For many years, the go-to site for public-domain movies was Free Classic Movies dot com. Sadly, the site shut down in late 2019, apparently for personal reasons. Pause to shed a tear, because the site will be missed. One of its features was a group of Fan Favorites pages, with content contributed by viewers.
Here’s what was on mine. Some are not much more than throwaway one-liners extracted from emails I sent to the site. Others I really had fun with.
The Furs (1912)
How many times have you seen the same story told both as a drama and as a comedy? The most straightforward is when someone parodies a serious work. But it can go in the other direction too, as when Jacques Brel’s bitter and sardonic “Le Moribond” turns into the slushy tearjerker “Seasons in the Sun”. There’s even a rumor that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was originally conceived as the darkest of black humor. It all comes down to someone thinking: “Y’know, that didn’t have to be played for laughs.”
In 1959, Roald Dahl wrote a short story called “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Fur”. In brief: As a parting gift after a long affair, the eponymous Colonel gives the eponymous Mrs. Bixby a gorgeous mink coat. But how will she ever be able to wear it? Her husband certainly doesn’t make that kind of money. Idea! She pawns the coat for the lowest possible sum, and gets a pawn ticket that says simply “Fur”. She shows this to her husband, saying she found it in the street and isn’t it exciting and what do you suppose it can be? Husband agrees to go to the pawn shop alone and redeem the ticket. He comes home with a mangy fox stole, complaining about how much it cost him. Wife is silently furious, and sets forth to have it out with the larcenous pawnbroker. On the way she stops by her husband’s office . . . and finds his secretary wearing the mink coat.
Now scroll back to 1912, several years before Dahl was born. Mabel Normand made more than fifty movies that year, many of them with Mack Sennett; among them is the one-reeler The Furs. Here there is no affair, no Colonel, no secretary. There could have been—after all, the Hays Code is two decades away—but this is Mack Sennett. So instead we get an extravagant wife, a passed-out-drunk husband . . . and a mother-in-law.
Coincidence? We’ll never know.
Daddy Long Legs (1919)
Meet Jean Webster. A grandniece of Mark Twain, she obviously shared some of his humorist genes. She died young, but her legacy includes the 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs, which is an absolute delight from beginning to end . . . at least as long as you don’t think about the essential creepiness of the central romance. Never mind that; just enjoy.
Daddy-Long-Legs should have led to a succession of wonderful movies. Instead we’re left with one utterly forgettable musical, and half of a silent. Why half? Because 27-year-old Mary Pickford simply could not, or would not, stop playing children. So the first half of the movie is a series of scenes that never existed in the book; the whole story is squeezed into the last 45 minutes or so.
Matchmaking Mamma (1929)
Silent movies were never made for people who let them run in the background, half-listening to the dialogue while going about their business.
That goes double here, because smack dab in the middle of this minor silent short are two TECHNICOLOR SEQUENCES.
Sure, the lighting is awful—I don’t think Mack Sennett’s budget ever went above $20 per picture—but the color values are otherwise true, and frankly I think this is pretty amazing.
Sometimes Hollywood can be slow to respond.
Take sound. As we all know, The Jazz Singer came out in the latter part of 1927. The studios said Hey, that’s interesting, sound in a movie, what a novel concept . . . and went right back to making silents for another year and a half. And then something clicked and everyone started madly converting to talkies, as seen in Singin’ in the Rain.
Something similar happened with the Hays Code, technically the Motion Picture Production Code. On paper it had been around since 1930, but it took a couple more years before Hollywood panicked and started taking the Code seriously. In between came Rain, featuring prostitution, infidelity, suicide—and, above all, a complete lack of punishment, repentance and redemption. In the course of telling the story:
the word “brothel” is used. Ka-ching!
the word “gay” is used in its slang sense. Ka-ching!
This is 1932, when the word still had its 19th-century meaning: anything to do with prostitution. No use arguing that your children, grandparents or clergyman wouldn’t get the reference; the Code says explicitly “even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience”.
a missionary does an immoral action. Ka-ching!
“Ministers of religion should not be used . . . as villains.”
the main character does not repent. Ka-ching, ka-ching!
Well, she does—sort of—for a while. But by the end of the movie she has reverted to form, thanks to the missionary’s actions. And even her repentant phase is decidedly weird. It put me in mind of Alistair Sim playing Scrooge: After his change of heart, when he is supposed to have become good and virtuous, he capers about in a state of demented bliss, as if he has simply gone off the deep end. Joan Crawford’s temporary moral enlightenment has much the same quality: Sadie, are you feeling all right?
a major character commits suicide, not because life has driven him to despair as in Stage Door, but purely because of his own voluntary misdeeds. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!
That was 1932. A year later, you’d have had to heavily edit the dialogue—and cut the last ten minutes entirely.
