Free, legal movie downloads: for real?

Well, actually, yes, they are for real. There is a catch, however.  Most of the movies are old, public domain movies and the quality varies a great deal.  I don’t mean the quality of the movie itself, though they do. No, I mean the quality of the download itself.  Some of the movies are from really old and bad prints, prints with missing scenes, out of focus transfers and poor sound.  If you look carefully, however, you can get some really nice copies. 

There are ‘staples’ of sites like this.  The original Flash Gordon serials, for instance, are all over the place.  Things to Come is another favorite.   The Captain America serials are showing up now and the old Dick Tracy movies are out there as well.  Below are some real gems I have found and where you can download them.  One of my favorite sites is the Internet Archive.  The films below are from the Archive.

Non Stop New York” – 1937, BW

Stars John Loder and Anna Lee

The story of a young actress who witnesses a murder and then tries to make her way back to New York to save an innocent man.  Her trip to New York takes place on a futuristic airliner, complete with an outside observation deck.  The movie was labeled as science fiction, but it is more comedy than anything else. 

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Last Man On Earth” – 1964, BW

Stars Vincent Price

Story of a scientist trying to survive in a world full of vampires.  The story that the movie is based on has been made several time.  That story is ‘I Am Legend’.  It was remade in 1973 with Charleton Heston and entitled “The Omega Man” and, most recently, with Will Smith. 

 

His Girl Friday” – 1940, BW

Stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell

Funny film about a newspaper publisher who drafts is ex-wife for a final sensational story before she re-marries.  Cary Grant is his usual debonair self and plays his role with a lot of flair.  Russell is wonderful as the reporter and the two have pretty good on-screen chemistry.  The download from Archive.org has a slight sound issue right at the beginning, but the copy is otherwise pretty good.  The problem is pretty short and right at the start of the movie.

 

Things To Come” – 1936, BW

Stars Raymond Massey

The story of a man (Massey) and a decades long world war.  It chronicles the downfall and then rise of civilization after the war.  The film was shot just prior to the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of World War II.  It has really good special effects for its time and accurately predicts several technological advances such as two way television, helicopters, space travel and other things. It’s depiction of a space launch, while popular for the day, was way off:  they shot the capsule from a cannon.  That aside, the film gets a little preachy is places, but is still a worthwhile download.  Better yet, buy one of the restored DVD’s.  This is one of my favorite classic films.v58818ucnu0

Transatlantic Tunnel” – 1935, BW

Stars Richard Dix

Dix plays an engineer who envisions a tunnel that will connect England and Europe to the United States.  Dix loses his family and endangers his own health to see that the tunnel is completed.  The story is a little thin, but Dix plays his character well and sub-plot with his wife is well done.  The special effects are pretty good.  The print was OK, but the aspect ratio seems off and, thus, does not fill the screen.  I find that a little distracting, but the movie makes up for it.

Archive.org also has television programs from the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Some of the best of classic tv is there and there is a small, but nice collection of programming from the long gone Dumont Network.  Programs like Captain Video and The Honeymooners can be found. 

There are a few good sites to go to for other public domain movies and tv shows.  One of them packages the programming in a way that looks like an old 1960’s UHF station that was trying to fill time.  It is called ‘Cult of UHF’ and offers it’s movies as podcasts.  You can subscribe via iTunes or Zune Marketplace or you can go to the site and download what you want.

Another site, also available as a podcast via iTunes or the Zune Marketplace is Archive Classic Movies.  This one has nothing to do with Archive.org, but they offer a decent selection of films, all public domain and free.  There are several films here that you will at the other sites, but this site seems to have somewhat nicer looking films.  They aren’t too dark, the sound is generally good and the films seem to be as complete as can be.

One note about old, public domain films:  because the copyrights have lapsed and the films are available in many places, there’s not been much attempt to restore them.  Many of the available prints are either from television stations where they were cut up for commercials and/or time constraints, theaters that actually trimmed the films for more showings during the operating day or films that just have missing parts.  Metropolis, for example, was originally two hours or so.  For years, the available prints were 78 to 92 minutes long.  Most of the prints were faded and in poor shape.  Fortunately, the film is good enough that it did attract several people who had the resources to restore it.  One re-release in the late 1980’s had a soundtrack added and the film was partially colorized, but only for effect and where the original was hand colored.  Metropolis is an exception.  Sometimes, however, a film can leave the public domain because someone claimed copyright on an element of the film.  Its a Wonderful Life is an example.  The film itself is still public domain, but some of the music used in the film is not. The opening music, for example, was still under copyright.  NBC television purchased the exclusive broadcast rights to the film and that is why it no longer shows up on hundreds of stations during the Christmas season.  Anyone can still offer the film, provided they remove the music.  Since this can be expensive, no one has done so.  At least, none that I know of, and I have looked.

As always, you need to be careful when searching for movies.  There are sites that offer more recent films, but if the price is free, then it is probably not a legal site and could not only get you in trouble with Hollywood, it could also cause problems for your computer. Practice safe computing and enjoy those legal and free movies.

CORRECTION: 11/24/2009

In the paragraph concerning Archive Classic Movies, I incorrectly stated that it had nothing to do with Archive.org.  In fact, it does. It appears to be a nicer front end to the moving images portion of the Archive.org site.  All of the links, as far as I can tell, point to the same movie on Archive.org.  Nonetheless, you can subscribe via iTunes or Zune Marketplace and it is a bit nicer than the Archive.org website.  My apologies for the mistake.

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