Famous Public Domain Movies and Famous Remakes
Certain stories simply demand to be told again and again and again. Though cinema has hardly moved into its second century, there are certain stories, characters, concepts, and ideas that we just can’t leave behind. It’s why so many movies are remade and rebooted.
Furthermore, a selection of these original properties have entered into the public domain. In this list, we’ll examine a selection of the most famous public domain movies and the remakes they inspired.
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
We’ll start with the Phantom of the Opera, a classic example of a story told and retold over the decades. From the original book by Gaston Leroux, audiences have been treated to dozens of films, television series, children’s books, and – perhaps most famously – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. One of the most important, however, is the 1925 silent movie starring Lon Chaney as the titular Phantom.
For those who don’t know the story, it involves Christine, a fast-rising star in a Parisian Opera. As her performances draw record crowds, the opera workers grow steadily terrified of the ghost which haunts the building. This ghost – the Phantom – becomes increasingly obsessed with Christine, murdering and manipulating behind the scenes. Chaney’s depiction of the Phantom was enough to secure a place on Bravo’s list of the 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Added to that, the work has been deemed significant enough to be included in the United States National Film Registry.
The film has now entered the public domain. It helped create the iconic image of the opera ghost which has been repeated, reimagined, and parodied in all sorts of art. Even today, Universal are keen to keep the property in the public’s mind. Their rebooting of the Universal Monsters pantheon hopes to create a shared cinematic ‘Dark Universe’, in which the Phantom of the Opera plays a key role. But if you want to truly understand the character, the silent cinema classic is utterly essential.
The Wizard of Oz (1925)
Talk to any cinephile about the classic Wizard of Oz and they’ll wax lyrical about that sudden jolt from black and white to colour, or Judy Garland’s career defining performance, or even the on-set tales of drunken munchkins that plagued production. There’s no question that the 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book is the most famous. But it wasn’t the first.
Fourteen years earlier, a very different film introduced the film-going public to the world of Oz. Written, produced, starring, and directed by Larry Semon, the Wizard of Oz (1925) changes the focus of the story. This time, it’s the scarecrow who takes the lead role. Dorothy is there, too, though the plot is unrecognisable to anyone who has either read the book or watched later versions of the film. It stars a pre-fame Oliver Hardy.
In fact, the film nearly ruined Semon. He was so wrapped up in the film, that the movie not only cost Semon financially but it damaged his reputation and his well-being. The production company backing the movie collapsed into bankruptcy and many cinemas never received a print. No doubt this helped the film fade into obscurity, overshadowed by the more successful version released 14 years later. Unfortunately, Semon died just a few years after the release. He never saw the success of the 1939 version of the Wizard of Oz.
One of the purest examples of German Expressionism, Nosferatu is also notable for the way in which it appropriated filming rights for its source material. You see, Nosferatu is not an original story. Look closely and you’ll discover that it’s actually an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Nosferatu was not just an artistic success. It showed Hollywood that there was a public appetite for a real vampire story. Universal Studios paid to acquire the rights to Dracula and their 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi has become famous in its own right. But it doesn’t have the same sense of anxious dread as the 1922 German film.
The character Dracula is now no stranger to the big screen. He’s one of the most frequently portrayed characters of all time. As well as Francis Ford Coppola’s reimagining of the text, released in 1992, less traditional portrayals have included appearances for the character in the Blade franchise, 3D versions, and even an animated feature starring Batman.
But far more interesting is the way in which the Nosferatu character has been treated. Now equally famous in its own right, Max Schrek’s portrayal of the eponymous Nosferatu has become a key part of vampire mythology. Werner Herzog remade the 1922 film as Nosferatu the Vampyre, placing Klaus Kinski in the lead role and evocating a stylish, art house approach to the story. Even more strangely, Shadow of the Vampire (2000) is a film reimagining the filming of Nosferatu, in which the German cast and crew are themselves antagonized by a real vampire. In all, the Nosferatu story has become forever intertwined with Bram Stoker’s source material.
