YouTube is a treasure trove of great cinema—here are some of the best films you can watch right now…
So then, day 1,067 of lockdown. Are we having fun yet?
It's only too easy to go a bit stir crazy at the moment, especially if you've exhausted the well-publicised offerings of Netflix. But worry not—help is at hand! If you have an internet connection (and if you're reading this, that's an overwhelmingly safe bet), you have access to one of the greatest archives there has ever been: there's much more to YouTube than cat videos.
When it comes to film content, you're spoiled for choice, with selections that range from copper-bottomed classics to the deepest of deep cuts.
What follows is only the briefest of highlights, a hand-picked selection of wonderful (and sometimes weird) flicks that will make the Covid-19 containment zoom by...
In the public domain
American copyright law is a funny old thing: basically, unless you remember to renew your rights every few years, your work becomes “public domain”, which means anyone can take advantage (and you won't see a sausage). More than a few films fell victim to this and not all of them produced by fly-by-night independents.
Some very well known movies are in the public domain and readily available on YouTube where you can watch them all for free, without troubling your conscience. His Girl Friday directed by Howard Hawks, is the epitome of screwball comedy with newspaper editor Cary Grant and ace newshound Rosalind Russell trading barbs (and falling in love).
And talking of screwball comedies, how's about a double dose of Carole Lombard? In Nothing Sacred, she's the young woman who only has weeks left to live (or so everyone thinks)...
While My Man Godfrey sees her as a flighty young socialite who falls for her butler.
Your life can only be improved by Beat The Devil, a parody of mystery and adventure films like The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen made by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, the team behind—er—The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen.
All these are available on super-duper restored and remastered DVDs and Blu-Rays, but if you want to try before you buy...
Best of British
It's pleasing to note that British cinema is so well represented on YouTube, and not just with well-known titles that are legally available elsewhere (yeah... if people have put time and money into releasing films properly, it's a bit off to leech them. Let's try to stick to stuff that's otherwise unavailable, OK?) And it starts early—the BFI channel has lots of rare British films, including some full-length silent movies! An early film of Hobson's Choice (1920)...
...and the exciting adventures of Rob Roy (1923).
Talking of Channels, the Retrospective channel is dedicated to British film and they license things properly, so you're OK to watch without feeling grubby. They have lots of nice stuff like The Wicked Lady, Green For Danger and The October Man but why not look at something a little more obscure. The Upturned Glass is a top-drawer noir revenge thriller with James Mason, just before he hot-footed it to Hollywood.
Some kind soul has uploaded the three films in the Inspector Hornleigh series. These aren't as well known as they might be but since they're not otherwise available you can easily remedy that. They star Gordon Harker (=A Good Thing) as the (slightly pompous) titular 'tec, with Alastair Sim (=Another Good Thing) as his long-suffering sergeant. Here's the first...
(Harker also appears as a copper in Hyde Park Corner, which is well worth a look too)
Full disclosure: a great many films starring “Big Hearted” Arthur Askey are available on YouTube too. But don't think you'll get any help finding them from this direction, thank you very much.
Given that they usually concern some of the worst of human behaviour (like murder, for a start), it's odd that mysteries are comfort viewing for so many of us. But since that's the case, the number of mysteries on YouTube means it is very comforting indeed. Start with one of the best: you know what Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None is about, right? (Ten people arrive on an island, only to be bumped off, one by one.) Well, the first film version is one of the very best Agatha Adaptions, helped in no small part by the superlative direction of Rene Clair.
Islands, of course, are ready-made for mystery. Take Horror Island, for instance, which crams in murder, treasure and more besides.
And what of Fog Island, where Lionel Atwill squares off against George Zucco. Those names will mean nothing to most people but to fans of low-budget horror films of the 1930s and 40s, it's like seeing Pacino and De Niro in Heat, only on an island and with more fog.
Let's keep on the island tip with The Seventh Survivor: set during the war, it's about a group of survivors from a boat torpedoed by a U-Boat who rock up on a lighthouse. One of the survivors is a Nazi spy. One of them is a British agent. Trouble is, no one's quite sure who they are.
There are other mysteries available that are not set on islands.
Did you know that the very first film was made not in New York or Paris but the altogether more glamorous surroundings of Leeds? (Ex-pat Frenchman Louis Le Prince was the auteur responsible). You can see it here:
There's a lot of “old” films on YouTube and some of them are really old, like made-in-the-19th-century old, including early work by the Lumiere brothers, whose L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat was the big blockbuster of 1895.
