The best movies you can legally watch for free online

·6 min read
Charlie Chaplin in silent comedy film 'The Gold Rush'.
Charlie Chaplin in silent comedy film 'The Gold Rush'.

With everyone currently stuck indoors, it’s difficult to work out which of the many streaming services are worth stretching your increasingly fraught bank balance for. Netflix, Amazon Prime and NOW TV all have formidable catalogues, and there’s also the shiny new allure of Disney+ for UK viewers.

However, there are dozens of full-length feature films available for those who are unwilling to part with even a single penny. Some of the greatest movies of all time are in the public domain, whether their copyright has simply expired due to the passage of time or because they were never correctly copyrighted in the first place.

Read more: Best hidden gems on NOW TV

As a result, a quick YouTube browse brings up an entire catalogue of classic films that are available to watch online for free, completely legitimately and legally. Here are the pick of the bunch...

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

There were zombie movies before Night of the Living Dead — in fact, 1932’s White Zombie is also in the public domain — but George A. Romero’s classic is the one that went on to define a genre. With the use of impressive make-up and primitive effects — the blood was actually chocolate syrup — the movie holds up today as a terrifying account of a zombie outbreak, with the layer of social commentary that would come to be Romero’s trademark.

Read more: Looking back at 50 years of Night of the Living Dead

The original distributors never placed the proper copyright indication on prints of the film, so it fell into the public domain. As a result, it has been released dozens of times on various home entertainment formats, with some releases a great deal better than others.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Several classic screwball comedies are available for free on YouTube, but perhaps the best of them is Howard Hawks’ fast-talking His Girl Friday. Rosalind Russell plays a reporter on the brink of leaving the profession forever, until she is tempted back for one last job by Cary Grant’s charismatic editor — who also happens to be her ex-husband.

Adapted from stage play The Front Page — albeit with the gender of Russell’s character changed and the romantic sub-plot added — the film is notable for some of the paciest dialogue in Hollywood history and fourth wall breaking improvisation. It stands up today as a genuine comedy classic.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Along with thinly disguised Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the first ever horror movies. A classic of the unsettling, angular German Expressionist style of filmmaking, it tells the story of the titular mystic and his sleepwalking sidekick. As well as delivering chilling images and a style that still feels cutting edge in many ways, it features one of cinema’s first ever twist endings.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Another classic screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey is a delightfully sharp class satire that plays with the Great Depression idea of the “forgotten man”. Carole Lombard portrays a socialite who falls in love with a homeless man and hires him as her butler. The dialogue moves with a machine gun rhythm and director Gregory La Cava also has a great eye for slapstick.

The General (1926)

Alongside Charlie Chaplin — more of whom below — Buster Keaton is considered the maestro of silent comedy. The General is perhaps his most celebrated work, based on a true event which took place during the American Civil War. It follows an engineer who pursues his treasured train when it is taken from him by opposing spies.

Read more: Cinemagoers complain as The Artist is silent film

If you need higher praise for this one, Citizen Kane director Orson Welles once said he believed it to be the greatest film ever made.

The Gold Rush (1925)

Not one to be outdone by Keaton, one of Charlie Chaplin’s most iconic movies is also available to watch online for free. The film sees Chaplin’s famous “Tramp” character become a prospector and venture into Alaska on the hunt for gold. Chaplin said it was the movie for which he most wanted to be remembered and it features numerous iconic moments that have been homaged and parodied over the century since, including the “roll dance” scene.

Fear and Desire (1953)

This 1953 anti-war film is most notable for being the directorial debut of Stanley Kubrick, who would of course go on to become one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time. Kubrick himself, though, was not a fan of Fear and Desire and a popularly held belief is that the director destroyed the original negative and tried to hunt down as many prints as possible.

Read more: How The Shining pitted Kubrick against Stephen King

The movie survived Kubrick’s onslaught, though, and is today an acclaimed movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of around 80%. As a part of one of the most important filmographies in cinema history, it’s well worth a look.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Before the Phantom was the star of a glittering Andrew Lloyd Webber production, the early 20th century literary character was realised via the make-up genius of silent movie legend Lon Chaney. The film itself is largely unremarkable, but it’s worth the brief running time simply for the reveal of Chaney’s monstrous visage — kept a secret from just about anybody until the movie’s premiere.

Read more: Lon Chaney and cinema’s scariest clowns

The production of this movie also necessitated the creation of Stage 28 on the Universal backlot. It had to support thousands of extras for the opera house scenes and so was the first to be constructed with steel girders set in concrete. Parts of the structure still existed in 2014, 90 years later, until they were finally demolished.

A Star is Born (1937)

Many, many years before Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga took to the stage as Jackson Maine and Ally, the first Hollywood version of the A Star is Born story was set in the film industry rather than the music biz. Janet Gaynor played the young raw talent, with two-time Oscar winner Fredric March as her veteran mentor and lover.

Read more: How Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga broke the Oscars

The film was nominated for seven Oscars, but won only one for its screenplay. It has since been remade three times, with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand playing the lead role before Gaga had her turn.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

Now it’s perhaps wrong to include Plan 9 on a list with “best movies” in the title because it’s pretty inarguably one of the worst films ever made. However, the notoriety of director Ed Wood’s ambitious folly is so much that the film sits as a widely beloved piece of Hollywood history. The muddled story follows aliens determined to prevent human beings from creating a doomsday weapon that could wipe out the universe.

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With awful writing, multiple continuity errors and some very poor early special effects, Plan 9 is a fiasco so impressively bananas that it has now established a cult following. Johnny Depp played Wood in a biopic directed by Tim Burton, which won the late Martin Landau an Oscar.

Before we had The Room, the world had Plan 9 From Outer Space.