Updated: May 9, 2020
Feeling a bit stir-crazy? This selection of easy-to-view classics features fab stars and fashionable costumes.
If you love watching classic films on the big screen, chances are you already know that many movie theaters across the U.S. have temporarily closed or significantly scaled back their offerings during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Or perhaps you’ve chosen to stick close to home for safety’s sake, but you’re already feeling a little stir-crazy?
With that in mind, check out Screen Chic’s curated selection of six films in the public domain, productions with copyrights that have been allowed to expire — in other words, they’re available for free viewing anytime. Each of these is a classic gem worthing of screening, and thanks to a variety of sites devoted to showcasing public-domain films, these six films are just a click away.
(Note: The videos below expand when viewed on a smartphone; to view full screen on desktop, click on the title directly underneath each video to be taken to the film on YouTube.)
His Girl Friday (1940)
Starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy
Directed by Howard Hawks
Costumes by Robert Kalloch
One of cinema’s best screwball comedies, this update of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page premiered one year after Russell’s standout performance in The Women. According to her 1977 autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell and Grant weren’t thrilled with the Charles Lederer script, so she hired a comedy writer on the side to beef up some of the jokes. Each morning, Russell would arrive on the His Girl Friday set with new material, and Grant would ask, “What have you got today?”
Whether Hawks ever caught on is another story, but improvised lines can be spotted throughout, such as an early scene when Russell’s frustrated Hildy Johnson throws her handbag at Grant’s Walter Burns, and referring to her aim, he responds, “You’re losing your eye, you used to be able to pitch better than that.” Kalloch’s costumes for Russell aren’t extensive, but her suits and hats are terrific examples of what any woman might love to wear as a stylish reporter fighting alongside her male counterparts for great news stories in 1940.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Starring William Powell and Carole Lombard
Directed by Gregory La Cava
Lombard’s gowns by Travis Banton
Powell, Lombard and La Cava all were nominated for Academy Awards for this film, the story of Irene, a ditzy socialite who must acquire a “forgotten man” during a scavenger hunt, and in part to show up her sister and chief nemesis, she convinces a homeless man named Godfrey to not only help her win the game, but also return home with her to take a job as the family butler. As Irene, Lombard is at her screwball best in this film, especially in gowns by an uncredited Banton, as she starts out as flighty and superficial, but soon reveals she’s fallen in love with Powell’s Godfrey, who isn’t what he initially seems and by the film’s end has transformed the entire family. Ultimately My Man Godfrey is stylish from start to finish, beginning with the inventive names-in-lights treatment of the opening credits.
Royal Wedding (1951)
Starring Fred Astaire, Jane Powell and Peter Lawford
Directed by Stanley Donen
Costumes by Helen Rose
Timing was everything with Royal Wedding, a production that capitalized on the real-life nuptials of then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in November 1947. Astaire and Powell play a famous brother-sister act thrilled to be asked to perform in London as part of the official wedding festivities. Swept up by the romance in the air, they both soon find themselves bitten by love: Powell’s Ellen with Lawford’s Lord John Brindale, and Astaire with elegant dancer Anne Ashmond, played by Sarah Churchill (in a fun bit of symmetry, Sarah was the real-life daughter of Winston Churchill). The roster of A-list stars, Donen’s breezy directing style and Helen Rose’s glam costumes nicely dovetail with the brief-but-genuine footage of Elizabeth and Philip’s wedding day to create a film that’s all about escapism.
If you need one more reason to watch, Royal Wedding is also the film in which Astaire performs his now-legendary ceiling dance; the “You’re All the World to Me” number occurs at roughly the 64-minute mark.
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin and Lizabeth Scott
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Costumes by Edith Head
On a stormy night, two young boys and a girl — Sam, Walter and Martha — find they must share a secret about the unexpected death of Martha's wealthy aunt. Eighteen years later, Heflin’s Sam returns to find that Walter, played by Douglas, and Stanwyck’s Martha are now married and the town’s power couple, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. This film noir features Stanwyck at her bad-girl best, an idea she capitalized on two years earlier in Double Indemnity, while The Strange Love of Martha Ivers also is notable for being Douglas’s screen debut. With her smoky voice, Lizabeth Scott enjoys a sultry role as Heflin’s love interest, and Head acquits herself well with the film’s costumes. A terrific film for a rainy day.
Starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr
Directed by John Cromwell Lamarr’s costumes by Irene Lentz
Speaking of dark and sultry, Algiers is a remake of a 1937 French film, Pépé le Moko, about a jewel thief who stole a fortune in gems from Paris and escaped to northern Africa. He’s arranged a happy life for himself — until Lamarr’s Gaby, a sultry woman also from Paris, arrives and reminds him what he’s been missing. As Pépé, Boyer received an Oscar nomination, while Algiers marked Lamarr’s U.S. film debut, five years after igniting the screen in 1933’s controversial Czech film Ecstasy. Lamarr’s sultry film persona was established from the moment of her entrance here, and Lentz’s costumes help to communicate her image of equal parts glamour and mystery. If you’re a fan of Casablanca, definitely take the time to watch Algiers, which from its title to its storyline was considered to be an inspiration for the 1942 Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic.
Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Costumes by Helen Rose
Soon after the premiere of the hugely successful Father of the Bride in 1950, this all-star MGM team quickly reassembled for the sequel — emphasis on the word “quick,” as Father’s Little Dividend was shot in just 22 days. The reason for the rush wasn’t solely due to a desire to capitalize on the original box-office hit; Minnelli was in the midst of pre-production for An American in Paris, and took this assignment while that film’s sets were being built. Father’s Little Dividend highlights the transition of Taylor’s Kay from newlywed to mother-to-be, as well as Tracy’s Stanley coming to grips with the idea of being a grandfather, and while it doesn’t include an iconic design from Rose like the wedding gown in the original, this sequel still exudes the elegant and feminine style that was her signature.
Finally, look for one fun moment when the nursery for Taylor’s soon-to-be-born baby is revealed: It’s been decorated to include characters from The Wizard of Oz, and who plays one of the soon-to-be grandmothers? Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch in that 1939 classic.