Posts Tagged ‘Movies

REWIND: 100 Movies In The Public Domain

- August 29th, 2012

UPDATE: This piece first appeared in December 2010. My friend Sheila Reagan was just asking me for a link to it because she wanted to dominate more public movies and, since I was already digging it up for her, I decided to re-post it on the blog. These things are a lot of work, after all, and — if the information is still valid and interesting — it bears repeating. So scrunch closer, kids, and let’s turn on the projector …



It seems like every movie, TV show and song ever recorded is floating around somewhere on the Internet, free to be plucked out of cyberspace by anyone with a computer.

Most of those bits and bytes are pirated editions or, at best, have a very sketchy legal pedigree.

That doesn’t seem to bother most of the world under 30, but copyright infringement, plagiarism and theft of intellectual property are some of the very few things I’m squeamish about. Perhaps it’s an age issue, perhaps it’s just my background as an old-fashioned newspaper editor.


I’m much happier delving into the mountain of movies — thousands and thousands of them — that are in the public domain and free to be legally downloaded, copied, reproduced, manipulated, whatever you want.

There’s a fantastic not-for-profit website called Internet Archive at that gives you free access to millions of documents and high-quality digital artifacts — including more than 2,000 movies and 2,000 TV shows that are now in the public domain.


It’s got plenty of other great stuff too, ranging from a live music archive of more than 85,000 concerts (check out the Grateful Dead, Sheila) to 100,000 images of space and earth from  NASA to 745,000 audio recordings to more than a million digital books.

But for now we’re going to stick to feature films that are in the public domain.



As I said, there are thousands and thousands of the critters — ranging from what is referred to as the first real motion picture ever made, a 46-second 1895 documentary called Exiting the Factory (original French title: La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon) to movies made in the 21st Century.

I’m going to tell you a bit about 100 of those public-domain films that I find interesting or weird, but this list is arbitrary and is truly just the tip of the iceberg.


First, however, I want to give you a very quick (and very crude) rundown on what “public domain” is. You can just skip the italicized part if you prefer to get straight to the movies.

In the context of intellectual property — which is what movies, books and the like are — “public domain” means the property (i.e. movie) in question is not owned by one person or group or company, but is as free to be used by everyone as the air we breathe.

Generally a film falls into the public domain because its copyright has expired or wasn’t filed properly in the first place or was not renewed on time (this only affects films released in the U.S. between 1923 and 1963, which I will sort of explain in a minute).

Any film produced by the U.S., Canadian or British  governments — i.e., with the public’s money — is also in the public domain.

All films released before 1923 are in the public domain in the U.S.

There is another key point: Where you are determines what the copyright provisions are for any given work.

In the U.S., it used to be a 28-year term, followed by a 28-year renewal term. Many films ended up in the public domain because somebody somewhere forgot to renew the copyright in that 28th year.

Then the U.S. copyright term got bumped up to 75 years from the movie’s release, then up to its current 95 years. There is now no renewal requirement in the U.S. and a law passed in 1978 made renewal retroactively automatic for any film released 1964-1977 as well.

Confusing, isn’t it?

Of course, Canadian film copyright law is different — and much tougher because the law that was written to apply to books and other individual works also applies to films.

For Canadian books and films, the copyright lasts for the life of the last surviving creator plus 50 years.

That makes sense for a book, which might have one or two authors and maybe an illustrator or photographer. But for a movie, with hundreds of people involved in the “creative process,” it becomes almost impossible to determine when a film would finally be considered in the public domain. (Most Canadian film production companies have film crews and casts sign over their rights to the company, but it’s still a quagmire).

The 1973 Canadian film Alien Thunder (or Dan Candy’s Law) is still copyrighted in Canada but is considered in the public domain in the U.S. I can only assume the film had no explicit statement of  copyright in its American release because that’s just about the only way a film made since 1963 goes public domain there.

In any case, you can’t legally download Alien Thunder for free and monkey around with it in Canada — but you can in the U.S.

Whew. I think that’s the gist of “public domain” although I’m sure I’ve misinterpreted some aspects. And I’m sure someone will correct me. Thanks in advance.

Now, the one movie that probably springs to mind first when you think “public domain” is It’s A Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s 1946 weepy/cheery in which distraught bank manager George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is saved from committing suicide on Christmas Eve by his guardian angel. You (used to) see it a lot on TV at this time of year.


It actually isn’t in the public domain now, although it was from 1974 (when the then-copyright holder neglected to renew) until 1993 (when Republic Pictures was able to re-establish copyright in a complicated court case.)

Enough blather. Let’s get on to 100 movies in the public domain, many of which you can find at the Internet Archive or, in varying states, on YouTube.

They’re pretty much in alphabetical order, although you’ll notice a few strays because I wasn’t going to renumber the whole damn thing to get some late additions in.



1. Abraham Lincoln (1930)
One of only two D.W. Griffith talkies, the Lincoln film was a sort of “make good” on Griffith’s part for his earlier, better known — and very racist — film The Birth Of A Nation (also in the public domain), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War U.S. South.

2. Algiers (1938)
Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr “come to the Casbah.”



3. Alien Thunder (1973, AKA Dan Candy’s Law)
Donald Sutherland as Mountie Dan Candy and Chief Dan George as wise, old chief Sounding Sky in the old Canadian West. In the public domain in the U.S., but still under copyright protection in Canada, where it was produced. Sutherland has reportedly said Alien Thunder/Dan Candy’s Law is the worst movie he was ever in.


4. Angel And The Badman (1947)
Wild West gunman John Wayne is reformed by nice Quaker lady Gail Russell. Angel was the first film on which Wayne was the producer.


5. Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film about the Russian naval mutiny and social clashes of 1905, precursor to the 1917 revolution.



6. Beat The Devil (1953)
John Huston’s offbeat takeoff on noir crime films like his own Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley, Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida are a motley crew of conmen and dreamers thrust together in a seedy Italian port town and aboard an equally seedy tramp steamer bound for Mombasa. The film was co-written by Huston and Truman Capote, often on a day-to-day basis, and was basically an excuse for Huston, Bogart, Lorre and Capote to go on a month-long bender in various scenic Mediterranean locales. Bogart hated the finished film, in part because he had invested in the production and ended up losing quite a bit of money. The producers lost even more when someone messed up the copyright.



7. Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)
Bela Lugosi, of course, and the nightclub team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo who had a short-lived career in the early ‘50s mimicking the then-hot comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.



8. The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith’s aforementioned Civil War epic, grand in scope but contaminated by racism. Its premiere title was The Clansman.


9. The Blue Angel (1930)
Germany’s first major sound film was directed by Josef von Sternberg and introduced Marlene Dietrich to the world as sultry, devious cabaret queen Lola Lola.


10. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962)
Mad scientist’s fiancé gets decapitated in car accident, he keeps the head “alive” in his lab against the wishes of the head (known affectionately as Jan in the Pan), and ultimately dies at the hands of an abused monster (telepathically controlled by Jan in the Pan) kept locked up in the lab. “I told you to let me die,” Jan cackles maniacally (wouldn’t you be maniacal in those circumstances?) as the lab goes up in flames.

11. Bride Of The Gorilla (1951)
No, it’s not a ripoff of King Kong. It’s about a curse placed on South American plantation manager Raymond Burr that turns him into a gorilla at night. The fact that gorillas are only found in Africa, not South America, didn’t seem to bother anyone.


12. The Boy In The Plastic Bubble (1976)
John Travolta is a teen with a malfunctioning immune system which means he lives his life in a sealed, sterile room until he gets a protective space suit that lets him go out into the world — and fall in love.



13. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Robert Wiene’s visually stunning expressionist horror film.



14. Carnival Of Souls (1962)
Otherwordly woman conjures up ghouls by playing an organ in an abandoned amusement park. Filmed for $33,000 by Herk Harvey in Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City.



15. Charade (1963)
One of my favourite movies, Charade is a stylish, suspenseful thriller set in Paris with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with a bunch of baddies like Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy. It’s been called “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made.” The film had an incomplete copyright notice and so entered the public domain immediately on its release.


16. Creature From The Haunted Sea (1961)
This horror comedy is a vintage cheapie from Roger Corman, the man who became a Hollywood legend by producing more than 300 shlock films, directing about 50 of them himself, and giving directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and James Cameron their starts as directors. Corman made Creature and two other films — with the same cast and crew — in less than a month in Puerto Rico, where he was shooting because of tax breaks. Many of Corman’s films have ended up in the public domain.


17. Dancing Pirate (1936)
A Boston dance teacher gets shanghaied by buccaneers. Surprisingly, it’s not a comedy. It was billed as “the first dancing musical,” which is absolutely untrue. Frank Morgan, who went on to become the Wizard of Oz in 1939, has a supporting role.

18. Dark Journey (1937)
British secret agent Vivien Leigh falls in love with German secret agent Conrad Veidt in World War I.

19. D.O.A. (1950)
Classic film noir in which a poisoned man tries to solve his own murder.

20. Dead Men Walk (1943)
Back-from-the-dead psycho seeks revenge on his good twin brother.


21. Death Rides A Horse (1967)
One of the better spaghetti westerns in the public domain featuring ferret-faced antihero Lee Van Cleef. Quentin Tarrantino used many elements of Death Rides A Horse in Kill Bill, including excerpts of Death’s theme music.


22. Dementia 13 (1963)
Slasher thriller was Francis Ford Coppola’s first “legitimate” (as in non-porn) directing assignment. Shot in Ireland on $22,000 from Roger Corman’s aforementioned American International Pictures (plus a $20,000 European sidedeal that Corman didn’t know about). Corman hated the movie Coppola brought back from Ireland, took control of it from Coppola and had another director shoot some additional axe-murder footage — not in Ireland, of course.


23. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
This well-done silent horror film gives John Barrymore, in his prime, the chance to pull out all the stops as the split-personality Jekyll/Hyde. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novel in less than a week of feverish, round-the-clock work fueled by a steady diet of cocaine.

24. Diabolique (1955)
Diabolique (originally Les Diaboliques — The Devils) is a French classic starring Simone Signoret as the mistress of a brutish teacher who teams up with his wife to murder him. Wonderful twists and turns. It’s either a horror film or a thriller, but whatever it is, Diabolique is considered to have some of the scariest scenes in movie history.

25. Divorce of Lady X (1938)
British romantic comedy with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier.


26.Dressed To Kill (1946)
Dressed To Kill was the 14th — and last — of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes movies, several of which are in the public domain. Though not based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story, the plot is still good, Rathbone and Bruce are in fine form and you even get to hear Dr. Watson quack like a duck.

27. The Eagle (1925)
Silent star Rudolph Valentino plays a Cossack Lone Ranger in Czarist Russia. Famous for an early long tracking shot in a banquet scene.



28. Ecstasy (1933)
Ecstasy is a stilted melodrama that became immensely controversial — and popular — because of the amount of sex in it. The beautiful Hedy Lamarr spends significant time running around nude and Ecstasy is said to contain “the first on-screen depiction of a female orgasm” (face only). Filmed in German in Czechoslovakia.

29. Escape From Sobibor (1987)
Alan Arkin leads a good cast in this story of the real uprising and mass breakout of Jews from the Nazis’ Sobibor death camp during World War II.

30. Embryo (1976)
Rock Hudson as a doctor whose experiments with genetics go very, very wrong — or right, depending on how you feel about seeing Barbara Carrera as the naked superwoman he creates. Again, missing copyright info put it into the public domain on release.

31. A Farewell To Arms (1932)
Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in the first film version of Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical war novel.


32. The Fast And The Furious (1955)
Mystery-comedy directed by Busby Berkeley, the guy better known for choreographing large-scale dance musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade.

33. Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
Vincente Minnelli (Liza’s father) directs Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor in the sequel to Father Of The Bride.


34. Faust (1926)
F.W. Murnau’s gothic, haunting deal-with-the-devil morality play was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time and put the producing studio, UFA Berlin, in serious financial difficulty. As I mentioned before,  anyone can  manipulate or modify films in the public domain: Just look at how American digital media artist Kurt Ralske compressed all 167,000 frames of the original 116-minute Faust into a three-minute blast of images. If you don’t want to watch the whole fabulous Faust in real time, just let Ralske’s three-minute visual tsunami wash over you. It’s stunning, non-linear filmmaking and your brain has actually synthesized the whole story by the end of three minutes.



35. Freaks (1932)
Tod Browning’s Depression-era exploitation film about bad doings in a carnival cast real-life sideshow performers as the deformed “freaks” of the title. The freaks turn out to be the honourable, caring heroes and the “normal” circus performers are the villains.

36. The Front Page (1931)
Howard Hughes produced the screwball comedy, based on the stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur about a Chicago reporter’s schemes to help a condemned murderer escape so he can get an exclusive interview.


37. The General (1927)
Almost all of Buster Keaton’s silent comedy classics — like this one about an unlikely railroading Civil War hero — are in the public domain.



38. The Gold Rush (1925)
As with Keaton, most of comic genius Charlie Chaplin’s silent films are in the public domain.

39. God’s Gun (1976)
Spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance, Richard Boone and Sybil Danning. Van Cleef is a priest turned vigilante.



40. The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Directed by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison’s movie company, Robbery was only 12 minutes long but is considered a cinematic milestone that used innovative filming techniques and location shooting (with the New Jersey countryside filling in for the American West). The end of film, in which one of the train robbers points his gun at the camera and fires, sent early audiences screaming out of the theatre.