The Iron Mask (1929)
Adapting Alexander Dumas novels has always been difficult. They’re lengthy, to say the least. That’s not stopped anyone trying, however. The Three Musketeers has been filmed many times but it’s the latter third of one of Dumas’s other works which is possibly more interesting. The D’Artagnan Romances is Dumas’s magnum opus and it’s long. Very long. In fact, when adapting the story, most people choose to focus solely on the final book. We know it as the Man in the Iron Mask.
The story itself is an old French legend, telling of a queen who gives birth to twins. While one is raised as a crown prince, the other is imprisoned and his face sealed behind an iron mask. From there, the plot is filled with royal intrigue and musketeer adventures. It’s exciting, dramatic, and there’s clearly a reason why people keep returning to the scintillating courtly drama.
The very first adaptation in Hollywood is notable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they changed the title to simply, The Iron Mask. As well as this, it was a part-talkie. This meant that much of the film was silent, though a few notable moments of sound introduced the new technology to the audience. Perhaps fittingly, it acted as Douglas Fairbanks’s farewell to silent cinema and his first time he spoke on-screen.
Fairbanks loved the film. He lavished his attention (and his funding) on making it a success, leading one biographer of the actor to describe the film as “the supreme achievement of its genre”. When compared to modern adaptations, which have borrowed heavily from the 1929 screenplay, the Fairbanks version still reigns supreme.
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
There have been at least nine film adaptations of The Last of the Mohicans, as well as a 1950s TV show starring John Hurt (now in the public domain). While most people remember the Daniel Day-Lewis version released in 1992, the 1920 version of the story is one of the most interesting.
A slightly different interpretation of James Fenimore Cooper’s lengthy tome, the film was deemed culturally significant by Congress in 1995 and has been selected for preservation. It even features an uncredited appearance from a young Boris Karloff, who would go on to find fame as Frankenstein.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
One of the very best demonstrations of the power of the remake is The Man Who Knew Too Much. Of course, most film fans have seen the 1956 version with James Stewart and Doris Day. It’s one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous works. But it’s not the only version of the film. It’s not even the only version of the film which Hitchcock directed.
Before coming to Hollywood, a younger Alfred Hitchcock was making films in Great Britain. Beginning life as an adaptation of a Bulldog Drummond story, the feature became one of the young director’s most celebrated projects. Years later, in Hollywood, Hitchcock would turn to the same story once again. In his own words, the 1934 version “is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” With the original now in the public domain, it’s possible to get a fantastic insight into the raw, ambitious project which laid the foundations for one of Hollywood’s greatest directorial talents.
Reefer Madness (1936)
It’s not just feature films which get remade. Sometimes, a work can achieve a level of fame far beyond initial expectations. One such example is the public information film Reefer Madness, made in the period between 1936-39. A quite blatant attempt to propagandize teenagers as to the dangers of marijuana, the films feature a series of incidents – car crashes, suicide attempts, and a descent into madness – which are blamed entirely on the drug. It was originally a morality tale, funded by a church group, but Reefer Madness soon took on a life of its own. It was re-cut, re-edited, and shown across America, with teens, artists, and other reefer-inclined folks reveling in the irony of the film.
Since then, Reefer Madness has become a cultural phenom. It’s been sampled on hip hop records. It’s been turned into a musical for the screen and the stage. It’s even been re-released by 20th Century Fox, who colorized the film and recorded a series of directors’ commentaries. Despite the interest, nothing has managed to topple the original Reefer Madness and it’s still well known today.
Nothing says black and white cinema quite like film noir. The style, the sense of danger, and the glorification of a certain type of violence made it one of the early landmarks of cinematic style. Among those early innovators in the genre, D.O.A. (1950) was among the most famous.
Directed by Rudolph Maté, the story involves one man’s desperate quest to discover who poisoned him. Dying, the protagonist searches for the reason as to why he has been killed, eventually being dragged deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld. Audiences were immediately hooked on the film, thanks to an iconic opening shot. The tracking shot follows the protagonist as he walks into a police station and announces that he has been murdered. Despite the shocking announcement, the police seem to have been expecting him. It only grows more mysterious from there.