. . . Answering the question of “What on earth was the big deal about Ashley W— er, I mean Leslie Howard?”
I remember seeing the movie years ago on AMC—back when it was a good station—and thinking Oh, yes, THAT’S the kind of role he was made for.
The Reluctant Widow (1950)
Producer: We’d like you to film a Georgette Heyer novel.
Director: Sounds good. I suppose you’d like something high-energy with a strong heroine, like Faro’s Daughter or The Grand Sophy.
Producer: Not exactly.
Director: Or one that ends with the entire cast collected in some remote location, like Friday’s Child or Cotillion or Sprig Muslin. Those are always great fun.
Producer: Well, no . . .
Director: Maybe more like Arabella or Sylvester, with a quirky heroine that the audience will be drawn to?
Producer: Stop blathering about heroines. We have to sell tickets to men, too.
Director: Oh, so a romance-and-mystery combo, like The Quiet Gentleman. Or, wait, The Toll-Gate. We can even sneak in some history; the Cinema Board will love that.
Producer: Close. You’re making The Reluctant Widow.
Director: . . .
Producer: Except that there isn’t enough cheesecake, so you’ll need to throw in an irrelevant subplot and subtract a few decades from one secondary character’s age.
Director (beginning to wilt): But, but, but the sole reason for that character’s existence is to be older—
Producer: And we’ll expect a minimum of eleven costume changes for the heroine.
Director: This would be the lady who starts out a governess and immediately becomes a widow?
Producer: Oh, we’ve changed all that. She’ll marry the hero a few days later, so she can go straight into an off-the-shoulder evening gown.
Director (fading): Off-the—? In 1814?
Producer: Just keep the waistline high, and nobody will notice. Also, the budget won’t allow for color. You’ll have to make it gaudy in monochrome. Put lots of bling on the hero, so viewers don’t overlook him.
Director: But Beau Brummel said—
Producer: And throw in a military subplot so you can put everyone into full-dress regimentals.
Director (losing it): Regimentals? Why don’t you go whole hog and put the actors into kilts?
Producer: Funny you should say that.
The Bigamist (1953)
Spoiler alert: The main character in this picture has two wives.
Traveling salesman Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) lives happily with his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine) in San Francisco. There’s only one thing missing: Eve can’t have children. To fill the gap in her life, Edmund makes her his office manager, and she turns out to be darned good at it. Surprisingly, this does not change her into the cold-blooded, shrewish Career Woman we’ve come to know and love from other movies of this vintage. Could it be because the picture was directed by a woman?
But managing the office isn’t everything; the couple still try to adopt a child. While the adoption-agency wheels are slowly grinding, husband gets involved with Phyllis (Ida Lupino, who also directed), a waitress in Los Angeles. The next thing we know, she is pregnant and he has no choice but to marry her. His double life comes to a screeching halt when the adoption-agency official (Edmund Gwenn), going above and beyond the call of duty, discovers Harry’s second home—complete with wife and child.
The Hitchhiker (1953)
Another Ida Lupino venture. An interesting detail about this otherwise completely forgettable movie: Whenever you have Mexican characters speaking to each other—or American characters speaking to Mexicans in off-the-beaten-path towns—they speak Spanish. (One character consistently called the language “Mexican”. I think this was intended to reflect his own ignorance, not the director’s or writer’s.) Without subtitles, at that. Nice going, Ida! Good to show some confidence in the viewer’s intelligence. I could name two or three . . . hundred . . . modern movies that didn’t show the same trust.
The Violent Years (1955)
If you are a longtime Ed Wood fan, you will find The Violent Years a sad disappointment. The problem is that it simply . . . well . . . it isn’t terrible.
It isn’t good, of course. I’m not 100% positive the doctor and the judge weren’t played by the same actor, give or take a funny wig and extravagant glasses. A “Day For Night” filter was clearly not in the budget, so all outdoor scenes take place under brilliant sunlight, even if the script has just got through telling us it’s after 10 PM. Continuity, or what was then called a “Script Girl”, wasn’t in the budget either; don’t waste time asking yourself when the Gang Of Four found time to change from dungarees into skirts.
No, what’s missing is the sheer over-the-top awfulness that fans have come to know and love. The defining scene is the main character’s 18th birthday—celebrated with a coed pajama party, since her loving parents can’t be bothered to stay home and prevent mischief. In the fine tradition of “I Accuse My Parents” she reveals that each year her mother gets her a new convertible, while her father buys her a new watch. The unspoken message is “He gives me a watch, but never any of his time.” Was Ed Wood capable of making this analogy without heavy-handedly writing it into the script—or did it not occur to him in the first place? Maybe it’s just random happenstance that the watch wasn’t a charm bracelet instead.
Incidentally, the Hays Office ought to have loved this movie: one way or another, all the bad girls die. But somehow I don’t think they much cared for it.