41. Greed (1924)
Erich von Stroheim’s silent drama about a dentist, his wife, her lover and a lottery win ran an incredible 10 hours in its first version. Under studio pressure, von Stroheim cut Greed down to six hours and then four hours, before MGM took control and hacked it down to about 2.5 hours for release. Most of the cut footage was destroyed so Greed is now considered one of the great “lost films” of movie history.

42. Glamour Gal (1945)
A propaganda documentary made for the U.S. Marine Corps tells the story of “Glamour Gal,” a mobile artillery piece and the team of Marines who operated it during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

43. Gulliver’s Travels (1939)
Dave Fleischer’s cartoon feature version of the Jonathan Swift satire of human foibles.


44. Hands Of A Stranger (1962)
Experimental transplant replaces pianist’s damaged hands with those of an executed murderer. Then the hands take on a life of their own.

45. Hell’s House (1932)
A young Bette Davis starred in this condemnation of the New York state hard-labour reform school system.


46. Hemp For Victory (1942)
Another World War II propaganda film, this one made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture extolling the virtues of hemp — the rope-making kind, not the smoking kind.


47. Hercules (1958)
Italian production starring wooden American actor Steve Reeves started a “sand and sandals” movie trend. Sequels such as Hercules Unchained (1959), Hercules And The Tyrants of Babylon (1964) and Hercules Versus Moon Men (1964) are also in the public domain.


48. His Girl Friday (1940)
Howard Hawkes remade the screwball newspaper comedy The Front Page with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

49. The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Actress Ida Lupino directed this film noir story about a psycho serial killer.


50. I Cover The Waterfront (1933)
It’s about a newspaper reporter who finds crime, corruption and love while covering the waterfront beat. Claudette Colbert was a mid-range leading lady when she played the love interest. A year later she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars with the release of Cleopatra, Imitation Of Life and It Happened One Night.


51. I Eat Your Skin (1964)
It involves a mad scientist and voodoo. I just like the title. In 1970 it was released on a double bill with I Drink Your Blood, a completely unrelated splatter film supposedly based on the Manson Family, which is not in the public domain.

52. Impact (1949)
Another pretty good film noir.

53. The Inspector General (1949)
Danny Kaye musical comedy.



54. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966)
Western-horror hybrid with the tagline “Roaring guns against raging monster.”

55. Jungle Book (1942)
Zoltan Korda’s colour adventure film based on the Rudyard Kipling story of a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. It was good enough to get four Academy Award nominations.


56. The Kid (1921)
Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length film was a huge success. A mix in equal parts of comedy and bathos.


57. King Of The Zombies (1941)
I just like the title. There are zombies in the movie but they are only the tools of a Nazi spymaster in the Caribbean. The movie was made during World War II, don’t forget, even though the U.S. wasn’t an official participant at the time of the film’s release. King Of The Zombies actually got an Academy Award nomination and spawned a 1943 sequel.


58. Kansas City Confidential (1952)
KCC is a raw, brutal crime drama, little of which actually takes place in Kansas City. It has a great cast of truly bad-ass armoured-car robbers: Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand and Jack Elam. Quentin Tarantino based his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs on the plot of Kansas City Confidential.

Lady Vanishes, The x02

59. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Margaret Lockwood is a wonderful dipsy old British nanny/spy who disappears on a train trip through Central Europe. It was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s last British films before he left for Hollywood.


60. The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)
Elizabeth Taylor was rightly considered one of the most beautiful women in the world when she made this romance with director Richard Brooks and co-star Van Johnson.


61. Last Woman On Earth (1960)
B-movie king Roger Corman strikes again in this post-apocalyptic love/hate-triangle bit of pop anthropology, again filmed in Puerto Rico for tax reasons.

62. The Last Man On Earth (1964)
Not a sequel to Last Woman, this Italian production starring Vincent Price is based on the Richard Matheson horror/sci-fi novel I Am Legend, which also spawned the 1971 Charlton Heston movie The Omega Man and the 2007 Will Smith feature.

63. Little Shop Of Horrors (1960)
Probably Roger Corman’s best-known film, Little Shop Of Horrors is a black comedy about an inept florist and his flesh-eating plant. Corman made the film in two days for $30,000. Jack Nicholson, a frequent collaborator of Corman in the 1960s, plays masochistic dental patient Wilbur Force.

64. The Lone Ranger (1955)
Feature film pieced together from the hit ‘50s TV series with Clayton Moore as the masked avenger and Canada’s  Jay Silverheels as Tonto.


peter lorre m 1

65. M (1931)
The suspense thriller about a serial child killer was German director Fritz Lang’s first sound film and Lang considered it his best work. It was also the first starring role for a young actor named Peter Lorre, who had previously been typecast as a supporting actor in comedies.



66. Man From Music Mountain (1938 and 1943)
There are two movies with this name, both directed by Joe Kane and both in the public domain. The first was made in 1938 with Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy. The second was made in 1943 with Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys.


67. McClintock (1963)
John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara comedy Western based on Shakespeare’s Taming Of the Shrew. Lawsuits after Wayne’s death prevented the copyright from being renewed and the movie slipped into public domain.

68. Meet John Doe (1941)
Starring Gary Cooper, John Doe is one of Frank Capra’s string of “American everyman” comedy-dramas that kept U.S. moviegoers hopeful through the Depression and World War II.




69. Metropolis (1927)
Well, Fritz Lang may have considered M his best film, but Metropolis was certainly his biggest. His futuristic vision of a deeply class-divided skyscraper city-state has special effects that are still staggering today. It was the most expensive silent film ever made and, along with Murnau’s Faust, almost pushed Germany’s giant UFA studio into bankruptcy. After its Berlin premiere, the film was drastically shortened for general distribution — and reworked entirely for the U.S. market, which feared the dangerous socio-political implications of the original film’s plot. A version of the film very close to the premiere edition was found in Argentina in 2008, restored and shown publicly for the first time in Germany in February 2010.

70. My Favorite Brunette (1947)
Dorothy Lamour teams up with Road partner Bob Hope (minus Bing Crosby except in a cameo role) in this murder-mystery spoof on detectives, mistaken identity and noir movies in general. Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Lorre and Alan Ladd also pop up in cameos.



71. Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s low-budget feature about a small group of people in a farmhouse fighting off flesh-eating zombies started a new trend in American horror films and engendered a series of Living Dead sequels, knockoffs and ripoffs. Again, public domain status resulted from missing copyright information in the original release.

Nosferatu Kino 4

72. Nosferatu (1922)
Max Schreck was a fairly successful and normal looking stage and film actor in Germany before he was cast as the unbelievably creepy Count Orlock in Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unacknowledged reworking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula vampire melodrama. As with all Murnau films, Nosferatu is visually stunning and Schreck is certainly the scariest vampire I’ve ever seen. As I said earlier, Nosferatu’s creative debt to Dracula was unacknowledged, so when Bram Stoker’s widow won a lawsuit against the production studio, Prana Film, it declared bankruptcy rather than pay the widow her due.


73. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
The only film Marlon Brando ever directed stars Brando as the outlaw Rio and Karl Malden as his friend/nemesis Dad.



74. The Outlaw (1943)
Howard Hughes produced and co-directed this Western that featured more of Jane Russell’s bosom than it did of purported title character Billy the Kid. Because of controversy over the film’s sexiness, The Outlaw got only limited release in 1943 although it had been completed two years earlier. It finally got general release in 1946 but by then, because of the ongoing notoriety of the production, Jane Russell had already become one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols. Hughes, a self-taught aeronautic engineer, did in fact create a special reinforced uplift bra to enhance Russell’s bustline but Jane, in her autobiography, said Hughes’ mechanical monster was a bust, so to speak, and she wore her own un-uplifting bras throughout filming.

75. Penny Serenade (1941)
Well, this film seems a little strange to me — it’s all about love and loss and adoption and loss and adoption and redemption and love. With a little Japan thrown in for good measure. But it got Cary Grant one of his two Academy Award nominations, so it must have some degree of cinematic value.


76. Phantom Of The Opera (1925)
The first (silent) version of more than half a dozen film incarnations of Phantom. This one starred Lon Chaney (the dad, not the Junior you’re used to seeing in horror movies) in self-applied makeup that was considered quite shocking for the time — and is still pretty scary.



77. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
I have nothing to add to what has already been said about Plan 9, dubbed “the worst movie ever made.” It’s a combo alien invader-zombie movie directed by cross-dressing director Ed Wood Jr. starring Bela Lugosi (in stock footage, since Lugosi died three years before Plan 9 was made), camp vamp Vampira and the wonderful Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler who did ghouls better than almost anyone.


78. The Brother From Another Planet (1984)
One of auteur director John Sayles’ early films, Brother mixes the story of an escaped alien slave from outer space with the black American experience of 1980s New York City. It’s part comedy, part drama and a whole lot of wry, sly social commentary. Again, in the public domain because of improper copyright on the film when it was released.


79. Randy Rides Alone (1934)
One of John Wayne’s crappy Lone Star Pictures westerns. He was churning out about one a week in the mid-1930s. They were cheap and tacky but they gave Wayne the chance to develop from a twitchy football player into the stoic (repressed?) movie icon he became in the ‘40s and ‘50s.



80. Reefer Madness (1936)
This cult fave was originally financed by a church group as the educational film Tell Your Children to warn against marijuana, but shifty film distributor Dwain Esper got his hands on it, added some salacious dope party scenes and released it as an exploitation film. Reefer Madness was “lost” until marijuana activist Keith Stroup found a copy in the U.S. Library of Congress and put it on the 1970s midnight movie circuit. New Line Cinema, by the way, got its start distributing Reefer Madness.


81. Road To Bali (1952)
The sixth of seven Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road pictures was the only one filmed in colour and the last to include Dorothy Lamour. It’s good, features a lot of celebrity cameo appearances and fell into the public domain through another one of those labeling mistakes.

82. Sabotage (1936)
Hitchcock film about “foreign” secret agents setting off bombs around London, not to be confused with his 1942 film Saboteur. Quentin Tarantino used a clip from Sabotage in Inglourious Basterds.


83. The Great Saint Louis Bank Robbery (1959)
Based on a real holdup, the movie featured many of the cops and bank employees — but none of the robbers — involved in the actual events. The tough, gritty film featured Steve McQueen in one of his early film roles (although he was already a TV star on Wanted: Dead Or Alive at the time).



84. Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)
The title says it all.

Flynn, Errol (Santa Fe Trail)_NRFPT_01

85. Santa Fe Trail (1940)
This cavalry western smashes history and fact to smithereens as it purportedly shows the early military careers and relationships of soldiers who went on to become opposing generals in the U.S. Civil War. Leads Errol Flynn, as J.E.B. Stuart, and Ronald Reagan, as George Armstrong Custer, are supposedly best friends and love rivals when, in fact, the two men never met.


86. The Saturday Night Kid (1929)
Romantic comedy starring Clara Bow and Jean Arthur was one of the early talkies. It’s also a good example of how sexy movies were before Hollywood production-code censorship came into full effect a few years later.

87. Secret Agent (1936)
Spy movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock the same year he made Sabotage. Great cast with John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young and Peter Lorre, who had recently fled from the Nazis in Germany.


88. Shoot The Piano Player (1962)
The U.S.-release version of 1960’s Tirez Sur Le Pianiste, Francois Truffaut’s jumpy New Wave tribute to bleak cinema noir crime melodramas.

89. A Star Is Born (1937)
The original version starring Janet Gaynor, not the better-known 1954 Judy Garland remake.


90. The Stranger (1946)
The Stranger is one of Orson Welles’ lesser known films today but it was his most commercially successful film when it was released — making far more money than Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons. Filmed immediately after the end of World War II, The Stranger has Nazi hunter Edward G. Robinson tracking down a war criminal (Welles) who has assumed a new identity as a school teacher. It is believed to be the first film after the war to show footage of concentration camps.


91. She Gods of Shark Reef (1958)
A Roger Corman film (of course). Bad guy shipwrecked. Rips off kindly islanders. Is eaten by shark. Revenge is sweet meat.


92. Swamp Women (1955)
One of Roger Corman’s first films. Female gang looking for stolen diamond stash in the bayous of Louisiana.


93. The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe (1972)
If you read my recent blog posts on Hollywood remakes, you know the French spy spoof The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe is a film I like a lot. So it surprised me to discover the film distribution company Peter Rodgers Organization says the U.S. release of the French film is in the public domain. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The only way you can get copies of the film through (in a North American format) is as a Russian version with English subtitles or as a badly recorded and dubbed version which may either be pirated or “public domain.” I just don’t know.

94. Teenage Zombies (1959)
A group of teenagers discover a mad scientist on an island. Not to be confused with Teenagers From Outer Space, also released in 1959 (and also in the public domain).


Terror of Tiny Town

95. Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
Musical western with an all-midget cast. Many of the cast members, after getting off their Shetland ponies, went on to play Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz.


96. The Terror (1963)
Roger Corman, Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and at least five directors (including Francis Ford Coppola and Nicholson) involved in piecing together a convoluted movie about a haunted castle, tragic noblemen, ghostly and witchy women, double identities and jumbled plot lines.


Annex - Garfield, John (They Made Me a Criminal)_01

97. They Made Me A Criminal (1939)
Busby Berkeley (the dance extravaganza guy) directed movie tough guy John Garfield and The Dead End Kids (later The Bowery Boys) in this cinema noir entry about a boxer on the run after being falsely accused of murder.



98. Voyage To The Planet of Prehistoric Women (1965)
Of course it’s a Roger Corman film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring ‘60s sexpot Mamie Van Doren (still alive and still shaking her booty). Corman bought the rights to a 1961 Soviet sci-fi film, Planet of Storms, and used its special effects footage for the space flight sequences.


99. Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)
Considered the first science fiction film, Le Voyage was a 14-minute wonder about rocket flight to the moon created by the Melies brothers — both magicians — in Paris.


100. Zulu (1964)
Michael Caine’s first starring role has the Cockney lad as an upper-crust English army officer leading an all-star cast of layabouts and misfits fighting off an overwhelming force of Zulu impis in the middle of South Africa 130 years ago. In the actual Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 11 soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, the most ever for a single unit in a single battle in British military history. A pretty good film, although there was concern at the time of it being produced under the repressive, racist apartheid regime then in place in South Africa.

A to Z. That’s it. That’s all.

If nothing else, this piece may qualify as one of the longest blog posts ever written. I started out just listing the movies, then had to tell a few stories along the way and, well, at a certain point I figured I had to comment on all of them.

I’m going to watch a movie now. Bye.


NOTE: After this piece first appeared, I received the following e-mail from a film company:

“Almost all the post-1923 foreign films, including THE GOLD RUSH, listed in this article are actually copyrighted now since the US government adopted the GATT/Uruguay treaty in 1996. All this films were retroactively copyrighted. Canada is also a signee to the treaty so whatever films are copyrighted in their own country are still copyrighted in Canada. The only exception might be BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN because it’s supposedly PD in it’s own country. In the American films, GREED is definitely in copyright and has never been public domain. I would suspect the same for BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET since it was made after 1976 when copyright laws relaxed about the proper placement of copyright notices.”

To which I replied:

“I know for sure John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet is Public Domain and I have seen so many versions — in vastly varying conditions of reproduction – of Gold Rush that I have to go with the Internet Archive’s assertion that it is public domain. As I said, film copyright and public domain is a very complex area. Just because someone claims something — whether it’s me or a film company — doesn’t make it so. I would be glad to hear other input.”

Nothing’s changed since I wrote those words. You can trust the Internet Archive to exercise a high degree of due diligence when it comes to Public Domain.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Greatest Sin

- May 18th, 2012



Robert Downey Jr. is one of the finest actors of his age, an electrifying presence on film and in person, a fearless and exultant celebrant of life and art.


On a personal level, he is brilliant, erudite and utterly charming — but always with a bad-boy edge of dangerous unpredictibilty.


He also spent much of his 20s and 30s on a kamikaze ride of drug abuse. He later said he was misdiagnosed as bipolar during that period because he was using crack cocaine in his psychiatrists’ washrooms while being assessed.


As a child, Robert Downey Jr. was a sick puppy. Really.


His first screen appearance was in 1970 when, at the age of five, he appeared in his father’s absurdist comedy, Pound, about a group of animals (played by human actors) stuck in a dog pound overnight. Little Bobby had the role of a sick puppy.


Robert Downey Senior, as well as being a brilliant playwright and independent filmmaker, was also a drug addict and introduced his son to marijuana at the age of six. Junior later testified in court that he was a confirmed drug addict by age eight,  the beginning of his 30-year embrace of alcohol and drug use, overuse and abuse. Thanks, Dad.


As Downey’s personal life spiralled downward, his acting career climbed upwardly — from New York stage roles to the cast of Saturday Night Live to a variety of Brat Pack movies in the mid-’80s.


As a serious actor, his breakout role was in 1987′s Less Than Zero, in which he played a rich young drug addict in crisis. Downey said his personal life ran parallel to the film production but was “an exaggeration of the character.” Art just couldn’t keep up with life.


His film career bounced through a well-received stream of independent and semi-mainstream films with some  highs (Oscar nomination for Chaplin) and some lows (being fired as the voice of Satan on an animated TV series).


The period between 1995 and 2001 was Downey’s lowest period, with multiple arrests on drug charges, stays in various jails and rehab facilities, and a slew of bad publicity that left him unemployable in films because no insurance company would post completion bond for any movie he appeared in.


And then he cleaned up his act. He just got tired of being constantly messed up and took advantage of one last court-ordered rehabilitation stint. “It’s not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems — what’s hard is to decide to actually do it,” Downey told Oprah Winfrey a few years later.


(By the way, Robert Downey Sr. is now clean and sober like his son. And they remain close.)


From there, Downey’s film career resumed its upward trajectory with a mix of quirky, attention-gathering independent films and money-making Hollywood popcorn-churners.


And then came the pivotal year 2008 and Downey’s ascent into Hollywood pantheon of super heroes as Iron Man.


The rest, of course, is history. Iron Man made almost $100 million its opening weekend and about $600 million in theatres before it was released on DVD, making even more hundreds of millions.


And critics loved Downey’s performance. The Rotten Tomatoes aggregate review website gave it a 95% approval rating. And, honest to goodness, one high-brow critic even said the film represented “American foreign policy realized without context.”


One thing led to another: Sherlock Holmes, Iron Man 2, Sherlock Holmes 2, and — ta-da — Marvel’s The Avengers.


The bloody Avengers. Bloody successful (biggest opening weekend in North America — ever). Bloody well received (93% Rotten Tomatoes rating). Bloody awful (in my opinion).


Why so glum, chum?


Because Downey has now made it not only acceptable but MANDATORY for the leading actors and actresses of our time, artists with the genius to splash the deepest despair and delight of the human spirit across the big screen, to become cartoon super heroes.


Those roles used to be reserved for blandly handsome/beautiful hack performers like Christopher Reeve and Linda Carter. Look super. No acting required.


But just stopping eight-armed other-worldly villains and holding up collapsing bridges isn’t enough any more. The cartoon heroes now have to emote  — spill their psychological guts on the ground, actually — and make their suffering seem not only believable but somehow compelling.


Why couldn’t the world of cinematic super heroes be left to cardboard cutouts like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans? Why did good actors like Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson have to be dragged into this quagmire of quasi-mythology? With multi-picture contracts, no less.


Of course Downey and his hip/chic directors (Jon Favreau, Guy Ritchie, Joss Whedon)  aren’t the only ones fostering this abomination. Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale have done their part with the Dark Knight trilogy.


And Johnny Depp opened the door on this cool-to-be-a-cartoon hyperbaric chamber with his exaggerated, kohl-eyed pirate Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.


But Johnny Depp, no matter how saucy and slinky, is simply not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr. when it comes to acting.


Downey has the ability to transform not only a movie but the way a generation sees the film experience.


However, instead of using that super power for good by dragging a brilliant, esoteric independent film’s viewership up by a few hundred thousand or a few million, he chose to make a deal with the devil and invest his talent in technically spectacular movies enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people around the world, but movies with all the real heft of a ping-pong ball.


That is Robert Downey’s Jr. greatest sin — not drug abuse or violation of all acceptable forms of human behaviour, but getting his personal act together just to infuse big-budget Hollywood spectacles with vaguely intellectual and/or artistic pretensions — and a mesmerizing screen presence.


