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.
N. 1. The land of everyday, commonplace things; 2. The online compendium of 420 public-domain essays.
(1672–1719) / 6 essays
Wit and humor, as have a tendency to expose vice and folly, furnish useful diversions.
(1561–1626) / 6 essays
There be so many false points of praise, that a man may justly hold it a suspect.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld
(1743–1825) / 1 essays
Is there not A tongue in every star that talks with man, And wooes him to be wise? nor wooes in vain; This dead of midnight is the noon of thought, And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars.
W. N. P. Barbellion
(1889–1919) / 3 essays
My life [is a] struggle with ill-health and ambition, and I have mastered neither.
(1870–1953) / 8 essays
Time can take only what is ripe, but Death comes always too soon.
(1862–1925) / 3 essays
The worth of experience is not measured by what is called success, but rather resides in a fullness of life
(1831–1904) / 1 essays
I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.
(1864–1922) / 3 essays
It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world.
(1605–1682) / 5 essays
Where life is more terrible than death, it is then the truest valor to dare to live.
(1752–1840) / 4 essays
What strange ideas are taken from mere book-reading.
(1623–1673) / 5 essays
If tranquility lives in an honest mind the mind dwells in peace.
G. K. Chesterton
(1874–1936) / 3 essays
An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.
(1656–1710) / 1 essays
The fear of death is the occasional cause of the greatest part of…mean dishonorable actions.
(1575–1638) / 1 essays
The mothers then that refuse to nurse their owne children, doe they not despise God’s providence?
(1780–1832) / 3 essays
We owe almost all of our knowledge not to those who have agreed, but to those who have differed.
Anna Julia Cooper
(1858–1964) / 1 essays
Nothing natural can be wholly unworthy.
Susan Fenimore Cooper
(1813–1894) / 2 essays
Of the infinite variety of fruits which spring from the bosom of the earth, the trees of the wood are the greatest in dignity.
(1579–1614) / 2 essays
It is easier to think well than to do well; and no trial to have handsome dapper conceits run invisibly in a brain.
(1618–1667) / 4 essays
It is a hard and nice subject for a man to write of himself.
(1731–1800) / 4 essays
Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life. Security is an insipid thing.
(1626–1697) / 1 essays
Though [essays] may gather some honey from the best flowers of wit and learning, they have a limitation from none.
Thomas De Quincey
(1785–1859) / 21 essays
All is finite in the present; and even that finite is infinite in its velocity of flight towards death.
(1767–1849) / 0 essays
Some people talk of morality, and some of religion, but give me a little snug property.
T. S. Eliot
(1888–1965) / 1 essays
Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree: you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say this we know.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1803–1882) / 4 essays
Our being is descending into us from we know not whence.
Sui Sin Far
(1865–1914) / 1 essays
I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality.
(1602–1668) / 2 essays
We begin to be miserable, when we are totally bent on some one temporal object.
(1856–1939) / 1 essays
My main object is to collect everyday material and utilize it scientifically.
(1810–1850) / 1 essays
None can sympathize with thoughts like mine, who are permanently ensnared in the meshes of sect or party.
Katharine Fullerton Gerould
(1879–1944) / 3 essays
Common sense has a deal of caution in it; and do we not, somewhere in the world, need rashness?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
(1860–1935) / 2 essays
There is nothing in maternity, nothing in the natural relation of the sexes which should make the female the servant of the male.
(1735–1774) / 3 essays
From the highest to the lowest, this people seem fond of sights and monsters.
Louise Imogen Guiney
(1861–1920) / 12 essays
It is diverting to study…how many indispensables man can live without.
(1838–1896) / 5 essays
Manhood discovers what childhood can never divine,—that the sorrows of life are superficial, and the happiness…structural.
Jane Ellen Harrison
(1850–1928) / 2 essays
Anyone who cares passionately for abstract discussion, be his hair never so gray,…is in spirit young.
(1693–1756) / 3 essays
To know ourselves, is agreed by all to be the most useful Learning.
(1778–1830) / 30 essays
In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason.
(1594–1666) / 2 essays
Excuse me that I trouble you thus with these rambling meditations.
William Dean Howells
(1837–1920) / 1 essays
The soul… is the supernal criticism of the deeds done in the body.
(1711–1776) / 1 essays
Learning has been as great a Loser by being shut up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World.
(1784–1859) / 16 essays
The test of seeing and hearing… is in the ideas we realize, and the pleasure we derive.
Thomas Henry Huxley
(1825–1895) / 2 essays
A small beginning has led us to a great ending.
(1609–1674) / 1 essays
There is nothing worthier of an honest man than to have contention with nobody.
L. P. Jacks
(1860–1955) / 1 essays
The richest and most significant experiences of man…are the least patient of verbal reproduction.
(1813–1897) / 2 essays
There are wrongs which even the grave does not bury.
Jerome K. Jerome
(1859–1927) / 4 essays
One we discover how to appreciate the timeless values in our daily experiences, we can enjoy the best things in life.
(1709–1784) / 5 essays
Every diversity of art or nature…may supply matter to him whose only rule is to avoid uniformity.
(1283–1350) / 1 essays
It is a fine thing when a man who thoroughly understands a subject is unwilling to open his mouth.
(1801–1864) / 2 essays
The wildflowers of Michigan deserve a poet of their own.
(1775–1834) / 25 essays
The mighty future is as nothing, being every thing! The past is every thing, being nothing.
(1764–1847) / 1 essays
In the most meritorious discharges of those duties the highest praise we can aim at is to be accounted the helpmates of man, who, in return for all he does for us, expects, and justly expects, us to do all in our power to soften and sweeten life.
Walter Savage Landor
(1775–1864) / 1 essays
A man’s vanity tells him what is honor, a man’s conscience what is justice.
(1856–1935) / 10 essays
I know few things more odious than the chilly, draughty, emptiness of a place without a history.
(1878–1937) / 1 essays
The best good that you can possibly achieve is not good enough if you have to strain yourself all the time to reach it.
Edward Sanford Martin
(1856–1939) / 1 essays
It does a comfortable sufferer good to get his head out of his conveniences sometimes and complain.
(1802–1876) / 5 essays
My chief object in life shall be the cultivation of my intellectual powers, with a view to the instruction of others.
(1847–1922) / 22 essays
More candid is the author who has no world, but turns that appeal inwards to his own heart.
A. A. Milne
(1882–1956) / 12 essays
There is a crispness about celery that is of the essence of October.
Michel de Montaigne
(1533–1592) / 50 essays
I seek out change indiscriminately and tumultuously. My style and my mind alike go roaming.
(1745–1833) / 7 essays
If all accomplishments could be bought at the price of a single virtue, the purchase would be infinitely dear.
(1890–1957) / 3 essays
The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.
(1870–1964) / 10 essays
Ground your happiness in a nice dove tailing of eager conviction with tolerant in difference, and you are safe for a lifetime.
(1849–1919) / 1 essays
The strength of a student of men is…to study men, their habits…their vices, virtues, and peculiarities.
(1820–?) / 6 essays
The graves before me…are thickly deposited. The marble that speak the names, bid us prepare for Death.
(1855–1950) / 7 essays
It has been wisely said that we cannot really love anybody at whom we never laugh.
Grace Little Rhys
(1865–1929) / 4 essays
Eyes and mind soon become accustomed to a miracle that happens every day and in time notice no more.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
(4–65) / 4 essays
That which was bitter to bear is pleasant to have borne; it is natural to rejoice at the ending of one’s ills.
(1830–1867) / 15 essays
In my book there is little more life than there is in the market-place on the days when there is no market.
(1672–1729) / 3 essays
When a man has no design but to speak plain truth, he may say a great deal in a very narrow compass.
(1891–1942) / 5 essays
My longing for truth was a single prayer.
Robert Lewis Stevenson
(1850–1894) / 6 essays
A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than a five-pound note.
(1667–1745) / 4 essays
It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
(1628–1699) / 4 essays
The first ingredient in conversation is truth, the next good sense, the third good humor, and the fourth wit.
H. M. Tomlinson
(1873–1958) / 6 essays
It is better to obey the mysterious direction … when it points to a new road, however strange that road may be.
(1835–1910) / 2 essays
The adoption of cremation would relieve us of a muck of threadbare burial-witticisms.
(1862–1937) / 3 essays
True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.
(1759–1797) / 5 essays
We must have an object to refer our reflections to, or they will seldom go below the surface.
(1876–1938) / 1 essays
To my innermost consciousness the phenomenal universe is a royal mantle, vibrating with His divine breath.