’s so damn charming. Cary Grant’s Charade is also in the public domain.
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, 1906
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The entire “story” of J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which was released 106 years ago (and is considered one of the first animated films ever made — and would be THE worst indie rock band name ever), is that a man draws funny faces on a chalkboard, and they come to life. That’s as good a concept as any to elicit laughs; heck, Dreamworks uses it for all of their movies, with their infamous Face. Plus, its three-minute run-time is certainly more tolerable than the hour-long The Story of the Kelly Gang, the first ever full-length feature film, also released in 1906.
John Wayne appeared in roughly 180 movies in his career, but McLintock! is the only one to feature both an exclamation point in its title and TWO spanking scenes. Even the movie’s poster is wacky: under the tagline “Wallops the Daylight out of Every Western You’ve Ever Seen,” Wayne can be seen sitting on a tree stump with co-star Maureen O’Hara sprawled out across his lap. With a goofy, pained expression on his face and his arm stretched way back, he looks ready to, well, “tap that ass,” so to speak. But in the film, Wayne actually spanks O’Hara with a coal shovel, while a large crowd, including a little girl holding an American flag, watches and laughs. For a slightly better John Wayne comedy western, check out Donovan’s Reef, his final film with famed director John Ford.
The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, 1947
Harold Lloyd was one of the most famous and greatest stars of the silent film era, right up there with Chaplin and Keaton. To quote Hal Roach, “Harold Lloyd was not a comedian. But he was the best actor to act the part of a comedian of any person I ever saw.” He excelled at playing happy-go-lucky, chipper characters, perfect for the late 1910s, early 1920s. But by the ‘30s and ‘40s, when the country was going through the Great Depression and “talkies” were destroying the popularity of silent films, the world didn’t care for Lloyd’s enthusiasm as much, and his previous fame eluded him. Playing the titular character in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, latter re-named Mad Wednesday, was his final starring role (Preston Sturges convinced him to come out for retirement for it), but it was a commercial and critical dud, undeserving to be in the same filmography as Safety Last! and Grandma’s Boy. Except for the expression, “Well, drown my kittens.” That’s amazing.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Steamboat Bill Jr., the last film the Great Stone, Buster Keaton, made before jumping ship from United Artists to MGM (a move he would later regret), and possibly his last great film in general, contains one of the famous scenes in comedy history. A cyclone hits the port town Keaton’s in, and as he’s walking around, a building begins to collapse…right behind Keaton. Luckily, he’s standing in the exact spot where the open window lands. Keaton did the stunt himself (and doesn’t blink an eye), a risky move considering if he had been just two inches to either side, he would have been squashed by two tons of structure. The gag has been parodied in everything from Weird Al music videos to Twister (TWISTER, people), but never as effectively as in Steamboat Bill, Jr.
The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
McLintock! seems downright normal compared to the totally off-the-wall The Terror of Tiny Town, cinema’s only Western comedy musical with an all-midget cast. (You might recognize the name of the film from The Simpsons’ “Treehouse” short, “The Terror of Tiny Town.”) It’s a gimmick film, obviously, with the midgets riding Shetland ponies and walking underneath saloon doors, but beyond the obvious sight gags, it’s not sure whether we’re supposed to be laughing with or laughing at the cast. The indecision makes it not as campy as it could be, and therefore less enjoyable. (Its IMDb “plot keywords” page, however, is wonderful – where else can you find the terms “shoeshine boy,” “black American stereotype,” “midget,” and “fist fight” on the same page?)
Africa Screams (1949)
I lied. There’s nothing notable about this Abbot and Costello movie. I just love the title and that it involves cannibals.