He could have been a contender. He could have been Marlon Brando Jr.


Like Brando, he could have gone on to crown his film career with movies like The Island of Dr. Moreau … and Superman … and Superman II … and Superman Returns.


Sigh. Why can’t our film heroes be truly heroic?


Oh, right — they’re actors, not super heroes.


So I guess we wait for Iron Man 3 next year and Marvel’s The Avengers 2 in 2015 and hope that Robert Downey Jr. decides to scatter a few crumbs of his talent in other less heroic but mightier film fare when time allows.


We can only pray Downey’s future work allows him to open up the dramatic possibilities of more compelling dialogue than “Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”


10 Or 20 Things You Might Not Know About Oscar

- February 25th, 2012


Everyone knows (more or less) the legend of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award statuette got the name “Oscar,” but I’ll recap anyway.


When the Academy’s volunteer librarian, Margaret Buck Gledhill (later Herrick and later executive director of the Academy), first saw the statuette in 1931, she supposedly said: “Why, he looks just like my Uncle Oscar.”


(In some tellings of the story, it’s “my husband Oscar” but Margaret’s husband at the time was named Donald. Since  the awards aren’t nicknamed “The Donalds” we can safely assume “Uncle Oscar” gets the nod. And “Uncle Oscar” was actually her cousin, Oscar Pierce.)


“Oscar” first made it into a newspaper account in 1934 (although Walt Disney was said to have used the nomenclature while accepting an award in 1932) and the Academy  officially adopted the nickname in 1939.


Now I’m going to tell you a few more arcane facts about Oscar which you probably don’t know. I find this stuff interesting. Hopefully you will too.



1. The Oscar statuette is a stylized Art Deco representation of a knight holding a crusader sword and standing on a film reel. Oscar’s official name is the Academy Award of Merit, one of nine different awards the Academy hands out.


The Oscar was designed in 1928 (the year before the first awards ceremony) by Cedric Gibbons, longtime supervising art director for MGM. It was basically an assignment from Gibbons’ boss, MGM czar Louis B. Mayer, the driving force behind the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But Gibbons was also one of 36 founding members of the Academy and had an ego the size of, well, Hollywood, so it probably wasn’t all Mayer’s pushing.


It’s not surprising that Oscar’s style is Art Deco — Gibbons was one of the leading American proponents of Deco and popularized the style through the opulent look of MGM’s films in the ’20s and ’30s.


Young California sculptor George Stanley, fresh out of art school, turned Gibbons’ design into a clay model from which casts were made to create the first metal sculptures of solid bronze plated with gold.


Gibbons, by the way, wasn’t nominated the first year of the Academy Awards but won the second year for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He went on to win 10 more Oscars for art direction before his retirement in 1956, second only to Walt Disney’s 26 Oscars. He won one for his last film, Somebody Up There Like’s Me, at the 1957 awards ceremony but he didn’t win for 1939′s The Wizard Of Oz; that Oscar went to Gone With The Wind’s Lyle Wheeler. He was nominated 28 other times — often for multiple films in a single year — and received a special Oscar in 1950 for “consistent excellence” (as if he really needed that).



2. Because of multiple recipients and ties, 2,809 actual Oscar statuettes have been handed out for 1,853 category wins and honourary presentations since the award was introduced in 1929.


Here’s a link to the official Academy website and its list of 2012 nominees.




3. Only 15 Oscars (12 categories and 3 honourary awards) were presented  the first year of the Academy Awards with World War I aerial combat drama Wings winning “Outstanding Picture, Production” and weeper Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans winning “Unique and Artistic Production.” In future years those two categories were combined into Best Picture. Not only were there two Best Pictures, there were also two Best Director awards (for comedy and drama) — but no Best Supporting Actor andBest Supporting Actress categories that first year.


One of those first 15 Oscars went to … Title Writing, for those explanatory word panels in silent films. Joseph Farnham won the first — and only — Academy Award for Title Writing and then had a fatal heart attack, thus also becoming the first Academy Award winner to die. Fame is so fleeting.


The first Academy Awards ceremony on May 16, 1929 was the only Academy Awards to honour (almost) exclusively silent films and the only one to honour title card writing. I say almost exclusively because all the category winners were silent but the partly talkie Jazz Singer got an honourary award for technical innovation.



4. This year there are 24 Oscar-worthy categories, but  50 statuettes are made each year by Chicago’s R.S. Owens & Company to cover all eventualities. Any figurines that aren’t needed in one particular year are held at the Academy’s office vault for use in later years.


It takes R.S. Owens & Company about a month to produce each year’s crop of new Oscars. R.S. Owens also makes the awards for TV’s Emmys, the advertising industry’s Clios, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards.



5. Remember that scene in Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill … no, of course you don’t because NOBODY actually went to see Jack & Jill … even though it has somehow managed to make $75 million.


Anyway, pretend you remember the scene in Jack & Jill where Al Pacino (playing himself, sadly) is teaching Adam Sandler (playing Jack pretending to be his twin sister Jill) to play stickball in Pacino’s study. And Sandler hits a line drive that smashes Pacino’s Oscar statuette to smithereens.


Couldn’t happen. Why? Because Oscar is solid metal. You might put a dent in one, but you won’t break it.


Here’s what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has to say about Oscar’s composition:


“The statuettes presented at the initial ceremonies were gold-plated solid bronze. Within a few years the bronze was abandoned in favor of britannia metal, a pewter-like alloy which is then plated in copper, nickel silver, and finally, 24-karat gold. “


Of course, Pacino’s Oscar might have smashed if he had won it in 1943, ’44 or ’45. That’s when Oscars were made of painted plaster due to World War II metal shortages. After the war. the Academy “invited recipients to redeem the plaster figures for gold-plated metal ones.”


But Pacino got his one and only Oscar in 1993 for 1992′s Scent of a Woman. He had previously been nominated seven times in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. The 1993 Oscar was a make-good for Pacino being cheated out of his rightful Best Actor win for the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II at the 1975 awards ceremony. Who won? Art Carney for Harry and Tonto. Really now. (BTW, Pacino has never again been nominated in any category since that 1993 Best Actor win.)




6. Since the full-metal Oscar was re-introduced in 1946, each individual statuette weighs 3.85 kg (8.5 pounds)  and stands 34 cm tall (13.5 inches). That includes the black base on which the statuette is mounted. The statue itself weighs about  3 kg (6.75 pounds) and stands about 28 cm (11 inches) tall — which is (gasp) almost the same size as a Barbie doll.


Sooo … somebody had to make the connection. It happened to be John Lasseter, the boss of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter is said to dress his two Academy Awards in a revolving wardrobe of Barbie clothes. Not Ken clothes. Barbie clothes. Could it be that Buzz Lightyear is a crossdresser in his off-hours?