It was a fascinating story and one which was retold in a number of different formats. Barely a year later, Edmund O’Brien reprised his lead role in a radio production of D.O.A. In 1969, Australian filmmakers retitled and remade the film, producing Colour Me Dead. In 1998, the film was back in Hollywood and back under its original title, this time with Dennis Quaid as the protagonist. It’s even been turned into a musical and was featured – in full – in the computer game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Most of the films in this list were made before the 1950s. They’re now in the public domain due to an expired copyright. But Night of the Living Dead is different. Made in 1968, George Romero’s genre-defining zombie film entered the public domain relatively soon after release due to the fact that the distributor did not place the copyright indicator on the prints sent out to cinemas. The error no doubt helped popularise the low budget film, allowing it to be broadcast royalty free.
It also meant remaking the film was much easier. As well as Romero’s own sequels, there have been at least eight other interpretations. One, directed by James Plumb, relocates the film to Wales. While many of the remakes lose Romero’s searing racial commentary, they up the gore levels and even add in 3D.
The Green Hornet (1940)
In addition to feature films, American serials have become ripe for the harvest of the industry remake. A fine example of this is the Green Hornet. The radio serials from 1940 are now in the public domain, as is the Green Hornet Strikes Again. These two serials helped establish the character who would go on to star in a 1960s television show (starring Bruce Lee as Kato) and a 2011 film (starring Seth Rogen). While the recent comic book revival might have failed to capitalize on the rich history of the Green Hornet, the original radio serials provide a gripping, roller coaster adventure for listeners of all ages.
Certain characters need to be filmed. Zorro is a fine example, a protagonist who has endured through many different iterations. In serial form, Zorro’s Black Whip, Zorro’s Fighting Legion, and Zorro Rides Again thrilled audiences and can trace their roots right back to the first Zorro feature, 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks. In all, Zorro has appeared in 40 feature films.
The swashbuckling Californian nobleman began life in pulp novels, became a silent movie star, was loved by serial audiences, and – even to this day – has box office appeal. Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones appeared in 1998’s The Mask of Zorro and its 2005 sequel, The Legend of Zorro. Even today, talk of a reboot or remake can be found in the Hollywood gossip pages.
Dick Tracy (1940 & 50s)
Making the move from comic strips to serials to television to films, Dick Tracy was one of America’s most beloved characters. Though largely forgotten by the youth of today, the plainclothes detective starred in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, Dick Tracy Returns, Dick Tracy Versus Cueball, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, and Dick Tracy’s G-Men. The public domain film serials were stories told over the span of 15 episodes, short bursts of story which would always end on a cliff hanger.
In 1990, a Warren Beatty-starring remade it with a co-starring Madonna. Right now, it seems that one of America’s original comic book heroes is perfectly poised for a remake.
The Lone Ranger (1930s)
For our sins, we’ve all seen the 2013 version of The Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp transporting his best pirate impersonation to the wild west. But there’s a long history of lone ranging which supersedes this modern box office flop. The TV series and films starring Clayton Moore were loved on arrival and are still being shown today.
The Lone Ranger serial started life in 1938 and grew into a TV show by the 1950s. With titles such as the Lone Ranger Rides Again and the Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, the adventures of the titular character (aided by Tonto and Silver) fit perfect in the Saturday morning serial set. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Lone Ranger as an icon of mid-20th Century American media.
Flash Gordon (1930s)
Set on the planet Mongo, Flash Gordon is a space opera for the ages. Flash would fight against Ming the Merciless while traversing the universe. As with many serials, Flash Gordan began life as a comic book. Flash Gordan: Space Soldiers and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe had perfect titles for the 1930s, telling audiences exactly what to expect from the serials. Twenty years later, a live action TV series based on the property was created, lasting for 39 episodes.
Though Flash Gordon fell by the wayside in terms of popularity, the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom offered the property a way back into the public consciousness. A film was made, directed by Mike Hodges and starring Max Von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, and Brian Blessed. Famously, the title song was recorded by Queen. Though a global flop on release, the film has become something of a cult classic. Further animated remakes and reboots have been created, but not much can match the campy magic of the original serials. George Lucas has cited the Flash Gordon serials as inspiration for Star Wars.