Where to Find Old Films Online, Streamed Legally and for Free

Thousands of fascinating films are available for free streaming and download, if you know where to look

Squeak the Squirrel one of the many educational films available for free online
Squeak the Squirrel one of the many educational films available for free online Feedloader (Clickability)

Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.

Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.

With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.

Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.

Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.

Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.

In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.

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