Happy Public Domain Day, everyone! [launches into chorus of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”]
With every passing day, it seems clear that the Walt Disney corporation has given up its long fight on the encroaching of public domain; I assume their lawyers are gearing up to claim that the characters are trademarks instead. I guess we’ll see. But either way, we are gaining a whole new slate of works that you can perform or sell tickets to viewings up without getting anyone else’s lawyers involved, either, and the new list comes out on the first of January. So let’s celebrate the list!
Now, it is true that, due to some mid-century legal goings-on, there are things made in 1925 that were already public domain. This includes the Chaney Phantom of the Opera The Gold Rush was in the public domain in the US, but the Chaplin heirs argued it was still copyrighted in the UK. Simply looking at a list of all movies made in the US in 1925 isn’t going to be accurate to today’s new public domain wealth.
Still, the list is pretty impressive. I’m issuing a caveat that I might be wrong on a few of these, that I might have a few “already in public domain” movies mixed in, but still. As of today, the complete works of William S. Hart are in the public domain; his last movie, Tumbleweeds, was from 1925. A full dozen of the early Alice shorts from Walt Disney are now in the public domain, a fact which makes it quite clear that the Mouse isn’t fighting copyright anymore. The march of W. C. Fields into the public domain continues; Sally of the Sawdust was one of his early silent appearances.
Epics your style? Try the Ramon Novarro/Francis X. Bushman Ben-Hur. Buster Keaton fan? Have Seven Chances and Go West. Fans of Harold Lloyd can have The Freshman. Into Lubitsch? His silent Lady Windermere’s Fan, which I haven’t seen but which strikes me as missing some of the best bits of both Lubitsch and Wilde by being silent, was in 1925. The Unholy Three, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney, came out that year. Erich Von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow features uncredited appearances of Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, neither of whom were yet famous in 1925. There’s also The Big Parade, one of the few US movies to tackle World War I.
Something that’ll probably get mentioned a lot is that a movie made in 1925 that becomes public domain today is called Lovers in Quarantine. I know basically nothing about it, but you’ve got to love the title. It’s considered good enough to be in the Library of Congress collection, and it stars the other Harrison Ford!
Oh, there are also books and music to discuss—The Great Gatsby is probably the one that’s getting the most press. But also Mrs. Dalloway and An American Tragedy. In “books I really loathe,” try Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis. Works by any number of great musicians like Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin. Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bessie Smith. It’s really a beautiful day for the public domain; celebrate by charging people to hear you sing “Sweet Georgia Brown.”