There are special effects extravaganzas like Voyage to the Moon,
and The Motorist
...and thrilling heist movies too—The Great Train Robbery was the first American action film:
But since this is YouTube we're talking about, we need at least one heroic animal. Rescued By Rover fits the bill—all about a heroic dog that stops a kidnapping! Good boy!
As mentioned above, this list cleaves to the right side of the law (home taping is killing music, kids). But things aren't always so black and white. Some films can't be shown for legal reasons—not because they're dodgy but because of some arcane dispute. Take Superstar by way of example. Made by Todd Haynes before he became an Oscar-nominated Indie cinema darling (Carol, Far From Heaven), it's... well, it's a biopic of Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters made with Barbie Dolls. It's more serious than that might sound (its thesis is that Karen was a plaything of other people, hence the dolls) but it's kinda hard to see it legally for reasons Wikipedia can explain eloquently. But if you wanna watch it, it's here.
Todd Haynes. Image via wiki commons
La maman et la putain is just as hard to see. There are rights problems and dealings with money that stop this film, often hailed not just as a masterpiece but “the last film of the French New Wave”, being released on physical media. Happily, some kind soul has uploaded it in full. All three and a half hours of it. (Click on the subtitle button for the translation.)
Soon enough, Dance of the Seven Veils will be available to see—since January 1 this year, the music copyrights have been public domain. Before then, though, this TV biopic of Richard Strauss made by Ken Russell has been almost impossible to see in a decent copy: made with Russell's characteristic excess, the Strauss estate took exception to their Richard being depicted as being a bit of a Nazi and put the kibosh on all screenings and releases. While we wait for a better version to become available, check out this bootleg here.
All points East
World cinema is a big thing, and only the merest fraction of it has ever been released in the UK. So thank heaven for the Russians and Koreans. The Russian Mosfilm channel has hundreds of films made in the Soviet Union. A few you might know but most will be entirely unfamiliar, offering an entirely new perspective on one of the great film traditions comedies, action movies, war pictures... Sadly, they're no longer doing English subtitles as standard but still, many are English-friendly and if you speak Russian, you're in clover.
The South Koreans do something similar, with titles completely unknown outside their borders—and especially important now that South Korean cinema has broken big with Parasite. And they're making it easy for us monoglots by adding subtitles. (What of North Korea? They don't make many films but at least one of their films is on YouTube, a Godzilla rip-off called Pulgasari which... isn't as bad as you might think.)
We've talked about films that are currently unavailable on physical media for whatever reason. But what about films that will never be available? It would be a bold distributor who takes a punt on Disciple of Death or Crucible of Blood, two films without much to recommend them except that they were made by Mike Raven. Who? Well, he was one of the opening line-up at Radio One, a DJ who specialised in soul music. But for some reason, he decided his true calling was to make horror films.
His life story is more interesting than the films he made, but they're an important part of the (tiny) cult, and they're available on YouTube. They aren't good, exactly (or “at all”), but there's a fascination in them. Even if it's wondering what the hell Raven was thinking. Crucible of Terror:
Like Mike Raven, Cliff Twemlow won't figure even as a footnote in British film history but for some of us, that's the reason why they're worth investigating. Twemlow was a Mancunian renaissance man (bouncer, singer-songwriter, actor, novelist) who made films on a tiny budget but with fierce determination. GBH is about the hardest man in Manchester (played, of course, by Twemlow) recruited by a club to see off some gangsters.
It was shot on video (!) and once banned as a video nasty (!!) but it deserves respect just for existing—rough and ready though it might be, Twemlow made a commercial, regional film (well, video) of the sort that the British film industry usually thinks it's too good for.
These are a long way from the classic films on YouTube but they shine a light on why the platform is available, as a home for everything, an infinite resource where every niche is catered for.
Behind the Scenes
It's not just feature films on YouTube! There are lots of things about feature films too. Film documentaries are one of the great neglected treasures of the site—loads of episodes of Arena—such as this one focussing on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger...
Or The Southbank Show, like this appropriately epic special (over two hours!) dedicated to David Lean:
Best of all, they have what is a strong candidate as greatest movie documentary series ever, the otherwise hard-to-find Hollywood: A Celebration—made in 1979 by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, it's an epic survey of the silent cinema era, with contributions from just about everyone who survived. It's absolutely tremendous.
All this is but the merest tip of the iceberg that is movie YouTube. There are westerns, war films, cult figures that (almost) rival Mike Raven and Cliff Twemlow and things that defy description. Happy browsing!
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter