La Filmothèque Streaming Classics
I’m always excited to find new places to watch classic movies, so I was delighted when La Filmothèque emailed me about their website. It’s a public domain film library where you can watch movies for free, but unlike youtube, this is a curated site so you know the movies will be complete and the quality will be good.
Even more exciting is the selection. La Filmothèque features a broad range of films from the 1890’s-1960s from various countries. So it’s a fantastic place to try new directors, decades, and national cinemas. Been wanting to try some avant-garde classics, perhaps some Maya Deren? They’ve got At Land and Meshes of the Afternoon. Curious about Japanese cinema of the 1930s? La Filmothèque has lots of options, including four Ozu films from that decade. Curious about the earliest films ever made? Click on “Early Cinema” to find iconic selections from the 1890s and 1900s, including A Trip to the Moon and Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory.
The website is beautifully designed and very easy to navigate, so searching is easy, too. You can browse by decade, director, genre, and country, so I picked my ten favorite classic Hollywood (surprise!) movies available to stream now on LaFilmothèque.com. Happy watching!
1. His Girl Friday (1940)
His Girl Friday is famous for its incredibly fast, overlapping dialogue, so get ready for a lot of sharp, intense, and heated repartee. The chemistry between Russell and Grant is terrific, and their suitability for each other is evident from the moment they start trading insults. It’s funny, poignant, and a classic of the genre. Here’s the trailer.
Fun fact: there are some wonderful inside jokes. For example, Cary Grant says Bellamy’s character “looks like that fellow in the movies, you know…Ralph Bellamy!” And at one point, Grant makes a reference to his dealings with Archie Leach, the last man who crossed him. Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name!
2. Scarlet Street (1945)
There’s something vaguely off and almost cartoonish about this movie, but that only adds to its skewed charm. It concerns henpecked bank employee Chris (Edward G. Robinson) whose only escape from his awful wife and his dull existence is painting. One night, he meets a prostitute (though he doesn’t realize it) named Kitty (Joan Bennett). He quickly falls in love with this lazy femme fatale, and Kitty encourages him because she thinks he is a wealthy painter, not a bank clerk.
Kitty and her boyfriend/pimp, a disturbingly likable, slimy scumbag named Johnny (Dan Duryea) hatch a plan to get as much money as they can out of Chris. And things really get crazy: murder, embezzlement, blackmail, returns from the dead, and some of the creepiest voiceover hallucinations I’ve ever heard.
Scarlet Street is a seedy, weirdly funny, slightly campy film noir with some nightmarish twists. Bennett and Duryea make a delightfully awful pair, and Robinson is terrific as a naive nice guy whose life goes horribly wrong. Here’s a clip.
Fun fact: this movie was directed by Fritz Lang, a master of film noir, who’d previously directed all three of his Scarlet Street stars in The Woman in the Window (1944). Another fun fact: this film was considered so immoral and sordid that several cities banned it when it first came out.
3. Royal Wedding (1951)
Jane Powell and Fred Astaire play a sibling-song-and-dance team loosely inspired by Astaire’s real life partnership with his sister, Adele. The movie begins with Powell and Astaire bringing their hit New York show to London just in time for the royal wedding between Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten in 1947.
Once in festive London, the pair find loves of their own, but do they really want to break up the act?
This movie is a delight for the musical numbers, including the sliding-around-on-an-ocean-liner dance, Astaire’s iconic “Sunday Jumps” and dancing on the ceiling routines, and the fabulous “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.”
Fun fact: MGM was warned not to mention Churchill in the advertising for this film, so they were forced to downplay Sarah Churchill’s role in the press. You can imagine how they would have loved to trumpet Sarah as Churchill’s daughter!
4. My Man Godfrey (1936)
This is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever. Carole Lombard is the dizziest of all madcap heiresses, and William Powell is Godfrey, her family’s perpetually dignified butler. But he’s not all that he seems…
The main characters meet at a dump, but most of the action takes place in swanky high society joints packed with ridiculous characters. The dialogue is a treat: fast, silly, and smart, and the whole film is one goofy scene after another. Here’s the trailer and you can read my full review here.
Fun fact: this film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including all four acting categories, though it didn’t get a Best Picture nod. In fact, it is the only movie to receive nominations in all four acting categories without also garnering a Best Picture nomination.
5. Charade (1963)
When Audrey Hepburn‘s secretive husband is murdered, she gets drawn into a confusing web of intrigue involving WWII, a missing fortune, mistaken identities, unsavory characters, and Cary Grant, whom she coincidentally met and keeps appearing to “help.”
But who can she trust and what in the world is going on? A great cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass, and Jacques Marin surround her in this funny, romantic, suspenseful thriller.
It’s often called the “Hitchcock film he didn’t make” because it was directed by Stanley Donen, but Charade is Hitchcockian on purpose. Donen meant it as an homage and near-spoof of Hitchcock’s films, especially those with Grant. It’s that odd Hitchcockian mix of romance, wit, absurdity, style, murder, and suspense, and it’s wonderful! You can watch the trailer here, and read my full review here.
Fun fact: Charade was remade as The Truth About Charlie in 2002, but watch the original, please.
6. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This was one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s biggest hits in Great Britain, and one of the last films he made there before coming to Hollywood. It concerns a young British tourist named Iris (Margaret Lockwood) traveling through Europe. She befriends a kindly old lady (Dame May Whitty) on board a train, but when Iris wakes up from a nap, her new friend is gone, and no one seems to remember her except Iris! The lady has indeed vanished!
With the help of a young Englishman (Michael Redgrave, yes, Vanessa’s father), Iris tries to unravel the mystery of the missing lady.
Things get pretty strange, amusing, and dramatic in typical Hitchcockian fashion. If you like Hitchcock (Notorious, To Catch a Thief, Spellbound, Foreign Correspondent, Dial M For Murder, The 39 Steps), it’s fun to watch one of his earlier movies. This film isn’t as taut and finely paced as some of his later films, but it has many of the hallmarks of a Hitchcock movie. Here’s the trailer.
Fun fact: This film was re-made in 1979 starring Cybill Shepherd and Angela Lansbury, and the BBC produced a TV version in 2013.
7. Nothing Sacred (1937)
Carole Lombard is just a bored girl in Vermont until she is told she is dying from radium poisoning–hold on, it’s a comedy!
She is taken to New York where she becomes a celebrity, feted as a heroine for her bravery in the face of impending death. It’s sort of a Make A Wish/tabloid fodder situation, but Lombard seems to be having a grand time!
Fredric March plays an unscrupulous reporter who shows Lombard around the city. He grows awfully fond of her, though, and he seems to lose some of his hard-edged reporter instinct just when he needs it most…Here’s the trailer.
Fun fact: Nothing Sacred was Lombard’s only Technicolor film, and she often said that it was one of her favorites.
8. Detour (1945)
This film follows a bitter, down on his luck piano player (Tom Neal) who decides to hitchhike from New York to Hollywood. Along the way he becomes embroiled in murder, blackmail, and a terrifying femme fatale (Ann Savage).
This B-movie film noir is now famous as the ultimate exercise in Poverty Row creativity and production. B-movies were used to fill out double features: an A-movie would play first, followed by a B-film, which were made with smaller budgets and shorter production schedules than A-movies.
The big studios like 20th Century-Fox and RKO made B-films along with their bigger budget films, but there were some studios that only produced B-level movies. They were nicknamed Poverty Row, and Detour was produced by one of their number, a studio called PRC. B-movie filmmakers had to be especially creative because they couldn’t afford huge sets, multiple takes, or pricey effects, so they worked with what they had.
In a really cool way, the B-movie constraints and inspired direction by Edward G. Ulmer seem to only increase the dread, guilt, and fatalism of film noir. If you like the genre, this is a must-see. Here’s a clip.
Fun fact: Detour is notable for its wild, incredibly creative effects (daring lighting and the giant coffee mug are famous examples), and “mistakes” that only make the film more interesting. It’s a fun one!
9. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
This adventure film stars my favorite, Joel McCrea, as a shipwreck survivor washed ashore on a creepy island. He’s taken in by the island’s only inhabitant, a Russian count, who offers him every luxury at his castle. There’s a pretty girl, there, too, played by Fay Wray of King Kong fame.
McCrea is congratulating himself on his good fortune until he realizes that something terrible is afoot.
The Count is a big game hunter, but he doesn’t just hunt animals anymore…he’s after “the most dangerous game!”
This movie is surprisingly creepy, beautifully shot, and fantastically melodramatic. And of course, Fay Wray’s dress is nothing but artfully placed rags by the end. You can watch a scene here, and read my full review here.
Fun fact: This film is an adaptation of one of the most anthologized short stories ever, Richard Connell’s 1924 tale “The Hounds of Zaroff.”
10. Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
This is a biopic of composer Jerome Kern who penned such classics as Show Boat, Cover Girl, and Roberta, as well as dozens of songs that have now become standards. As was typical at the time, this biopic is highly fictionalized, so don’t get too caught up in the biographical aspect.
Instead, focus on the incredible performances, because this film is basically an excuse for MGM to showcase its stars performing Kern’s classics. The movie features performances by Judy Garland, June Allyson, Gower Champion, Esther Williams, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, Cyd Charisse, and Kathryn Grayson, among many others. Here’s the trailer.
Fun fact: Judy Garland was pregnant with her daughter, Liza Minnelli, when she filmed her scenes for this movie.
I hope that one of these films strikes your fancy! Definitely head over to La Filmothèque to see the other great movies available to stream for free.