Back in 2011, I penned an article about 5 public domain Christmas songs (and 5 that aren’t) and, every year at this time, it becomes easily the most popular post on the site.
I’ve long desired to do a follow up on that piece looking at public domain Christmas movies but that has always proved challenging. The reason is simple, where Christmas music (or at least its compositions) are often hundreds of years old, movies are a more modern invention.
Where many Christmas songs lapsed into the public domain due to time, that is only true for a handful of movies. Also, films are inherently more complex. As we saw with It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that was previously seen as being in the public domain, might have that status change due to new court rulings.
That said, there are still several Christmas films that, according to my best research, have lapsed into the public domain and may be of interest. However, the usual caveats apply. We are only looking at within the United States and bear in mind that, while it is widely believed these films are public domain that status can change.
Also, don’t expect too many Christmas classics on this list (especially since It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t qualify anymore). Instead, most of these films are obscure will likely be more familiar to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd than your average Christmas filmgoer.
1: Miracle on 34th Street (1955)
When most people think of Miracle on 34th they think of the 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara and John Payne. This is not that film.
Instead, this is a one-hour TV adaptation of the story that cuts the runtime in half but still manages to accurately tell the story. Upon re-airing it was renamed Meet Mr. Kringle.
While not the classic that was the original film, it was made by 20th Century Fox, the same production company. Still, the film features an all-new cast and omits a lot of what made the original a classic either due to time or content restrictions.
Also, this one may have the most dubious public domain distinction. Since the original film is still very much protected by copyright, that means the original story likely is as well and this is based upon it. Nonetheless, this version appears in many public domain archives and, given its relative obscurity, doesn’t seem like anyone is clamoring to reclaim the rights.
2: Santa Claus (Versus the Devil) (1959)
In another case of “Not that movie” this is neither the 1985 Santa Claus: The Movie nor is it the 1994 Tim Allen movie The Santa Clause.
This is a 1959 Mexican film that features Santa Claus doing battle with a devil-creature named Pitch as he tries to coax children into doing evil things and sabotage Santa’s deliveries.
Also making an appearance is Merlin the Wizard as Santa Claus’ trusted sidekick.
It’s a bizarre film that’s best known for its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000. In an interesting bit of trivia, that episode of MST3K was where the phrase “nightmare fuel” was first uttered.
The film is dubbed into English but be aware that neither the dubbing nor the film itself are exactly classics. That said, according to Wikipedia, the film is considered a financial success. It received multiple theatrical releases and was even considered a Christmas tradition for some time.
However, it’s also worth noting that section has no citations…
3: Scrooge (1935)
If you would rather have a film that is more broadly acclaimed, Scrooge may be just what you are looking for. Filmed in Britain during the great depression, the film is a retelling of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens with an expressionistic style, good acting and great camera work.
The story holds mostly true to the original, with miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge learning to change his ways after visits from a series of ghosts. This 78-minute version is a solid retelling of the story we’re all familiar with.
Released in 1935, it came out not long after Hollywood made the transition from silent to talking films, making this one of the earliest talkie adaptations of the story.
According to Wikimedia, the film lapsed into the public domain because the film’s producer, Julius Hagen, died in 1940. This means that the life +70 term for the copyright has expired.
All in all, it’s a great film and probably the best pure movie in this list.
4: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
At the other end of the spectrum, you have another Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a U.S. film that is widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made.
Best known for its goofy premise, cheap sets, cheaper special effects and campy acting, this was a film that was ripe for riffing. The premise of the movie is that the Martians are determined to kidnap Santa Claus so he can bring his bring toys and joy to Martian children.
However, as the title indicates, Santa manages to foil the Martian plans (aided by some earth children that were kidnapped with him) and he makes it back to earth.
The film represents two debuts. The first was singer and actress Pia Zadora, who plays Girmar (Girl Martian) in the film. The second was the character Mrs. Claus who made her first appearance in film. Though already a household name in song and poem, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians beat out Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by three weeks for her film debut.
The film is only public domain in the United States. In other countries, STUDIOCANAL holds the copyright to the work and continues to enforce those rights. However, if you’re in the U.S., you can stream this to your heart’s content (though I recommend viewing the MST3K version if you can).
5: The Great Rupert (1950)
One of the lesser-known films on this list, The Great Rupert is sometimes referred to as A Christmas Wish.
It features the tale of a down-on-their-luck family whose Christmas is saved when an animated vaudeville squirrel begins raining money down on them. That money, however, was stashed in their walls by their wealthy landlord.
This is a more traditional Christmas film, despite the presence of an animated squirrel, and follows the formula of films from around that time. While it may not be the classic It’s a Wonderful Life has since become, it was only release four years after and has much of the same feel.
The film has since lapsed into the public domain due to a lack of copyright renewal. This, as with others on this list, mean that it is only definitely public domain in the United States. There was also a colorized version of the film released in 2003.
To be clear, this isn’t the entirety of public domain Christmas films. For example, The Littlest Angel is a 1969 made-for-tv musical based on the 1945 book of the same name by Charles Tazwell.
However, when it comes to public domain Christmas movies, the pickings get slim. The reason is simple: The most common way for a film to lapse in the public domain (at least in the United States) is for it to have been made before 1978 and to not have had its copyright registration renewed.
However, Christmas films have a great deal of longevity and are often marketed year after year. As such, it’s much rarer for their rightsholders to let their copyright lapse than other kinds of films.
That said, we are seeing more films enter the public domain each January 1st. So, keep an eye on films that lapse every year as this list will grow with time, especially as more films from the 30s enter the public domain naturally over the coming decade.
In the meantime, there’s still more than a few good public domain Christmas films for you to enjoy… as well as a few stinkers…