(Now that I think about it, you can’t fit pants on an Oscar, which is probably why Lasseter chose Barbie’s wardrobe instead of Ken’s.)



7. Two weeks before the 2000 Academy Awards, all 55 of that year’s Oscars were stolen from a loading dock in Los Angeles. A week later two truck drivers were arrested for the crime (turned in by one thief’s brother).


But the Oscars themselves didn’t turn up until dumpster scavenger Willie Fulgear found 52 of the golden statues  in 10 unmarked packing cases behind a laundromat in L.A.’s Koreatown. The shipping firm gave Fulgear the $50,000 posted reward for recovering the Oscars and Willie was finally able to make a downpayment on a small house with his son and move out of his rented room.


One of the three missing Oscars was recovered in 2003 in a police drug raid on a Florida mansion, but the other two are still out there somewhere. If you know where to find them, send one to Al Pacino — or to me.



8. A few winners have turned down Oscars, including George C. Scott, who called the awards ceremony a “meat parade,” and Marlon Brando, who sent Sacheen Littlefeather to read a 15-page speech about why he was rejecting the award for his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather. But Peter O’Toole is, to the best of my knowledge, the only actor to refuse an honourary Oscar.


O’Toole explained in a letter to the Academy that he felt himself to be “still in the game” and wanted to “win the lovely bugger outright.”


However, he was eventually persuaded by his children to accept the honour and Meryl Streep presented it to him at the 2003 Academy Awards. In 1987, O’Toole had turned down a knighthood for personal and political reasons and no one, not even his children, could get him to reconsider that decision.


O’Toole, by the way, is the biggest loser in Academy Award history. He has been nominated eight times (so far) for Best Actor and has won … 0.


On the female side, Deborah Kerr is the biggest loser, having been passed over six times in the Best Actress category. If Glenn Close doesn’t win this year for Albert Nobbs, she will have been rejected six times too (but in both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories).


In a way, the anti-Glenn Close is Meryl Streep, who has 17 nominations (with one more this year) and has picked up two Oscars along the way. A win for The Iron Lady’s Margaret Thatcher role would make it three Oscars for Streep — and really tick off Glenn Close.


Even though it may seem like Streep has stolen some of Close’s thunder over the years, that isn’t the case. The only two times Streep and Close went head-to-head, both lost — to Cher for Moonstruck at the 1988 awards (jeesh) and to Jodie Foster for The Accused in 1989.



9. You know who seat-fillers are — the men and women who scuttle down the aisle and take the place of up-front celebrities who leave their seats during the ceremony for a smoke, a drink, a phone call or a visit to the toilet. It looks better for the home TV audience if there aren’t gaps in the auditorium crowd.


Seat-fillers for Sunday night’s event at the Kodak Theatre will each be paid a $125 honorarium to keep Jack Nicholson’s and Hilary Swank’s seats warm.


It may not seem like much, but keep in mind $125 was what MGM paid each of the supporting Munchkins on The Wizard of Oz for an entire week’s work.



10. The sealed envelope dates back to 1941.


Prior to that, L.A. newspapers were given a list of the winners in advance of the awards ceremony — which didn’t start until 11 p.m. after an elaborate banquet — so they could get papers out on the street by midnight.


But on Feb. 29, 1940, the L.A. Times broke the 11 p.m. embargo on the 12th Academy Awards and published the names of most of the winners in an early edition before the banquet began.


So everyone arriving at the Coconut Grove that night already knew Gone with the Wind had won Best Picture and would sweep the awards with eight wins; Robert Donat had beaten Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, James Stewart and Mickey Rooney for Best Actor; and Vivien Leigh would be picking up the Oscar for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. There were some very pissed-off stars that night. And some happy ones.


Thus the sealed and guarded envelopes were introduced for the 1941 awards ceremony and have become a fixture of all subsequent Academy Awards.


The first Academy Awards ceremony, which I’ve already written about, was even less of a surprise than the 1940 show. The winners’ names were published three months in advance of the actual awards ceremony, which was a banquet for 270 at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood. A party followed afterwards at the Mayfair Hotel, tickets for which cost $5.


Because the winners were known in advance, organizers had trouble getting the nominated losers to show up for the event — and studios had to exert pressure on a couple of their sulking stars to make an appearance.


As a result, the list of winners was kept more or less a secret until the night of awards from the second shindig in 1930 until the 1940 fiasco which brought about the sealed envelope tradition.




BONUS 1: Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine are the only two actors nominated for an Academy Award for acting (either lead or supporting) in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s. (Perennial loser Peter O’Toole came close but missed a nomination in the 1990s.)


BONUS 2: The Godfather Part II is the only sequel ever to have won Best Picture.


Bonus 3: Although Oscars are currently awarded in 24 categories, there is a 25th category that could be activated — Best Original Musical. The last time it was awarded (under a different name) was in 1984, when Purple Rain beat The Muppets Take Manhattan and Songwriter. There just don’t seem to be enough legitimate contenders for the category anymore and it will probably be retired eventually, just as Best Title Writing has been retired.



Five (Or 10) Things You Probably Don’t Know About Alfred Hitchcock Movies

- June 7th, 2011


Jimmy Stewart (Rear Window)

Rear Window (1954)

PLOT: A globe-trotting news photographer (supposedly based on Life’s Robert Capa) breaks his leg on assignment and is confined to a wheelchair  in his apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His only outlet — apart from semi-witty repartee with his nurse and inexplicably trying to break up with icy-hot blonde model-girlfriend Grace Kelly — is spying on his neighbours across the courtyard. And of course — because this is a Hitchcock film — he becomes convinced one of the neighbour’s has murdered his wife. Complications ensue.



WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW: Hitchcock initially considered filming on location in Greenwich Village — he had the courtyard picked out and everything — but, being such an extreme control freak, quickly opted to recreate the entire apartment complex on the largest soundstage in Hollywood. Hitchcock said he couldn’t have lit the real setting properly and he actually had to raid every major studio for enough lights to create the various effects he needed to show activity in a dozen different apartments at the same time while “natural” light conditions changed outside.


Now you may know all that, but what you don’t know is that photographer “Jeff” Jeffries’ movie apartment was based exactly on star Jimmy Stewart’s own Greenwich Village apartment. After serving as a combat bomber pilot in World War II, Stewart wasn’t sure he wanted to continue his Hollywood movie career. He returned to Broadway and starred for three years in the hit show Harvey about an eccentric whose best friend is a giant, imaginary rabbit. After Stewart returned to Hollywood, he kept his Greenwich Village apartment as a New York getaway pad. Hitchcock sent a team of photographers in to document pretty much every square inch of it and recreated Stewart’s Greenwich Village flat on the Hollywood Rear Window set.


Vertigo (1958)

PLOT: Jimmy Stewart is a cop who can’t handle heights, a condition which results in the death of another cop and Jimmy’s decision to take early retirement. As a private eye, he is hired to tail a woman who believes she’s possessed and … oh, never mind … you either know the movie and accept the complex, corny plot or it doesn’t matter.



WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW: Kim Novak was not Hitchcock’s first choice to play the female lead and he built up a real grudge against her, partly because she held tough on a contract dispute. Hitchcock didn’t mind spending oodles on set design because it was all up there on the screen but he had a tendency to nickel and dime writers and actors whenever he could comfortably get away with it.

In one scene where Novak’s character is supposed to attempt suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay, Hitchcock made her jump into the studio water tank subbing for San Francisco Bay … again … and again … and again. As Novak was pulled from the water, dried off, taken back to wardrobe and makeup for another change of clothes, another hair dry and and another makeup re-do before being brought back to the water tank for another ordeal, Hitchcock sat in his director’s chair and smiled that quirky little sadistic Hitchcock smile.






North By Northwest (1959)

PLOT: Cary Grant is a suave, successful Madison Avenue ad exec who (1) is mistaken for an undercover agent who doesn’t exist, (2) is falsely accused of murder, (3) is chased across the United States by foreign spies, the CIA and the FBI, (4) falls in love with icy blonde Eva Marie Saint only to find out (5) she’s the consort of foreign spy chief James Mason but (6) is really a deep-cover operative for the U.S. government… so … Cary saves Eva Marie from a suspicious James and they flee across the massive presidential rockface of Mount Rushmore … and … they almost die but don’t die … before … crawling into a transcontinental train berth together as husband and wife.


Grant, Cary (NxNW)


WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW: North By Northwest was an original screenplay commissioned by Alfred Hitchcock to incorporate a whole bunch of interesting visual sequences the director had come up with (the UN assassination, the life-and-death art auction, the crop-duster aerial attack, the Mount Rushmore chase, etc.) but the screenplay didn’t have a title.


One of the many possibilities considered was … wait for it … The Man In Lincoln’s Nose. Really. Hitchcock had planned to film Grant having a sneezing fit while hiding in Abraham Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. He cut the scene and, fortunately, The Man In Lincoln’s Nose was thus discarded as a potential title.


Another title considered but discarded was Breathless — which allowed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard to use Breathless as the title of his breakout film the following year. It’s possible — actually quite likely, since the Franco-Swiss director was a huge fan of the Anglo-American director — that Godard used Breathless as a sly tribute to Hitchcock.

The ultimate title, North By Northwest, has a great sound but is basically meaningless — just another Hitchcock McGuffin. It comes from a Shakespeare quote in which Hamlet is bemoaning his surreal, directionless existence: “I am but mad north-north-west: When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Huh? Makes a much better movie title than soliloquy.

One more thing: In the scene where Eva Marie Saint (supposedly) shoots Cary Grant in the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore, one of the extras — a young boy — puts his fingers in his ears just before Eva Marie pulls the trigger on her prop gun. Hitchcock liked the take and decided to ignore the boy. You can see the kid in the film clip above if you want to go back and look at it again.


The Birds (1963)

PLOT: Birds conspire to attack humans and take over a coastal village in northern California … and maybe the world.



WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW: Hitchcock used all kinds of birds, puppet birds, mechanical birds and real live trained birds. But sometimes “trained” means squat. In the climactic scene near the end of the movie where Tippi Hedren is savaged in a mass seagull attack, the birds were tied by fine fishing line to Hedren’s clothing so they stayed close to her. The scene took seven days to shoot … seven days with birds tied to Tippi Hedren. “It was the worst week of my life,” she said later with sublime understatement. Not surprisingly, Hedren had a complete physical and emotional collapse at the end of filming the scene and spent another week in hospital recovering. When Rod Taylor is seen carrying “Tippi” downstairs after the attack, it was actually Hedren’s stand-in in his arms. Hedren was still in hospital.


Taylor, by the way, later said the grain fed to the seagulls was soaked in liquor to keep them relatively docile.

One more thing: At a 1999 New York City forum of women in Hitchcock films, Suzanne Pleshette (one-third of the awkward love triangle in The Birds) recalled Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Robertson coming to her and saying, “You know, don’t put your cigarette out in your eggs. He hates eggs and he hates cigarettes, and frankly, he hates you.” Pleshette told it as a joke, but Hitchcock did hate eggs and did hate cigarettes, so maybe …

At the same forum, Pleshette also recalled suggesting to Hitchcock that it would “be great if the birds got in my ear, and ripped my ear and it was hanging.”

Hitchcock agreed and sent Pleshette off to makeup for several hours to have the gruesome work done — then he filmed her from the side that didn’t show the savaged ear.




Psycho (1960)

PLOT: Janet Leigh steals money, runs, checks into a seedy motel, doesn’t get to spend the money. Anthony Perkins, meanwhile, loves Mother, hates Mother, loves Mother, hates Mother, is Mother, loves, hates, loves, hates, hates, kills, kills, dies.

psycho norman bates



WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW: It has been widely reported that Hitchcock himself did not direct the famous shower murder scene. Because Hitchcock did so much pre-planning and storyboarding, he supposedly left the actual directing of the shower sequence (mainly using Janet Leigh’s body double) in the hands of Psycho art director Saul Bass. According to Saul Bass, anyway.

Not so, according to Janet Leigh. Here’s what she had to say at the same 1999 forum where Suzanne Pleshette talked about The Birds:

“Saul Bass did not direct the shower scene, and I told him to his face, how dare he say that? … He (Hitchcock) was there every minute of the shower scene. No one else directed it. The A.D. (assistant director) always says “Roll ‘em,” but he (Hitchcock) was there to say “Cut” or “Print.” It really upsets me because it’s absolutely not true.”

One thing that is true is that Hitchcock — noted as a practical joker with a rather macabre, perhaps sadistic streak — tested the “fear factor” of the “Mother” mannequin by placing it in Janet Leigh’s dressing room at the end of a harrowing day of filming. Leigh screamed and screamed and screamed. But really … she loved Hitch … really … it was all just fun, no harm done … just like Tippi and those damned birds tied to her … Get off! Get off! Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrghhhhhh! (Love you, Hitch, just stay away from me … please …)


Like most of his later films, Hitchcock kept personal proprietary control of Psycho, which was filmed for Paramount Studios. Shortly afterwards, when Hitchcock switched studios from Paramount to Universal, he traded the rights to Psycho and to his very popular TV show for stock in MCA, parent company of Universal. In that one move Hitchcock became the third largest shareholder

Hitchcock traded rights to Psycho and his TV show for MCA stock, parent company of Universal, becoming MCA’s third largest shareholder and a very, very wealthy man. But was he happy?


One last thing: The business about Norman Bates standing at the foot of Mother’s bed for regular interrogations was based on Hitchcock’s own experience as a teenager when he would have to report to his invalid mother each evening, stand at the foot of her sickbed and detail his activities that day.